By Jim Ferri
Lisbon is a unique experience, but too often it’s overlooked by travelers who focus totally on Spain and never discover the wonder right next door.
Two weeks ago I made my way back to Lisbon after not having been there in years. It turned out to be better than I remembered, and again it slowly drew me in with its rhythm and colors and easy-going attitude.
I stayed at the Hotel da Estrela, a small boutique hotel that occupies a former school and which still maintains a “school theme” throughout the property. It’s also adjacent to Lisbon’s Hotel School and some of the students doing their on-the-job-training in the hotel.
What I found most interesting about the hotel is its restaurant, where as a hotel guest you can name your price for your meal. You’re provided a high and low cost for the restaurant meal and you choose what you’ll pay based on your perception of quality of the meal, service, etc. I found it all very good.
When I stepped out the hotel the first morning the first thing I noticed was the color and the hue of the light all about me. The street was lined with tiled and painted buildings, many with beautiful wrought-iron balconies, and in the morning light they glistened.
I had decided that the first order of business was to make an onward reservation on my Eurail Pass before I forgot to do so, so I hailed a taxi to take me to the train station. The driver, a young man who spoke excellent English, was incredibly helpful. All the way on the 15-minute drive to the station he told me about everything we were passing, and the history of different areas, sometimes stopping briefly in an area to show me something he thought of interest for me.
It was a great little tour of the old area of Lisbon, which only cost me a little over €7. I wanted to hire him for a few hours, and he wanted to also, but he had to go to a funeral at 10:30am and was on his way to pick up his wife.
He dropped me off and, after I made my reservation, followed his advice and took a taxi from the station up to St. George’s Castle, where the views over Lisbon are spectacular. It was a beautiful clear day and looking out across the landscape of red-tile roofed houses and buildings it almost seemed you could see forever.
On the way up we passed several tour groups walking up the steep streets and I couldn’t help but wonder why they didn’t take a bus or the trolley up, and then walk back down instead. Now, as they started arriving at the castle all chatting loudly, I decided it was my cue to start my walk downhill through the old Alfama district.
It’s incredible how beautiful the Alfama area is to walk about (at least downhill) since around just about every corner you seem to have a different view or photo op. You could spend the day there just wandering about snapping away to your heart’s content.
Of course, I immediately became lost in the incredible maze of streets and asked someone for directions (did you read that honey?). I was constantly amazed that whenever I stopped and asked if someone spoke English, and many did, how friendly and helpful Lisboetas were in answering my questions and then suggesting other places I should look into along the way.
After a while I noticed I was close to the Sé, the Lisbon Cathedral that’s a mix of Gothic and Romanesque due to continual renovations over the centuries. I wandered over to visit it and found the interior a bit gloomy (there’s your Gothic) and saw that there was a mass underway in a chapel to the left of the altar.
While I was walking I was surprised when several dozen people in the pews started singing; I had thought they were tourists but then realized they were listening on little earphones to the mass in the Chapel inside. Back behind the main altar you can visit the cloisters or the treasury for €2.50 each, or both for €4.
I left the Sé and continued my journey downwards towards where the city runs along the bank of the Tagus River, carefully watching the uneven sidewalks and streets as I went. You need to be careful walking around the Alfama because the cobbled and sidewalks can be uneven in spots but as you get down to the popular tourist areas, it’s easier walking.
Coming out of Alfama I continued along the riverfront to Praça do Comércio, the triumphal arch that leads in to the Baixa area of the city. Following a devastating earthquake in 1755, this area was totally redeveloped and rebuilt in a grid layout so it’s exceptionally easy to navigate.
The arch is at the southern end of Rua Augusta, one of the wide, tiled, pedestrian-only streets for which Lisbon is so famous. Lined with cafés and shops, it’s the main tourist street in the Baixa area. The streets here are named for the shops that used to (and in many cases still do) line them…Rua do Ouro (Goldsmiths’ Street), Rua da Prata (Silversmiths’ Street), etc.
Walking up Rua Augusta I stopped for lunch at one of the crowded outdoor cafés, which seemed to be filled mostly 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 hamburger, which turned out to be quite good.
I then continued walking a few more blocks past the mimes and street musicians to the Elevador de Santa Justa, a neo-Gothic lift that was built by an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel. It’s the most eccentric of the several lifts you find throughout Lisbon, all built to help transport people up the city’s seven hills.
I didn’t go up in the elevador since the line was too long, but instead continued on up to Rossio Square, a huge square that’s been the center of city life in the capital for 600 years. It’s anchored on the north end by the National Theater and has a mosaic pavement designed to look like waves. Like me, many people were enjoying a break after lunch, either sitting on the square’s benches or in one of the cafés on it periphery.
One afternoon I took a taxi out to the National Museum of Antique Art (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga) that 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 I found it very enjoyable.
Along the river to the west, it’s about a €5 taxi ride from downtown and is a good place to spend a few hours especially if it’s hot or raining. It has quite a variety of exhibits including paintings, sculpture, furniture, ceramics and pieces from Portugal’s old colonies in Asia and Africa. 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, although for the longer distances (to the National Museum, for example) I took taxis since cabs are relatively 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 tram #28, which runs about the city and up those steep hills that take you up to St. George’s Castle.
A good deal is the Lisboa Card that provides free public transportation and free- or reduced-admission to many attractions about the city.
If you go:
Hotel da Estrela
Rua Saraiva de Carvalho, 35
Tel: (+351) 21.190.0100
Available at Turismo de Lisboa booths in the arrival hall at Lisbon Airport and at the Stª Apolónia International Railway Station (in a little lottery stand near track #1) as well as some other areas. Available for periods of 24 hours (€18.50), 48 hours (€31.50) or 72 hours (€39).