Lisbon is the largest city and capital of Portugal. It is a charming, colorful, historical, ocean-side city with enough character and attractions to keep you busy for weeks. Having been to Lisbon twice now, I feel as though I have a somewhat accurate feel for the city and local culture. In my experience, the people that I have met from Lisbon have been extremely friendly and welcome new travelers, so you don’t have to feel bad about getting lost while exploring or ordering local treats in English!
In the center of the city is a beautiful, main plaza called the Praca do Comercio. On one side of the plaza is a large, elaborate arch that leads to a popular shopping street; on the other, is the clear, blue water of the Rio Tejo, a cove right off the Atlantic. The plaza walls are painted a cheery yellow and the white columns create perfectly round arch walkways that surround the plaza. While the chill ocean wind breezes by, the street performers blow bubbles and play guitars… its a very peaceful place to be!
Lisbon is perched on a series of slight hills which are traversed with an adorably- practical tram system. Walking up and down the cobblestone hills not only gives you a great calf workout, but gives you great city views and occasional glimpses of the clear blue Atlantic ocean down below.
If you wander or take the tram northeast, you’ll head towards the oldest neighborhood of Lisbon called Alfama. Before the 13th Century, Alfama was considered “outskirts” because it lied outside of the city walls; however as Lisbon expanded many of the middle-class workers and sailors moved to live in the area. Now the area still has the medieval ancient charm of small streets and old churches, but it also has trendy restaurants and terraces with unbelievable views. One of the must-see churches in the area is the main cathedral, the Sé do Lisboa.
While continuing up the hill past the cathedral, you’ll come across a couple small plazas with gorgeous views of the city and the ocean. The Miradouro de Santa Luzia will come up first on your right and then the Miradouro das Portas do Sol has a cafe with sunny little tables where you can sit and take in the crisp red roof and white wall view.
One lost stop for good lookout at the highest point of Lisbon, the Castelo de Sao Jorge, a stone Moorish fortress perched on a hilltop over the city. The first fortification dates all of the way back to 48 BC when the city was considered a Roman municipality. Then it was a Moorish stronghold it converted into a Royal Palace until the 12th century when Portugal’s first king came into power. In 1755 there was an awful earthquake in Lisbon that destroyed much of the castle and local architecture, but a lot of the original structure still remains. You can pay a couple euro to walk through the old castle ruins, check out the archaeological museum and bask in historical greatness and the strong Portuguese sun.
If you take the tram south you can head towards a different neighborhood, Belem, by the water with a few of the cities most important monuments. There is a giant former 16th Century monastery, called the Jerónimos Monastery which is now a world UNESCO Heritage Site. On the coast you can also see the Torre de Belem, a celebratory gateway that welcomed ships to the city. About two blocks away is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a limestone landmark on the water with sailors with that commemorates the spirit of exploration from Lisbon. The last stop in Belem is to try a traditional pastel de nata (small egg custard tarts with crispy pastry) from Pastéis de Belém, a bakery built in the 1800s. Not only is the shop is gorgeous, with authentic blue and white tiles; they have ancient recipes for local treats, which will blow your mind!
Another thing that I love about Lisbon, other than the sweets of course, is the art and architecture. The city is riddled with colorful, porcelain tile buildings, grand, old wooden doors, small walkways and giant graffiti walls. Many of the sidewalks are made of painstakingly detailed mosaics of small color-coordinated stones. All of these little touches add a lot of character to the city.
These charming details go hand and hand with the whimsical pastel colored buildings. There is a mix of architectural styles in Lisbon: epic stone Gothic churches, baroque red roofs and soft Italian renaissance apartments with white trim and wrought iron balconies. When complimented with the glowing beach sunset and deep blue Lisbon skies, these buildings make for a perfect photo-op.
There is also a glamorous side to Lisbon. There is an area of high-end concept stores and galleries in the Bairro Alto, hundreds of big-name stores that line the main shopping road, Rua Augusta, and there are equally as many posh, local boutiques scattered around the city. Down by the ocean is a new addition, the Time Out market, a sleek indoor food market featuring a dozen different local vendors. I chose a salmon and cuttlefish burger with a black squid ink bun from O Prego Da Peixaria.
On the last night of our trip, we were heading back to the hostel to pack up and decided to make a spontaneous walk down to the main plaza. There was a cheery, hippee, Jamaican street band playing right next to the water. The joy that came from the music was contagious, the audience started to dance and sing along, while the sun started to set. It was a magical and relaxing way to end the trip and it made me really appreciate the city for what is really is. Lisbon’s sunny disposition, incredible views, fascinating history and friendly people make for a unique travel experience that you’re likely not to find anywhere else in Europe!