The first thing that struck me as I descended over Lisbon was its vibrancy. Despite arriving towards the end of the winter season the sun was shining and danced off the terracotta roofs beneath us. After living in Europe and visiting many of her glorious cities I have become accustomed to always knowing what to expect but Lisbon for me has always been an enigma… and this excited me greatly. For me this mystery stems from Portugal’s rich history and pivotal location between Europe and Africa producing a culture and a capital city that simply cannot be categorised as easily as its continental counterparts.
The Quick 5
Is it easy to get around?
Lisbon is incredibly easy to navigate and completely accessible by foot. City buses, trams and trains are regular and inexpensive but in my opinion only necessary when travelling to and from the airport. Lisbon is best appreciated by walking her cobbled streets, though be sure to wear appropriate footwear to tackle the many hills and stairs particularly if you are planning to ascend Castelo de São Jorge. Exploring a new city can be overwhelming, particularly when the city is as interesting as Lisbon. Therefore, if you determined to walk but not sure where to start several walking tours operate in English and are conducted throughout the city daily.
If coming from the airport the most effective way to reach the centre of town would be via the metro. Comprised of only four coloured lines (red, green, blue and yellow), commuters from all over the world will find this form of public transport stress free and comprehendible. The metro station is situated in the heart of Terminal 1 where passengers will board the aforementioned red line designed to travel across the length of the city. However, with the metro operating between the hours of 6.30am -1.00am travellers with early morning flights will need to consider alternative arrangements and for those who are still in the research phase of their Lisbon expedition keep these hours of operation in mind when booking flights.
At my time of travel (February 2016) a single journey from the airport cost EUR 1.25 but in addition to your train ticket you will need to purchase a green ‘viva viagem’ metro card for an additional fifty cents. All of these can be purchased from clearly marked machines that operate in both Portuguese and English or from the tourist desk in the arrivals hall. This price is truly exceptional given how quick and frequent the service is especially when compared with what we pay in Sydney… almost twenty Australian dollars!!! What’s more, if that metro price isn’t already unbeatable children under four travel free. Let’s all say it together: thank you Lisbon!
Should you not wish to see the city by foot and would prefer to take advantage of Lisbon’s excellent public transport it will be economical for you to purchase the Lisboa Card. This pass is designed for tourists venturing throughout the capital for 1 -3 days and will provide cardholders with free travel on all forms of public transport, unrestricted admission to numerous museums and attractions and further discount opportunities.
Initially, the Lisboa Card was not something I wanted to take advantage of during my stay as I was concerned that many of the sites would be closed for restoration during the off season… I was wrong. Like most things in Lisbon, this card is inexpensive with prices starting at EUR 18.50 for 24 hours and reaching a maximum of EUR 30.00 for 72 hours usage and in retrospect would have saved quite a lot of money as admission to several attractions in Lisbon come at a cost.
Where did you stay?
A quick look at the hostels available in Lisbon you will notice the high level of quality across the board and with many boasting seaside views and superb ratings your greatest difficulty will be settling on a choice. In search of something cosy yet elegant, central yet calming we elected to stay at PH in Chiado located in the Praça de Camões which felt more like a hotel then a hostel. With a private room in a building four centuries old combined with a balcony overlooking the beach in the distance I was contemplating never leaving Lisbon. Quick tip, if Lisbon is your first hostel experience the bar will undoubtedly be set high and you need to accept that the overall quality of hostels found throughout the rest of Europe are incomparable.
What made my stay at PH in Chiado memorable in addition to its cleanliness, security and overall character was the kindness of the staff. On my last day I was sitting in the communal living room sulking having had a huge fight with my partner mere hours before. The beautiful lady who owns the hostel came over to me, placed her hand on my shoulder and asked if I was ok. She hadn’t seen or heard the fight but was clearly receptive to my energy and the fact that I was suddenly alone. Little moments like that inspire my faith in humanity.
Later, a German couple who were also in the living room excitedly discovered some good news that I believed pertained to their daughter being accepted into post graduate studies. Once again this dear owner appeared suddenly to offer congratulations and then returned with glasses of complimentary Portuguese wine with an extra glass for me. Simply put, my day which had been emotionally difficult instantly turned around because of this lady’s generous spirit and it is now one of my favourite travel memories.
Tips and tricks?
If you’re on the hunt for a special gift for the book lovers in your life you cannot leave Lisbon without picking up a little memento from the world’s oldest bookshop, Bertrand. Established in 1732, the books which adorn Bertrand’s worn shelves are predominantly in Portuguese but towards the middle of the store you will find small items like bookmarks, photographic books, notepads and pens which are light enough to carry whilst globetrotting and practical enough to be used consistently by the recipient.
For metro commuters, you will want to keep in mind that the trains are made up of 3-4 carriages so despite the platforms being long you will want to stand somewhere in the middle otherwise you will find yourself running to board. Yup learnt that one the hard way… let’s just say that sprint is not fun when carrying luggage. In terms of personal safety, though I personally found Lisbon to be very harmless and welcoming it is not free from crime and like most European cities you will have to be aware of pickpockets operating both in large crowds and on public transport. As the metro is quite packed one can easily lose their focus especially as you try and navigate your way through a new city and understand a new transportation system- this will make you a target so be vigilant with your belongings.
Lastly, if you intend to visit Castelo de São Jorge (and I highly suggest you do) be sure to give yourself plenty of time at this site. An adult’s entrance fee circa February 2016 will set you back EUR 8.50 and unfortunately without paying this admission you cannot appreciate the views over Lisbon. The area is quite expensive and you will want to dedicate a few hours to climbing and exploring this once hidden gem. Castelo de São Jorge is fitted with bathroom facilities and eateries and being close to the famous suburb of Amalfa can turn into quite the pleasant day excursion.
Best time to visit?
Now as I write this I fully appreciate that after living in Ireland for the past year my internal thermometer of what constitutes as warm has changed but for travellers intending to venture to Europe in winter hoping to avoid freezing temperatures, Lisbon is for you. Generally, I prefer to avoid travelling throughout the summer months anywhere in the world as you’re bound to be greeted by large crowds, generous wait times and inflated hotel prices. Lisbon being a coastal city is a magnet for cruise ships and tourists seeking sun and adventure from June through to August so many websites determine that autumn and spring is the best time for your Portuguese explorations.
If beach hopping is a non-negotiable part of your itinerary than you will want to time your arrival anytime between May and October but you might find Lisbon slightly chilly in the evenings at the tail end of these months so pack a light jacket. In addition, Western Europe’s oldest capital city is home to several festivals concentrated around the summer months which also might influence your decision. However, should beach and festivals not reflect who you are don’t be afraid to venture to Portugal during their winter season where you will experience a moderate climate. I ventured to Lisbon in February and truly relished being greeted by warm weather (19 degrees Celsius) which was a welcome relief coming from the UK, a buzzing night life and bearable crowds.
The best places to eat?
Now what is a trip to Portugal without indulging in Portuguese tarts… a lot of Portuguese tarts. I sampled quite a few from different cafes and bakeries during my stay and though some might argue that some places are better than others in my humble opinion they were all equally creamy and delicious. Your Portuguese tart experience is more about where you chose to indulge rather than what you are indulging. One of my happiest travel memories was climbing Castelo de São Jorge with my Portuguese tarts from Pastelaria Versailles in hand and indulging in their creamy goodness whilst overlooking Lisbon. So if the weather is favourable why not indulge all your senses by eating your treats outside whilst basking in that Mediterranean climate?
For more sweet treats (relax you’re on holidays) make sure you sample dare I say the best gelato I have ever tasted from Gelati Davvero. I am literally sitting here salivating reminiscing over my own Gelati Davvero experience and craving their cheesecake flavour. In addition to their huge array of flavours available from traditional lemon to exotic wasabi, what I adore most about this place is the wide demographic they cater for as Gelati Davvero create options for vegans and those following a gluten free diet… which is very difficult to find when you’re passionate about gelato. Better still, their scoops are generous!!!
So far we have our snacks/desserts covered but now we need to focus on solid meals. Just as Lisbon is defined in culinary terms by Portuguese tarts it is further defined by the abundance of seafood ready to savour. For travellers wanting to sample Portuguese cuisine on a budget the best place to eat is Sol e Pesca and unless you despise seafood you will not be disappointed. The setting doesn’t look much from the outside but as they say never judge a book by its cover. Though I dined at many incredible places during my visit Sol e Pesca was by far my favourite due to the quality on offer and the diversity of their menu.
A lovely place to grab a lunch where you’re looking to truly relax over great food, a bottle of wine whilst surrounded by local music would be La Petite Café. For those visiting Castelo de São Jorge this little joint is a lovely place to recuperate after hours spent exploring and won’t require too more trekking on your part. For those electing to sit outdoors be careful with your belongings as we were advised by the manager to move our bags back from the fencing. Onto a more positive note, the staff of Le Petite Cafe are hospitable and clearly proud of their establishment’s ambience and quality produce. The meal sizes are quite generous, so is excellent value for money… just avoid filling up on Portuguese tarts beforehand. Lastly, if you’re in Lisbon on a romantic book a table at Belcanto and be prepared for a truly dramatic and entertaining culinary experience.
The top 5 sites to see?
Lisbon is a relatively small city that is well connected. Three days is just enough to see tha main attractions and sample Portuguese life. However, don’t leave this city without visiting the following:
*Torre de Belam
*Castelo de São Jorge
*Igreja do Carmo
*Praca do Comercio (Terreiro do Paco)
Portugal, in particular Lisbon, still remains an enigma to me, I just cannot put my finger on how to define it because it is a place that moves to its own beat. This mystery is what initially lured me in and now that I have had a taste this mystery has deepened and has left me wanting more. Portugal I will be back.
*Note: Thank you to Yasir Badani for his assistance with the images of myself featured and for being my patient model. Follow his adventures around the globe @yasirbad*