Pink dawn lingers on olive groves as I wake on the train to Lisbon. A hazy blue hangs above the distant horizon, hinting at the salty river beyond. I am excited to see the city that so many have dubbed their offbeat favourite and can feel butterflies building in my belly as we approach.
Saint Apolonia Station is a little weary and a little grand, a look I come to recognise as the gritty charm that Lisbon wears so well. The streets are colourful, a delight to the eye. Clothes flap three storeys above the narrow cobbled streets. Tiled and rendered walls flash pastel pinks, blues and yellows, adding extra personality to this little capital. The city stands with eclectic elegance, presenting a daggy kind of cool that woos my heart from the first moment we meet.
Here are a few of my favourite adventures in a city I’ve come to regard as one of my favourite places in the world – Lisbon, Portugal.
Embracing a rustic urban calm, Alfama is the Lisbon suburb that I enjoyed the most. The streets are delightfully traditional in moments, with white underwear drying overhead, old men in trousers and nannas in aprons, but also youthful and eclectic, with art spaces, boutique shops and edgy cafes spotting the streets.
I was intrigued by the old buildings in Alfama. Once grand, with tiled facades and romantic balconies, many complexes are now crumbling and cracked, neglected by property owners who have no money to dedicate to their prime real estate. The fixed rental scheme across the city is largely blamed for much of the disrepair as the scheme is said to make rent ridiculously cheap for residents and scandalously insufficient for owners.
I spent hours at a time wandering the narrow cobbled lanes in Alfama, feeling a little like Alice down the rabbit hole as I stumbled across bizarre and brilliant sights and became more disoriented with every turn. I enjoyed the festive residue of the annual Lisbon Festival, which was just a week before my visit. The festival celebrates local culture with bright paper streamers, mid-street stages and shop-front barbeque grills for cooking sardines.
In my wanderings, I also found the narrow streets are notorious for getting people lost (including locals). The best remedy for a muddled compass and sub-par map is to head up the hill for a viewpoint or down the hill to the river… and then start again.
A Night of Fado
Tucked into the shadowed corners of Alfama’s alley are the heartbreaking sounds of fado, Portugal’s traditional version of bohemian blues. As the musicians take their seats in the centre of a cosy room, the audience hushes without hesitation and everyone waits for the first strum of the 12 string Portuguese guitar.
The music is intense and passionate, similar to Spanish flamenco, and fills every space with a melancholic tinge. Looking around the room, all eyes are transfixed, hearts are swelling, eyes are moist with emotion and glasses of red wine are being tenderly cradled.
I had the pleasure of experiencing this national cultural gem through the hospitality of Pancho Tours. Our small group was met in the city centre, navigated through the evening streets of Alfama and seated at a reserved table in one of Lisbon’s best Fado haunts. I must admit, my first fado night was a stunning, moving cultural experience that I am thankful to have had.
Barrio Alto Nightlife
While the crowds and neon of Barrio Alto are pulsing with energy, Lisbon’s inebriated nightlife quarter still manages to wear a casual face. This traditionally bohemian quarter of Lisbon is a laid-back residential area by day and a buzzing crowd by night.
The bars are typically just hole-in-the-wall spaces that are big enough for a handful of people. Most people are drinking citrus-inspired cocktails in plastic cups as they mingle on the street and hop from bar to bar.
A Day at Cascais Beach
Just a short train ride from Lisbon city is the idyllic Atlantic beach town of Cascais, where I enjoyed a day of coffee, wine, sunbathing and swimming. The town itself is small and tourist-ready and the beaches are tucked into little coves packed with tanned, happy people.
Cascais is at the end of the train line by the same name and there are lots of other beautiful and popular beaches accessible from train stops en route.
Exploring the Theives Market
Markets are one of my favourite things, especially when they sell car-boot treasures, local art and have hundreds of years of history, such as Lisbon’s Feira do Ladra or Thieves’ Market.
As you wander through the organised chaos of bric-a-brac, antiques, electronics, clothes and other glorious things, you will find all sorts of bargains and a rich display of Portuguese market culture.
The market is held every Tuesday and Saturday from about 9am until mid-late afternoon (depending on the daylight, weather and crowds). You can find it jumbled in with some of Lisbon’s loveliest sights – Igreja de São Vincente de Foran monastery, the National Pantheon and the Church of Santa Engracia, which are around Campo de Santa Clara in Alfama.
Enjoying the Art of Lisbon
Most cities keep their art in museums and galleries, hung on pristine white walls for quiet viewing, and while Lisbon certainly has these spaces, it also offers art in almost every other public place. The metro station murals and tiles, graffitied buildings and patterned pavers make the city feel like a living gallery; an exhibition of culture and vibrant expression.
Once you’ve explored the art-filled streets and stations, start your indoor art adventure at MUDE, the Museum of Modern Design, which is free, in the middle of the city and has really interesting, varied and interactive exhibits.
An Afternoon in Belem
Just a short bus or train ride from the inner city transport hub of Cais do Sodre, the pretty Lisbon suburb of Belem is worth an afternoon of exploration. Apart from being monument-rich and laced with museums and galleries, Belem enjoys a beautiful big park, some quaint fish restaurants and wide boulevards along the river to wander with an ice-cream in hand.
To get there, you can catch the overland train (cambio) on the Cascais line to Belem station or bus 28 towards Restelo (both leaving from Cais do Sodre).
Riding Tram 28
Oh the joys of a little yellow retro tram winding through cobbled streets, past colourful buildings, packed with grocery-laden locals.
Tram 28 is a little rickety, a little slow and full of local charm, making it a wonderful way to see Lisbon. It starts in the city centre and winds in a loop around Alfama, Graça, Barrio Alto, Saint George’s Castle and the viewpoint of Portas do Sol, among other Lisbon attractions and highlights.
You can use your daily transport card to pay the fare, or buy a ticket when you jump on.
Cafe Chilling, Eating, Drinking
Although Lisbon has lots of kooky, bright, enticing cafes, I hit the jackpot by stumbling across Bistro & Brecho Gato Pardo. Throughout my week stay, this wonderful little bistro became my dealer of iced-coffee, Caprese salad, and wifi for work. You can find it at Rua de Sao Vincente 10, which is a street near the tram 28 stop, just outside Campo de St. Clara.
Other cafes, eats and drink spots that I loved include:
- The little fish cafes along Rua dos Bacalhoeiros (edge of Alfama and city centre) where the locals lunch on 7.50 Euro set menus that include three courses, wine, cheese and espresso.
- An extrordinarily cheap and delicious meal can be found at 4 Estações Restaurant, located in Praça de São Paulo, 17. This is a great spot for dinner before a night out in Barrio Alto.
- A funky and cosy bar for drinks is Café Tati at R. da Ribeira Nova 36. It has awesome art drawn onto the walls, interesting bar staff and very yummy red wines (among other liquid pleasures).
- A tiny little bar called ‘A Ginjinha’, near Rossio Square in the centre of Lisbon, which serves the locally-loved liqueur made from Ginja berries (a bit like cherries). The bar serves shots in take away cups all day and often attracts a crowd of locals and tourists milling around in the plaza in front.
Jazz in the Park
Every Friday and Sunday evening from May to September, Lisbon parks enjoy the company of ‘Jazz Out Meo’, a free jazz program designed to bring community and culture to the green spaces of the city.
I was invited by some new Lisbon friends and felt quite at home lazing on the grass with a glass of wine, jazz in the air and intercultural conversations. The event catered for the masses with food and wine stalls, bean bags, bouncy balls and a sprawling space filled with weekend revellers.
The program rotates through Lisbon parks, with a new venue each month. Friday nights start from 6pm and Sundays from 5pm. More info can be found at the Jazz Out Meo website.
Other tips for experiencing Lisbon:
Public transport in Lisbon is surprisingly efficient for such a small city. There is a metro system with colour-coded, icon-indicated lines that can take you most places you’ll want to visit. A metro daily ticket is 5 Euros.
Tickets can be bought at the machines in each station, adding value to a reusable, single-person transport card that you buy from the machine as well. Depending on which type of credit you add to your card, you can use it on trams, funiculars and buses as well, but the overland trains require a different credit that must be added to an empty or different card. You can also buy tram tickets on the tram.
The main transport hubs for out-of-town transit are Saint Apolonia Station, which is near Alfama and at the end of the blue metro line, and Cais do Sodre, which is on the opposite side of the city and on the green metro line. Lisbon transport info can be accessed here and here.
Lisbon is a great city to walk. It’s quite compact for a capital city and has so many delightful things to see in the street that walking becomes an adventure as much as a way to get about. I stayed in Alfama, near the Thieves Market, and could walk to the centre in about 15-20 minutes or catch a 5 minute metro ride to the centre.
A good place for general Lisbon city info is the Visit Lisboa website.
Another popular Lisbon day trip (which I didn’t have time to experience this time) include the town of Sintra, which has a nearby castle complex called Quinta de Regalieria and is known as an adult’s playground.
If you’re interested in reading more about Lisbon, check out some of my other Lisbon articles such as Feira da Ladra Thieves Market and Graffiti in Lisbon – When Vandalism Meets Street Art, as published on ‘What to See in Lisbon’.
A warm thanks to Pancho Tours, who sponsored my Fado experience through their delightful Fado Tour. The night was a lovely, authentic experience with good people and great wine, food and quality Portuguese music.