By Jim Ferri
Once regarded as an “if you’ve got time” afterthought, Lisbon, Portugal has emerged as Europe’s hot destination.
The fact that it’s one of the most charming capital cities in Europe certainly has appealed to travelers. And the fact that it’s also a great value compared to other European capitals has also attracted legions.
Lisbon’s real draw, however, is that it’s no longer just a sleepy city tucked away in Europe’s southwest corner. Today’s Lisbon is alive with newfound energy.
Its restaurant scene has burgeoned, transforming it into a destination for foodies. Fashionable bars and cafés have proliferated. Old palaces and mansions have been transformed into stylish and comfortable boutique hotels.
Welcome to the new, “you gotta’ go” Lisbon, where charm coalesces with style and efficiency, and the price is right.
A Nice Hotel, A Fascinating Taxi Ride
I stayed in one of Lisbon’s boutique hotels, the comfortable Hotel da Estrela, which occupies a former school. Quiet, clean and quite comfortable, in a quiet, clean and comfortable neighborhood, it maintains a “school theme” throughout the property.
Dinner in its good restaurant is also a surprise: hotel guests can choose the price for their meal. The check provided by your server notes a high and low cost. You choose what to pay in that range based on your perception of quality and service. Non-guests pay the menu rate.
The morning after my arrival I hailed a taxi to take me to Baixa, the old heart of the city. The driver, a young man who spoke excellent English, was incredibly informative about the history and nuances of city life. He told me many things about the places we passed and the history of different areas. At times, he stopped briefly to show me something he thought might be of interest.
It was a great, unexpected tour of the old area of Lisbon, which cost me only about €7. I wanted to hire him for a few hours, but he had a family commitment and, unfortunately, had to continue home.
Castelo de São Jorge
My cabbie-guide left me at Praça do Comércio, the large square that anchors the city to the waterfront. I wandered for a while and then hailed another taxi for a ride up to Castelo de São Jorge.
The castle overlooks the city, and the view of Lisbon from the lofty esplanade was spectacular. From my perch, the landscape of red-tile roofed houses seemed to extend forever.
Although the castle/fort was interesting, my real interest was in the surrounding Alfama, the old area of Lisbon. Created by the Moors, the district morphed into a Jewish neighborhood, then became home for sailors, fishermen, and traders.
Luckily, it fared much better than the rest of Lisbon in the catastrophic 1755 earthquake that devastated the city below. That was rebuilt mainly in a grid pattern; Alfama’s cobbled lanes, however, remain a window into the city’s furthest past.
Walk Alfama’s cobbles today, and you’ll discover a different view or photo op around just about every turn. You could spend the day just wandering and snapping away to your heart’s content.
A Visit to the Sé
I immediately became lost in the Alfama’s maze of streets and asked someone for directions. In fact, I had to ask on several occasions and quickly became surprised at how many Lisboetas spoke excellent English. Furthermore, they were exceptionally friendly and helpful, many suggesting other places I should look into all along my way.
I soon found myself at the Sé, Lisbon’s famous Cathedral that’s a mix of Gothic and Romanesque architecture. Upon entering, I found the interior gloomy (there’s your Gothic, I thought) and headed towards the better-lit front. There I discovered a mass underway in a small chapel off to the left of the altar.
As I walked by moments earlier, I was surprised when people in the pews started singing. Now I realized they were listening on earphones to, and partaking in, the mass in the chapel.
I continued my journey down towards the city, at times with the uneven cobblestones and sidewalk making for slow going.
Once out of Alfama, I continued along the riverfront back to the Praça do Comércio. On the city side of the Praça, a triumphal arch faces the Baixa area of the city. I walked under it and up Rua Augusta, one of the tiled, pedestrian-only streets for which Lisbon is famous.
Lined with cafés and shops, it’s the main tourist street in the Baixa area. I walked along, entranced by the street names, many named for the shops that once lined them…Rua do Ouro (Goldsmiths’ Street), Rua da Prata (Silversmiths’ Street), etc.
I soon stopped for lunch at one of Rua Augusta’s crowded outdoor cafés. It seemed mostly filled with Germans and Brits, probably since Lisbon is a good long-weekend destination for them. Not seeing anything especially appetizing on the menu, I decided to try Lisbon’s version of the hamburger. Surprisingly, it turned out to be quite good.
When I set off again, I continued northward, people-watching the tourists gathered around the occasional mime or street musician. I soon saw the Elevador on Rua de Santa Justa, a neo-Gothic lift built by an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel. It’s the most eccentric of the several lifts you find throughout Lisbon, and all built to help transport people up the city’s seven hills.
I skipped the elevador since the line was too long, and instead continued up to Rossio Square, the center of city life for hundreds of years. Dominated on its north end by the National Theater, its mosaic pavement is reminiscent of waves. Lounging on benches, or in one of the peripheral cafés, many people were enjoying a break after lunch.
Select A Museum
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lot of time to visit museums during my visit. Due to my lack of time, I opted for the National Museum of Antique Art (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga). I was playing it safe since it houses the nation’s art collection in a 17th -century palace. It’s not a large museum; in fact, it’s rather small compared to other major city museums, but it’s quite enjoyable. Inside is a variety of exhibits including paintings, furniture, etc., and pieces from Portugal’s old colonies in Asia and Africa.
Set along the river to the west, it’s only about a €5 taxi ride from downtown. It’s a good place to spend a few hours, especially if it’s hot or raining. Admission is €5 for adults, €2.50 for seniors.
I did a lot of walking in Lisbon since that’s the best way to see the city. For longer distances, however, to the National Museum, for example, I took taxis since cabs are inexpensive in Lisbon. The city also has a good bus and Metro system that will get you just about anywhere.
The most popular form of transport with visitors, however, are the city’s old wooden jump on/off trolleys (the “elétrico”). Especially popular is tourist-crowded tram #28, which runs about the city and up those steep hills to St. George’s Castle.
To save a bit, get the “Lisboa Card.” It provides free public transportation and free or reduced admission to many attractions about the city.