The last five months have passed by in such blur as I tried frantically to get some movement with several long term projects. I was finally able to officially launch the Plant and Pine store, made some headway on my novel, started writing a second, wrote, revised, and submitted several short stories, a few poems, as well as some grant applications for a doc I’d like to make. With so much going on, I neglected to write about my most recent travel experience. Now that I’m on my summer work hiatus, I finally have a chance to go back and reflect on what was a very transformative and memorable experience.
I’m still a novice traveler. Prior to my trip to San Francisco in 2016, I’d never been on a plane, didn’t have a passport, and hadn’t even been out of province since I was a kid, so when I began planning for my first overseas trip this year I knew I had to pick a destination that would make this milestone particularly special. Lisbon might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of fabled and fabulous European cities, but I think that’s what drew me there – that’s it’s off the beaten track a bit. And after repeatedly watching the Lisbon episode of Somebody Feed Phil on Netflix, I became pretty enamored with the centuries-old Portuguese capital.
In the episode, the show’s host, travel and food enthusiast (and “Everybody Loves Raymond” creator) Phil Rosenthal makes a recommendation as he wanders the ancient cobblestone streets of Lisbon. “Jump in people,” he says.”Go someplace on a hunch. Off the beaten path. Someplace you don’t know a ton about…If you’re lucky you might end up in Lisbon.” This is sage advice and for a curious neophyte globetrotter like me, an irresistible provocation.
In addition to the obvious allure, Lisbon as a destination met with other pivotal criteria. The flight time is not terrible. It was under eight hours, gate to gate. And, perhaps most importantly for a Canadian fatigued by the brutal cold and snow, Lisbon has a Mediterranean climate and it stays mild throughout the winter months.
There is nothing so completely satisfying as the moment that, after fleeing from winter, you emerge from the airport into the fresh air and decadent hot sun. This feeling was especially pronounced when I arrived in Portugal. I was so invigorated by the warmth that, despite only a few hours of restless sleep, I decided to walk for a bit. I didn’t intend on walking all the way to my Airbnb, but once I got past the freeways, and roundabouts, and into the core of the city, I couldn’t resist all the new sights and sounds. It was a solid three-hour hike to Alfama, the old quarter and heart of Lisbon, where I was staying, and while it was definitely exhausting, I’m glad I did it. I got to see parts of Lisbon that tourists generally don’t visit, and it gave me a good sense of the city’s personality and cadence.
I should note however that the Lisbon Airport is centrally located and served directly by one of the subway lines, so three-hour hikes are definitely not a necessity. You may, in fact, want to conserve your energy as Lisbon is built on and around seven hills. The interior’s streets are fairly steep and mostly cobblestone, so bring solid and comfortable shoes!
For those worried about the language barrier, I had no issues. Many Portuguese, particularly those in service and tourist industry speak English fluently, though learning a few basic phrases and words will help and get you a friendly smile or two from locals. Obrigado (thank you) is a fundamental one.
Where To Stay
There are spectacular scenic vistas, beautiful mosaic tile work, and ancient architecture, to be discovered in every part of the city – more than you could ever see in a single trip. A lot of the tourist activity is centered around Baixa Pombalina (downtown) and Alfama, and while I wouldn’t ordinarily recommend staying in a tourist-heavy area, these neighborhoods are really vibrant and lively, offering a good mix of restaurants, attractions, and local charm.
My Airbnb apartment, a third-floor walk-up in Alfama, was an absolute dream – bright, spacious, comfortable, centrally located but also peaceful and quiet, despite the endless flow of tourists wandering through the streets below. Months later I still sometimes wake up in the morning in my dim little basement apartment and imagine that I’m back in Lisbon, laying in bed with the sun pouring in through the bedroom windows, the church bells and boat horns ringing out gently in the distance. If you do stay in Alfama, keep in mind that you’ll be walking up and down a lot. The old quarter winds up steeply in a maze of narrow stone streets and stairs. The #28 Tram line runs through the area, but the tram is also a major tourist attraction and is frequently (almost always) full to overflowing. I never got a chance to ride on it, but it’s safe to say it’s usually not the most expedient way to get around Alfama.
In terms of safety, Lisbon generally has a low crime rate though there’s a noticeable presence of drug dealers, especially at night in and around Martim Moniz station and up towards Interdente and Anjos stations – which sounds more intimidating than it actually is. Drugs in personal quantities are decriminalized in Portugal, so you’ll likely receive lots of persistent offers in certain spots. Use common sense and stick to brightly light areas. I felt very safe walking through Alfama at night, even when there were few people around, but I also figured out that, after dark, I should avoid the western entrance at R. Fernandes da Fonseca, near Martim Moniz.
I’ll try my best to explain the Via Viagem transit pass system, though to be honest some nuances of it still confuse me. Basically, if you’ll be using the metro to get around you’ll want to get one of the rechargeable transit cards, which you can buy and load with money at any metro or train station. They can be used for the buses, trams, subways, municipal trains and apparently the ferries as well, but the train and subway are different fare categories and you can only load one type of fare on a card at a time – which may mean you’ll have to get two cards if using both systems. The cards only cost .50 Euros. Confused? Don’t worry, I’m still confused and made my way around just fine.
The subway system is great and very affordable (a single fare is 1.50 Euros) There are four lines and 56 stations, covering many of the main points of interest. One of the notable exceptions is Belem. It’s fastest to grab the Cascais bound train at Cais De Sodre and get off at Belem. The fares are calculated by zones, so it won’t cost you that much more than a bus. I only attempted to take one bus, while trying to get back from Belem. The bus never came and I ended up walking back to the train anyway.
The subway lines are delineated by a color (red, blue, yellow, green), but an additional confusion is that the municipal train lines (To Cascais, Estoril, Sintra, etc.) are identified by some of the same colors (red, yellow). If it’s not immediately obvious, they are completely separate routes.
What’s the difference between the white card and the green card? What is a 7 Colinas card? Or any of the other numerous cards? The answers to this whimsical Portuguese’s mystery are yours to discover (Edit: After digging further, I finally discovered that the difference is that white card will not work for the bus routes that operate south of the Tejo [Tagus] River. Mystery partially solved!)
The fare and card dispenser machines do provide a rough English translation for their menus (click on the British flag).
What to Eat
Despite its reputation for meat-centric cuisine, Lisbon is very vegan-friendly. It’s an international city that, because of Portugal past as a colonial superpower, has a diverse diasporic identity. There is a lot of culinary fusion going on in the food scene. Unfortunately, because I was there during the holiday season, a lot of the restaurants I was eager to try were closed. The few restaurants that I did get a chance to visit, the food was remarkable – with a uniform emphasis on fresh, seasonal, top quality ingredients. What is even more remarkable is how affordable the food is, both in stores and restaurants. A three-course meal for under 20 euros is not hard to find.
Princesa do Castelo (Rua do Salvador 64A, 1100-466 ) – This charming and cozy Alfama gem was just down the street from my apartment. They serve satvic (jain), macrobiotic cuisine and focus on allergen-free food. I had a red burger with fries and a vegan Pastel de Nata (the famous Portuguese Custard Tarts) for dessert. Very tasty.
Veganapati (Rua da Prata 242, 1100-423) – Located on one of the grand, light-filled avenues of the Baixa Chiado, Lisbon’s commercial center, Veganapati serves modern, innovative Indian fusion cuisine. I visited several times during my stay. I loved the food here. It’s full of flavour and beautifully plated. The restaurant itself is lovely – very chic, spacious and classy, but also inviting.
Juicy Lisboa (Rua de S. Julião 70, 1100-048) – Juicy Lisboa is also located in the Baixa. Their health-conscious menu revolves around flat-breads with various toppings. You can build your own or choose one of the set options. They also have salads, smoothies, juices, and other sides as well. The cold brew smoothie was one of the best smoothies I’ve ever had. My flatbread was topped with a beautiful blend of avocado, mint, fresh herbs. radishes and garlic sauce. A fantastic option for a quick bite or takeaway.
Vegana Burgers (Praça Duque de Saldanha 1, 1050-094) – You’ll have to go out of the downtown a bit for this one, but it’s worth it and it’s pretty close to the Saldanha subway station. Vegana Burgers is located in the food court of the Atrium Saldanha. They have a variety of veggie patties and sides to choose from but the real highlight is that the buns come in a whole rainbow of colors, and are dyed with all-natural ingredients (various forms of spirulina). For some reason I expected the bun to be a bit dry, but it was moist and very fresh.
Zarzuela (R. Bernardino Costa 21-23, 1200-052) – A short walk down the street from Cais do Sodre, Lisbon’s main station, Zarzuela is a traditional bakery that is entirely gluten-free, but also has a substantial selection of vegan options, which are clearly marked. You’re unlikely to find vegan versions of your favorite Portuguese pastries elsewhere, so stock up here!
Attraction/What Not To Miss
Sintra and the Castle Circuit – Sintra is an affluent resort city that’s a forty-minute train ride from Lisbon. The town center is charming, very green and scenic with lots of shops and restaurants to explore but the real attraction is the handful of castles in the area. Sintra is a full day’s adventure and if you want to really take your time and see everything, you’ll need multiple trips. I arrived early in the morning and still felt pressed for time and missed a few things I would have liked to have seen. You can buy individual tickets at any of the castles, but the best deal is the three castle pass for 25 Euros. Since you’ll probably have to prioritize what spots you visit, I would recommend skipping The National Palace. It’s much more utilitarian in design and doesn’t have the strong sense of whimsy and romanticism that the other spots do.
The Castles of the Moors, Pena Palace, and Monserrate Palace are situated along the peak of the Sintra Mountains, so you’ll have to climb up from the town to reach them. There are shuttle buses, though I strongly recommend doing the hike up. It’s not a very intense trail (despite what the signage tells you), and along the way, you’ll get to see some really exotic foliage as well as the area’s premium rock climbing spots.
Cascais and Boca do Inferno – Oh my beloved Cascais. I can even express how much I loved this sunny, impossibly serene coastal retreat and glamorous European playground. Cascais is only a twenty-minute train ride from Lisbon and right on the ocean. Like Sintra, the area’s affluence and prestige are renowned and even the royal family was known to spend their summers here. There are several fabulous beaches, as well as a stunning series of cliffs offering breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean and the craggy western coast of Portugal. Boca do Inferno, a picturesque chasm beneath the cliffs is one of the main attractions.
Alfama – As I mentioned earlier, Alfama is the city’s historical Moorish quarter and Lisbon’s most iconic neighborhood. It’s the primary home of the Fado scene (traditional Portuguese music), as well as numerous restaurants, bars, shops, churches, gardens, and open-air cafes. The various plazas, interspersed throughout, offer some of the best views of the city and the river. There are a lot of nooks, crannies, and alleys to be explored here. While it’s usually bustling during the day, you can still always find a quiet spot to relax and take in the sights, sounds, and aromas. Again, the #28 tram line services this area and there are also plenty of Tuk-tuks selling rides up and down the hills, but ultimately the area is not easily accessible for those with mobility issues.
Sao Jorge Castle – This grand, centuries-old castle sits at the heart of Alfama, on Lisbon’s loftiest hill. It’s one of Lisbon’s most popular attractions so arrive earlier if you want to avoid a line. The grounds are expansive and the views are epic.
Belem – There’s quite a bit to see and do in Belem, a civil parish that’s about six kilometers west of the city center. The most well-known and significant landmark in this area is Belem Tower, a UNESCO world heritage site that was built in the 16th century on the Tagus River. The tower is surrounded by a park, so bring a picnic and enjoy the view. Padro dos Descrobimentos, a massive stone monument carved and erected in celebration of Portugal’s age of discovery, is just a bit east of the tower. The monument features 33 historical figures, and the craftsmanship on each carving is impressive! Jeronimos Monastery is just of the north of the tower. I was told in advance that the interior courtyard, the only part of the Monastery that is open to visitors, was not worth the entrance fee, so I skipped it, but I did a walk around the building and grounds. It’s an architectural wonder for sure.
Praca do Comercio/Terreiro do Paco – At the south end of the Pombaline Lower Town’s grid of streets is the Terreiro do Paco, a public square that is a common gathering spot for both locals and tourists. There are artisan vendors all around the square as well as restaurants and bars. Many of the city’s big festivities happen here. I spent New Year’s Eve here and was treated to an outdoor concert and firework display.
Carmo Convent and other churches – There are lots of beautiful old churches around Lisbon and many are open to the public during certain hours and times of the year. Carmo Convent is not an active church, but rather a historical remnant of a convent that was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. A small donation will get you inside of the restored facade as well as the archaeological museum.