I am a total fiend for travel, and earlier this year I came across a deal for a $290 direct, roundtrip flight from JFK to Lisbon, Portugal (you read that right). Deals like this don’t last, but it’s the perfect match for my impulsive personality. I have always wanted visit Portugal, and a ticket that cheap is a rare find – as soon as I read that price, I knew was going. I asked friends and family if they wanted to join and no one jumped on the offer – I know, I couldn’t believe it either. That wasn’t going to stop me. After some fast vacation time math, I bought my ticket for July 7-13. Solo trip here I come. And then I decided I’ll bring my bike along as my travel buddy.
I waited a while to book my accommodations. I am very much a deal hunter, cheap-o hostel traveler, but since I was now planning to bring my bike, I wanted something more private. I booked an Airbnb near the river in a neighborhood called Santos. After I arrived and got a taste if the streets of Lisbon, I was very happy with that decision.
Before the trip I emailed a local bike rental shop called Rcicla because I wanted to get a feel for the riding and find out if there were any roads I should absolutely avoid. Other than some random ride data around the web, I couldn’t find much information detailing routes. I knew I wanted to get to Sintra and Arrábida, but I wanted to talk to local riders to confirm routes. Rcicla replied quickly and told me to stop by the shop after landing.
Finally the day came and I was on my way to the airport. I didn’t plan every detail of my itinerary. I just knew that I would be doing a jeep tour of the city Saturday afternoon, surfing lessons on Monday, and riding lots in between. I had destinations in mind but I would be riding to them when I felt like it.
Day 1: Settling In and Walking Endless Streets
After my flight landed and I gathered my luggage, I took a taxi into town. Here is where I made mistake #1 of the trip. Taxis are not that expensive here, but they are metered like NYC, where the price climbs with both distance and time. It’s not unheard of for a driver to take you through the trafficky part of town just to run the meter, which my driver did. Have an idea of the fastest route, and direct your driver to take you that way.
Once I unloaded and put my bike together, I headed down to the shop, a short distance from where I was staying. I walked in and was immediately greeted with friendly faces. They were happy to help me figure out routes, and one of them, Vitor, offered to ride with me to Sintra the next morning. I took him up on it, since it would be much easier to follow someone familiar with the area.
I left the shop and began wandering the streets. Lisbon is extremely hilly, so bring comfortable shoes to walk in. The cobblestones are beautiful but they are worn down and slippery. Wear footwear with traction! I couldn’t imagine walking around this city during rain. I was very hungry, but an important thing to note and plan for is that many places close or slow down between lunch and dinner, and dinner starts at 7:00. That means if you arrive before 7:00, they will look at you like you have three heads when you ask if they have any food… And if you arrive at 7:00, you will be the only one eating there for an hour or two… Plan wisely.
Day 2: Ride to Sintra
I met Vitor outside Rcicla at 7:15 on Saturday, and we started our journey to Sintra. Lisbon gets very cool overnight, so in the early morning the temperatures are perfect for riding. We headed west on N6, a main road, towards Cascais and Sintra. A nice feature Portugal has on some of the main roads is speed controlled traffic lights. There are cameras on the road that monitor vehicle speeds, and if you are going over the speed limit, it will control a light ahead and give you a red light. These are not at intersections, but at arbitrary points along the roadway. It kills the opportunity for cars to speed, which may make cyclists a little more comfortable on the road. Another feature to get used to is navigating the traffic circles. Designed to make driving manual a little less of a pain, it’s certainly nice on a bike too when you don’t have to stop at every intersection.
The road out from Lisbon through Cascais (N6) is relatively flat, passing by the beautiful local beaches. While the road can get busy, it is two lanes and as a cyclist you do have the right to take up the lane. Early in the morning is not crowded at all (I mean, how can you get up early after 9:00PM dinners?!), it seems like most local cyclists don’t even get up that early either!
If you take N6 all the way out, you will get a little over an hour of mostly flat riding. Towards the end N6 will turn into N247, and this is where the fun begins. When we rounded the edge of the peninsula near Guincho beach, we were blasted with a strong headwind. The scenery here is just unbelievable. The ocean is pristine and you get a real glimpse of the mountains you are about to climb in Sintra.
You hit two major climbs on your way up Sintra if you stay on the main road. Right after the top of the first climb, you can take a side road called Estrada do Cabo de Roca, which will take you through a little village to the furthest west point of continental Europe. This will add another climb to your ride on the way back up.
Of note here is that once you round the north side of the mountain, the weather is completely different from Lisbon. It was very foggy and significantly colder. I wasn’t uncomfortable there in my short sleeve kit, but I could see it being an issue in fall through spring. There are also some road signs on downhills along the north side warning of ice, so watch out!
The main road then loops you around the mountain, descending into the town of Colares, full of narrow streets and a ton of other cyclists. The drivers seem to be cyclist aware here, but it also may be that they have no choice on the tiny roads. Most will wait behind you on downhills, and in town they can’t pass you anyway.
Right after the descent into Colares, we were back to climbing, this time into Sintra. Neither of these climbs were extremely steep, they were just very long and steady. Eventually you make it into Sintra, which is full of little coffee shops for a mid-ride break. We only spent a few minutes here, and we were back on the road, headed south along the east edge of the park, a long, easy downhill all the way back to the Cascais area.
There are plenty of offshoot side roads you can take to explore the Sintra park. I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to explore, and it was so foggy anyway, but the next time I come back I would like to spend a day riding around the park.
The descent put us back on N6, and we made our way back to Lisbon. The roads were busier now, but still a bit slow, probably because it was the weekend. We passed the popular beaches of Cascais again, which were now absolutely packed with people enjoying the sunshine. At this point it was very hot! The difference in climate on either side of the mountain range was very noticeable now.
This is a must do ride if you ever find yourself in Lisbon. The route is around 60 miles roundtrip,but you can make it longer by exploring Sintra park. The roads are fairly straightforward – you don’t have to make any confusing turns. It doesn’t hurt to find a local guide though, even just for the company! We were back by noon and I spent the rest of the day exploring the city by foot and jeep tour.
Day 3: Rest Day!
Just kidding, I walked 100 miles around Lisbon to achieve more fun tan lines, and then spent the evening celebrating Portugal’s first Eurocup win with the locals!
Day 4: Cross Training Surf Lessons
Portugal has a huge surfing culture, so I wanted to experience a surf day at the Caparica beaches while visiting. Many of the city’s children attend summer camps in the summer, which often sends them to surf lessons in the morning! The beach was full of locals learning to surf. This was my second time ever surfing, but I managed to stand up quite a few times. I have no pictures to prove it, so you’ll just have to believe me. I also forgot to take any pictures at
the beach. I did take a picture from a viewpoint we visited at the end of the tour. The water here is quite cold, and our lessons included wetsuits. I could definitely swim in the ocean for a short while without a wetsuit, if you ever wanted to try ocean swimming here.
Day 5: Solo to Arrábida
One of the parks I absolutely wanted to visit on this trip was Arrábida, which is south across the river from Lisbon, on the south edge of the peninsula. And I have to say, if you do ever make it to this country, this park is an absolute must-see.
I started my morning early, heading to the ferry stop in the area of town called Belém. I just kind of… assumed that the ferry would be fairly frequent, as it’s a commuter ferry. But this isn’t NYC and things are different. I got to the ferry stop a few minutes after 8:00 and bought my roundtrip ticket. I then asked someone when the next ferry would arrive, and he said, “Well the last one came at 8:00, so the next one will be here at 9:00.” So, planning wouldn’t be a bad idea for this. I didn’t want to wait around for an hour, so I rode around to some tourist spots on the Lisbon side of the river, visiting the Belém tower and gardens and exploring the cycle paths, everything a little bit behind schedule. I also looked at the schedule for coming back, and there seemed to be a midday break from 1:00PM until 3:00PM, then the next ferry at 4:00PM. At this rate, I was shooting to be back for the 3:00.
Finally the ferry arrived. Boarding is a bit of a pain with the bike. They still send you through the turnstiles, so you have to awkwardly lift your bike over your head while passing through. We boarded the ferry and we were on our way across the Tejo river. The trip costs €2.80 one way, and the bike is no extra fee. Whether you want to head to the other side to explore, or even if you have no plans to visit the other side at all, a ferry ride is worthwhile to get some amazing views of Lisbon. There is more than one ferry route, but I chose Belém because it was the easiest for me based on where I was staying. This one takes you to Porto Brandão and Trafalgia, which are towards the coast. I chose to get off at Porto Brandão, where I would then head south to Arrábida.
When I next visit Portugal (yes there will be a next time!) I would like to give this route another go. Much of the route heading south is through local towns, but I would like to find a better road to get there. There was some stretch of roadway where I felt less than comfortable. There were other cyclists, but few and far between, possibly because it was midday Tuesday.
Finally I started climbing into the town of Sesimbra, which is just west of Arrábida. Here, again, I wish I had a local with me to give me the best route into the park. I headed straight for the road going into the park from Sesimbra, and saw other cyclists – on mountain bikes. I soon found out why. Every road I took turned into gravel or worse at some distance in. I had no idea which way to go. Eventually I decided to head back into town for a lunch break, and to ask around for the best route in. I had a café in mind, where I stopped for a snack, and luckily one of the staff was an avid athlete who showed me the best route in. She told me that I would have to suck it up and take one of the gravel roads, as there was no better way in from this side of the park, but that I absolutely must go because the park is so beautiful. I am so happy she told me to do so, as it was absolutely beautiful. The next time I return I think I will loop around the north or east entrance to the park, but honestly the gravel road wasn’t unbearable, just quite dusty.
I couldn’t believe the beauty of Arrábida. Maybe because Sintra was so foggy I didn’t get the real taste of that side of the country, but I was more awestruck here. The views from the roadway are just breathtaking. There are two ways through the park, either a roadway up to the peak, or bombing downhill to the beaches. I didn’t get to explore as much as I wanted. After the wrong turns and back and forth, I didn’t have time to go through the whole park and then reasonably make it back to the ferry. I feel like I have unfinished business here and that I must go back! After rolling around and soaking in the scenery (and so much sunshine), I had to turn around and head north to catch the ferry, which, I had a headwind the ENTIRE time back.
I need to revisit this route, but, Arrábida is an absolute must see. I think it would be worth spending a whole day on this side. There are some gorgeous beaches here and incredible mountain views, and I would have liked to spend more time exploring the town of Sesimbra.
Once I got back to Lisbon I stopped by Rcicla again to say hi and pump some air into my tires. The guys at the shop told me that there was a 9:00PM night ride that I could join, which I thought would have been really neat, but I had dinner plans for my last night in Lisbon with my Airbnb host, Paolo. Vitor offered to join me for one last ride the next morning, to show me a new route.
Day 6: Last Day, One More Gusty Ride to Guincho
My last day here had arrived, and it was time for the final bike ride. I met Vitor at the shop early in the morning, and we started west again on the same route we had taken on Saturday. This time we wouldn’t head all the way up to Sintra, but cut off the main road beforehand for a long climb and then dip down south opposite our first climb from Saturday, back down to Guincho.
From the beginning of the ride, it was incredibly windy. We had a crosswind all the way down N6, blowing out to the water, which meant we could expect a solid headwind on our way up the mountain.
We turned off the main road to head uphill, and there it was, a dead headwind we would experience for the entirety of the 20 minute climb to the small village of Malveira da Serra, a solid last training session to end this trip, how rewarding when you finally reach the top! We then turned for a long downhill, backtracking the first climb from Saturday, all the way back to Guincho, where we would finally get a few minutes of tailwind that I think I earned all week. Guincho was just as breathtaking as the first day, and I realized I was completely not ready to head back
home! On our way back to Lisbon we experienced a little of the Portuguese morning rush hour, which wasn’t too bad but supposedly
gets way worse sometimes. That is something to consider if you ever ride here, 8:00-10:00 can be a little crowded on the roads into the city.
And that was that. What a great way to end my experience in Lisbon. I headed back to the apartment, packed my things, and grabbed a taxi to the airport.
For a little bit of winging it, I couldn’t believe how amazingly this trip came together. I can’t recommend Lisbon more. If you are looking for an incredibly beautiful, affordable country to visit, GO to Portugal. I can tell you for sure this will not be my last visit. I am the type that wants to go EVERYWHERE and see EVERYTHING, so more often than not I only visit a place once. But I absolutely see myself coming here again, hopefully as soon as next summer. Now I’m just on the hunt for the next flight deal…
Many thanks to Vitor and Pedro and the rest of the Rcicla crew, my Airbnb host Paolo, and all the new friends I made along the way, both locals and fellow travelers. I will be back, and hope to cross paths will all of you again soon!
Things I Learned:
- Portugal is not the most bike aware country in Europe, but they are improving. Drivers are becoming more conscious of riders, and more and more cyclists are becoming comfortable with riding. Lisbon is adding bike lanes around the city, and the country is passing laws to protect cyclists on the road.
- The Portuguese are incredible hosts and will help you with anything you need, just ask! Most speak English too, but appreciate if you learn a few basic words. And they do NOT speak Spanish, Portuguese is a different language.
- Lisbon is HOT in the summer, but a very dry heat. I did not see a single cloud over Lisbon my entire time there. Pack sunscreen, apply liberally. The constant breeze will fool you!
- …but be prepared for a vast change in climate depending on where you ride. Sintra was very cold and foggy. It was two very different climates on either side of the mountains.
- Whether by bike or car or surfboard, find a way to head south to visit the beaches of Caparica, the mountains of Arrábida, and the town of Sesimbra.
- If you plan to road ride, book a place close to a main road, like N6, or be prepared for riding over endless cobblestone and hills and tram rails through confusing road layouts of narrow streets and swarms of tourists and dodging Vespas and.. you get the idea. (Cobblestones)
- If you don’t have an EU passport, arrive to the airport early for your departure flight. My host, my new friends, and everyone in town tried to slow me down on my way, saying I had sooo much time to soak in some last moments in the city. I barely made last boarding call. Do not be fooled by the airport layout, especially in Lisbon! Once you get through security, which is a breeze, there is still passport control, which is not a breeze. They send you through the duty free shops first, and you want to spend time browsing, thinking you’re through – you are not, get to passport control, the non-EU citizen line will be severely understaffed.
Any questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or – send me an invite to your next “training trip” if you’re looking for company!