Our roving retirement has finally taken us to Lisbon Portugal. The city is built on seven hills, so you can imagine that there really isn’t a flat spot to be found except very close to the river. This can present challenges for walking, parking, and just about anything else you want to do in the city but it also presents beautiful views. The city is bisected by the Tagus river, but Lisbon itself is on the north side of the river. It even has a bridge across the river that has the same paint as the Golden Gate Bridge but is apparently the same design as the Bay Bridge.
Staying in the City
Before we arrived in Lisbon, we got a bunch of info from friends and people we met during our travels. Because of the recommendations, we decided to stay in the Alfama neighborhood of Lisbon. Alfama is the only neighborhood that withstood the earthquake of 1755, which was between 8.5 and 9.0 on the Richter scale. As you might imagine, the neighborhood is very old, has very narrow streets, charming buildings and, as with all of Lisbon, is very hilly.
We opted for an apartment that had a view of the river. While the view was superb, there were challenges. First, as with the Algarve, the wifi was less than wonderful. There were times when we had to wander around with our laptops to get a steady signal. While the wifi was slow, it wasn’t bad enough to drive us to find another place to work.
Another interesting thing about the apartment was the windows/doors. Apparently, all of the new windows and French doors in most buildings open two ways, if you turn the handle one way, they open like doors, if you turn the handle the other way they only open about 8 inches at the top. I mention this because we tried to open one of the doors in the apartment and we thought we broke this very expensive door. Fortunately, we got a lesson in how the windows/doors work.
One of the charming things about Alfama is the number 28 tram line. This tram ran right in front of the building and the street was so narrow that you had to be careful when you stepped out the front door that you didn’t run your face into a tram. Several times Mike grabbed my arm as I left the building to make sure I didn’t step into the street in front of a tram car. Our street was a single lane but the tram runs in both directions so trams wait on either side of this section where there are two lanes for the trams coming from the other direction to pass. It is quite a sight. I am sorry to say that even with our close proximity to the tram, we never actually rode it.
Our final and most common challenge was finding parking and getting back and forth from the car to the apartment. When we arrived, we found the single-lane road in front of our apartment with no place to unload the bags. Mike finally found a spot down the street where he could double park very briefly between trams (3 minutes tops) and unload the bags. Each time we drove somewhere, there was a new search for street parking. I will say that the parking was really handled by Mike, but I had my share of going up and down the hills to the car also.
Touring the City
On our first day in the city, we decided to take a Tuk Tuk tour. I knew the city was full of hills before we arrived and I thought we could cover more ground in a Tuk Tuk than we could on foot. It turned out that I was right, but the 2-hour tour that I booked turned into a 4-hour tour at double the cost, which didn’t make me too happy. I will say that we went to all of the famous viewpoints in the city, wandered the Chiado and Barrio Alto neighborhoods, stopped into the oldest bookstore in the world and we had an awesome pork sandwich.
By now, you know I’m into crossing off UNESCO sites where ever we go. The major site in Lisbon is Belem Tower and the Jeronimo Monastery. There was easy parking nearby and at least a kilometer of beautiful riverfront to walk on between the tower and the monastery. The tower was closed but is said to be the place that the great Portuguese explorers departed from.
There is a plaque commemorating the first aerial crossing of the South Atlantic in 1922. The crossing departed from Lisbon and took 3 aircraft over 2 months. While no doubt a great feat, it has been largely forgotten, in favor of Lucky Lindy’s flight in 1927.
There is also a plaque claiming that Columbus was actually Portuguese and a plaque praising Vasco da Gama. Above all is the very striking statue representing all of the people who made the age of exploration possible including Prince Henry the Navigator and plenty of monks ready to convert the heathens to Christianity.
Jeronimo Monastary and Archeology Museum
Jeronimo Monastery is also part of the Belem Tower UNESCO site, so we decided to visit. The building is very large and impressive and has an equally large church attached. Inside part of the monastery is an archeology museum with lots of artifacts from other ancient cultures. A combined ticket got us into the museum, the monastery cloister, and the church. If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I really like cloisters and we visit them whenever we can. The place is busy and the visit didn’t take long.
Eating in Lisbon
As with every big city, we visit we look into a food tour and Lisbon was no different. This particular food tour was interesting because it was specially curated in Alfama with visits only to family-run restaurants with products from local producers. The tour called Lisbon’s Best Flavors was through an Airbnb experience and explained a lot about Portuguese food and drinks. For example, Portuguese pork sausages are traditionally cooked over a fire in a special ceramic dish called a canoe. There is also a local alcoholic drink called Ginja made from sour cherries. Some old women sell it on the street, but our taste was in a chocolate cup made by a known company.
One of the common foods in both Spain and Portugal is pulpo or octopus. In my experience, octopus is often chewy so I generally don’t order it. That said, the first night in Lisbon, we decided to go to a restaurant in our Alfama neighborhood that was supposed to have the “best” grilled pulpo in all of Lisbon. Mike likes it better than I do so he ordered the pulpo and I ordered a local sausage. I can tell you that Mike’s octopus was the best I have ever tasted and it wasn’t chewy at all.
We noticed in Lisbon that there are two or three Pastelarias on every street. They seem to be crowded most of the day but especially around 5 pm when everyone is drinking coffee and eating pastries. We never did quite understand why they were doing that when dinner was at 8 pm but that seemed to be a thing.
There is one local pastry that is more famous than any other, the Pastel de Belem, originally made by monks. A company in Belem purchased the recipe and trademarked the name. But the custard tart with a flaky dough crust is so popular that every bakery sells them as Pastel de Nata. In addition to getting some at the namesake bakery in Belem, we had them for breakfast and whenever we got hungry near a pastelaria, which wasn’t hard since they are everywhere.
Overall, we had a number of good meals in Lisbon, but the food is very fish and potato centered and not as distinctive as Spanish or French food. So my take is, come for the sights and the experience not necessarily for the food.
What site in Lisbon would you most like to see?