Of all the European cities that I have traveled to (and that list isn’t exactly short), Lisbon will always remain the one that just stumped me. I have never been to place without getting a good idea of its nature. Reviews are everywhere on the net and considering that the whole world and their mothers like to yap about every place they’ve been, it difficult not to go to a place without a certain expectation.
Lisbon turned out to be just nothing like I expected. This city really got to me.
And sure, when you arrive, it looks like a typical Mediterranean city: surrounding by water (a river actually), a harbour area and beaches nearby. Let’s say a less fashionable version of Barcelona. The preponderance of churches and historical buildings that are all over the peninsula of Spain and Portugal are here too. The wines are numerous and excellent. It all looks the same.
But in a few days you start to see the underlying character. The laid back attitude and jovial nature of the people, who are fiercely independent and don’t like being compared to their larger eastern neighbour. Saying gracias will just get you a curt reply, saying obrigado will get you a genuine smile. Telling everyone that you’ve just come from Spain will get you a more polite conversation and/or better service, being eager to make you see the difference between them. Telling them that your next leg will be Seville (the most common travel itinerary stop after Lisbon) will get you bored expressions. Their link with Brazil shows in their fun loving, partying ways; where the more people join in, the better. This can be at the beach or at a bar, it’s all the same. It’s a city that needs to be absorbed, not just experienced.
So I’ll recommend atleast 5 days as a minimum for everyone. This will give you enough time for a few day visits too. Here’s what you should experience.
Take a walking tour. Many of the good parts of Lisbon can be enjoyed while just walking, unlike, say, Barcelona where a hop-on hop-off is required. Almost all of them start at Dom Pedro square near Rossio. Most of these tours cover pretty much everything around the city. Also, like every other walking tour, you’ll just see the basics of everything. After the tours, you are free to explore more of the same in detail.
Visit Sintra. Yes, I know. You will not hear this enough. It’s the most visited place in Portugal. And it’s worth it. A short train journey will take you to this small hilly district which is home to castles, forts and the palatial homes of the rich. It’s a beautiful and unforgettable experience. Visit the Pena palace and the Moorish castle, along with the Historic Centre. Most people do Sinatra in 2 days, as it’s impossible not to visit each and every site. Also, keep in mind that the summer months mean a lot of standing in queues , especially during the hotter part of the day. As an Indian, I’ve been taught to stand in line since potty-training, but this might get really bad. Especially if you’re on a day trip and arrive anytime after 11 am. So start early. From the train station take the hop-on hop-off bus no. 18e. It takes a full circle through Pena place and the Moorish castle, and then back to the station.
There are many other routes that you can choose. For those who dislike waiting in queues for the public tours, there are a great many private vehicles that’ll take you around. If you want to do a circuit which is different from what the tour buses have, then this makes sense.
Visit the beach at Cascais. It’s a relaxing way to spend your time after days of running around and tiring yourself visiting the must-see places. Direct buses and trains run straight to it, and the weather throughout the year is legendary.
Spend a day in Belem. Belem is just a 15 minute bus ride away, full of great museums, restaurants and the one and only Pasties de Belem. The lines you see outside this place are people getting their famous custard tarts. Even though I couldn’t care less about anything remotely associated with food, people are crazy after it. The other few places you must visit are – The Museum of Contemporary Art (set aside at least 3 hours) and the Museo de Marinha (the Navy Museum, showcasing the naval history of Portugal, which at one time was the greatest empire in the world).
Roam about the tropical Botanical Garden and see the Jeronimos Monastery. Have lunch in anyone of the numerous places across from the Empire square. There are lots more museums in Belem, so just walk around and you’ll see signs for them.
Dom Jose Square. Walk down the Dom Jose square in the evening and enjoy watching the sun shoot coloured arrows across from under the bridge leading to other side of the city – Almada. I did this everyday (with some beer to keep me company) and was never disappointed. There’s really no beach here, but lots of places to sit. It’s hard to believe that the body of water in front of you is actually a river and not the Pacific Ocean. Make sure you don’t buy any ‘marijuana’ from the countless men who will approach you (it’s mostly oregano). And please don’t be an idiot and eat at the restaurants which crowd one side of the square, they’re ridiculously overpriced. Walk further down towards Rossio for that.
Get lost in Alfama. Walk up to the castle (no need to go inside though, there’s really nothing there) and enjoy the panoramic views of the city. There are a few marked viewpoints which have easy and clearly defined access. Then walk down and get lost in the neighbouring area of Alfama. Yes, get lost. Literally. It’s a GPS nightmare. You can very easily lead the people you don’t like, up till here, and then just run away. They’ll need helicopter evacuation and water before they reach home. Small streets running up and down through a hilly terrain and with identical markings make this a fun place to negotiate through. Lots of street art and small bars playing haunting Fado.
Buy something at the flea market. Rather than buying things like clothes or trinklets, get something unique. Like an old Atrac player, or a set of Neil diamond LP records. I also bought a Sony Walkman, just like the one I used to have in high school. And it still works, if you have tapes. The market is quite big so you should first take a walk around before you buy anything. As in every flea market the stalls near the entry are more expensive, and it gets progressively cheaper and easier to negotiate as you go further down.
Take a ride on the tram no. 28. This historic, pre-war tram that circles the city is a delight and takes you all the way to the castle. It screeches, squeals and claws its way uphill from the cathedral and makes you wonder whether it’ll ever be able to reach the end, Lisbon being hilly. It’s an iconic symbol of Lisbon and definitely its most recognizable touristy image. It’s always crowded with tourist, so it’s a good idea to catch one early in the day. It’s also a great way to see the historic parts in one go. Almost every picture postcard of the city will have one of these in the background.
Experience their wine. Portugal has some exquisite wines and even if you are not a wine drinker you should atleast try a glass. A good bottle can actually come for about 5 euros.
Try Ginjinha. It’s a typically Portuguese cherry-flavoured liqueur made from Ginja berries, which is sweet and has a mellow kick. Always used for raising toasts, its best tasted at a little place near Dom Pedro square called A ginjinha.
Lisbon has so much to offer, it was only when I went back did I realise what this city did to me. It’s the colours of the buildings, it’s the absolute blue of the sky, it’s the craze for codfish, it’s the narrow streets and the addictive joviality of the people. It just reaches out to you on a deeply personal level. I can only count a handful of cities in my lifetime that have had a similar effect on me.
When you leave, you’ll have the taste of those custard tarts from pasties de Belem on your tongue and the heady feeling of ghinghin in your head. And you’ll cry to go back just one more time.