Lisbon was the one destination within Portugal that I had heard enough about to build up a perception around. A perception primarily consisting of beautifully weathered neighborhoods to explore, plenty of colorful history to take in, steep hills to climb, and delicious eats to stuff in my face. Yep, this sounded like my kind of place.
My first realization after touching down is that Lisbon is generally an amazingly walkable city. Combined with the local busses and street cars, you can easily get just about anywhere you want for little money. Unfortunately for me though, the place that I was staying did not fit this and ended up being quite a ways away from the happening parts of town, with few public transportation options. This just meant I had to walk at least an hour each way whenever I wanted to do anything, which was kind of a bummer. Oh well… Next time I’ll just have to do better research.
Just please learn from my mistake and try and stay close to, if not within, either the Baixa or Alfama neighborhoods for maximum walkability.
After making the trek towards the center of town, I happily found myself in the Alfama neighborhood, the oldest in all of Lisbon. This far and away ended up being my favorite area of the city to explore. Tight narrow streets and walkways seem to meander almost aimlessly through an endless wall of ancient dwellings, storefronts and restaurants. At various points during the day and throughout the evening, Fado (Portugal’s cultural folk music) can be heard drifting around corners and down the cobblestone streets.
Even the aging streetcars, with tracks that extend throughout Lisbon, feel especially charming in the Alfama, as their bells can be heard echoing over the cobblestone streets throughout the day.
From here, I passed down into the Baixa district though, rather than just transitioning neighborhoods, it felt more like I had stepped into another time period. Gone were the winding narrow cobblestone streets, the fado floating through the air, the general laid back and relaxed vibe. All of this had been replaced by something much more metropolitan.
Now, multi-lane paved roadways clogged with vehicles were present, all attempting to navigate through a grid of roadways. The sharp sights and sounds of a crowded city offered a stark contrast to where I had been, and it took me a few minutes to readjust.
Definitely a different side of Lisbon, with tall old city buildings providing a dense and gritty atmosphere. That lived-in feeling radiated around every corner.
Once my mind had settled a bit, I took off down one of the many lanes of streets to see what the Baixa had to offer and soon found myself standing in the Place du Rossio, one of the few large open areas in this part of town.
Supposedly the scene of many past celebrations, revolts, and even public executions, it now acts as a nice colorful chill out spot to take an exploration break.
Across the street however, I found one of my favorite spots in all of Lisbon. Nestled in between small convenience stores and under a towering old church sits A Ginjinha, an historic literal hole in the wall bar that does nothing but serve shots of Portuguese sour cherry liqueur (ginjinha or ginja for short) day in and day out. And this stuff is glorious.
Fork over €1.50 and watch the artisan behind the bar pour you a shot while expertly guiding 2 alcohol infused sour cherries directly into your glass. If for some reason boozed up fruit in your drink just isn’t your thing and you’re feeling bold, you can supposedly ask for no cherries. But that would be just downright crazy wouldn’t it?
With drink (or drinks if you’re me) in hand, it’s just a matter of finding a nice spot under the church outside to enjoy your moment of liquid history.
And let me tell you, this stuff packs quite a punch. After 5 of these babies I had about as much ginja as I could handle, while still being able to reasonably function, and figured it was best to just move along.
As I was making my way down one of the long public walkways, I caught sight of one of the strangest looking buildings I’ve ever seen. Nestled tightly between the surrounding architecture and overlooking the entire section of old town sat the Santa Justa Lift. Built in the early 1900’s to support the trasportation of cargo up the nearby hill and originally powered by steam (now all electric), it’s definitely not the kind of structure I was expecting to see in the middle of these tall stone buildings.
For a few euros you can take a ride to the top and walk around, but between the long line of people waiting for their turn and the heavy buzz I was still feeling, I ended up passing this up.
Instead, I decided to continue to venture on down the public walkway, through the Arco da Rua Augusta, and out towards the riverfront.
It was here along the Tagus river that I found the perfect chilled out area I was in desperate need of after all of Baixa’s hustle and bustle. Grabbing a quick gelato (tangerine flavor on a hot day is always my go to) from the Praça do Comércio square, I claimed a spot on one of the waterfront benches and just let the music from one of the nearby street musicians wash over me.
If you’re more in the mood to soak in some rays from the Portuguese sun, bring a beach towel along and set up shop on the small patch of sand along the waters edge.
With the sun slowly beginning to set, it was about time for me to start making the long walk home. As I trudged back, under an ancient cityscape and over cobblestone walkways, the soft melodies that had been following me throughout the day slowly began to fade. Soon enough I was back on the outskirts of the city, happy at the fact that I’d soon be off of my feet, but already missing much of the magic from the heart of Lisbon.