It’s love at first sight after taking a tour with a city insider who skips all of the Portuguese capital’s popular highlights
The smooth late afternoon flight into Lisbon just as the sun began to throw its golden glow across the Atlantic Ocean and metres upon metres of sandy coastline had us gawking out of the airplane window in awe. This has to be one of the most well thought-out, spectacular introductions to a European capital.
The Portuguese are clearly not pussy-footing around. They’re serious about luring travellers, not only from within Europe but further afield, to their shores.
The plane gently looped around and we took our first glimpse of Portugal’s vibrant capital and its beautifully chaotic jumble of architectural styles spanning many centuries which has seen it occupied by Arabs, Romans and Spanish.
Before long, we were seated in the Aerobus and being whisked from Lisbon airport along the city’s sweeping Avenida da Liberdade to our hotel. It was on the bus where we experienced the rarest of reactions.
At this early stage, we could only judge by the graceful, tall neoclassical buildings lining the 90m-wide boulevard but, as our eyes widened and glistened, we sensed that we were going to fall hard for Lisbon. We already knew this was one heck of a romantic town.
Lisbon airport is surprisingly close to the city centre and in around 15 minutes we had arrived at our stop. Alighting at Marques de Pombal square, we briefly stopped to admire a bronze statue of long-serving reformist prime minister Sebastião de Carvalho perched atop a tall column in the centre of the roundabout, then crossed Liberdade and easily located our hotel.
H10 Duque de Loulé, which opened in Spring, is situated in Lisbon’s business district on a relatively quiet street of the same name, parallel to Liberdade. We found it a handy base to explore the city. Read our review of the hotel here.
Flying in from Athens, where November temperatures were still hovering around an unseasonably high 20C or so, we should have known that Lisbon would prove even warmer.
Concerned it might be cool, and particularly in Madrid to where we were headed after Lisbon, we had lugged layers of Winter clothing, including my heavy woollen coat that merely scoffed valuable suitcase space.
As we checked in to our sweet boutique property for a three-night stay, we encountered the incredible warmth of Portuguese hospitality for the first time. Having made a 5.30am start in Athens, from which we flew to Lisbon via Madrid on different airlines, we were pretty pooped.
At the time we travelled, there were no direct flights between Athens and Lisbon. This is rather inexplicable if you consider how much Greeks love Portugal – Lisbon in particular, and the Portuguese love Greece. We flew with Greek carrier Aegean to Madrid, arriving at noon, and took an early afternoon easyjet flight from there to Lisbon.
The good news is that Aegean has decided to introduce direct flights between Athens and Lisbon in 2016, between June and late September. While the number of flights offered are few and far between, Aegean appears to be the only airline offering this route, so hopefully, Lisboetas and Athenians will take advantage of this connection and boost the chances of it remaining a permanent route, at least in summer.
So, that meant our day was dashed in airports. We only had enough energy left to unpack and freshen up for dinner, deciding to dine at Azul & Branco, our hotel’s stylish in-house restaurant.
The next morning we set off early to start exploring Lisbon. With just two full days at our disposal, we knew this was nowhere near enough time to get to know this lively riverfront city.
Rather than tick off the city’s typical tourist magnets, like the Belém Tower, Jeronimos Monastery and the Castle of São Jorge, we decided – well before we arrived in the city – to do Lisbon differently.
When researching Lisbon, I had stumbled upon tour provider We Hate Tourism Tours, whose name and tongue-in-cheek digital attitude had me enamoured from the get-go, so I arranged an offbeat, insider introductory tour to Lisbon with them.
We were running slightly late on the morning of our tour, as our body’s circadian rhythms were a little out of whack considering Lisbon is two hours behind Athens. So, we were happy to find a cab outside our hotel to whizz us through Lisbon’s leafy streets into the centre of town, a little under 10 minutes’ away. Taxis are reasonably-priced, though we found that we only needed to use them this one time.
We had a 9am date with We Hate Tourism Tours outside the post office at Praça Luiz Camões on a Sunday morning so, in a youthful, party town like Lisbon, it’s not surprising that the city centre was barely stirring. On the square, a few seniors were seated outside a kiosk sipping on their morning bica, Portuguese-style espresso which is dispensed lungo, and watching the city slowly stretch out of its lazy Saturday night slumber.
Our young insider guide Tiago rolled up in a vintage matte black, topless Portuguese-built seven-passenger four-wheel drive, greeting us with a wide smile. Fascinated by his ride, we started chatting about the no-frills but hardy UMM that was built for African terrain and today is a rarity as production halted in 1996. The UMM enjoyed a fleeting moment in the spotlight when one was converted into a Popemobile for Pope John Paul II, to transport him on one of his visits to Portugal.
Two young couples, one from Montreal and the other from London, joined us on the three-hour King of the Hills Tour, which We Hate Tourism Tours only runs on the weekends. I had wondered how the company could run an urban 4WD tour on the weekend but, once I saw how empty the streets were that morning, it made complete sense.
While we waited for a seventh member of the party to join us, Tiago popped across the road to pick up some freshly-baked pastel de nata from a recently-opened bakery that specialises in them, treating us to our first taste of the divine cinnamon-dusted cream custard tarts that originate from the Jeronimos Monastery and are synonymous with Lisbon. “You can still buy the pastel de nata based on the monastery’s secret recipe, but I think these ones are better,” he admitted.
Seriously impressed with his English, we asked Tiago how is it that he speaks so fluently. “Well, us Portuguese, we grow up watching TV programmes and films in their original language, with subtitles. They’re not dubbed as they are in other countries, like Spain, so we’re used to hearing English,” he explains.
After a few unsuccessful phone calls to the latecomer, whose phone was switched off likely “because she partied too hard the previous night”, Tiago fired up the UMM and we were off to discover the lesser-known side of Lisbon.
The first interesting fact he revealed was that “Lisbon doesn’t actually have seven hills, like Rome. We like to say that we do, but there are actually six.”
As we zoomed through Lisbon’s narrow streets, lined with cobblestone pavements, and distinctive neighbourhoods – like Baixa, which was completely rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1755 – of this fascinating city, Tiago explained that Lisbon is actually built on the six hills, therefore trying to walk the entire city in the space of a few hours is almost unfeasible.
During our stay we learned to make good use of the underground metro system, which is easy to navigate and ensures you avoid climbing many of the steep inclines.
Our first stop was the centrally-located bohemian Bairro Alto quarter, namely its carefully-manicured gardens known as Miradouro De São Pedro De Alcântara. This is one of the best and most romantic vantage points in the city where Lisboêtas like to hang, particularly on the weekends, to take in views of the Tagus River, the castle and the downtown area. From here, Lisbon appeared much bigger than we had expected.
This district, where older residences date back to the 16th and 17th centuries, is populated and frequented by young people, who refer to it simply as Bairro (neighbourhood). By day, it’s fairly quiet, but at night, it comes alive as it is home to hip restaurants, tiny bars and cafes.
“Lisbon’s buildings are not actually that old,” Tiago explained. After the devastating earthquake of 1755, which killed thousands and saw most buildings destroyed, the Marquis of Pombal oversaw the complete rebuilding of the city.
We started at these gardens, but it’s a great spot to relax in the shade at midday after a long morning of walking, particularly if the weather is warm, and take a seat at a kiosk cafe to enjoy a coffee. It’s clearly also a favourite lunch spot as, the following day, we saw an extended family set up their hot al fresco lunch at a picnic table there, with crockery, cutlery and all.
Next we headed to the affluent Estrela quarter to take a walk through the Jardim da Estrela, gardens filled with willow and palm trees, along with various other plant varieties. We strolled through the art and craft markets, like many locals like to do on a Sunday.
Tiago explained that the park has a rather dark history as it played host to a caged tiger back in the 1970s. “Taking photos with the tiger was a bit of a thing,” he lamented. “Thankfully, it was rescued and removed from here.”
The gardens serve as one of the many iconic venues around town that host free weekend music performances during the MEO OutJazz Festival, which runs from May through September. Jardim da Estrela also sees outdoor film screenings in the summer, open to all. Smart thinking, Lisbon.
At the markets, we met Pedro, from Archivo, which is bringing old-school, defunct Portuguese brands – like the UMM – back to life by emblazoning them across t-shirts, bags, aprons and mugs.
We picked up an indigo t-shirt featuring a whisker-lickin’ cat which the Portuguese know as the face of Minor tinned sardines and mackerel, which dates back to 1930. Little did we know that we had (literally) caught on to a gastronomic trend, that’s making waves in Lisbon. For at least the past two years, tinned fish has returned in a big way in this town, but in gourmet fashion, and this we learned during a food walk we took with Eat Portugal the following day.
Passing by docks filled with warships, on the way to our next stop, Tiago explained that Lisbon is a popular location for Nato exercises due to its strategic location in Europe.
LXFactory is a former thread and fabric factory that has been transformed into a post-industrial “creative island” which hosts co-working spaces, low-rent offices for start-ups (We Hate Tourism Tours started out there), flea markets, art exhibitions, funky restaurants and cafes including one where you can rent bikes, and interesting street art.
Hidden in the low-income Alcântara locality, this is the type of place where you’ll find Lisboêtas congregate, though, as Tiago pointed out, “now it attracts a lot of hipsters and celebrities who do photo shoots here”. LXFactory, which you can reach with the number 15 tram, reminded us very much of the gasworks-turned-multi-functional cultural space in Athens’ gentrified Gazi district.
Drawing another parallel with Athens, where young Greeks frustrated with the lack of employment opportunities have struck out on their own, Lisbon, too, is a hotbed of start-ups, with many realising the enormous power and potential of tourism.
“The mayor has improved the city a great deal and cleaned it up,” Tiago explained. Europe’s Erasmus student exchange programme also gave the city an enormous boost, drawing significant numbers of young travellers, he noted.
“Ten to 15 years ago, Lisbon was a bit of a mess. Today it’s become an increasingly popular tourism destination,” he said.
As we rolled through the former red-light district of Cais do Sodré to which sailors made a beeline, which Tiago described as the flat part of town, he pointed to the buildings whose facades are adorned with colourful, patterned ceramic tiles known as azulejos.
“While many associate these tiles with the Portuguese, it was the Moors who inspired them,” he said.
The slim pedestrianised thoroughfare of Rua Nova do Carvalho, which is painted in a loud, bubblegum pink and still sees the odd lady of the night circulate, is where young Lisboans come out to play till late at bars and clubs, where lounge and chill electronica tunes prevail. The multi-faceted space Pensão Amor previously operated as the type of hotel where rooms are rented by the hour and today retains art deco burlesque posters on the walls, and even a pole dance room decked out in gold and leopard print.
Scaling the hills of lofty Graça neighbourhood, which translates as ‘grace’, we realised that we had made a smart choice to book a tour with wheels on our first day, so that we could orient ourselves and then decide which neighbourhoods and sights to focus on.
Tile-fronted apartment buildings in Graça, which lies above the hip locale of Alfama, were built to house workers in the 19th century. “At the time, this area was hard to access due to the hills. Today it has become trendy,” said Tiago. A small two-bedroom apartment in this neighbourhood costs around 500 euros to rent.
Canary yellow trams are the de rigueur mode of transport in Lisbon and the best way to tackle those hills. We watched as Tram 28, the city’s most iconic, trundled by, heaving with camera-toting tourists.
“The 28 is not just for tourists but it becomes packed quickly and many Lisbon residents don’t bother it taking it anymore as they don’t want to wait in the long lines,” Tiago said.
We parked up at the highest point, Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, which he said may draw lots of tourists but is worth it for its panorama. There, Tiago handed us tiny chilled bottles of Moscatel, the sweet white, fortified Portuguese wine made with end-of-season grapes so sweet that no sugar is added. “Everyone knows Portuguese cherry liqueur, Ginjinha, but I prefer this. It’s traditional and it’s good,” he said.
Within minutes of arriving at the lookout, we were surrounded by tuk-tuks which whizz tourists around town. In the space of three years, they have become a plague of “mosquitoes”, creating noise pollution and annoying city dwellers, Tiago said.
“They started out with electric-powered tuk tuks, which I liked, but now many of them are diesel with two-stroke engines that can’t handle the hills,” he noted. “New laws have come in and they will be restricted, thankfully.”
The tour concluded with a stop at Miradouro de Santa Catarina, where locals like to congregate at sunset, among them a few shady types. We picked up a familiar scent hanging in the air. “Don’t worry if someone comes up to you to ask you if you want to buy some pot. They’re harmless,” Tiago explained. “It’s not illegal to smoke it here but it is illegal to sell it.”
I mentioned to Tiago that, so far, everywhere we had been felt very safe. “Yes, it is. You could say that Lisbon has been pacified,” he responded with a smile.
Pointing out a bridge that looks suspiciously like San Francisco’s Golden Gate, Tiago noted that, in 1966, dictator António Salazar, the conservative nationalist who ruled Portugal from 1932 to 1968, had the same company build what was then baptised Ponte Salazar. During the 1974 Revolution of the Carnations, a demonstrator painted 25 de Abril over the name Salazar, and the name stuck.
Salazar also custom-ordered the creation of a statue of Jesus, the Cristo Rei, a copy of the Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro situated across the Tagus “and still owned by the Vatican”, as Tiago noted. Both the bridge and statue were built to a smaller scale, because the “dictator was known for being cheap, but he stayed in power for many years”.
Nearby is the Pharmacy museum, which Tiago, who pointed out that, “in Lisbon, there’s a museum for everything”, recommended visiting, along with its restaurant Pharmacia, which is considered among the city’s coolest new hangouts.
The tour was over so we convinced Tiago to give us a few insider tips on authentic spots around town were we could sample Lisbon’s famed seafood.
“At around 25 euros per head for dinner, Lisbon has the most affordable seafood in Europe and, if you compare the Atlantic with the Mediterranean, also the most diverse,” he said.
“Here in Lisbon, we love razor clams but they’re hard to find and, for those who fish them out of the river, it’s a very dangerous business.”
Asking him how we could reach Cristo Rei, to take photos of the city skyline from there, Tiago suggested we stop at the small fishing town of Trafaria and seek out the restaurants that serve a dish known as carvoadas, a simple meal of fish or meat cooked in a pot over hot charcoal.
By the time we parted ways with Tiago, we were convinced that the people of Lisbon count among some of the loveliest and most welcoming we have ever met. So, before continuing our exploration of the city on our own, we took a juice break at nearby Noo Bai café, a great spot to kick back and enjoy the views in the company of mostly locals.
Our intuition upon arrival in this city was spot on, of course. Lovely, buzzing Lisbon, we’ll return to your wonderfully warm embrace sooner than you think.
For more information, or to book with We Hate Tourism Tours, visit www.wehatetourismtours.com