Fortified every so often with a bica (espresso) and pastel nata (egg custard) Lisbon is a great city to explore. It has overtaken Barcelona (which shares many similar characteristics) in our affections partly because of its more manageable scale, but mainly because it seems more at ease with tourism and the transition from tradition to modernity. Apart from a few tourist favourites, like the castle and the number 28 tram route, it is possible to wander its neighbourhoods in relative solitude, and enjoy the multitude of pleasures Lisbon has to offer.
Champions of Europe
Our arrival coincided with the city celebrating Portugal having just won the Euros final in Paris the previous evening. We just missed the open top bus parade, but hundreds of fans were still in joyous mood parading the streets with their flags, banners, etc.Sporting triumphs do help to unite people, even if only temporarily, and Portugal, still suffering from the financial crisis of 2010, could certainly do with some reason to cheer.
The hilly city
Moving around and between Lisbon’s neighbourhoods usually requires engaging with steep ascents and descents because the city is built over seven hills. Aside from the health benefits of navigating these hills, there is also the reward of arriving at one of the many miradors which afford the opportunity to gaze across the cityscape and admire the views.
Lisbon’s wonderful trams
If you don’t have the energy or inclination to walk there’s always the trams. With most of the fleet dating from the 1930’s, riding on a late night tram along the cobbled streets of Alfama or Graca, whilst almost brushing the old terraced housing, it is easy to imagine you have been transported back to pre-war Europe.
(and Train Station)
Rossio Station (formerly Central Station) which dates from 1887 has a most stylish facade and interior which not even being partly occupied by Starbucks can spoil.
Besides the sea
Being mid-Summer, you might expect the heat to be oppressive. However, being next to the sea, Lisbon enjoys pleasant cooling breezes, and if it does get a bit too hot then you have an excellent choice of beaches near to hand. One option is the train along the Tagus estuary to the beaches at Estoril and Cascais. Alternatively, a short ferry crossing and bus journey will take you to the miles of sand dunes and windswept beaches of the Costa Caparica.
A mini-train will take you along the beach until you decide to hop off and ponder the colourful old beach houses before relaxing on the beach seemingly miles from the urban milieu of Lisbon.
Crossing back over the Tagus river by bus provides a different perspective from the 25 de Abril bridge, a magnificent suspension bridge not dissimilar to San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge.
Further inland, The Vasco de Gama Bridge provides the second crossing of the Tagus. At nearly 11 miles long, it is Europe’s longest bridge. I am sure Thomas Telford would have been impressed, as we were, by its beautiful design.
Whilst Lisbon has more than its fair share of ugly graffiti, genuine artists have left their mark on many of the city’s buildings, often brightening up unattractive paces like this metro under-passage.
There are more traditional sights to be found in Lisbon including groups of older men gathered around communal tables to play cards and socialise.
Plenty of bookshops
It’s also pleasing to find bookshops still thriving. These include Bertrand, reputedly the world’s oldest bookshop dating from 1732 (although the original bookshop was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1755)
In the LX Factory in Alcantra, the old printing press lies dormant but almost poetically is surrounded by books as part of the Ler Devager bookstore.
Lisbon is blessed with some very beautiful and historic cafes. Here are some of our favourites.
Being next to the sea and having a great culinary tradition, it is not surprising that seafood lovers are abundantly catered for in Lisbon. Much of the best shellfish can be found in cervejarias (‘beer-houses’) like Ramiro below. It’s the most popular cervejaria in Lisbon, but it is worth tolerating the lengthy queues, not just to enjoy the fantastic crab and lobster, etc. but to witness the almost theatrical atmosphere inside.