All truth be told, Lisbon was never a city I had given any thought to. In fact, I couldn’t even come up with anything linked to it. Give me a list of other European cities and there was at least one or two things that came to mind.
Stockholm: Old Town and the archipelago.
Paris: croissants, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.
London: pubs, fish and chips and Big Ben.
Venice: canals, gelato and carnival.
But Lisbon? My inability to come up with anything symbolic of the Portuguese capital was embarrassing.
Come to think of it, it wasn’t just embarrassing; it was a little odd. For centuries, Portugal was a powerhouse, conquering remote parts of the world from Brazil to Timor (even today, seven of Portugal’s former colonies still have Portuguese as their official language), bringing back exotic luxuries that would later become European staples – chocolate and coffee come to mind. And yet here I was unable to come up with a connection to Portugal whatsoever. It was obviously time to improve my cultural understanding.
Enter the 48-hour trip – like a quick dip into the sea, the kind of thing that sort of gets you acquainted, but really just leaves you wanting more.Although it’s the capital of Portugal, it only has around 550,000 habitants. This makes it the kind of city that feels like a city, but still small enough, with plenty of animated neighborhoods, that it’s manageable enough to explore.
Sitting on Portugal’s west coast, Lisbon is Europe’s westernmost capital city, and with the meeting of the Atlantic Ocean and the Tagus River, water is a central part of the city’s history and identity. The smell of saltwater and a cool ocean breeze is never far.
“Ah, the San Francisco of Europe,” said a friend when I told her I was going. She was right, the mix of bridges (one looks almost exactly like the Golden Gate), colorful buildings, streetcars, an artsy vibe and proximity to the ocean makes the two cities feel very similar.
Lisbon has an organic feel. It certainly isn’t rural, but it’s one of those amazing places that manages to seamlessly combine the natural world with the urban one. Maybe it’s the lack of overly tall buildings in the center of town, or the fact that it has a more Mediterranean climate than other cities, but this is a place where there are trees and foliage everywhere. Restaurants have gardens with trees growing in the middle, and if you leave your window open, you’ll be woken up by birds chirping.
We were staying near Bairro Alto, a neighborhood known for its nightlife. Right on the outskirts we were close enough to be within walking distance of the city center, but far enough that it felt like we were living like locals – for 48 hours at least.
That’s the key when traveling: immersing yourself, even for just a hot minute.
That meant ordering a morning cafe and pastel del nata at the corner kiosk in the park one block away, picnicking at the waterfront and not taking the yellow streetcar (although you can be sure I snapped a picture of myself in front of it).
Forget public transportation cards and days inside of museums. With only 48 hours, sunny Lisbon was beckoning me to explore it on foot for as long as my body put up with.
We kicked things off the first evening with the season’s first OutJazz concert – a summer-long series that features outdoor concerts in Lisbon’s public parks and gardens. When you’ve lived in Portland for over five years, you think you know what hipsters look like. But then again, you’ve never hung with the European hipster crowd. Twenty-somethings and 30-somethings scattered all over the park on blankets, drinking wine out of bottles and smoking the obligatory cigarette. The combination of outdoor music, percentage of Ray-Ban wearers and skinny jeans were proof that we were in a city that likes to be hip, and a budget-friendly evening picnic with free bands was a place that we could certainly fit in. It was the beginning of the summer season. There was a noticeable buzz in the air.
That’s what I found in Lisbon: a city that feels very much alive and vibrant. A city that despite its old roots is moving. It’s a hub of Portuguese design. A city that mixes together old and new – classic yet cutting edge all at the same time.
Walking down narrow alleyways, plenty of laundry hanging out to dry in the warm air, it’s hard to not notice the colors that make Lisbon unique. Almost every building, new and old, is covered in bright tiles. The older and non-restored ones are dingier, yet still colorful, the glory of their bygone days showing through. There are so many patterns and colors you can almost believe that you could traverse the city without finding two of the same kind. They are buildings with stories to tell, something I was reminded of while at a flea market in Belem, just outside of Lisbon. There a man sold tiles, chipped and clean ones alike, with a sign atop the table stating, “before you buy a tile, know its history.” Noted.
Beyond exploring the city streets I was on a mission for good coffee. Coming from Paris where the coffee is less than desirable, and the price always way more than any decent human being wants to pay, it doesn’t take much to impress me. Our Airbnb host Joana insisted on us stopping by A Carioca to pick up some infused beans. Open since 1924, you get the feeling that not much has changed since its first days, old French presses and grinders covering the walls, and the smell of coffee so strong that if you’re a coffee addict, you’re in love within one step of entering. We grab a 100-gram of hazelnut coffee for good measure.
The other “must” was a pastel de nata, the typical Portuguese pastry made with custard. “You can get the classic ones in Belem, but I think the place down the street is better,” said Joana as she handed over one of the specialties as a welcome present on our first night. It was still warm from the oven.
She was right. Check out any Lisbon list and it will tell you to stop off at Pasteis de Belem a little further out of town to get the really classic ones, but if you don’t go snag a half dozen of the ones at Nata, right at the edge of Bairro Alto and near the center of town, you’ll be missing out. They’re 1€ a pop, there’s certainly no point in restraining yourself.
We wrapped up the weekend with a trip to Belém – certainly worth a visit given its historical importance. Here is where you’ll find the UNESCO World Heritage site Torre de Belém as well as the Jerónimos Monastery. Go on a Sunday and you’ll score the flea market, full of tourists and locals alike.
When it was time to head back, there was a quick dash to the clean and efficient metro (after coffee at the corner kiosk of course) and soon enough we were on a plane out of Lisbon. That’s how 48-hour trips go after all; they offer mere doses of cities that get you immediately planning your next trip back. As we pulled away from the city I couldn’t help but think about how it’s the places that you don’t know anything about that are often the best to discover.
Here’s to the beauty of the unknown, and always wanting to learn more.
A few budget friendly Lisbon recommendations for when you go:
Terra – In need of vegetarian food? Terra does an incredible vegetarian buffet (they also have a menu of good organic teas and wines) and serves it up in their beautiful garden space behind the restaurant. The lunch menu at 12.50€ is an excellent deal for stocking up midday and eating a lighter meal in the evening.
Lost N – Inspired by India, List In is both a store and a restaurant/bar. Head to the terrace in the early evening for a comfortable spot to grab a drink.
Torre de Belem – at only 5€ to get into the UNESCO World Heritage Site, you get to explore a beautiful monument, and if you make it all the way up to the top, a fantastic view of the city. It’s definitely worth your while.