Lisbon city guide

I have two friends living in Lisbon; both of them went there to study, thanks to the Erasmus initiative and stayed for good. They kept inviting me over so I bit the bullet and bought a cheap plane ticket. I arrived, had a quick smoke and surprise, surprise: the friend that promised I could stay at her place- overslept and couldn't pick me up. I booked a room in hotel near Praça da Figueira and was within a walking distance from everything worth seeing, plus a metro station just around the corner. The other friend still kept me company so I wasn't completely abandoned. I had my breakfasts around Praça do Comércio, overlooking the river and went exploring. Lisbon's hilly topography is a pain in the ass if you're out of shape. Even if you're not planning to walk all that much comfortable shoes are a must. It was love at first sight and the city went under my skin very rapidly. I never expected the city would have so many interesting landmarks. Of course I knew about the São Jorge Castle, the Belém district with its World Heritage sites: Belém Tower and Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. But there is so much more too see such as the picturesque and vibrant Alfama district, an old unique zoo, and the rather new Lisbon Oceanarium; a mind-blowing indoor aquarium.

Belém Tower ((Torre de Belém) at the Tagus River against the sunset sky in Lisbon

The Belém Tower (Torre de Belém), built in the early 16th century in the exotic Manuelino style in honor of Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India, became a symbol of Lisbon and is considered one of the seven wonders of Portugal

But the biggest attraction lies probably in the city's inhabitants. I have travelled around many places in Europe and my experience is that the Portuguese belong to the kindest people you will come across. They seem to stay calm under all circumstances and hardly get annoyed, even when tourists behave rude and impatient tourists. There is a saying that Portuguese have a softer soul than the Spanish and that this is symbolized also by the fact that in the Portuguese version of bull fighting they do not kill the bull. For what's worth but the difference in volume level with their Eastern neighbours is remarkable and they produce less decibel in public sphere compared to Spanish for sure. A Lisbon Uber driver I spoke recently told that me that the Portuguese are just humble and modest because they do not have much to brag about, except for the weather maybe. To my opinion this explanation shows how the Portuguese underestimate the beauty and attractiveness of their country. There is so much more to discover than the traditional tourist staple Algarve in the South. You have lush forests and canyons in the North and impressive capes in the West. You can explore marvelous old cities such as Porto, the pride of Northern Portugal, and Coimbra, the charming university city in the middle of the country.

And then there is Lisbon, which is experiencing a tremendous growth in its visitors over the last decade. It is booming and hip and becoming the new Barcelona or Berlin: an absolute top-pick for a city trip in Europe. The Spanish newspaper El Pais published an interesting feature story about Lisbon's growing popularity. One of the explanations is that the local authorities control a lot of real estate in the city center and can prevent the prices to rise sky-high. By doing so local business and creative ideas can flourish. Lisbon has almost 3,000 hours of sunshine per year, which makes it one of Europe's sunniest cities and the light of the sky over Lisbon has been praised by many artists. Especially in the early morning or evening when the sun is at its lowest the light is magnificent. Even scientists investigated it and concluded it is probably caused by the reflection of the surrounding water and the pastel colored houses, which deliver a special golden glow over the city. Even the singer Madonna fell in love with Portugal and Lisbon and decided to move over Although the latest news is that due to a dispute with local authorities in the nearby Sintra over the shooting of a video clip the mutual love has cooled down and she left the country again.

There is also a downside to Lisbon's increasing popularity. The waiting lines in front of the museums and monuments can become unbearable long at certain peak times. The Belém Tower (Torre de Belém) is a must-see but due to its narrow staircases not more than around 120 people are allowed to be inside at the same time. And even with these numbers it can a claustrophobic experience. The last time I visited the tower I had to queue for almost 1.5 hour. But do not let that prevent you from visiting this 16th-century fortress in the typical Portuguese Manueline gothic style that functioned as a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon. It was built during the height of the Portuguese Renaissance when Portugal was at the top of its power. The country ruled the World Seas with navigators such as Vasco da Gama who discovered the shortest sea rout to India and Pedro Álvares Cabral, the first European who set foot on Brazil soil. The view over the Tagus river and the Ponte 25 de Abril (25th April Bridge), connecting Lisbon with the municipality of Almada on the left (south) bank of the river are stunning. The gracious suspension bridge is more or less a copy of the Golden Gate in San Francisco. On the south bank of the Tagus you will find another copy of a world famous monument. Chisto Rei (The Sanctuary of Christ the King is a huge statue of Jesus inspired by the Christ the Redeemer statue of Rio de Janeiro.

When being in the Belém district you cannot afford to miss the Jerónimos Monastery or Hieronymites Monastery, also built in the Manueline gothic style. There you will also find the tombs of Vasco da Gama and the poet Luís de Camões, whose national significance cannot be overestimated. Portugal Day, a national holiday celebrated on June 10th, commemorates the death on June 10, 1580 of the national literary icon who is described as the Portuguese Shakespeare. Talking about national icons: you might also like to try a Pastel de nata, the renowned Portuguese egg tart pastry dusted with cinnamon. The most famous place to get them would be at the Pastéis de Belém. This bakery café near the Jerónimos Monaster, claims to still use the original recipe of the monks who invented the pastry. Do not make the same mistake as almost all tourists who are waiting in an endless long line, which is for the take-away. Much better go inside. It's a beautiful venue where you can have a coffee on the side of your delicious egg tart and admire also the Portuguese Azulejo, the painted tin-glazed ceramic tiles. And most important you will be served much quicker than the tourists queuing for the take-away.

Believe a regular Lisbon traveller: a pleasant visit to this city is all about avoiding waiting lines. The same thing goes for the tramline 28 going to the atmospherically Alfama district. It is a beautiful ride but every tourist nowadays has it on the bucket list, so also here you have to calculate in a lot of waiting time before you can catch the tram. So better hop on the special red tourist tram (without a number). It might not be the real thing but it rides the same route, has almost never a waiting line and you will avoid the pickpockets whose favourite working domain is tram 28. The same work-around approach I would strongly advise you when you want to take the Santa Justa elevator, that connects the Baixa neighbourhood with the Bairro Alto district. The Elevador de Santa Justa stands 45 meters tall and is constructed in the same style as the design of the renowned French architect Gustav Eiffel. Go up first by foot or take an Uber taxi when you are too lazy to so you do not have to wait an hour in the line. Use the elevator only for going down because then the lines will much shorter. But don't do that before you have visited the Carmo Convent near the upper part of the elevator. The roofless ruins of this gothic church are evocative reminders of the 1755 earthquake, which devastated the whole city and had an estimated death toll of between 50,000 and 100,000 people. Nowadays it is an archaeological museum with interesting artefacts including two morbid mummies and an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus. In a definitely more lively shape are the playful house cats that charm all visitors.

When you have the time you definitely need to visit also the Oceanário de Lisboa, the Lisbon Oceanarium. This largest indoor aquarium in Europe has definitely the aw-factor. You can see the richness and beauty of sea live from different oceans in the world and it cannot be better positioned than in a country, which has such great maritime history as Portugal has. The Oceanarium is located in the Parque das Nações (the Nations Park), where the Expo '98 took place. I am really intrigued by those former World Expo grounds. These areas need to re-invent themselves once the exhibition is over, the visitors are gone and the spotlights have dimmed. That is challenge and only a few venues manage to find a new destination and stay alive and kicking. The Parque das Nações is definitely such a place. There you will find a lush park that offers a lot of shades during hot summer days, great playgrounds for children and you can do a work out at the Tagus river bank. When you will take the Telecabine (cable car) from the station at the Oceanarium you have a great view on the Vasco da Gama Bridge. The cable-stayed bridge spans the Tagus River and is with its 12 kilometres the second largest bridge of Europe. The Nations Park is also a wealthy area with luxurious hotels such as the Myriad skyscraper hotel and greatly designed penthouses bought by rich locals, Chinese and Russian businessmen.

Lisbon is also a perfect base for day trips to other magnificent places nearby. Take a peak outside of the city and you'll discover stunning beaches and ancient woods, that is to say when the forest fires, which are constant plague to Portugal haven't destroyed them. Many pay a visit to the fashionable Estoril, a resort that has glorious sandy beaches and houses the largest casino of the Iberian Peninsula. Nearby you will also find lovely fishing town of Cascais, which has laid-back beach bars all over the place. When you would have even more free time, rent a car, or hop on a train or bus to go more up north. My personal pick for staying somewhere at the coastline near Lisbon would be Ericeira: the hangout of the local and foreign surf dudes. The waves are pretty amazing and there is always a breeze, so the temperature is pleasant during daytime while in Lisbon the heat can be devastating. During evenings it can be even a bit chilly so be sure to pack a sweater. I just love the simple and pure atmosphere of Ericeira. It has a bit of alternative vibe and there are no set menu restaurants and other tourist traps. Actually you cannot really go wrong with restaurants in Ericeira. Many have fresh fish and sea fruit on the menu and genuine local dishes including the obligatory bacalhau (cod fish). Locals frequent many restaurants, which is always a good sign. Some of my personal favorites are Pinta (awesome burgers including fish and vegetarian variants), Patio dos Marialvas (great fish dishes) and Pizzeria Pão D'Alho (super thin and crispy pizza bases). When you want to go healthy try Green is Good (GiG). This place, which is also operating as a hostel offers very creative vegetarian dishes and delicious homemade smoothies and juices. It proves that healthy and tasty can go very well hand in hand. Being a "Flexitarier" I like to eat meatless so now and then but I usually dislike the artificial and pretentious atmosphere of these organic food places. GiG feels genuine and manages to stay away from this snobby attitude. And on top of it all: the waitresses are super cute and friendly.

Pena Palace (Palácio da Pena) at the top of the Monte da Pena in Sintra near Lisbon

Another of the seven wonders of Portugal is the Pena Palace (Palácio da Pena), located 23 km from Lisbon in the city of Sintra, built in 1854 according to the plan of King Ferdinand II on the site of the destroyed monastery; the colourful design of the romantic palace features a bizarre eclectic mix of styles, making it look like an enchanted fairytale castle

From Ericeira and also Lisbon the city of Mafra can be easily reached as well. It is famous for its National Palace, which was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019. The monumental baroque complex is a royal palace, a basilica and a convent, all in one. Its magnificent library is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the world. It even hosts bats, which come out at night and keep the place free from insects: an interesting Portuguese way of natural pest control. The most popular venue for a day trip from Lisbon is without any doubts Sintra, a picturesque town, that can be easily reached by train or bus from Lisbon. It could be rewarding to buy the Lisboa Card. Not only it offers you free entrance to the most important museums and monuments in Lisbon such as Belém Tower and the Jerónimos Monastery. It will also entitle you to use public transport for free and you can take a train to Sintra and other places. One of the Sintra highlights is the Palacio Nacional de Sintra. The white palace in Moorish style looks quite sober from the outside. But don't judge a book by its cover because its interiors have very lush decorations and rooms in gothic and other styles. The main touristic attractions however are located on the green hills overlooking Sintra. The remaining ruins of the Moorish castle (Castelo dos Mouros) offer brilliant views over the city and the environment. And the biggest tourist staple of Sintra and probably even of entire Portugal is the Palacio de Pena. This palace that was used as a country residence for the royal family is located on a hill next to the Moorish castle. Its playful design and many colors make the Pena Palace one of a kind in the world. It looks like it comes straight from a fairy tale or Disney cartoon and should not be missed when you have the time for a get-away from Lisbon. In Sintra you can be dazzled by the overwhelming transport options you have to see all the tourist staples. There are so many different companies operating busses and other vehicles that it becomes confusing. It's very typical for the tourist industry in Portugal, which lacks coordination and can transform into a glorious mess sometimes. Also the narrow and steep roads in Sintra, which are not designed for so much traffic can contribute to the local chaos. When being in Sintra you can also visit Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe. There you can do as the millions of other tourists did before you and take a selfie on the edge of Europe. Just be careful: your camera/phone might survive falling 150 meters down but I am not so sure about you.

That and so much more you can do during the day, but what about the evenings? Everyone goes bar crawling around Bairro Alto or visits renowned clubs such as Lux or the Urban Beach to dance the night away. Sitting at the riverside to chill with a bottle of cheap wine is also a popular activity of the locals. You will be surprised to find out how buzzing and vibrant this city is: there's something for everyone in Lisboa. The city is very safe but sometimes you can be bothered by shady people out on the streets, who will offer you free drug samples. At all costs avoid doing business with them, unless you do not mind getting mugged. Last but not least: indulge yourself in Lisbon's amazing restaurants scene. The Portuguese cuisine is a bit underestimated to my opinion. Yes, compared to the Spanish and other Mediterranean countries the local dishes might be a bit sober. It is true that many dishes come with boiled potatoes and steamed vegetables. It's maybe simple but also pure and definitely healthier than the usual French fries and some obligatory salad leaves. Thanks to the rich colonial history of Portugal you will find plenty of Latin American and African restaurants in downtown Lisbon. Try some genuine food from Mozambique or Angola for instance. Believe me: there is so much more to discover than cod fish. And besides there is a saying in Portugal that are more than 365 recipes to prepare bacalhau; so every day of the year you can have your cod a different way.

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