By far the best way to explore Lisbon is to walk. Having endured hill walking in Porto, we did not realise just how much more work we were to do walking Lisbon. Yet, despite this, the city is full of hidden gems that will surprise you at every turn as you stroll the cobbled streets. Whether it’s magnificent views, a little shop or just amazing street art, you’ll never find it unless you’re walking the streets. A curiosity, however, are the tuk-tuks! These are meant for Bangkok, not Lisbon. More about this later.
We loved just wandering the streets. Mostly, we wandered the city with the purpose of reaching our destination, marvelling at just how lovely it is. Lisbon is filled with wonderful architecture, history, charisma, a vibrant nightlife during the festival, people and good value. Lisbon exudes a worn charm.
The Feast of St. Anthony is arguably one of the best times to visit Lisbon, which happens in the month of June, culminating in a parade and street party on 12 and 13 June. The entire city goes sardine crazy as they celebrate the feast of St. Anthony! Preparations begin several days before the party proper takes place and we were fortunate to witness and engage in the festivities. There’s a pleasant energy in Graca, particularly around dusk during the Feast of St Anthony. The district is decked out for the festivities during the week that we are ‘in residence’.
The entire city was awash with colourful decorations and lights and food and drink stalls to feed the throngs of people who flock to enjoy the street-side festivities. The music, colour and dancing set in long before the party proper begins and the streets around Graca and Alfama, where we stayed, are bustling with food and drink stalls.
Within the district is the Miradouro de Santa Luzia and Das Portas Do Sol, which affords great views over the district’s rooftops toward the river. Meander up one of Lisbon’s loftiest hills to the Moorish Alfama neighbourhood, where sunset-amber walls and dusty lanes orbit the Arabic medieval castle which looms over the terracotta rooftops of the city below.
Plenty of locals do live here; you’ll spot them shuffling slowly up the hills or hanging out on stools in front of their homes or working away in their stores, as they have been for many decades. At least some people in Alfama seems to understand that these old-timers are the heart of the neighbourhood. Spread out around the neighbourhood, a series of portraits called “Alma of Alfama”, or the “Soul of Alfama”, introduces some of the locals.
The Alfama locals still use public washing basins as well as showers and toilets as most units do not have any sanitary facilities, as depicted in the photo below.
Graca, which was our ‘hood whilst in Lisbon, is best known for its two tremendous viewpoints: the Miradouro da Graca and the Miradouro de Nossa Senhora do Monte, the latter providing a wider view across Alfama, the castle and towards the river. The neighbourhood might not have any must-see museums or churches, but this is one of Lisbon’s most charming areas. This is a friendly neighbourhood that is steeped in history, being the centre of St Anthony festival activities. It has an authentic local feel. Spend a few days walking the streets, enjoying the restaurants and bars, and you will soon feel like you have become part of Graça. A favourite restaurant of ours was Restaurante Ti Ascencao – the young owner/chef was passionate about his food and culture. We appreciated this district during our stay – we called it home.
Away from the two viewpoints, the atmosphere of Graça is decidedly local. The sidewalks are about two feet in width, and you can’t walk more than a couple steps without pausing for another little old lady to shuffle by. It takes some effort to get up this high, but once you’re in Graca, it’s worth the effort.
Contrasting to this and not far away, the city centre area of Lisbon, rebuilt after a major earthquake in 1755, has ordered streets, majestic buildings and consistent architecture. This appears to be the major tourist hub, with a ramblas feel about it, lined with stores and outdoor dining options as well as buskers and the odd quiet offer of a bag of dope!
Once the biggest church in Lisbon, Carmo Convent is now a site commemorating the 1755 earthquake. Located on a hill overlooking Rossio Square, the roof had been severely damaged during the earthquake and was never rebuilt.
The Elevador de Santa Justa is a 19th century lift that transports passengers up the steep hill from the Baixa district to the Largo do Carmo and the ruins of the Carmo church. Two options for the lift are to wait an hour to use the lift, part of the Lisboa Card.
Alternatively, as we did, the top deck can be accessed from the Largo do Carmo, by following the path to the right of Carmo ruins and then going into the Bellalisa Elevador restaurant, walk across the walkway for free, to get a reasonably good view without the crowds and have a drink at the bar on the way out.
Trams have been a way of life in Lisbon since 1873. Sitting in them and riding through the historic and well-worn streets of the city was a simple pleasure. Yet, the trams are still useful and popular with locals … they’re touristy, too. We took a ride on the #28, which is known for its breathtaking route past some of Lisbon’s most iconic sights.
Our trip starts in Praca Martim Moniz, and then proceeds uphill into our neighbourhood of Graca. From here, it’s a slow descent past the Castelo de Sao Jorge and the Miradouro das Portos do Sol, where the views over the Tagus are incredible. It further descends into Alfama, past the city cathedral, and then cuts straight through Baixa, before rumbling up into Chiado, where we decide that we have had enough and hop off to catch our connection to Belem.
In addition, the Monument to the Discoveries was inaugurated during celebrations of the 500-year anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. It depicts Henry (at the front) holding a small caravel, along with other heroes of Portuguese history. It is shaped like a ship’s bow and projects out above the water across the Tagus. Quite an impressive structure.
We felt safe walking through Lisbon at night, but it was the Feast of St Anthony with the streets buzzing and people in high spirits and party mode. Lisbon had a relaxed feel about it. Admittedly, it could do with a tidy up, but that is part of its make-up. The best way to describe Lisbon would be that from afar, she looks like a queen, but get closer, the make-up is smudged – but she is still a beautiful nonetheless. we spent a lot of time walking about the city and experienced sights and delights that we would never have experienced at home.
On a final note, whilst an oddity in Lisbon, the tuk-tuk is an easy way to see the city as it is small enough to transport you into tight neighbourhoods. An added bonus is that our guide Sandra had a wealth of knowledge about Lisbon’s history and helpful hints for dining and shopping.