Lisbon: The City With Many Sides

alfama resized

Carry on straight ahead and you reach wide esplanades and vast squares, their sidewalks encrusted with shiny black and cream cobbles formed into repetitive patterns. Take a left, and you climb higher and higher into a rustic past, characterised by worn-out trams chugging slowly uphill, and skinny, peeling houses standing in rows like broken teeth. To the right? A labyrinth of alleyways, snaking their way around wine bars and dance clubs, and a wonky-staired short cut every few metres.

This is Lisbon.

When you think of Paris, you might visualise the Eiffel Tower. Just like when you picture Venice, you might envisage the Grand Canal and its sprawling bridges.

What I’m trying to say is that most cities have a defining feature. An icon, if you will, that is clearly recognisable all over the world.

It’s difficult to pick what this would be with Lisbon. For some, it might be the crumbling hills of the Old Town, Alfama, or the sweeping, tourist-ridden roads leading to the riverside, or the humming beats of Bairro Alto. It’s safe to say that Lisbon doesn’t have one such defining feature. In fact, it’s safe to say it doesn’t even have a few. It has many.

Of course, you could argue that every place is the same. Yes, we might associate the Eiffel Tower with Paris, but what about the artsy district of Monmartre, or the chunky boulevards surrounding the Champs Elysees? The thing with Lisbon is that each ‘area’ is so separate, so unique, so different, that it’s like stepping into another world completely.

I’ll expand more on the below points in a series of upcoming blog posts, but to start with I thought I’d sum up Lisbon – a city that is actually very difficult to sum up!

Old and New

An earthquake destroyed the majority of Lisbon back in the 1700s, leaving most of it a shadow of its former self. Or, more literally, a corpse of its former self. The only area that survived was Alfama, the beautiful Old Town that sits atop an almighty, steep hill to the east of the city. Since the earthquake, restoration has taken place in dribs and drabs, slowly petering off until now, when there are still remnants of the city’s fall hundreds of years later.

This means that there is an odd and often fascinating mix of old and new. A brand spanking new hotel, complete with shimmering glass walls sits comfortably next to a crumbling old thing with broken windows and a big hole in its side. Just like a sleek, futuristic tram can be seen whizzing past a sputtering, rusty old tram with no windows and a dangerously creaky gait.

The juxtaposition is certainly odd, but it is by no means unsightly. In fact, it makes every twist and turn a surprise; will you be stepping back in time or taking a leap into the future?

Lisbon, things to do in Lisbon

The Foodie Scene

As most of you know, I’m not a massive foodie traveller. I like to eat but my trips don’t revolve around it. As long as I’ve got a full stomach after a meal, I’m a happy bunny.

Before I went to Lisbon, I was told that they have a delectable array of seafood dishes, what with it being so close to the mouth of a river. I wasn’t disappointed. Sure enough, every restaurant seemed to have a mouth-wateringly fresh selection of local fish for extremely reasonable prices.

What I was disappointed with was the huge gaping chasm between the quality of restaurants and the unfair difference in prices. Let me put it this way: on the first day I ate in the Baixo-Chiado area on one of the main strips down to the sea (bad idea, I know, but I was hungry and it looked nice). I ordered a basic cheese and ham toasted sandwich which was nice, but I definitely could have made better myself, and I paid almost €15 for the privilege. Disgusting, right? After this I was feeling down about the food situation, as I was looking forward to getting stuck into some delicious flavours.

Food in Lisbon, what to eat in Lisbon

But, luckily, there is another side to the foodie scene in Lisbon. Whilst there is a huge amount of tacky, tourist-trap type restaurants – you know, where the menus are laminated with pictures on – there are also some amazing little eateries tucked away down the many winding alleyways. It’s really worth getting some recommendations before you go as you can end up walking around for hours (trust me, this happened A LOT) and not finding anywhere remotely okay at all.

On a more positive note – you can get great seafood for less than 12euros in most places. What’s not to like about that?

Would you like a more in-depth look at the foodie scene in Lisbon? Like recommendations of places to go and where to avoid? Let me know in the comments.

Art and Culture

I was most excited to experience Lisbon’s creative side as I’d heard so much about it, especially the street art. I was expecting big, colourful murals, quirky cartoon characters hanging out on walls, and maybe even some street sculpture. Whilst there are some fantastic pieces dotted around the city, they are hard to find. I had a tip off from Shing at The Culture Map to head to Picoas Metro Station but, apart from that, I had no idea who or what was where.

street art in Lisbon, things to do in Lisbon

Admittedly, there are some great pieces in Bairro Alto, particularly on the boarded-up doors, but for the most part I was underwhelmed by the street art. Too much tagging and scribbled words for my liking. It was more rundown graffiti than high-end street art.

Lisbon’s other artsy and cultural offerings were less disappointing. There are a massive number of museums for all manner of topics – from modern art and planetariums to tile museums and buildings dedicated solely to the history of coaches. I’d make a pretty safe bet that anyone and everyone would be able to find a museum that caters to their interests in Lisbon.

Belem, Lisbon, things to do in Lisbon

Touristy and Local

As a capital city, Lisbon is extremely popular with tourists. Like I said, it has a lot to offer, so why wouldn’t people flock there? The result, though, is a busy mass of tourists, long, painful queues, and tacky tourist-traps. I visited Belem, the cultural district, whilst there and was completely blown away by the sheer number of other people there, too. Of course, I don’t expect to have exclusive rights to any place at all ever, but queuing in the searing heat for hours is definitely not my kind of fun.

Santo Antonio festival, Lisbon

On the other hand, I was there during the Santo Antonio festival, which is an annual celebration known for red wine and sardines. It’s very much a local festival, although there are Portuguese people who head to Lisbon from other parts of the country especially for it. There were mini street parties, barbecues at the side of the roads, and a really joyous atmosphere. It was clear the locals had spent a lot of time preparing, and they certainly enjoyed the celebrating, too! What I’m trying to say is, if you go at the right time of year and head to the right places, it’s possible to avoid the crowds and steer clear of the tourist-traps.

These are just my initial thoughts about Lisbon, and I’m still gathering my thoughts about it so expect a lot more to come on it in the next couple of weeks!

Have you been to Lisbon? What was your experience with it?

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Lizzie Davey

Lizzie is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer who's written for big-name brands like National Geographic Traveller, Cheapflights, LateRooms and more. After quitting her job in August 2014, she had one month to get her business in order and off the ground. Somehow, she did it (magic, maybe?!), and now she runs Wanderful World, a place for creative freelancers to congregate and learn how to grow their kick-ass businesses and travel more. Join along for the ride!

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14 Discussion to this post

  1. I love this post Lizzie. It’s interesting to read about all the different sides of a city together rather than either the touristy side or the off the beaten path side seperately. Lisbon, and Portugal for that matter, is somewhere I hope to get to in the next few years.

  2. Dale says:

    I’ve read so many things about Lisbon recently that have been in both the Pro and Against camp and it’s made the desire to go to Portugal stutter a little bit, but your pictures have certainly helped me swing closer to the Pro camp 🙂

    • Lizzie Davey says:

      Yes, I heard so many mixed reviews before I went and, whilst there were parts of Lisbon that weren’t for me, there were a lot of great things about it, too (especially its aesthetic appeal!)

  3. €15 for a cheese and ham toasted sandwich? Ouch!! You should know better 😉 After reading your account, I feel like the end of February is a really good time to go as there were no crowds whatsoever (basically your last line sums up what I’m trying to say!), I’d therefore have a difficult time telling people which areas are touristy, and where to avoid. That’s why this post is very good for people thinking about visiting and trying to manage their expectations during the busy months.

    Also, psychologically it feels really good to go in February, because seeing the sun after months of crappy weather in England can instantly made anyone feel happy!

    Did you go to Sintra? I dread to think how busy it gets in the summer :s

    • Lizzie Davey says:

      I know, I know… I should have known better! I won’t make that mistake again 🙂

      I think time of year does make a huge difference because of the crowds but also because of temperature. For a few days we were there it was pushing 35 degrees, which was almost too hot to do anything… We were constantly seeking out shade! I’d love to go back in autumn or early spring to see what it’s like as I’m sure it would be a completely different (and probably better) experience.

      I did go to Sintra which was less busy than Lisbon but still had a huge amount of people! It was nice because there are lots of little parks and places where you can escape the crowds, though, and we found a place to eat lunch away from the centre which was really nice!

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