My trip to Portugal ended up being one of my most memorable experiences in Western Europe with so many unexpected adventures and interesting encounters. So, my Portugal series (especially in Lisbon) is based on our interesting encounters with… people, sights, and …. food.
Portugal was once a great power in Western Europe with a long history and a unique culture. That’s true, the Kingdom of Portugal is one of the oldest countries in Europe, formed in 1143, and Portugal’s original borders remained relatively intact, while many have changed dramatically during the civil wars, World War I, and World War II.
Today, the Portuguese language ranks 6th in the number of native speakers in the world (most of the population in Brazil, and ranked after Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindi, and Arabic.) But well, for many foreigners, like me, somehow the country is always overshadowed by its neighboring countries like Spain, France, the UK, Germany, and Italy; more, Portugal’s geographic location in the westernmost part of the European continent often pushed the country outside the travel radar. For travelers, Portugal might have become Western Europe’s best-kept secret, and it’s unveiling to the world more and more. It may not have a core-shaking wow factor, but it has a strong after-taste that lingers in your memories like a good coffee, or a good wine.
Not that I had low expectations before visiting Portugal, I just really had no idea what to expect. I knew there were some places I opt to go to, but I never had a mental picture of Portugal that stood out – Let’s say if I were to choose an album cover of a city, I had Big Ben for London, the Eiffel Tower for Paris, the Tokyo Skytree for Tokyo, the Hollywood sign for Los Angeles … But well, Portugal… I had no idea. If there’s one, it would probably be a streetcar running on narrow slopes in between some colorful, old houses in front of a cathedral (which I probably saw somewhere on the Internet or travel brochure). Unlike other hot travel destinations or grandeur capitals like Rome, Madrid, London, Paris, Vienna, and Prague… the capital city, Lisboa, was quite low-key, layback, “down-to-earth”…. or closer to earth (in most parts).
My first-day city walk was so relaxed that I did not have to “race” for lining up in front of the museums or contemplating my next move. We were just strolling around.
Before arriving in Lisbon, I had seen Azulejos in Porto and they were prominent there; so the Portuguese pavement has become more interesting to me. Portuguese pavements are mosaic arrangements of yellow and black cobblestones, forming intricate geometric patterns or symbols. As it is very labor-intensive and costly, it is actually a disappearing art that well-preserved in the main streets all over the country (and former Portuguese colonies – namely Brazil, and Macau). We wanted to take it slow on the first day in town (and it was raining in the morning), so we planned to stay within the Lisbon town central area – Alfama and Baixa/Chiado.
City Walk: Baixa to Chiado
Starting from Restauradores and Rossio Square, take a good look at the surroundings and then we enjoyed a nice brunch in a cafe along the Rua Augusta. A highlight was taking a fun ride on the Santa Justa Lift which was built in 1902 (As I am a big fan of high viewpoints).
Head to the Parca do Comercio, and admire the majestic Arco da Rua Augusta and the view of the city at the waterfront. Head back to Baixa-Chiado, and check out the shops, cafes (like Royale Cafe), museums, and the Portuguese pavement.
There are four major districts in Lisbon, namely: Baixa, Alfama, Bairro Alto, and Belem. We will cover Belem in my later chapter, there are a number of highlights to cover. Alfama is the city’s old town and it’s filled with museums, old buildings, flea markets, and historic sites that are a must-see for first-timers. Bairro Alto, on the other hand, has more majestic architecture that showcases the aesthetics of the Portuguese power during its prime. Baixa is situated between these two districts and I would recommend staying in this district.
Santa Justa lift
The Santa Justa lift is not exactly a tourist attraction, it is a functioning transportation system connecting the locals of two different city levels (Largo do Carmo and Baixa) in Lisbon downtown; it just happened that the old system is well preserved as a historic scenic spot and the viewpoint on top is really nice. The deck is just above the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, so there, I saw a 360 panoramic view of the Portugal capital’s cityscape, historic squares, the castle at the peak, the Lisbon Cathedral by the coast, and all the way to the waterfront of Tagus River.
Ｔhe Elevator was constructed in 1902 and designed by French architect Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard. The 45-meter high observatory is supported by an iron framework, which remained me a little bit of the Effiel Tower. It is quite a popular attraction now and sometimes it takes over 30 minutes to go up there. Luckily it was a quiet day for us that we head to the elevator without any crowd but get there early in the morning during peak season.
After brunch, we continued our stroll along the main street and found ourselves in the Commerce Square at the waterfront and took fabulous pictures of the Rua Augusta Arch, which seemed to me the best-adorned monument in the city (from what I have seen :P). The plaza was an intercept point from all over the city and next – without delay, we headed to the Alfama with Tram 28.
The Lisbon Cathedral is not far away from the center of the city. Not long after the tram ride I finally saw the “photo of Lisbon” – A streetcar climbing up the hill and turning in front of the façade of the Cathedral. We continued our way up the hill and as an old district of the city, Alfama had actually a lot of historic sites and museums to see. Like the São Jorge Castle, Cerca Moura, and the Church of Santa Engrácia.
The cathedral was built on a mosque foundation when Dom Afonso Henriques retrieved it from the Moors in 1147 when Portugal was founded. The cathedral has a history of over a thousand years and it has been refurbished after a couple of fires and disasters. It is a Royal resting place during Dom Afonso IV and the Gothic church that we see today is mainly the work in 1930 restoration. Check out the castle-like bell tower and the arches in the cloisters. Inside the cathedral, the treasury showcases sacred artworks, liturgical books, and more Liturgical treasures.
Entering the cathedral is quite different from how it looks from the outside. Archaeological excavations in the cloister garden began in 1990 and have unearthed a series of structures from different eras, dating from the 8th century BC to the 16th century AD when the cloister was built. Large quantities of ceramics dating from the Iron Age were found, showing oriental influences, namely Phoenician, imported from the Mediterranean, at least since the 8th century BC. The earliest Roman occupation dates from the 1st and 2nd century BC, but only later in the first century AD was built the street flanked by shops where you could buy various products. Privatized in the 4th century, the street was abandoned in the 6th century. During the Muslim occupation, a large building was built whose function has not yet been determined, but it is probably related to the main Mosque in the city. In this building, with red and white painted walls, a courtyard and a vaulted niche were identified. Behind the courtyard, the remains of a house were found with a grindstone near the door.
The Famous Tram 28 Route
Tram 28 is a classic in Portugal as the historic tram passes through many of the city highlights running up and down the slopes in Lisbon. In fact, there are three classic tram routes that you can consider: No. 15 in Belem, and No. 12 in Alfama, but No. 28 is somehow the most beloved among visitors.
A one-day pass is 3.7 Euros and tourists are allowed to hop on and off within 24 hours. Therefore, plan a one-day trip with the tram to explore the city, and experience the charm of riding the tram, especially in Alfama. The old town alleys and streets are so narrow that you will find the vehicles had to drive really carefully to squeeze their way through tough corners, if you are sitting by the car window, you can easily touch the buildings’ walls; and not to mention the traffic when the cars were stuck and jammed. Don’t panic though, the experienced tram drivers have seen them all.
Some popular highlights of the tram include Estrela, Chiado, Rua da Concelcao, Se, Largo Portas do Sol, and Miradouro da Graca. The whole journey of the tram ride takes about 40 minutes.
Estrala: is the west end of the route and the tram starts heading east from here, up and down from the higher grounds, before heading down to Bairro Alto.
Chiado: This area marks an entrance to the upper town area, from Largo Camoes, and you will find lots of cafes, cake shops, and interesting stores in this area. It’s a busy district.
Rua da Concelcao: The street is located in the old town area Baixa and heads to the Rua Augusta Arch, restaurants are lining up on both sides of the road.
Se: The tram is heading up here, away from the city center toward the Lisbon Cathedral and Igreja de Santo Antonio. This is where every tourist holds their cameras for the photo with the tram passing the cathedral.
Largo Portas do Sol: The top of the hill is a square with a wonderful view of the entire Alfama, and you can find cafes scattered in the historic area. For the best Portuguese tarts, check out my next post for the insights 🙂
Miradouro da Graca: Finally, the Basilica de San Vicente and Graca is a great area to enjoy the rooftops and cityscape of Alfama. It leads to the city’s Chinatown and the markets too.
I am going to save some stories of the Castle for later, I had to start my Lisbon heart-racing encounter with a rather scary sight – a pickpocket. It was indeed my very first encounter (and hopefully, I am reminding myself – the last) after years of traveling in Europe, though I have heard (and witnessed some) worse stories in Italy.
Anyway, that’s what happened: we were strolling, having a great time in the Alfama alleys, tasting local food (Batatas Fritas and fried mashed potato balls), taking photos and then we hopped on a crowded tram and continue our journey. Just when I was busy navigating the maps and discussing with my companions the next destination, I felt something was moving behind my back – and I immediately felt it – it was a sneaky man’s hands. I turned quickly around and I caught a glimpse of a young man retrieving his arm out of my backpack. I checked my backpack (YES, in front of the pickpocket, we are both still on the tram), and dummy me, found that I forgot to zip up my backpack (or did he open it? But my backpack – or in fact, it’s a back-sack – is rather complicated. I have trouble looking for any stuff in the sack in any circumstances. Well, blame fashion). Only this time I was saved by fashion and didn’t lose anything else except my trust and pride of the day.
We (me and the “guy”) exchanged fierce looks and I told my companions that I was “targeted”. He avoided any eye contact with me and moved around in the tram – waiting for the next target? And that’s the situation that sometimes got me feeling a little helpless: I knew he was up to no good, someone else might be a victim, yet I probably could do nothing…. So always be careful and never think such craziness would not happen to you.