Editors note: Lauren and Lydia travelled to Portugal before the reclassification of Portugal as an amber-level destination on the 3rd June.
We’ve been watching the government’s travel announcements closely over the past few months. As soon as Portugal got the green light in the new traffic-light system, we sent Lydia, one of our concierge specialists, and Lauren, from our Europe team, for a city break to Lisbon to find out first-hand what it’s like to travel now.
Catching up with them fresh off their return flight, we asked, ‘what do you need to know if you’re looking to travel to Portugal now?’
How did you need to prepare before travel?
Lauren: Before you travel, you need to have booked your three tests. One for 72 hours before you travel, one to take in Portugal before you fly home, and one to take at home on your return. Depending on your airline, you then need to upload the negative results to your airline’s booking portal. There’s also an online Passenger Locator Card (PLC) to complete before travelling to Portugal, and another for when you’re going back to the UK.
Lydia: It sounds like a lot, but we discovered that as long as you have the necessary documents and tests in place beforehand, it’s really straightforward when you actually travel — and we’re keeping tabs on any changes and developments to procedures, so your specialist will be on hand with the latest advice.
What was your experience like being in an airport again?
Lauren: You know there’s normally that exciting airport buzz? It felt much quieter, and it seemed like many people were travelling for business or to see family.
I arrived a generous three-and-a-half hours before the flight, but I didn’t actually need the extra time. We both checked in online, although the check-in desk queues were minimal. In fact, there were hardly any queues anywhere.
Lydia: Yes, I found that I hardly needed to think about social distancing as there were so few people around. There were extra safety measures in place, including screens when you were putting your belongings through security and some chairs blocked off in the seating areas. However, aside from the fact that everyone was wearing a mask, it all felt pretty normal.
Lauren: The process through the airport went smoothly. The only thing to bear in mind is that, while all the shops are open as normal, not all the dining options are. The couple of restaurants that were open were quite busy, but the coffee shops and cafés were quieter, with one-way systems and socially distanced seating.
What was it like catching the flight itself?
Lydia: The passengers are boarded by order of seating, from back to front, so for those airlines that offer it, priority boarding isn’t an option at the moment. While you couldn’t really socially distance yourself during boarding or the flight, I felt that everyone was very respectful of each other’s space.
Lauren: Our temperature was checked before we boarded and we were handed an antibacterial handwipe as we boarded the aircraft. A public safety announcement before take-off asked us not to move around the plane unnecessarily, and told us that the plane had been thoroughly disinfected (with a reminder to keep our masks on). Where meals aren’t included, it’s worth being aware that some carriers are asking you to book food 48 hours in advance — although we were still served water and a snack.
It must have been exciting to finally land in Portugal?
Lydia: When we arrived in Lisbon Portela Airport, there were clear social distancing signs and stickers on the floor, and passport control was very smooth — we were asked to show proof of our negative Covid tests. Although, I think this process may take longer if more than one flight arrives at the same time.
We didn’t check in any bags, but no-one was crowding around the luggage belt, and everyone was keeping their distance. When we got through immigration, we followed a clear one-way system out of the airport. And then, well, it was amazing to feel the warm Portuguese air hit my skin and the sun on my face.
Where did you stay?
Lydia: It felt like such a treat to be in a hotel again. We stayed at Vincci Liberdade just off Avenida Liberdade, a ten-minute walk from the heart of the city. We had a Juliet balcony with views across the leafy boulevard outside.
The staff were so warm and welcoming. The hotel had a little bar that was open, and the only changes from the usual service was an à la carte, instead of buffet, breakfast. Everything was very clean, too, right down to the receptionist sanitising the card machine.
Is everything up and running as normal?
Lauren: Not all the hotels we offer are open, and some of the shared tours aren’t running, but there’s still a wide selection of private tours you can opt for. The city’s attractions have reopened and, crucially, so have the bakeries and cafés where you can pick up a fresh pastel de nata.
You can’t go for an alcoholic drink after 8pm unless you’re having a meal, or buy alcohol from a shop post 8pm, but there are still plenty of options for a pre-dinner drink. We sipped vinho verde in the warm evening air at the Sky Bar on the ninth floor of the Tivoli Avenida Liberdade Lisboa hotel — the Portuguese wine was so good we bought a few bottles to bring home.
The restaurants are operating at a slightly reduced capacity, so I’d suggest booking in advance — our specialists can help with reservations and suggestions. We ate at Páteo Bairro do Avillez, a taverna that focuses on fresh seafood.
Lydia: One of the best things about Lisbon is the variety of transport you can use to hop around the city, and everything was up and running, albeit with reduced capacity or extra sanitary precautions in place. You have the charismatic trams, which have become symbols of the city, the metro, and a well-maintained bike hire system. There’s also an excellent Uber network and, for families, I suggest trying out the electric scooters. Although, if you prefer to stay on foot, it's a really walk-able city.
What was it like being out and about?
Lydia: Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and the staff in restaurants and our hotel seemed genuinely excited to have us there. It was incredibly quiet, which was great in a city that can get very busy — we didn’t see a huge number of fellow visitors.
I’d say that 95% of people were walking around in masks, outside and inside, and everyone was very respectful of one another. We took our masks off in areas of open space but put them on to pass anyone we encountered, which was also customary between locals.
Lauren: It was hot, around 21 C, and it can be a little uncomfortable wearing your mask for long periods of time, so I suggest getting some really good-quality, comfortable face masks before you travel. This is especially important if you’re considering a beach-focused trip, as you have to wear your mask right up until you walk into the sea, with fines handed out if you don’t.
What were your highlights?
Lydia: Lisbon is beautiful, and simply walking around the city was a delight. The jacaranda trees, which line many of the boulevards, were in flower, their purple blossom bright against the yellow-painted buildings. We stopped at the Miradouro de Santa Luzia, a terrace with panoramic views across the Alfama rooftops to the dome of the National Pantheon. Usually, this would be packed with visitors, but we had it all to ourselves, which felt really special.
Lauren: A local guide, Sara, took us on a private walking tour through Baixa, the downtown area of Lisbon. It was rebuilt after the Great Earthquake of 1755, and Sara showed us some of the architectural highlights, from the grand neoclassical squares to Art Deco shopfronts and azulejos, the elaborate tiles that seem to grace every surface.
Do you have any advice for the return journey?
Lydia: It was pretty straightforward. Everything was open as normal in Lisbon Portela Airport. That said, I’d get there around three hours before your flight as you can’t enter your departure gate until your PLC and proof of negative Covid test have been checked, which can lead to queues.
Lauren: On the plane, there was an announcement that there might be a delay at border control in Heathrow. When we arrived, though, we were through in about ten minutes. The only strange part? The empty arrivals lounge.
And one final question: was it worth it?
Lydia: One hundred percent. Before we went, it was a bit stressful waiting for the test results to come through. But, sitting at an alfresco café, the breeze gently cooling your face as you tuck into a shrimp moqueca… it was definitely worth it.
Lauren: We’ve all been confined to home and our local areas for so long. To experience a different culture and cuisine — the aspects of travel I love — has reignited my desire to explore. Just thinking about strolling under a cloudless sky in one of Europe’s great capitals makes me want to turn around and do it all again.
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