New Years in Lisbon- A Travel Journal
In the early hours of New Years Eve, Allie and I were en route from Marrakech to Lisbon. We’d planned to get into Portugal by midday so that we’d be able to explore some of the city before getting ready for our big night out. Our morning went mostly according to plan, except by the time we checked into our hostel, we’d worked up an insatiable appetite. So, being the food fiends that we are, we put sight seeing plans on pause and scoped out the cheapest, nearest cafe.
Allie and I can always tell when the other gets hungry- once our stomachs approach empty, we get eerily quiet. And for anyone who’s been around Allie and I for more than 5 minutes- well, you know we run our mouths nonstop. Thankfully, our first Portuguese meal revived us from our silent grogginess, energizing us for an adventure-filled New Years afternoon (and eve).
From the cafe, we set out aimlessly exploring. As it turns out, Lisbon is the most unexpectedly hilly city. Picture this: we’re sucking wind climbing up the bustling streets, hollering profanities at all the retail stores that decided to close early on New Years Eve. I mean, come on! We had New Years Eve shopping to do! As the street dead-ended into a pedestrian only square, we feasted our eyes upon the holy grail of any sights we’d seen abroad: a smart car, but smaller. An irrepressible and very audible gasp tumbled from our mouths almost subconsciously, and before we knew it, we were chatting up the attendant standing in front of it.
Come to find out, the glorious mini death trap on wheels was a self guided tour. The car was equipped with a 360 camera on top and painted one of the brighter shades of yellow I’ve seen in my entire life. Upon poking our heads inside (too far and your head would poke out the other window), we were instantly captivated by the rather odd seating arrangement- it was something reminiscent of a double stroller, one pod of a seat stacked behind the other. The GPS- which by the way was a good third of the entire dashboard- could be programmed to any sight or series of sights in Lisbon. If you’re thinking, OK, Sydney, no way, that’s ridiculous— then congratulations my friend, you’re in the ballpark of visualizing this micro motor beauty.
Something about this setup seemed to scream unsafe to me- I mean, driving on foreign roads attempting to obey a wildly sporadic GPS, all while doing so in this ugly descendant of the Smart Car. Seeing our childlike excitement, the attendant handed us her business card and asked if we’d be interested in reserving the car for the afternoon. So, obviously, I did what any rational person would do in that situation- I called dibs on driving.
In actuality, Allie called dibs on riding in the back. Probably not the most ill-informed decision, considering she’d left her glasses in the USA by accident. I hyped myself up for the task, promising the lady that we’d call her to reserve our hot rod later in the week. During our parting conversation, this random guy approached Allie and complimented the freckles in her eyes. Totally not weird at all. I thanked the attendant and swooped in on the conversation, ready to pose a fake ~situation~ to rescue my girl if needed.
Allie and I are no stranger to making friends abroad, so upon vetting this guy in the middle of the Lisbon streets, we decided we’d let him tag along on our afternoon exploration. He suggested the Redeemer statue across the river; we countered with the waterfront (and settled upon it thanks to majority rule). Two minutes into our walk down the treacherous Lisbon streets, and I was ready for homeboy to leave.
We had coined the term “petty flock” for me and Allie’s outrageous tendency to fly to somewhere new and find something so insignificantly silly to be petty about— in this case, an adult male. The petty flock had taken flight from Marrakech to Lisbon, and I found myself hustling down the Lisbon streets, dodging street cars and trying my very best not to die on the cobblestone roads, dishing out sarcasm and spitting witty remarks at this man who’d quite literally followed us with the tenacity of a lost puppy. My efforts were to no avail though. After an hour of listening to this guy hype up his best friends in an attempt to solidify new years plans together at their hotel, Allie and I were about ready to chuck our woes into the air and dive into the water beside us.
So in a moment of sheer genius, I looked at this goofball of a boy and just gave him the blankest stare.
“Oh, you didn’t realize?” I asked, tilting my head and offering a sympathetic raised eyebrow. “We’re dating.” I said very matter of factly, waving my finger back and forth between Allie and I. “… Yeah, and I’m the jealous type, so we’re really not looking to hang out with any other people tonight.”
From my peripherals, I see Allie fighting back laughter as I continue to elaborate on my painfully contrived story. Mr. Dude, on the other hand, must’ve walked away with lockjaw judging by the time he spent gawking with his mouth open. A bit more of a fabricated backstory, and my plan finally came to fruition. After turning down multiple other offers, he finally got the message that me and my “girlfriend” were uninterested and that he stood no chance. We hyped him up to find a new set of New Years Eve friends, and then bid him adieu on the concrete waterfront slab, falling into a coughing wheezing fit of laughter as soon as we were safe in the square.
There’s a first for everything right?
By this point, it was about 4:00, and Allie and I had already turned our attention to what we were going to wear for our big night out. We rolled into a local H&M, Allie wasting no time picking up a saucy dress and me snagging a terribly gaudy set of headbands proclaiming “HAPPY NEW YEAR” in festive glitter. In the checkout line, we were bombarded by rows upon rows of eye shadow and lipsticks, prompting the million dollar question- had either of us brought acceptable New Years makeup?
The answer to that, I regret to inform you, was a fat no. After a split second of entertaining the sparkliest eye shadow we could find in line, our frugal instincts kicked in. No sooner had we paid in H&M did we find ourselves down the street at Sephora, lathering one another’s faces up in the display makeup they had scattered around the store.
Yes, our plan was genius… but we didn’t want to get busted, so there was a delicate art to our process-
“No, no, that’s not how this palette was meant to be applied. You need to go in and apply more here,” or “I think this shadow would be so gorgeous with your coloring, here! Let me show you!” we’d say, running our lines back and forth, going back over the first layer of makeup with another heavy hand on the glitter shadow each time.
Mind you, neither of us are makeup experts. Every now and then, one of us would botch the other’s face and we’d have to start again between laughs. We finally rolled out of Sephora looking equal parts drag queen and a glitter tornado, our smug faces an indication of a job well done.
Back at the hostel, we began getting ready for the evening, both of us going to extreme lengths to preserve the layers upon layers of makeup samples we’d piled on our tired faces. After shaving our legs, throwing on our wrinkled dresses, and accessorizing with the cliche New Years headbands, we shared a mutual “welp, this is as good as things are going to get” shrug, and headed downstairs to get the party going.
One thing about our New Years hostel of choice- it was a party hostel, and my very first party hostel experience at that. Having no idea what I was getting myself into, I can assure you in retrospect that there was never a shortage of alcohol, especially on New Years. I’m talking an unlimited open bar, free sangria, $1 beer— and to top that off, individual bottles of champagne for the walk to the New Year’s celebration in the main square. If that wasn’t ridiculous enough, while we were getting ready, the hostel workers came around with handles of ginger liquor, waterfalling excessively large shots into the mouths of anyone brave enough to give it a go. Having recently graduated from an SEC school, my competitive drinking side made a rare appearance and gnashed its teeth. I showed up every boy (and girl) in the room, earning a stunned though slightly horrified series of claps and compliments from the hostel workers.
A few shots in by the time I made it downstairs, I assembled a plate of food and got to talking to one of the guys I’d met in my room earlier. Turns out, he worked on the corporate side of Anheuser Busch- a client I’ve worked with twice now in my advertising gigs. He oversees the marketing of one of my very favorite beers in Brooklyn. If that wasn’t strange enough, I found out that the beer is on a trial run at one of three bars, one being my go-to bar a few blocks from my house in New York. On top of that, me and the guy lived a few streets over before he moved to DC. I’m continually shocked at how small the world is on my trips abroad.
Before long, the sangria was beckoning our name, and Allie and I found ourselves in the corner hanging out with the Mexican and Argentine crowd. While my Spanish fluency is laughable compared to Allie’s, one of drunk Sydney’s favorite pastimes is spewing Spanish like it’s my native language. I must have done alright, because the rest of the pregame was spent with our Latin friends conversing in Spanish and sipping on sangria. How fitting.
By the time we gathered to make the walk to the New Years celebration, we’d befriended Canadians, a frenchman, and a group of creepy Basque Country boys. According to everyone, our glitter New Years headbands had branded us unmistakably American right off the bat… a badge of honor Allie and I wore and laughed at all night. With our headbands proudly on our heads, we paraded through the streets pumping our bottles of champagne in the air, our hostel worker the group’s fearless leader. When we finally made it to the waterfront stage, we were informed that bottles weren’t being permitted inside the perimeter. We retaliated by sliding our champagne into our sleeves and chatting up the security guards as we walked past. Our rogue idea proved victorious, and somehow we made it inside with our oversized bottles of bubbly.
At this point, we’d all gathered by the water, a massive stage positioned in the center of the monstrous crowd. Music was blasting, and the square was packed to the edges with people. Right before midnight, we popped our bottles, blasting ourselves with the champagne we’d spent the past hour violently shaking in the air. When midnight finally struck, we were so consumed in our conversation that we almost missed the beginning of the fireworks.
We’d been drinking for hours by now, and- sure enough, the inevitable happens- “Sydney, I have to pee”.
As I watch Allie and one of our two new friends head over to the porta pottys, I’m appalled by the monstrous line and simultaneously reminded that I also need to pee. I tell the frenchman to stay put and walk to the shortest line I could find, my one life mission now going to the bathroom. No joke- 30 minutes later- I emerge from the hellish scene and head back to find my friends, only to realize I had no idea how to get back to them. I made the rounds a few times, finally resolving to phone Allie up, knowing I’d need to head back to the hostel if I couldn’t reach her. By some miracle, our tallest Spanish friend picked up and shot his hand high into the air. His tactic worked, and before long, I was reunited with my people.
Apparently, the same porta potty line I’d decided to stand in made the other three mad, so they’d gone around back where a bunch of people had just decided to squat. My dumb self missed that memo and did the bathroom dance in line for half an hour. After I hadn’t come back in 15 minutes, they’d gone looking for me, which meant they’d moved from the spot that I’d planned to come back to. A porta potty induced disaster at its finest.
From there, the night got even more exciting. During our 2 am walk back home to the hostel, I’d decided that I wasn’t reciprocating the feels that the Frenchman was putting out, so in my drunken brillance (insert sarcasm), I decided that we needed to break away and run home. So that’s what we did- we literally sprinted a whole mile through the crowded streets of Lisbon until we made it to our hostel. We huffed and puffed all the way up the stairs, set an optimistic 7 am alarm for a day trip to Sintra, and I passed out while Allie binged Birdbox on Netflix.
My biggest achievement on the whole trip was making it out of bed for the 7 am alarm the next morning. To this day, I have no idea how we did it. But I’ll be damned if we didn’t wake up, get ready, pack our bags, check out of our hostel, carry them to the next hostel, check in, and then get on a train to Sintra by 8:30. How? The world may never know.
I’d be lying if I said we were joyful creatures that day. It’s not that we were unpleasant or hungover, per say- miraculously, we weren’t- it’s just that we lacked all enthusiasm and energy to be good tourists. I’ll never forget, we booked a privately guided tuk tuk ride to see Sintra’s best sights, and at one of them, our driver just looked at me with all the sincerity in the world said “you look very tired.”
Truly, the sky could have turned green and Allie and I would have responded with an unfazed “Oh. That’s nice.”
Thankfully, our lackluster responses failed to detract from an otherwise lovely day, though the New Years Day closures of all of Sintra’s parks and monuments was less than ideal. In typical Allie and Sydney fashion, our day was characterized by lots of food sampling and a myriad of photos. Even though we weren’t able to visit some of Sintra’s biggest attractions, the tuk tuk tour we finagled was well worth it. Our driver was a local, therefore quite keen on all the little town’s hidden gems. After knocking out all of our must-see Sintra sights in half a day, we spontaneously decided to take a bus to the small seaside town of Cascais.
The internet is buzzing about this little Portuguese resort city, and since all the New Years closures made our day in Sintra an ultrafast one, a trip to Cascais seemed reasonable. We boarded the bus at the Sintra train station and took a stunning ride through picturesque smalltown Portugal. With every turn, I swear our bus would come within inches of taking out a house- the front walls of these homes were quite literally the edge of the street.
The last stop before the city of Cascais was Cascais National Park. The problem with bussing through this little gem of a destination en route was that it made everything after it feel like a total bust by comparison. Where Cascais National Park had rolling green hills, a regal lighthouse and staggering cliffsides, the city of Cascais had…. below average everything. In fact, we were so underwhelmed by Cascais when we stepped off the bus that we legitimately considered getting right back on it and going home.
We stuck things out, and to our delight, things did improve ever so slightly. After a short trek from the bus stop into the heart of the city center, we wandered onto a beach, past a ferris wheel, through the brightly lit Christmas decorations… and we were still not massively wowed. Perhaps it was just a continuation of our uninterested mood from earlier. We scoped out a dinner spot, and after stuffing our faces with sides and appetizers, we dragged our exhausted bodies to the train station. I think dinner might have been the highlight of Cascais.
The next morning, we rose at a respectable hour. Phoning up our friend over at the Smart Car-esque Lisbon Tour company, we reserved a mini hot rod for the entire day and chased the debatably poor decision with free hostel breakfast and loads of coffee. At 10 am, we met a representative outside the train station (our hostel was on the second floor of the train station- cool right??) and loaded inside. In the comfort of a parking spot, we learned the ins and outs of the little vehicle, how to program our GPS, and any other little thing that you might need to know about driving the toy. Holding me to my word a few days prior, Allie got the back seat and left me to pilot the beast. Having never driven in a foreign country, I summoned my best go-kart skills and all the good Portuguese road juju, and we set out.
I must say, I was a much better driver than I ever expected myself to be, sans a few psychotic mid road u-turns. Truly, I impressed myself. Now the bit on following GPS directions, though… yikes. We’d be cruisin’ along and I’d unknowingly breeze past my turns. Occasionally, we’d make the same circuit multiple times. Other times, I’d overcorrect and whip out my signature u-ies. The first hour of our tour, I drove us in the same circle probably 12 times. I wish that was a funny exaggeration. Different country, same ole me…
Once I figured out how to hijack the GPS bluetooth and play music from my phone, our ride went from a solid 7 to a 10. Whenever our guided tour would route us past a cool spot, we’d whip our little road parasite into the most laughably small parking spot. I’m talking pulling-it-into-a-parallel-parking-spot small here. It was iconic in every way. The only downside was that I had no handling skills in this thing. I’d hop curbs and nearly flatten 1 out of every 5 pedestrians that I encountered.
Among the day’s notable stops was the ever stunning Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara. We skirted our lil car into a parking spot fit for a bike and moseyed on over into the park. Many European countries hold Christmas Markets over the holiday season, and Allie and I were lucky enough to hit Portugal in time to see the tail end of it. Vendors set up in clusters all over the city- including the outskirts of the Miradouro de Sao Pedro. We browsed through the shops to the overlook, eventually making our way to the cafe for a food and coffee pit stop.
Other notable stops were the purple street, authentic Portuguese lunch at Adega Portuguesa, the MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology), and the many makeshift parking spots we created a la correcting my general lack of direction. The real MVP of the ride was our golden hour drive along the water. You can’t imagine the beauty of Portugal’s waterside sunsets. My only complaint- because I was driving, I only took ~mental~ photos and shitty iPhone ones when possible. Whenever we stopped, you better believe I took full advantage of photo opps.
Handing over our little car at the end of the day was tough. Partly because I wasn’t ready to give up the keys, and partly because I was scared we weren’t going to get our security deposit back per all the knicks and scratches I knew I’d collected over the day’s drive. I avoided looking for them, and thankfully the reps weren’t too keen on seeking them out either. Reverting back to exploring the city by foot, we enjoyed one last dinner in Lisbon, finishing it off with the perfect cup of gelato.
The next morning, we were off to Porto! And I must say- Porto was the best part of Portugal.