Our ship sailed into Lisbon one midday in April, gliding underneath a red suspension bridge which looked suspiciously similar to the Golden Gate Bridge and past the Statue of Christ the King (ie, not Christ the Redeemer as they have hanging out in Brazil) high on a hill overlooking the river. The springtime sun was gleaming and quite frankly I was having a whale of a time. And despite the two smaller versions of well-known landmarks we were greeted with, let me tell you this, Lisbon is a unique stunner of a city- the oldest one in Western Europe- and having only had a few days in April and a few days in August to visit, definitely a place I need to explore further. The whole place is a wash of different colours, with the look of a pastel coloured fairytale land about it- in my mind the colours of the buildings in Lisbon were decided in the style of the fairy godmothers in Sleeping Beauty randomly aiming fire at Aurora’s dress (‘Pink!!!’ No, blue!’), and whilst I basically fell in love with the whole place and had a glorious time exploring, I also made a few critical errors whilst there. So here, for your reading pleasure is not just what you should do in Lisbon, but an opportunity to learn from my mistakes, pals, and realise what’s also really not a fantastic idea.
Don’t get a tuk tuk tour if you really want to experience anything
A group of us got off the ship on one of our days docked in Lisbon and as we had limited time until we had to be back at work, decided collectively that it would probs be a good idea if we got in one of the tuk tuks that were lined up outside the terminal building. It was time for a grand magical mystery tour. We negotiated a price with the driver, who was it has to be said, a Really Nice Guy, and off we went at approximately 12 miles an hour with the motor buzzing and the wind in our hair, ready to see as much of Lisbon as we could possibly see in three hours.
We went past the Praça do Comércio, the Jerónimos Monastery, stopped at the Tower of Belém, journeyed onwards to the Padrão dos Descubrimentos, to a viewing point near a tram stop, up an incredibly steep hill to the Cathedral of Lisbon (known as Sé), and then up a few more incredibly steep hills, eventually leading the tuk tuk to cough and splutter so much that it actually began to slide back down the hill. I thought we were going to have to get out and push, and we did offer but the driver decided it would be better to just give up and turn around. Poor old soul.
Now don’t get me wrong guys, there is something rather hilarious about five people cruising around a hilly city in an extremely slow tuk tuk. But did we see a lot of Lisbon? Well…yes, we did. However in all honesty despite how lovely our driver was and how much he’d tried to fill us in on what each place was that we stopped at for all of six minutes, we could barely hear him over the noise of the tuk tuk and I came away feeling more like I’d watched a journey through Lisbon on a TV screen instead of actually having experienced or been part of anything I’d just witnessed. I mean- guys, all I had was literally a list of places about which I knew absolutely nothing at all and what good is that!?
As a group we were pretty divided on our level of satisfaction regarding the tuk tuk tour. For those people who like to cram as much in as possible and get selfies with as many different landmarks as possible, this is the perfect thing to do. But it seems a bit of a shame to me to be so focused on taking selfies that you’re not actually aware of what it is you’re taking selfies with, know what I’m saying!? I had to do a whole lot of googling when I got home just to find out where I’d just been. What a sorry state of affairs.
Don’t be fooled into thinking there’s only one place to get a good Portuguese Tart
I LOVE PORTUGESE TARTS. But let’s get one thing straight, Lisbon is in Portugal so when you think about it the notion that there would be only one possible spot in the entire city to get a truly good Portuguese custard tart (or pastel de nata) is clearly ludicrous. (Even though it’s what the bloggers of Instagram would have you believe.) The shop in question is Pastéis de Belém, a bakery and factory in the Belém area who began making these awesome tarts of delicious goodness in 1837, following an extremely old recipe from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. Clearly, these guys can get the job done and get the job done well, but they also have an extremely long queue at all times of day or night which some people just don’t want to hang around for. We went to a place called Manteigaria which sells nothing but custard tarts for €1 each, and where they make them all right in front of you, but there are tonnes and tonnes of pastelarias across the city. Don’t get me wrong pals, the original Pastéis de Belém is brilliant but what I am saying is, if you don’t enjoy waiting in line there are plenty of other places you can find if you just have a quick wander around.
Don’t just take photos of the trams. Get in one, duh.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. What is the point of just taking a picture of something, when you could physically experience it as well? These trams are a trademark stamp on the city, rattling up and down and in between the seven hills that Lisbon apparently comprises, and also giving a bit more insight on why it is sometimes referred to as the San Francisco of Europe. That and the bridge, obv. The number 28 is the most popular tram for visitors to take due to its route past all sorts of landmarks, but obviously this also means it can get rather crowded so beware if you’re not a fan of tight spaces and sardine-esque sensations. There’s also a few funiculars which run straight up and straight down the hills to ease your weary legs if you’re feeling the burn.
Don’t attempt to explore when you’re actually in severe pain
Now this is one that’s not only applicable to Lisbon, but I would say to just about any situation in the whole of your living life. I ventured out with my pal in the late evening (everything’s later in Portugal and when you work on a ship you have hours off instead of days, so you make the most of every free minute you know!?), despite the fact that I’d been feeling increasingly rough as the day wore on. We made it up a hill as far as the National Pantheon, which I must say looks lovely lit up at night, at which point I near enough collapsed in agony from the most severe stomach cramps I’ve had in bloody years. It was horrendous, but I still for some reason thought maybe I’d be ok if I just sat on a little wall for a bit and took some deep breaths to ease the sensation of being simultaneously run over by a truck and stabbed multiple times in the abdomen. Obviously that wasn’t going to happen and I eventually had to admit defeat and surrender to the fact that I would not get to stroll around Lisbon that evening, hobbling back down the hill for what felt like an eternity to reach the safety of my cabin. The moral of the story is, sometimes if you don’t feel well, there is literally nothing you can do apart from wait to feel better. And that is that.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a good view
Lisbon is, like Rome, a city built on seven hills. Therefore it is full of beautiful spots to appreciate the beauty of the city from, making you feel a bit like a bird or God or someone like that. The terracotta rooftops and pastel coloured houses are all beaut, and although the official viewing points (there are 16 in total) are often crowded, they still make pretty cool places to hang out and appreciate the city. Each one (called miraduoros) has a terrace with cafes and bars to sit and relax at, and although most are situated on one of the hills, it’s also worth checking out the Santa Justa Elevator which is literally just a free-standing elevator to a platform above the city. What a genius piece of architecture! Designed by an apprentice to Gustavo Eiffel, it makes sense that it’s very similar in appearance to the Eiffel Tower, and was originally powered by steam.
Don’t forget to check the opening times if you want to visit somewhere specific
I really wanted to see the Belém Tower, but it turns out it’s closed on Mondays and public holidays, so having ventured all the way there, we had to settle for just a view of the outside instead. What a shame.
Originally it was part of a defence system against enemy ships approaching the city, but it was also the point of departure for a whole tonne of explorers who were leaving for pastures new and a good gallivant across the seven seas. It’s built in the same Manueline (aka Portugese Late Gothic) style as the Jerónimos Monastery, which was influenced by the discoveries of Portugese explorers as well as by the ships that they sailed on. And let me tell you they are downright spectacular pieces of work. Good on those old architects, I tell you.
…And don’t worry if you’re there when everything’s closed
I got off the ship one sunny Sunday (my last day in fact), filled with hope for a brilliant day ahead of me only to realise that in Alfama (the extremely pretty district I found myself in), almost every cafe or shop that I walked past was closed. The tiny cobbled lanes were completely empty, and all I could hear were my own footsteps, washing flapping in the breeze, and the occasional distant conversation from the end of one of these winding alleyways. It was actually pretty cool, and made a really nice contrast to all that hustling and bustling through the crowds back in April. So pals, every cloud has a silver lining and Alfama on a Sunday morning in August was my silver lining to the earlier failed attempt to get to know a massive amount of Lisbon in an incredibly short time. Getting lost in that labyrinth was far more enjoyable to me than ticking off the boxes of every major site in the city, and I’m all round very glad that it happened.
Tips for visiting Lisbon
- The airport is only about 6 miles from the centre of the city. I flew home from Lisbon and got a taxi there from my hotel, but it’s also connected to the city by metro and bus services.
- Some restaurants or cafes only take cash so it’s a good idea to always carry some euros on you.
- Often when sitting down to eat in a restaurant you will be given a bowl of olives or bread- but bear in mind that most of the time these are not free! So if you don’t want them, just don’t eat any and they won’t charge you.
- Wear stable shoes! Cobblestones, hills, and heels are not a good combination unless you have a death wish.
- Although Lisbon is regarded as a pretty safe city, they are known to have a big problem with pickpockets. My taxi driver told me a terrible story of a posse of pickpockets (I feel like posse would surely be the collective noun in this case) who worked as a team on the metro for a good ten years until they were finally caught. It sounded like Aladdin and his 40 thieves, so even if it was terrible it still made a great story for a 3am taxi ride.
- Remember your sun cream. 😊
- Coffee in Portugal is cheap. And I always feel like the price of coffee is worth mentioning.