The entire scene was shot in Lisbon, but there wasn’t some sort of helicopter shot of the city’s skyline, or any glimpse of the iconic statues or buildings unique to the city. Any movie set in Paris, I assure you, will start with a teeming shot of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. This meant that, the moment we got our travel arrangements together, I was curious and excited – I had no idea what to expect of this new capital city!
Hills and Colour
I quickly learned that what to expect, in Lisbon, are hills and colour – lots of hills and lots of colour. (Maybe it’s colourful in order to distract you from the amount of hill climbing you have to do?) Many cab drivers mentioned that it’s a little bit like the European version of San Francisco, especially with the trams that run through the narrow streets.
The city’s architectural style is distinct, with influences all the way from the Roman Period through to the Moorish Period and, most presently, the 18th century Pombaline style which was heavily employed when rebuilding the city after the 1755 earthquake.
Portugal is also known for its Azulejo Tiles. There’s a gorgeous tile museum that explores this rich and intricate history, but we didn’t have the opportunity to visit it. I’d still heavily recommend it, though. But whether you make it to the museum or not, you’ll still see all these unique tiles in various buildings from the grandest churches and palaces to normal houses, schools, restaurants and bars.
Setting Records: Old Bookstores and Famous Lifts
We explored the area around the Santa Justa Lift, which is an iron structure apparently known to be the most famous elevator in the world.
Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world, so it’s no surprise that it’s home to the oldest running bookstore ever, Bertrand Chiado. We were a little disappointed to discover that it wasn’t much different from any normal bookstore – but we enjoyed it nonetheless (and even respected that they kept it authentic: if the record of ‘the oldest bookstore in the world’ were set by England or the USA or wherever, would they have made it a huge cash cow?)
The Westernmost Point of Mainland Europe
We spent a day in Sintra, a holidaytown in the West of Lisbon. A day is barely enough to see all that Sintra has to offer – for instance, there is Pena Palace, famous for its gorgeous red and yellow colours, the Castle of the Moors, and the Westernmost point of mainland Europe, Cabo da Roca.
We arrived to Sintra by train and had to sort out our transportation around the area: either by bus, or by private taxi. A lot of drivers approached us immediately we arrived, piping over one another that their package deals was better. After finding out the bus prices barely competed with the taxi ones, we opted to go with a driver who was willing to negotiate his price down even more. He happily became our tour guide (and photographer) around the town.
While we visited the Moorish Castle and spotted Pena Palace during the drive, we chose to spend most of our time at Cabo da Roca. We were not disappointed! Watching the shores of the Atlantic ocean swimming against the rocky cliffs was a surreal experience.
From Bairro Alto to Belém
Logistically, most things were within walking distance of each other once we were in the centre of town, but we also used tuk tuks and Ubers to move around. The train system was easy to work around, which we used to go to the beach and to Sintra. Despite our limited Portuguese, communication wasn’t an issue, and this was strengthened by the fact that we also have a Spanish speaker in our group (the languages are similar).
We stayed in a small hostel that charged only €10 per night. Our food spending was limited in order to pay for other things such as transport, although Lisbon is an affordable/cheap city anyway.
Furthermore, even though our visit fell between Sunday and Wednesday, we were still able to have a taste of the city’s vibrant night scene ranging from high-end lounges to sweaty clubs and local bars. The ‘place to be’ was Bairro Alto, which was rows and columns of different bars and dance floors – each place had signs promising better offers than the last. Latin Pop ruled the speakers, which was pretty lit.
We found the locals to be friendly and, in some cases, curious – black tourists are still a novelty to some people! Nevertheless, we enjoyed talking and interacting with them, whether it was in a tuk tuk ride, within the hostels, or at bars. We explored different kinds of restaurants, but the ‘must try’ food when in Portugal are pastéis de nata, Portuguese egg custard tarts. (The challenge is maybe knowing which shops are selling the tourist-y ones and which ones are the real ones – a question easily answered by asking the locals!) I unfortunately couldn’t give the tarts a try (allergies), although it seemed that some of my friends liked them.
A Different Kind of Capital
Capital cities all over the world have interesting and very different origin stories. Places like Washington D.C. and Canberra, for instance, were created for the sole and specific purpose of being a legislative centre; whereas cities like London and Nairobi operate as a country’s hub for everything from transport to arts to research.
Lisbon had its own thing going on. It’s packed with so much history and has managed to keep itself calm and light. A large reason for this may be that it’s a small city – population is merely 500,000 people, which is perhaps why it was easy to slide into the fabric of the city.
In Lisbon, there was something new to discover at every corner. It is pleasant to simply walk around Lisbon and absorb its warmth and authenticity.
Also, who you’re with really does make a place even more special.
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