Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to learn how to surf. The Disney Channel original movies Johnny Tsunami or Rip Girls released in my pre-teen years were my sources of inspiration. I loved the ocean and was pretty good at boogie boarding, but I wanted to do more. Well, fast-forward twenty-one years, and my dream to surf finally became a reality on my birthday while in Lisbon, Portugal.
On an almost daily basis in May, Jordan would ask me where I wanted to go for my birthday. So, of course, I would respond by changing the subject. Where was there to go right now? On my birthday last year, travel had just opened up after the first lockdown, and we went to Marseille, France. This year, only a few European countries were open to visitors at the beginning of June. These countries included Belgium, Greece, and Portugal. So it wasn’t a matter of where I wanted to go, but where we could go.
I focused my search on destinations we could easily travel to by train or plane. We have spent multiple weekends traveling within France over the past year, and I was hopeful that our destination could allow us to explore more of Europe finally. There were only a few requirements:
- We needed to leave after work on Friday.
- The total travel time should be less than seven hours.
- The weather had to be decent.
Not too demanding, right? I used the Google Flights Explore feature to plug in our travel dates, departure times, and total trip duration. The explore feature will show you all possible destinations by your departure location and is very customizable. I found a direct flight from Lyon to Lisbon that left after work on Friday for a solid price. The only restriction for entering the country was a negative COVID test. After a quick check of the weather, which looked fantastic, we booked our flights!
Our flight was under three hours, and we arrived in Lisbon on Friday evening with plenty of time to eat a late dinner (we also gained an hour with the different time zone). Lisbon has a metro line directly from their airport that took us directly into the city. Our hotel for the weekend was centrally located only a few minutes from one of the metro stops.
After dropping off our luggage, we took the metro to Time Out Market, an indoor market with 26 restaurant stalls serving local dishes. The options available are “the best of” Lisbon, and we figured this would be an easier option than making a reservation at a restaurant. The tables were first-come, first-serve, so we grabbed two open seats and stayed there the rest of the evening.
We rotated who would look at the options available in the stalls not to lose our seats. Across from us, a couple left their purse and jacket on the table to “hold” their spot. Well, the security guard didn’t like this! The security guard looked at the items suspiciously and contemplated what to do. After mulling it over for a few minutes and communicating with someone on his walky-talky, he cleared the table. Barely a minute after, the original couple returned to find their items were missing. Jordan saw it all happen and jumped in to explain the situation. Don’t worry; the couple got their things and their table back!
We started the following day by going a little outside the city to get a PCR test. We had to have one to get into Lisbon, but we also had to have one to get back into France, even though we were vaccinated. After getting this out of the day, it was time to go explore the Alfama district in Lisbon. This district is the oldest part of the city and remains intact after an earthquake destroyed the majority of Lisbon in 1755. Full of narrow streets and stunning views, we planned to go to this district with an open itinerary and get lost wandering through the streets. To get to the Alfama district, we could either walk up the steep streets or take one of Lisbon’s iconic yellow trams. It was an easy decision; we chose the tram!
The yellow trams travel throughout Lisbon, used by tourists and locals alike. Modern-day trams could not navigate the steep and winding terrain, keeping these historic trams in business. The trams in use today date back to the 1930s, full of original features like a sleek wood interior and a cheery painted exterior. After getting on the tram, we slowly winded through the narrow streets, making multiple stops along the way.
We stopped at the highest part of the Alfama district and got off the tram to start exploring. After a light lunch, we walked over to a lookout point, or miradouro, to see Lisbon’s bright red roofs and colorful buildings tucked along the hills along the edge of the river. The views of Lisbon from the Alfama district are unparalleled. There were multiple miradouros throughout the Alfama district, making it a point to visit each one.
We spent the day wandering through the narrow streets and admiring the delicate tile, or azulejo, on many buildings. Azulejo tiles are hand-painted and date back to the 13th century when the Moors invaded the land. Their popularity rose in the 17th century thanks to Portugal’s King Manuel I, who helped solidify the azulejos to be ubiquitous with the country. The original tiles were solid colors with neutral tones but transformed over the years to colorful and ornate patterns. The most iconic azulejos are blue and white patterns considered en vogue for the time. We went to a local shop and purchased some blue and white patterned ceramics to bring home – they are some of my favorite purchases on a trip yet!
The azulejos fell out of popularity over the years, but the city helped revitalize the azulejos image by installing them in their metro system in the 1950s. Today, they are found on many buildings throughout the city in various colors and patterns.
At one point in the day, we started seeing tourists carrying around refreshing drinks in a pineapple. I wouldn’t say I like pineapple, but I absolutely wanted a drink in one. It was my birthday, after all. We asked someone where they bought their drink, and we found a large pineapple stand across the street. We purchased a caipirinha for myself and a mojito for Jordan before finding a seat at a nearby miradouro to enjoy them. Drinks and a view!
After walking around a little more, we decided to purchase a tuk-tuk ride that we had seen so many others enjoying throughout the day. It was a little expensive, but we thought it would be a fun way to learn about the city while taking a load off our feet. Our guide asked us what we had seen already and made sure to take us to new spots. We spent the next hour whisking around the Alfama district in an electric tuk-tuk while learning about the area. The guide stopped a few times for us to take photos or to walk around certain areas. He even walked with us to point out some interesting murals and teach us about the area’s history.
This spontaneous decision to take a tuk-tuk ride was one of my favorite things on the trip!
For my birthday Saturday night, we watched the sunset over the colorful red rooftops with a glass of champagne to celebrate turning 33. We then ate a late dinner at a classic restaurant that played the traditional music of Lisbon, Fado. This type of music originated in Lisbon in the early 1800s and may have derived from fisherman’s wives singing sad songs about their husbands who were out at sea (and may not return). Fado generally has a melancholy melody, but the music can be about anything. At our restaurant, different performers sang a few songs every thirty minutes. We didn’t know what they were saying, but you could feel the emotion behind their voice. It was very special to experience this view into the culture and history of Lisbon.
It was finally Sunday, the day of our surf lesson. Funnily enough, Jordan and I initially were looking at going scuba diving, but he thought the water might be too cold. However, we ended up doing an activity in the water anyways!
I found a half-day class for us online through Epic Surf School. There was a full-day class available, but I wasn’t sure if we would be up for it. I didn’t want to be locked into a full day of something if I didn’t like it! Our instructor picked us up in the city on Sunday morning and drove us to a beach about thirty minutes away. We were able to see a new side of Lisbon as we traveled outside the town, full of small houses and farms.
The beach was Costa da Caparica, a sandy beach along the Atlantic Ocean. It serves up waves that are perfect for beginner surfers like ourselves. Is there a classification before beginner? Because that’s what we are. The beach was a popular destination; the entire parking lot was full by the time we arrived in the morning.
Our instructor dropped us off as he found a place to park, and we walked down to the beach. We had to see what we were getting ourselves into first! Many surfers were already in the water, waiting for the perfect wave. The ones that were riding the waves made it look effortless. Ok, maybe we could do this.
The water was a little cold, and our instructor had us change into wetsuits and bibs to designate that we were students. We each carried our surfboard down to the shore after receiving brief instructions. The instructor went ahead of us to set up two flags along the beach. These flags would visually help us know where we were while in the water.
Our lesson started with a quick jog to get warmed up. Jordan laughed as he said, “so this was all a plan to get me to go on a run.” We completed the warm-up by doing various stretches before getting into the real fun. Our instructor began to teach us the basics of surfing as we repositioned our surfboards in the sand.
On the shore, we learned how to get on our surfboard and where we needed to position ourselves. After we mastered this part, the instructor showed us how to paddle to catch the wave and transition from lying down to resting on our hands and knees. We practiced a few times to get comfortable with the movements before testing them out in the ocean.
We carried our surfboards out into the water until I was chest-deep. After jumping on my board and positioning myself correctly, I waited for our instructor to choose a wave for me. Jordan and I wouldn’t ride the waves simultaneously to reduce the risk of running into each other. It was probably for the best. After a few waves, it was my turn! I started padding hard with my board facing the shore and felt the board catch the wave’s momentum. I pushed up onto my hands and knees and rode the wave to the shore.
The feeling was exhilarating! It was such a rush, and I had a massive smile on my face the entire time. I would have been content if the lesson ended after that one wave. However, luckily for us, the class was just beginning. We practiced riding the wave on our knees a few more times to get comfortable on the surfboard. After that, it was back to the beach to learn how to stand up.
I was thankful for a break. It wasn’t riding the wave that was exhausting, but getting back out into the ocean! The surfboard was large, and the waves were high. Our instructor told us to push the surfboard down into the oncoming waves, or else the board would go flying. And so would we, as the board was attached to our foot with a rope. Unfortunately for me, I would open my mouth and receive a nice serving of seawater each time I would push down on the surfboard.
Back on the shore, our instructor demonstrated the first method to stand on the surfboard. He saw our blank stares and immediately showed us a more accessible option. To stand on the board, we had to move from our hands and knees to balancing one foot first before the other. The instructor told us to position them at about 45 degrees. Our hands would remain on the board while placing our feet and our eyes needed to look forward the entire time. After we set our feet, we would continue looking forward while slowly releasing our hands and standing up. We would finish standing with our knees bent and our arms out at our sides to help balance. Easy enough, right?
These were slow and controlled movements that felt a lot like yoga. Our core needed to be strong while moving methodically and balancing on the board. I used to practice yoga a lot while living in Denver, and the familiarity was comforting. I could do this!
We spent the next hour catching waves while trying to stand up. At one point, Jordan spotted a small shark in the water next to us. He made sure not to tell me until the next day.
Our instructor was so energetic and positive with each try, keeping us motivated to try again. Wave after wave, I kept crashing into the sea after getting my feet positioned. I repeatedly made the mistake of lifting my hands too early or not keeping my eyes on the shore. “You are so close!” the instructor would yell at me as I made my way back into the water. Jordan had his fair share of tumbles himself.
I was determined to stand but was getting very tired. We took another quick break on the beach, and I plopped down into the sand. I wasn’t sure if I could handle any more waves, but our instructor convinced us to go in the water for another twenty minutes to continue trying. After a few more tumbles, I made my way out one last time. I told our instructor this was my last wave, and he promised to make it the best one.
I positioned myself on the surfboard but told him I needed to relax for a few minutes before catching my final wave. He held on to the board as the waves gently passed underneath. After regaining a little energy, I was ready and felt confident I would stand. We found the perfect wave, and I paddled hard to catch it.
I slowly positioned my feet and kept my hands on the board.
I kept my eyes focused on the shore.
With my feet positioned correctly and feeling balanced on the surfboard, I slowly removed my hands.
I was doing it! I was surfing!
Albeit for only a few seconds, it was the most fantastic accomplishment, and I was so proud of myself. I don’t have any photos of us in the water, but ask Jordan, and he will confirm this story! We had the body aches and bruises the next day to prove it.
Did I miss my calling as a professional surfer? I guess we’ll never know.
Check out more photos of Lisbon here.