A First Timer's Guide to Lisbon

A First Timer's Guide to Lisbon
A view of Belém, Photo Credit: Getty Images

Take a deep look at Portugal's capital and find a charming old town. One with bright yellow trams, medieval monuments, and food that soothes the soul

Sharmistha Chaudhuri
May 04 , 2019
11 Min Read

The flight was on time but the journey to Lisbon’s Belém district in the darkness wasn’t ideal. Every new city looks different at night compared to its postcard-perfect daytime version, but the wind blew with all its might that particular evening as our taxi made its way towards the hotel on the banks of the Tagus, one red light at a time. To be honest, the hotel, lit up with dim yellow lights, seemed too modern for my liking or to beckon to travellers on a dark night. (It does have many ‘best design hotel’ awards and mentions, just to let you know.) Lisbon, in my mind, was all about the old—red roofs, Moorish tiles, yellow trams, hilly slopes, green swaying trees and egg-custard tarts. 

The Monument to the Discoveries

But as a sliver of daylight crept in through the partially opened blacked-out curtains on our floor-to-ceiling glass window, shaking off the tiredness of a travel-worn body, I decided to take a look at the view outside. My mouth dropped open. In place of the darkness, I could see an uninterrupted view of the suspension bridge, the Ponte 25 de Abril, a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco; the river flowing gently downstream as seagulls quacked and joggers ran by the banks; and the famed Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos) almost at touching distance.

Portugal had always been on my radar but, unfortunately, we—my sister and I—never made it during our many backpacking trips across the continent over the last decade. It finally took a husband, his conference, and my thirst for never-ending adventure to make a trip to Lisbon a reality.

Merrymaking at Alfama

At first glance, Lisbon can seem an oddity—one of the oldest cities in western Europe; a long history of occupation and siege by various tribes including the Carthaginians and the Moors; maritime conquests in the 15th and 16th centuries that resulted in Portuguese colonies in Asia, Africa and South America; the earthquake of 1755 and a subsequent tsunami that almost destroyed the city and its surroundings; extreme political upheaval in the 20th century resulting in assassinations, coups, civil resistance and a right-wing regime; and, finally, the city’s redevelopment after it joined the European Community in 1986. Today, Lisbon is the home of art and architecture that has survived generations, passionate food connoisseurs, fado, and Cristiano Ronaldo (who isn’t from here, but the Juventus star is the best-known player from the country) and a legion of football fans.

Grabbing a coffee to go, a walk along the Tagus saw the Monument to the Discoveries grow bigger and bigger till I was a tiny speck next to it. The 50-metre-tall spectacle highlights the ‘golden age’ of the country’s maritime discoveries and trade with 34 statues decorating both sides of the structure that resembled a ship’s hull. At the fore stood Henry the Navigator, while sailors, poets, crusaders, navigators, including Vasco da Gama, made up the sides. A map at its base carefully depicts which ports (and in which year) had the Portuguese conquered—Damão and Diu (1509), and Goa and Calecute (1498), in India. From the viewing tower above, you get a panorama of Belém— the area historically home to shipyards and harbours. The Torre de Belém was on my right while the gleaming white-marble Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was behind.

A colourful local market in Lisbon

As I walked down the stairs of the underpass to cross the street, I saw artists setting up shop for the day, a musician practising his accordion, and juice sellers cutting fruits to prepare for a busy morning. But history could wait as my sense of smell overtook everything else. Nuns from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos apparently set up shop to sell tarts in the 18th century as a survival tactic after the liberal revolution (1834) when all convents and monasteries were made to shut down. The egg-custard tarts or pastéis de natas, at the 

Pasteis de Belem pastry shop, is best enjoyed with a dusting of icing sugar and cinnamon, and a strong coffee. The ‘secret’ recipe remains unchanged. As globalisation has helped put the tarts on various international gastronomic must-have lists, the bakery churns out close to 10,000 of them daily, the number increasing threefold on weekends, a staffer explained. As someone lacking a sweet tooth, I couldn’t judge it for myself; my husband, however, wolfed down three without batting an eyelid. 

The famous tram number 28

The 500-year-old monastery next door is a big draw. The sun’s reflections on the marble exterior can be blinding on hot days and, yet, the lines to see the tomb of Vasco da Gama inside never seem to end. This Portuguese-style Gothic monastery, built on the spot the navigator had prayed before setting sail, was commissioned to honour his return from India. Truth be told, as a student of history who has read enough to know about the role played by the Portuguese in her country, I chose the artistic route instead of following the masses. Close by is the Museu Coleção Berardo and what better way to spend an afternoon in Lisbon than gazing at a collection that covers all major modern and contemporary art movements? I was more than happy to lose myself amid Picasso, Warhol and Pollock, vivid prints and abstract expressionism that lit up my artistic soul.

Lisbon’s other main tourist district is Alfama. The most tourist-friendly way to get there is the tram, of course. The sunny-yellow tram number 28, sometimes covered with advertisements, passes through the major tourist districts, rattling down the tracks and screeching to a halt to pick up passengers. These vintage trams, remodelled and running fine since the 1930s, add another charm to this already old city. Tourists flock to take a ride, and although locals use the tram service in large numbers, in peak season it can be tough to tell which of the two groups outdoes the other. But watching a tram roll by made me sad. I hail from Calcutta (call it Kolkata if you must) and trams there have been part of the cityscape since 1902. Efforts have been made to make the experience tourist-friendly but there is still so much to learn from the charm of the sunny-yellow trams.

An azulejo façade

Alfama is where the buzz lies. Azulejo façades on old houses, narrow lanes, slanted pathways on hilly slopes, viewpoints for Instagram moments, a cathedral, a castle, quaint cafés, vintage cars, and soul. Once outside the city limits and associated with poverty, Alfama is a must-visit part of Lisbon today. It is easier to walk downhill from the Graça area instead of uphill from Baixa as per the laws of physics, and with the scientist husband in tow, discovering the hidden nooks and crannies of one of the oldest areas of the city was an exhilarating experience.

If you want the quintessential view of Lisbon with the sparkling blue waters in the distance and red roof houses, you must stop by Miradouro das Portas do Sol. The vistas are stunning, you can shop for quaint Moorish-style earrings and cork products, and sip on some coffee to start the day. If walking isn’t your cup of tea and the tram is too mainstream, hopping on to a colourful auto can be your answer. Painted in vivid pinks and yellows, they stand out from the crowd and the drivers always wear a smile while asking if you want a ride.

Navigating the narrow lanes in the most medieval part of the city is an art. (However, looking up to stare at balconies with peonies, electrical lines and squawking birds can be equally entertaining.) There are sudden steps that, if you’re not careful, will lead you to the bottom of the hill; colourful murals on dilapidated walls; cafés functioning for decades with old machinery and lunch specials intertwined with hip cafés inside old stone buildings; the medieval cathedral with stained glass windows; and newer construction taking place marked by cordoned-off areas—Alfama is a maze between the ancient and the modern. You’ll find many, many souvenir shops all along the way being run by migrants from Bangladesh. Just a quick kemon achen (how are you in Bengali) makes them want to tell you all about their lives in a foreign land. And then there is fado—a direct link to Portugal’s soul. It’s the ‘fate’ of the country’s musical identity, of heartache and powerful vocals, ballads that draw you into performances from cobblestoned alleys.

It was late evening when we sat down at a small roadside café. With glasses of port wine and sausages, we reminisced about the day as strains of fado music came from inside one of the buildings. Lisbon’s quaint existence and rediscovery by tourists had given the place a vibe many cities attempt to recreate—genuine warmth from locals, a slow pace of life, yet a vibrant outlook with riverside restaurants and late night revelries. As we sipped the wine, I realised how much of an impact Portugal had on India, on everyday things we never thought about. All these years I had been yearning to visit a place where every step reminded me of a connection with home, one that gave me a feeling of something familiar. The Portuguese have a term called saudade—a yearning for something lost. I wasn’t lost, but had found something deeply familiar.

Food is serious business in Portugal. In 2011, in a nationwide contest, Portugal selected its seven gastronomical wonders.

Egg-custard tarts

  • Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon has delicious egg-custard tarts. Started by nuns of the Jerónimos Monastery in the 18th century to make some money, today the shop is a Portugal institution. 
  • Alheira de Mirandela is smoked sausage mostly made from mashed meats, fats and bread (and not pig). It was created by the Jewish in the 13th century to escape the Inquisition.
  • Leitão da Bairrada is roasted pig from the namesake region. It is seasoned and roasted for hours to extract a delicious flavour. 
  • Serra da Estrela is a handmade cheese made by shepherds in the country’s mountainous Beiras region. It is made of sheep milk and has a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). 
  • Sardinha assada or grilled sardines with salt, from the Setúbal region, is a favourite. It is usually served during the Santos Populares holiday season.
  • Caldo verde or green soup, served in clay bowls, is best enjoyed with warm bread.
  • Arroz de marisco is a flavour-rich seafood rice, almost like Portugal’s answer to neighbour Spain’s paella. Originally from Praia de Vieira, it can now be found in many different parts of the country.

Arroz de marisco

THE INFORMATION

GETTING THERE

I flew a direct Air France flight to Paris from New Delhi and then took a TAP Air Portugal flight to Lisbon (approx. INR 5,600 one way). 

WHERE TO STAY

I stayed at the Altis Belém Hotel & Spa (from INR 27,000; altishotels.com), home to a Michelin-style restaurant, with rooms named after Portugal’s maritime history. Other options are the Lisboa Carmo Hotel in the historic district (from INR 28,000; carmo.luxhotels. pt) and the Tesouro da Baixa by Shiadu (from INR 16,000; shiadu.com)

WHAT TO SEE & DO

  • Torre de Belém. The Unesco World Heritage Site isn’t very exciting but it’s worth ticking off your bucket list (entry fee ¤6).
  • Eat one a meal at Time Out Market Lisboa. It is a culinary hotspot frequented by tourists and locals alike.
  • The Santa Justa Lift has observation decks for magnificent views (return ticket Euros 5.15).
  • Lisbon offers plenty of unique museums—tiles, coaches, art, fado, etc. Take your pick.

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