Sunshine, colors and happiness…..that’s Lisbon in a nutshell.
‘A vida es boa’ – Life is good.. You feel it from the moment you arrive at the airport and the taxi driver greets you with a smile so warm, it almost feels like a hug.
Lisbon is a paradox of sorts.
On one hand, its a modern metropolis and on the other, its a plethora of history – with remnants from Roman imperialism, traces of Berber piracy, the Moorish conquests; and even Reconquista knights.
Narrow quaint ‘traditional working class’ lanes snaking up and down; and wide gentrified avenues..
And in a word – a city so under-rated.
Huge parts of the city were destroyed in the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 1755. Another huge part of the city was lost in a crippling fire soon after.
Hence what you see today is a restructuring and restoration of the older 12th century structures, with several ‘traditional’ structures dating back only about 300 years or less. And this is one of the main reasons for the city’s very unique architecture.
Like Rome, Lisbon comprises of 7 hills and the narrow streets constantly slope steeply up and down almost like waves drawn on paper.
Hmmm..maybe that s the reason for the wavy mosaic pattern you see in so many squares and which features in postcards and travel brochures, as symbolic to Lisbon…
So on this trip, in deference to Dad, we abandoned our plan for a walking tour (which is usually my most favourite way to experience a new city); in favour of a tuk-tuk tour.
Turns out it was the best thing to do (a fabulous, fun family day).
Tuk-tuk tours are actually very popular in Lisbon; and at 200/- Euros for the 5 of us, for a 4 hour tour, it turned out to be great value for money.
Definitely the best way to cover all these sights in 1 day 👇 plus explore some traditional neighbourhoods..
So where do you start out from? …Stroll down Baixa (super breakfast options here), find your way to Praca do Comercia or Rua Augusta which is just before it, and you ll find plenty of Tuk tuks parked there.. Haggle some 😉 ..
There’s also plenty of reliable tuk-tuk tours available online.
These are the main historic sights we covered… 👇
Torre de Belem, standing tall and watchful over the Tagus River, since the 16th century.
An iconic protective symbol for Lisbon..benevolently bidding farewell to centuries of sailors (including Vasco da Gama) as the last sight they would see, before drifting out to the Atlantic Ocean.
Also in Belem is the Padrão dos Descobrimientos .
A monument made in 1940 to celebrate the achievements of the explorers responsible for the creation of Portugal’s empire..
Nearby is the Monastery of Jeronimos – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dedicated to the Order of St Jerome and built in the 15th Century.
The monastery was built in thanksgiving for Vasco da Gama’s successful voyage to India and his conquests in the East; and today his sepulchre is inside the church.
For me personally, this monastery is the most beautiful building in Lisbon and the city’s most impressive work of architecture. Statuesque, yet ornate.
Not far and intrinsically linked to the brotherhood, is the Pasticceria de Belem. In 1837, when the state withdrew its financial support to the monastery, the monks having no other source of income, resorted to the only skill they knew – pastry making – and hence, the Pasticceria.
Definitely stop there and pig out on the Pasteis de Nata (no matter how long the lines are; or how strict a diet you’re on).
Its yummm. Sinful – but yumm.
Another Lisbon icon is the statue of Cristo Rei (Christ the Kind). Inspired by the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil. The 110 metre statue is located in Almada across the River Tejo.
Our tuk-tuk took us over – across the 25 de Abril Bridge (and that in itself was an experience 😅).
Fun fact – There are replicas of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in 18 countries (I did’nt know that until then).
The Alfama district..is the city’s oldest neighbourhood, dating back to the Moorish times.
Set as it is with the Cathedral, several small tile clad churches, winding lanes, quaint red roofed houses, hidden squares and the remnants of old city walls; Alfama is Lisbon’s equivalent of the ‘movie set – old town zones’ of most other European cities. Its a great lunch spot.
St George’s Castle is undoubtedly the historic part’s most visible landmark. Standing tall and strong above Alfama, for over 2000 years. Originally built by the Romans; and then added upon by the Berbers and the Reconquista nights.
Lisbon seems to be a favourite with bachelor / hen parties and various other celebrations (Im not surprised – the nightlife is superb and the vibe is great). And St George’s being the fabulous photo-stop it is; we saw a lot of groups having fun in the bars and cafes, along the way uphill.
So – suggested cocktail stop on the way 😉
The Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara is also one of the best spots in the city to catch the sunset from; located at the base of Bairro Alto.
Try to finish up your tour in or around Rossio…Another quaint and old neighbourhood that’s lovely in the evenings for bar-hopping and some traditional food.
Lisbon’s loveliest neighbourhood (IMO)…Bairro Alto
Literally translating to ‘higher ground’, Bairro Alto is one of Lisbon’s oldest surviving, traditional residential quarters.
Dating back to the 15th century when it was established to house the city’s merchants and sailors’ as a result of Portugal’s growing overseas trade. Its steep cobbled streets have continued to be a bohemian haunt for artists and writers for the last several years..
Its difficult to describe Bairro Alto in words… A grid of narrow streets – both parallel and perpendicular, sloping up almost as if it were the tip of a hillock.
Row upon row of small quaint and bright colored house houses, almost touching each other – today adorned with amazing street art.
What is a sedate and charming neighbourhood in the day, transforms into a bustling hive of bars and restaurants in the evenings. People out and about on the pavement ‘terrassas’, drinks in hand and with music playing in almost every 2nd bar.
It is where you should definitely be in the evening, for a shot at Lisbon’s super fun nightlife..traditional bars, swish cafes and cool new breweries..
Once you’ve got the historic sights out of the way..here’s what I suggest you do on the other days.
1)You can’t miss Lisbon’s old ratting trams (another iconic sight), especially the unmissable yellow Tram no.28.
The narrow streets, hair pin curves, the people watching; and the ride itself are a must do.. Even if you’ve perchance already seen most of these neighbourhoods.
2) Take a ride up the Bica Funicular (or the Bica elevator). One of the oldest in Europe (1888). Back then it linked two of the city’s most highly populated riverside neighbourhoods.
Take a ride up the Santa Justa lift for some stunning city views..
3) The Mercado do Ribeira, is another great way to spend an afternoon. The downstairs is the fresh produce section. The upstairs has been transformed into a modern ‘food hall’ with stalls selling gourmet cheeses, wines and housing some fabulous eateries.
4) Rent a car and get a little out of the city..(the public transport is also great actually)..
We did the ubiquitous day trip to Sintra (a half hour’s drive from the city).
Fairy tale like – Yes. And its a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The inspiration for Walt Disney’s logo and his ‘castle and turrets’ fascination – Yes again.
But half a day is plenty…
Cascais is a great way to spend the rest of the day, post Sintra.
The beaches are lovely. The water though is ice cold – even at the end of June (Its the Atlantic Ocean remember).
I could barely get myself to wet my toes. My kids though had a fabulous surfing lesson (kitted with the wetsuits from the surf centre).
The town centre is really really pretty, especially in the evening. Smart boutiques and great bars and restaurants. The sea food is super..Obviously…Cascais was the fishing village..Don’t expect a tiny village though – its a fairly trendy town today.
Any free time that you have left whilst you are in Lisbon – Shop. Seriously, the choices are fantastic, especially local fashion. Actually – Shop, Eat, Drink. The options are great and spend wise Portugal’s a lot more reasonably priced as compared to most of Europe.
We lucked out (just by chance being there on the right days)…Watching one of the World Cup football matches on the big screen in Praca do Comercio, with a crowd of almost 100 thousand people, was an awesome experience (especially for my 2 teenagers).
100,000 people. Yet, no crowd control needed, super bonhomie, fabulous vibes.. Speaks volumes for the warmth and positivity inherent in the Portuguese people.
Portugal lost the match 😞 – else what a party it would have been all over the city that evening.
I think the smartest thing I did (while planning for this trip), was to pick the Bairro Alto as our home for 3 nts ( its perfect– if you like the quaint stuff, for a true local feel and for the wining and dining options it has).
Of all the apartments we’ve stayed in on holidays, I dont think I’ve (all 5 of us in fact), ever found anything more perfect than the one we had here – Master Deco Gem bang on Rua Diario do Noticias– if you’re with family or a bunch of friends, trust me you won’t get better than this. And this is definitely the neighbourhood I’d stay in again, when I go back.
Im just going to add here that the narrow lanes are quite steep and quite a few of them are ‘no car zones’ in case you’re travelling with seniors or toddlers..
Having said that..Dad was with us on this trip; and he was able to cover quite a bit of the neighbourhood on foot.