Mysterious, magnificent and mellow – many words have been used to describe Portugal’s coastal capital, though I see it as a portrait in pink and blue. Arriving across the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge, the city lays bathed in pastel light, begging to be explored.
Lisbon, or Lisboa to the natives, has become a favoured European weekend escape and one of Southern Europe’s busiest capital destinations. Spending a few days here, one can certainly see why. Hailed as Portugal’s most liveable city, it has a year-round mild climate and an inordinate amount of sunny days. With an urban population of merely half a million people (3 million including the wider Metropolitan area), it is easy to navigate. Lisbon is also reasonably priced and relatively safe as far as European capitals go. And in a world where over-tourism has become a threat, one can almost miss the crowds by avoiding major tourist destinations and walking a bit further afield.
400 years older than Rome
One of the oldest cities in the world and the second oldest European capital after Athens, Lisbon predates London and Paris by several centuries.
Its original name, Olisippo, might be a derivative from Phoenician alis ubbo meaning ‘delightful little port’, though the city could also have been named after its mythical founder, Ulysses.
What we know for a fact is that Phoenicians settled in the area around 1200 BC. Julius Caesar made it the municipium of Feliecitas Julia a couple of decades before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact there are still underground Galerias Romanas from the era of Emperor Augustus open to a few lucky visitors twice a year. The galleries are accessible through a sewer hole in the ground right under the tramline on Rua da Prata. Sounds irresistible? I will certainly plan our next trip accordingly…
Since Christian crusaders re-conquered Lisboa from the Moors in 1147, it has been the political centre of Portugal, though not always its capital. Sometimes abbreviated as ‘Lx’ from the old spelling Lixbõa, the city is today an important centre of finance, commerce, arts, media, trade and tourism.
Navigating the town
With our car in long-term parking for the duration of our stay, we leave our bags at the hotel – a former magistrate’s residence from 1758 filled with character, antiques and hand-painted Portuguese tiles.
Our first afternoon is spent vicariously wandering towards the Tagus River. Lisbon is infinitely walkable and just big enough to get pleasantly lost. You can easily orient yourself by looking downhill to locate the river or uphill to discover where you are in relation to the Castelo de Säo Jorge (St George’s Castle), the tallest landmark in town.
A wide selection of guided tours is on offer, but we choose to discover Lisbon for ourselves. Occasionally we jump on a metro or hail a tuck-tuck when needing a break, after having strolled up and down the city’s seven or eight (but who is counting) hills. Lisbon has an excellent public transport system. A transferable bus or metro ticket costs a mere couple of euros and other than rush hours, it is an easy way to get around. Some of the metro stations are worth it for the artistic tile work alone.
The famous Lisbon trams are not included in the regular system and do not allow transfers or stopovers. Undoubtedly one of the most picturesque tram rides in the world, Lisbon’s electric streetcar system opened in November 1873. Today however, the americanos as they used to be called, are victim of their own success. Every tourist has read about and wants to ride in the legendary Tram 28. As we didn’t want to be squeezed in like vertical sardines between Texan and Taiwanese tourists, we contented ourselves by observing them from the outside.
Another former practical way to get up-town and avoid some of the pesky hills was to take the Ascensor de Santa Justa. The 45-meters high street elevator brings passengers from the lower or Baixa area to the Barrio Alto, a higher neighbourhood. The locals don’t use the elevator anymore. While long queues of visitors also discourage us from catching a lift, it is an impressive sight to behold with an interesting history. Lisbon’s last remaining conventional vertical elevator opened in 1899. A latticework of iron beams in Neo-Gothic style, the twin elevator cabins travel up seven stories to a panoramic viewpoint above. The architect, Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard is said to have been a student of Gustave Eiffel, but like many young engineers of his time, he might simply have been inspired by the French master and followed contemporary iron construction trends.
The earthquake that became pavement
On All Saints Day in 1755, Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake, which took 40,000 lives. Almost the entire town had to be rebuilt, giving the overall building style of the Lisbon we see today a rare uniformity.
There are still examples of earlier architecture, but most of the downtown area is built in the post-quake Pombaline style, named after the Marquis of Pombal, the nobleman who was in charge of the reconstruction. Lisbon’s new centre was completed within just a few years, but nothing feels hurried about the utilitarian and plain edifices, embellished by occasional Neo-classic details.
The Marquez was ahead of his time in many ways. He instructed the ruins of the fallen buildings from the quake to be re-used to pave Lisbon’s streets. Today we can admire this unique underfoot art gallery on almost every sidewalk and square in the city.
Not only is the polished stonework beautiful, it is also a timeless tribute to the pavers who built the ground we tread.
Lisbon is said to be one of the best graffiti capitals in the world, though I would extend that to random public art, as well. The city encourages graffiti and has hired the best street artists to make huge murals all over town with the dual purpose of livening up boring walls and making the urban landscape more entertaining.
One cannot speak about Lisbon without mentioning the ceramic tiles. Decorative tiles go back thousands of years – from the Egyptians, Assyrians and the Babylonians and beyond. Though they weren’t introduced to Lisbon until the Moorish era, the azulejos (or Arabic az-zulayj meaning ‘polished stone’) have become a symbol of Lisbon.
Most traditional Portuguese tiles are blue on a white background, possibly echoing the country’s nautical past. In the 15th century, Portugal’s King Manuel I visited Seville in Spain and brought back a design fad that has lasted to this day. Tiles are part of Lisbon’s architecture and culture. You see them everywhere, covering entire building façades, in home interiors, on store signs, wrapping fountains and benches, and everything in between.
To know more about them, visit the tile museum or simply stroll around the city to behold the vast selection of hand-painted Portuguese tiles. If you want to purchase some, it is advisable to go to a reputable antique dealer, as the oldest tiles can cost several hundred euros a piece and copies are virtually impossible to distinguish from originals.
Shopping for Sardines
Talking of shopping… like any other tourist destination, Lisbon has a souvenir shop on every corner. However, between all the mass-fabricated cups with ‘Lisboa’ on them, you can find some genuinely good ceramic stores, a few of which have lovely colourful porcelains worth bubble wrapping and popping in your luggage. Lisbon is also an antique hunters’ and bookworms’ paradise.
You will rarely see as many new and used bookstores, and though most titles are in Portuguese, they are worth a peek inside. Lisbon’s Livraria Bertrand, which opened in 1732, is apparently the world’s oldest operating bookstore, followed by bookstores in Nurnberg and Bethlehem! The city also houses the world’s smallest bookshop, which due to its 4000 titles barely have space for clients.
Of course Lisbon has its grand Avenida da Liberdade for shoppers who want Burberry or Cartier, but it is really on the alternative front that the city’s commerce stands out. You will have a pick of interesting merchants and cool not-to-be-found-elsewhere products in Lisbon’s Boho style Chiado district or in the ethical market of the converted Lx Factory.
Those who love a good flea market should not miss the Saturday morning Feria de Ladra in Santa Clara square. Though Ladra means a female thief in Portuguese, it also refers to a type of wood bug, which must have been equally abundant at this historical market. There is still great junking to be done and actual antiques for sale, though while fleas might have been replaced by vegan cafés, one should be wary of pickpockets.
If your urge for shopping hasn’t yet been satisfied, there are still canned sardines. These were the staple food of the sea-faring Lisbon population in the past, but in recent years funky sardine shops have popped up all over town, selling colourful and collectable tins of the stuff, with or without oil, chilli and other flavours.
Dessert lovers beware. Lisbon has a huge communal sweet tooth. I have never seen so many pastelarias (pastry shops), in addition to endless cafés and restaurants with heaping cake counters. The most famous is the Pastéis de Nata, meaning cream pastry, though it is more of an egg custard tartlet. This traditional delicacy has caused culinary battles and near-death threats among local pastry chefs. The original anno 1837 recipe belongs to Pastéis de Belém pastry shop. The specific formula has never been written down, having been passed along orally through generations to the three people who know the recipe. They guard the secret with their lives, never going on the same flight or eating the same dish at a restaurant. Very 007-ish! As we are more savoury types, we didn’t pilgrim to the Mecca of cream cakes, especially since dozens of other Lisbon pastry shops claim theirs are equally good…
As well as sweets, Lisbon has a wide choice of international cuisine. We found a first-class Japanese restaurant with only local patrons, a brilliant hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese Pho ‘soupery’, and, please don’t tell our Lisbon hosts, enjoyed a fabulous meal at Jamie Oliver’s Lisbon based Italian restaurant.
However, the hands down best gastronomic experience in Lisbon is the frutos do mar (or sea fruit) and the fish. With the proximity to the ocean, you can always be sure that the seafood in Lisbon is fresh. Try the day’s catch, often displayed in the front window of the restaurant. Clams, oysters, octopus, prawns, barnacles and fish stew are popular dishes, though my personal favourite is the Bacalao (cod), which is absolutely to die for.
Another enjoyable way to share a meal with the locals is to go to one of the unpretentious family restaurants in almost any district. They will serve you a small fresh cheese and sardine pate with the breadbasket, and a menu of the day is around 10 euros, wine included.
One cannot go to Portugal without trying their Port wine of course, though I developed a taste for a typical Lisbon liqueur called Ginjinha. You can get it almost anywhere, though the best places to enjoy a shot with the locals seemed to be in the tiny bars specializing in the sour Morello cherry liqueur. We bought a bottle from a tiny granny, selling her homemade brew from a card table on a sidewalk in Alfama. Not exactly EU regulations, but all the more charming, especially coming with a taster shot.
Meet the Lisboetas
People from Lisbon are called ‘Lisboetas’, and we had the pleasure of getting to know a few. Everybody we met spoke either English or Spanish, some both. While I understand their written language, which seems like a blend of Spanish, French and ancient Roman, spoken Portuguese sounds completely different from other Latin tongue I know.
The sixth most spoken language in the world, Portuguese is the official language of nine countries. It has a lovely melodic, drawn-out quality, which makes the Lisboetas sound quite mellow and easy going compared to their temperamental and at times louder neighbours to the East.
We hardly heard any car honking or yelling, which is part of daily life here in Andalucía.
In fact, it seemed like the local mellowness was contagious. The hotel staff was sweet and soft spoken, and the guests seemed to gradually adopt this laidback Lisbon way of being as well, regardless of their origin.
Sad and romantic
Every city has its palette. Lisbon is creamy white, golden beige, soft yellow, light pink and baby blue. One would think this might make for an overly sweet urban impression. But Lisbon is not naïve. It is classic, yet alternative. Mellow, yet open minded. Straight lined, but slightly bohemian and esoteric.
Unlike other tourist destinations, the city is not depopulated. Locals still live and work in Lisbon, though not as many are fishermen or sailors as before. One of the most unique neighbourhoods is Alfama. Being Lisbon’s oldest district and the only to survive the 18th century earthquake, it has a true village feel with laundry hanging in its picturesque lanes.
Many restaurants in Alfama will have live Fado music at night. A Lisbon born musical genre sung with few instruments and lots of sentiment, Fado comes from the Latin word fatum or destiny. The melancholic lyrics deal with poverty, unrequited love and endless sea journeys, while the melodies seem to have travelled on the waves from distant southern shores.
Some Fado restaurants are more formal and include a three-course meal, while in others you may experience an impromptu performance by a local guest or even the proprietress herself.
Live music can also often be heard while walking around the city – someone plucking the strings of a guitar or caressing a melancholic accordion. Every street musician seemed to have a touch of the Lisbon blues, singing sad but beautiful tunes about lives many let downs and heartaches. Actually, the girl from Ipanema could easily have been from Lisbon.
But each day when she walks to the sea
She looks straight ahead not at me
Every morning the salty air hits us, reminding us that we are in a coastal town and that this indeed is a nation of seafarers.
Portugal was a pioneering nation of nautical explorers from the 15th to the 18th centuries during what later became known as the Age of Discovery. The country was known for its capable captains, easily manoeuvrable Caravel ships and their excellent cartography. The Portuguese captain Bartholomeu Dias was the first to officially round the African continent in 1487. By the 15th Century, Vasco da Gama had discovered a shorter sailing route to India and Pedro Álvares Cabral had ‘discovered’ Brazil. Portuguese sailors were also the first Europeans to get to Japan, albeit by accident, and Ferdinand Magellan’s expeditions to the East Indies resulted in the first circumnavigation of the Earth in 1522.
Lisbon was one of the busiest harbours in Europe at the time, bringing ginger, pepper and saffron from India, nutmeg from Indonesia, cloves from the Moluccas and cinnamon and tea from Ceylon. The taste for international fare never stopped, as Lisbon became the first city in the world to import Guinness beer in 1811.
Apart from Lisbon’s many scenic miradores (lookout spots), one of the best ways to get an overview of the city is from the river. In addition to the two bridges (the 17.2 km Vasco Da Gama bridge being Europe’s longest) the easiest way to cross the Tagus River is by boat.
Following the advice of our softly spoken petite hotel night porter Paolo, we decided to do like the locals and take the ferry across to Cacilhas. For the price of a bus ticket, we arrived at the small town on the other side of the river, to enjoy yet another irresistible meal of bacalao.
The next day a thick fog covered the pastel city. It was time to head home, but we will certainly be back to the pastel city for more seafood and sour cherry shorts, and possibly a tour into the hidden Roman Galleries from Lisbon’s distant past.