Travelling Through Portugal – Lisbon

Lisbon, and in fact much of Portugal is old world. The history of the country is reflected in its architecture. It is an old world city with churches, buildings and homes that were established hundreds of years ago but blend well with some of the most beautiful modern architecture I’ve seen anywhere. Many of the streets are very narrow and sidewalks all over the city are paved with tiles, some laid out in designs that give the streets a very sophisticated feel. There are sidewalk cafes scattered around the city where you can stop to eat or drink and watch the world go by.

The weather threatened to hijack our adventure.  The first few days in Lisbon were cold, damp and dreary most of the time (this was early November after all). Temperatures were in the single digits but the powerful winds pushed the temperature down and made navigating the hilly terrain that much tougher.  In fact when we were about to land in Lisbon the plane was wobbling from side to side as it pushed against the headwinds, making for a treacherous landing (at least for the passengers). Luckily we had brought along extra layers of clothing to wear, just in case, but we didn’t think we’d have to wear all the layers all at once!

Whenever I travel to a new city I always like to try the hop-on hop-off bus to get a lay of the land. I had already visited Lisbon but was travelling with a friend who had never seen the city before. The ratings for Lisbons 3 ho-ho bus lines were pretty grim but I ended up booking the Grey Line (Red Bus) tour since it started near my hotel at the Parques das Marques de Pombal. It has 3 lines, the Castle line that takes you to Alfama where there are some of the best miradoures (lookouts) in the city. It also features the Belem Line that takes you to the Jeronimo Monastery and the Belem Tower as well as the Monument to the Discoveries and some of Lisbons’s museums. The third line is the Oriente line that takes you to the modern part of Lisbon, the site of Expo at the Parque das Nacoes and the not to be missed Oriente Train Station, one of the most beautiful modern train stations in the world. It also takes you to Chiado, Bairro Alto and Príncipe Real districts. It really is worth the ticket price.

Much of the city was rebuilt after the great earthquake of 1755 and the ensuing floods and tsunamis that flattened just about every building. About 30 thousand people were killed, about 10 percent of the population at the time. But the Marques de Pombal pushed forward with a massive recovery effort and there is now a huge statue in the centre of the city honouring him and the residents’ fighting spirit (represented by the lion next to him). From there you can make your way down the Avenida da Liberdade, the main boulevard through the heart of Lisbon.

Lisbon is very spread out and extremely hilly (though walkable) and is known as the City of 7 hills. It provides some spectacular views and if walking uphill is a problem there are trams like the Elevador da Gloria, which is basically a funicular that takes passengers from Chiado to Bairro Alto (the main entertainment district) and is free with an all-day transit pass. Wherever you are going in Lisbon, expect to climb a few hills so if you plan on doing much walking, make sure you wear good sturdy shoes.

The Ascensor da Gloria, or the Elevador da Gloria, is a funicular tram line on a side street off of Avenida da Liberdade and connecting the Baixa District with Bairro Alto. It is free with the all-day travel pass. Whether you walk up the hill or take the funicular there is some spectacular street art to take in, along the way. And when you get to the top, take the first right and you are at the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, with jaw-dropping views of the city.
If walking up the hills is not your cup of tea, there is also the Santa Justa Lift, that is a stand alone structure containing an elevator that you can take to the top  where you will find the Largo da Carmo or Carmo Square and the ruins of the 14th century convent, destroyed in the 1755 earthquake.

What did catch my eye, aside from the architecture and beautiful parks laid out with fountains and statues and the mosaic sidewalks is the wide array of graffiti and street art everywhere. I saw entire buildings covered in murals and streets lined with walls covered in some of the most creative and beautiful graffiti I have seen anywhere.

Alfama is the oldest neighbourhood in Lisbon and survived the massive earthquake of 1755.

It still has the narrow streets and historic buildings. For some spectacular sunset views, visit around dusk to the Portas do Sol and Miradouro de Santa Luzia (lookouts).

One of the must see sites in Alfama is the Castelo de São Jorge (St George’s Castle).  You can’t miss it with the medieval walls standing guard over the city from one of the highest points, and the flags flying above them.  You can walk up to the castle but it’s probably a better idea to take transit (like the number 28 cable car) to save some energy for exploring the fort and the narrow streets around it.  Be prepared for lineups though. We went early in the day but still ended up standing in line for about 30 minutes before we could get inside (people with disabilities, the elderly or those with small children are able to bypass the lineup and move to the front of the line).   Once inside the walls you are surrounded by some spectacular views of Lisbon.  You are able to climb to the lookout towers around the fort.  There really isn’t a castle, the surrounding walls are all that have survived.  But there is a gift shop inside.  There are also a few statues and even some peacocks in the garden before you cross over the (now dry) moat.

What are even more interesting though aside from the castle (or fort), are the hidden
treasures and the history that survives in all of the narrow streets.  We strolled through the maze of streets, discovering beautiful buildings that are hundreds of years old, as well as graffiti and street art that has only been around for weeks, months or years. It was there that we found an amazing local café/restaurant near the Nossa Senhora Graca Church and Convent. It was packed with locals and we had to wait in line for a table, but well worth it.  While waiting you get a chance to experience real Portugal. It was loud and busy and everyone seemed to know each other and the food was delicious. We had cod cakes and bread for an appetizer and I had a huge salad with octopus, pickled onions, carrots, garlic and dressed with olive oil and pickle juice. It tasted so much better with a bottle of the local Sagres (pronounced Sa-gresh) beer. We decided to walk a few doors down to a local bakery to pick up some dessert and I had a sweet and creamy honey malasada filled with whipped cream. We decided we needed to walk off some of those extra calories we just finished consuming.

As we made our way downhill toward the river we actually stumbled on the National Pantheon, in the 17th century Church of Santa  Engracia. It’s hard to miss in Lisbon’s skyline with it’s bright white dome dominating, but it’s not so easy to find along the winding streets of Alfama.  Portugal’s cultural icons. from poets to writers to football players. are interred there.  You are able to climb the stairs for interesting views inside the vast nave of the church and continue climbing to the walkway that surrounds the dome.  Be careful though the winds can be strong up there, and you might lose your hat.

Alfama is known as the birthplace of Fado, the national music of Portugal, so it’s not a surprise that this is where you find the Fado Museum which is surrounded by numerous bars and restaurants where you can experience the haunting melodies of Fado.

Se de Lisboa or the Lisbon Cathedral, is also in Alfama and is the oldest and most important church in the city. Going inside the church is free but it will cost you €2.50 fee to go through the cloisters.

We took the tram or streetcar (number 15 Placa da Figueira near our hotel). The two historic highlights of this area are the Belem Tower and the Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument of the Discoveries).  The tower was closed when we were there so we had to admire it from the outside. We were lucky though, thanks to the weather there were not many people there.

We also checked out the Jerónimos Monastery which was preparing to close so we didn’t tour through the building.  It’s an example of the Portuguese late Gothic Manueline style of architecture. It was built to commemorate Vasco Da Gama’s voyage and to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for the voyage’s success. It is also Vasco da Gama’s resting place.

Also check out the Museu Berardo, the contemporary art museum. We checked out part of the permanent collection, featuring works by Miro, Warhol, and Picasso as well as a temporary exhibit on love and sex.

Of course you can’t visit Belem without a stop at Pastiche de Belem. World famous for Portugal’s tasty Pastiche de Nata and no one does it better than this popular shop.  The first time we were there I ate 4 of the tarts, that have a perfect crisp and flaky crust and rich and creamy milk custard inside, cooked to perfection, and sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar from containers on every table.  We decided to eat in the café but there were a lot of people wandering around looking for a table.  We lucked out after a few minutes so we were able to sit down and enjoy our Pastiche along with a rich cup of hot chocolate.  Only later did we realize that there is a whole other section of the restaurant with hundreds of tables – just follow the signs for the “WC” past the kitchen where you can see teams baking the delicacies, to the back where you will have better luck finding a table.  The second time we were there we took our Pastiche to go (I only had 3 this time). Still the café wants to make sure you enjoy the full experience so they give you packets of cinnamon and powdered sugar to sprinkle on when you are ready to eat them (and do it quickly before they get cold – while still delicious, they are not quite the same).

If you have time, take a stroll through the back streets of the neighbourhood to experience more of the day-to-day life of Lisbon.  We walked all the way to the Nacional Museu de Arte Antiga (just past the bridge).  It contains floors of Christian religious art, which is all part of Portugal’s history and a beautiful back garden with sculptures overlooking the river.

We continued our walk and end up at one of Lisbon’s hottest bars, Park.  If you didn’t know  about it, from the street, you would have no idea it was there.  You arrive at the address and find a non-descript parking garage, with a “P” for parking sign out front.  You can take the elevator to the 5th level and then walk up one more level or you can take the stairs; dark, dirty and graffiti covered.  It’s hard to believe what is on the top level.  When you get there, amongst the parked cars,  you will see a plastic enclosed structure. Just make your way inside and it opens up into beautiful wood covered floors and ceiling, a bar and a crowd of young hipsters. Head to the back and the patio where you have spectacular views of the city.  The only thing missing is outdoor heaters (it was another chilly evening).  I guess because it was cool outside we had no trouble finding a table to sit at and take in the bar and the surrounding scenery.

Bairro Alto is where Lisbon parties.  It’s home to a large number of bars and nightclubs.  Check out Pink Street on  Rua Nova Do Carvalho, once the heart of the city’s red light district, it is now where many begin their night at one of the many bars, burlesque clubs, or cafes.  Many of the shops in the area don’t even open until at least 2pm. At the foot of Bairro Alto is the Praca do Comercio, one of the biggest squares in all of Europe.   Translated it means Commercial Square and this was where traders would sell their foreign goods that came to the city along the Tagus River.  It was built in 1755 following the earthquake and floods. It is surrounded by yellow painted buildings along 3 sides with a massive statue of King Jose l in the centre.  At the entrance to the square is the ornate Arco da Rua Augusta, one of the city’s most famous landmarks.   

Parque das Nacoes is the newest neighbourhood in Lisbon, that was initially created for Expo 98, notable for its spectacular modern architecture and the Vasco da Gama Bridge. It is a cable bridge flanked by viaducts over the Tagus River in Parque das Nações. According to Wikipedia, it is the longest bridge in Europe (including viaducts), with a total length of 17.2 kilometres, including 0.8 kilometres for the bridge, 11.5 kilometres in viaducts, and 4.8 kilometres in dedicated access roads. The bridge opened in March 1998, just in time for the World Fair that celebrated the 500th  anniversary of the discovery by Vasco da Gama of the sea route from Europe to India. The former pavilions are magnificent examples of contemporary architecture everywhere you look and not just from the buildings but the surrounding area from the gardens to the water features, every effort was made to ensure strong design elements.  And the crowning glory the Oriente Train Station, structurally it is the most beautiful train station I have seen anywhere in my travels, although the interior is a real disappointment. It was also completed just in time for Expo in May of 1998. To me it looks like a bird taking flight constructed with lattice work of metal and glass as well as reinforced concrete. The architect, Santiago Calatrava is also behind the galleria in Toronto’s Brookfield Place and you can definitely see a resemblance in their style. From the station you are able to walk underground to the Vasco de Gama shopping mall which is just across the street. We took the sky tram ride along the riverfront but I have a fear of heights and the strong winds that day made for a very nerve-wracking ride, still it was a chance to view the former Expo ’98 site, overwhelming for fans of modern architecture.

We left Lisbon for just over a week to tour other parts of this amazing country: Sintra, Porto, Braga, Madeira Island, and Evora.  Before we left we decided that for our final night in Portugal we would experience Fado music.  I had researched the best places to go and while Alfama is the home of Fado, I found a place that was relatively close to our hotel in the bar district of Barrio Alto. Online articles suggested A Tasca do Chico at Rua do Diário de Noticias, 39, but they warned that it was very popular and to go early.  

We arrived around 7:30 (it had only opened at 7pm) and while there were very few people inside, all the tables had “reserved” signs on them.  We asked at the bar if there was any chance of getting a table and were told no (though I believe there may have been standing room available but that information wasn’t offered). We had passed numerous other Fado bars and restaurants along the way so we decided to try somewhere else.  Right across the narrow street a man was out front trying to convince passersby to come inside his restaurant, for dinner and the Fado show.  It was over half full so we decided to give it a shot.  We were led to a big long table where we were seated with other diners, and the performers were setting up directly behind my chair.  We lucked out!  The music was fabulous, both the sad love songs and the more upbeat music that had everyone in the restaurant clapping and even singing along.  Because of the close proximity of everyone, you got to know your table mates.  There was a large group on my left from Spain but there was just room enough for another couple on my right, also from Spain. They were later replaced by a Serbian couple who now live in Greece.  During the many breaks in the music we had chances to talk and laugh with them. When our food came I took out my pocket camera to take a quick shot but when their meal arrived he pulled out a huge DSLR with a big lens attached and proceeded to style a photo and click off a few shots, checking them for light, shadow, colour etc.  Turns out he’s a professional photographer. 

At one point in the show (after one of many breaks) the singer (Dina do Carmo)was faced with one table of people who were talking and laughing at the start of her performance.  She just sang louder and walked toward the table, directing her attention at them so that soon they quieted down and she was able to finish her ballad with a rapt audience.  After a couple of pitchers of Sangria and a delicious meal we decided to call it a night and stumbled back to our hotel. A perfect ending to  perfect Portugal holiday. 

I have to mention a couple more must see/do places in Lisbon and both    happen to involve food. On our first day in Lisbon we visited the famous Time Out Market on the main Avenida 24 de Julho.  It is basically a massive food hall, lined with food stalls where you can sample some of Portugal’s best dishes.  There are even Michelin star chefs who have set up shop to let you taste their specialties.  We stuck to the basics since it was our first day in the country and had some delicious cod cakes washed down with a flight of beers.  After our first sampler though it was onto dessert and my favourite, Pasteis da Nata and these were worth the lineup at Manteigaria. There is a kitchen in the back where you can see the teams of chefs baking up these delectable treats.  Warm from the oven the crust is flaky and crisp and the inside a rich creamy custard. Of course you can add a sprinkle of cinnamon and/or powdered sugar to top it off and all for just 1 euro each!

Another Portuguese specialty that we had to try while in Lisbon is Piri Piri Chicken. One of the top rated places to get it is at Bonjardim in Baixa.  We went a little later in the evening but had no problem getting a table for two.  The chicken was moist and tender and the sauce, extremely spicy but delicious.  The one negative is the menu.  They have one page in English and other pages in other languages.  What we figured out later was the the English menu is written to appeal to what they think English customers want. We were not offered the usual roasted potatoes or Bacalau da Bras (rice with cod and olives) but only had a choice of French fries.  That night they had run out of the famous creamed spinach and again our only option was garlic string beans (which were delicious though.) I had a pitcher of Sangria, which should have knocked me out, but I barely got a buzz so can only surmise that it was a watered down version. Still a great place to go for Piri Piri chicken.

Another night I had a craving for Indian food and Portugal is a great place to get Goan food (other than Goa) since Goa is a former Portuguese colony. We found a great little place off the beaten track.  Tentacoes De Goa isn’t easy to find.  It’s in an alleyway off of Placa Martim Moniz.  You definitely have to search for it but it’s well worth the journey.  It’s a small restaurant with just a few tables and brightly painted yellow and bright blue and fuscia and the women running it are friendly and accommodating. The food was amazing. We started with beef samosas with a sweet and tangy mango chutney, and for the main course we shared a spicy chicken curry Goan style that was rich and creamy,  with mixed vegetables, Biriyani rice and warm Chapati, all washed down with Indian Kingfisher beer. I felt like I was back in India. For dessert I had a Goan cake with coconut milk and my friend had a samosa filled with dates and cashews.  Neither dessert was too heavy or sweet and made for a perfect finish to an amazing meal.

Lisbon is a foodies dream, so there are some specialties you must try, if not in Lisbon than just about any where else in Portugal. Whether you are a fish lover or not, you really should try the Bacalhau, dried salt cod. Before you turn your nose up, try some. When done correctly the cod is light and flaky (and not salty). One of the most famous places to eat it in Lisbon is A Casa do Bacalhau but you can get bacalhau just about anywhere. The best cod cakes we had was at a small café just off the Praca do Comercio called Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalh au – crisp cod cakes without any greasiness and you can get a glass of Madeira to drink alongside it. Bifana is another specialty. Basically a Portuguese roll filled with thin slices of pork that have been marinated and cooked in white wine and lots of garlic. Prego is the beef version but you should really try the pork. And a note for North American travellers, there is a charge for extras  that they will bring to your table, like bread and olive oil, so if you don’t really want it you can refuse it. Prata do dia’  is dish of the day and usually served at lunch time. Keep an eye out for small restaurants that have a menu scribbled onto paper and taped on the window. Not only will the food be almost guaranteed to be delicious but it is also great value.  Bon Appetit or BOM APETITE in Portuguese.

One of the best ways to get around Lisbon is its public transportation system; subway, buses and trams. Take Tram 28 (2.80 euros) for a trip through the main tourist areas and the Alfama neighbourhood. If you are looking to take transit, the metro system fare is based on how many zones you travel through. It can be a little confusing for the uninitiated but here are a few of the basics: Unless you want to buy individual tickets you should get a Via Viagem transit card. They cost half a euro and you then load them up (like a debit card). If you are going to be taking a lot of different transit one day, the best and most economical option is the Travelling All Lisboa. Here are the basic fares: Carris and Metro card: 1 day ticket (24h) Carris/Metro Network €6,30 (bus,tram, lift,funicular, metro). Valid for Carris, Metro and Grupo Transtejo: 1 day ticket (24h) Carris/Metro/Transtejo (Cacilhas). Valid for Carris, Metro and CP: 1 day ticket (24h) Carris/Metro/CP. Valid for Carris, Metro, Transtejo/Soflusa, Fertagus, MTS – Metro Sul do Tejo and CP: Zapping. Travelling All Lisboa is the ticket that lets you travel by bus, funicular, tram, lift, metro and train for just 10,15€. With this 24-hour ticket you have unlimited travel in the entire Carris and Metro networks, as well as the CP trains (Sintra, Cascais, Azambuja and Sado lines), during 24 hours after the first validation. This ticket is not valid in tourist routes or the Airport shuttle although it works on the metro system if you decide to take that to or from the airport. We took the Aeroport bus a few times in Lisbon and it was convenient, fast and cheap (3,60 one way or 5,40 for a 2-way.)

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