The Saturday City: Lisbon

lisbon portugal shopping street with archesAs you know, I was recently in Portugal and loved every minute of it. The highlight of my trip wasn’t the scenery or the copious amounts of port wine I drank, it was the city of Lisbon. I’d always heard good things about Lisbon, but nothing could prepare me for how amazing that actually city was.

I loved the gritty lived-in feeling, the friendly locals, the delicious food, the fado music bars, the parks, the beaches, the history — I loved it all. I can’t think of one thing I really didn’t like.

I wasn’t in Lisbon long — only four days — and maybe the next visit won’t be as electrifying as the first, but usually when I connect with a city so deeply and so quickly, that feeling sticks. (Paris, I’m looking at you!)

And so I find it fitting to restart my Saturday city profile series with the city I’ve most recently fallen in love with. I haven’t profiled a city in many months, but I want to bring the series back. There have been too many marvelous cities I’ve visited that I haven’t yet talked about.

So let’s talk about Lisbon. I didn’t get to see much of the city, as I was only there for a short time, but there was plenty to fill my days.

When you go to Lisbon, what should you do?

  • Jardim Botânico – This is one of the best public gardens in Lisbon. In the heart of the city (but hidden away from the surrounding streets), this 10-acre garden is a haven from the hustle and bustle. Bring a picnic or simply wander through and enjoy the exotic plants.
  • Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art – The Berardo Museum has a wide selection of works by Warhol, Picasso, Dalí, Duchamp, Bacon, Pollock, and more, representing dozens of modern movements. I’m not a huge fan of modern or contemporary art, but this is an excellent museum if you are. There are over 1,000 pieces here, plenty keep you busy for a few hours.
  • Castle of St. George – Located in the historic area of the city, this is probably most high-profile attraction in Lisbon. The oldest parts of the castle date from the second century, and while most of it was destroyed over the years, a long extension of walls and 18 towers still stand. You can climb the walls and take photographs of the city from here; you can also sit in the garden and check out the Tower of Ulysses. There’s an entrance fee of 8 euros for the castle and grounds, but if you don’t want to pay to get in, there is a lookout point nearby that also has sweeping views of Lisbon.

lisbon portugal red rooftops

  • Praça do Comércio – Lisbon’s biggest and most monumental square sits along the riverfront and is a photogenic and interesting place to visit. Most recently renovated in 2010, it’s famous for two marble columns that used to be part of the royal palace. The area is now home to a lot of good shops and is great for people-watching or sitting down with a cooling gelato.
  • Walk around the old town – Alfama is the historic area of Lisbon. It is filled with narrow, winding streets that make it an bewildering place to get lost in. I wandered the maze of streets, exploring tiny squares, hidden alleys, and long-abandoned houses while watching locals go about their lives. The area around the castle is beautiful but touristy. For fewer crowds, head to the portion near the Fado Museum closer to the sea. There you will also find a ton of local, hole-in-the-wall restaurants where you can practice your nonexistent Portuguese with little old grandmothers.
  • Check out Se Cathedral – Built on the grounds of a mosque, the cathedral was raised to celebrate the defeat of the Moors in the mid-1100s. I just happened to stumble upon this place while walking around and, while I’m not a huge fan of 12th century Romanesque construction, the cathedral was very peaceful and beautiful. Plus, it’s free!
  • Ride the trams – Lisbon has those old-fashioned trams that make you feel like you are living in the turn of the 20th century. Sitting in them and riding through the historic and well-worn streets of the city was a simple yet unbelievable pleasure.

lisbon portugal historic trams

  • See a fado show – Fado, the local music, is best seen in Alfama. There are a lot down near Santa Apolónia metro stop, but wherever you go in Lisbon there will be a fado bar. Drink some port and dance the night away.
  • Hit the beach – Lisbon has a number of beaches that allow you to cool off in the blisteringly hot summer sun.
  • Ride the “elevator” – For some sweeping views of Lisbon’s rooftops, you might want to take the Elevador de Santa Justa. It’s a century old and used to be powered by steam. (Now, electricity!) Connecting downtown to the Barrio Alto neighborhood, there’s a good view of the city at the top and a small restaurant where you can eat.

And speaking of food, the one place that did stick out in my mind was Instinctus near St. George Castle. It was a tiny place — only three tables. I went there for dinner, where the woman who owned it prepared a four-course meal paired with wine. For 35 euros, it was good value, and the woman was very friendly.

lisbon portugal red rooftops

Lisbon was so amazing that I would seriously consider moving there. It seems like a creative, exciting, and affordable place to set up shop, where I could envision myself writing the great American novel. I’m a champion of Lisbon, and if you haven’t been there and are looking for an affordable and striking city to explore in Europe, Lisbon is it. (And TAP Portugal has cheap flights there!)

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