“There’s a certain charm to it comes when it comes”, he suggested as we waited for the famous 28 tram. With a limited grasp of Portuguese and only a slightly ambiguous tram schedule at hand, we set out to do as the locals did when two trams in a row didn’t show: we patiently waited for the next one. It was golden hour, that perfect time of day where you could see the sun gently peeking through the trees and the sky running pale against the clouds. But as tourist, it was the kind of evening you didn’t want to miss out on, and so without meaning to stand out as non-locals, we bit the bullet, made our way out of the line and took a walk in the opposite direction in the hopes of intercepting the 28.
I’m not sure where or how my obsession with Portugal started, but there must have been a subconscious tie-in with the Portuguese grandma I once had. She was not at all blood-related; our families had met through a local organization but she was as sweet as a blood-related grandmother could be. At every gathering I remember just being able to make out her silhouette in a crowd because she was one to always carry around heaps of gifts. It didn’t matter if it was Easter or Christmas or your birthday or just another regular day, you were either getting gifts or a McDonald’s happy meal. Several excursions with the Portuguese community later, I understood – even as a child – that despite our differing cultures, there was a laid-back elegance to the Portuguese that made me feel at ease. Even now, with the night descending on Lisbon 5000-something kilometers from home, I felt like I might belong here, too.
There is no tram more memorable than the 28, which explores several landmarks including the city center and the historical district. If you are so lucky as to get a window seat, you can open your window all the way and marvel at the winding streets, architectural gems and majestic miradouros (viewpoints). Evenings by Portas do sol, the sunset glistens over tamed evening waters as the city takes a gentle breath.
In the daytime, the 28 tells a different story:
Miradouro da Senhora do Monte
Tucked away behind Graça’s main streets, Miradouro da Senhora do Monte is the kind of viewpoint that even some locals don’t know about. Sitting atop the highest point in Lisbon (other than the castle), it offers a bird’s-eye view over the city center, all in the peaceful quietude of chapels and pine trees. As Miradouro de Graça’s little sister, it has a charm of its own but is often overlooked.
When you find a hidden gem, you always end up staying longer than initially planned. This is exactly how it played out, as we spotted out landmarks we had visited and surveyed the terracotta rooftops that stretched into the horizon. Right behind us, buskers pulled at their guitar strings while tourists looked on. In this moment, it seemed that life had no other plans for me: perfectly at peace in the city I had longed to visit for so long, time stood still.
Castelo São Jorge
To truly experience Lisbon’s highest point, a little visit to Castelo São Jorge is required. Presiding over the city since the 11th century, it was built on the highest hill and was considered the most difficult point to access, first to be occupied by the Romans and later by the Moors. Peeking between the ramparts that overlook the city, it almost seems that residents are sheltered under roof canopies and trees: you can always see the terracotta but never the life beneath it.
Benfica & Sporting Stadiums
If there is anything that divides Lisbon, it is the prospect of either being a Benfica or a Sporting fan. But don’t attempt to get your hands on derby tickets unless you’re a club member. Truth be told, I would have been more bummed about not making it the most important derby game of the season — if only it weren’t for the fact that someone actually died in a fan brawl that night. “Football ultras” are often known to be the most fanatic fans — and very often also the most violent ones. In fact, they are such a hazard that in most stadiums they are assigned a section with overhanging nets as a precaution to their flare throwing. For a slightly less intensive experience, both stadiums can always be visited for a small price. A visit to the Benfica (red) and Sporting (green) stadiums will give you chance to tour the arena, the changing rooms, the press rooms and the museums.
The Baixa (meaning low) district was just as I had imagined: at once charming and quaint and slightly unnerving because the cobblestones are as slippery as they look. This district was completely reconstructed after the earthquake that took place in 1755 and stretches all the way to Avenida da Liberdade (city’s main street) while neighbouring the district of Alfama.
The night we finally had some down time, we wandered through the streets, bypassing its fashionable department stores in search for Confeitaria Nacional, an exquisite pastry/tea shop known for its delicious pasteis de nata (famous Portuguese custard tarts), which were not our first but certainly not our last. Their unbelievable hot chocolate is also worth a try.
Somehow in all our travel commotion, Alfama kept being put off. With its winding roads and inclined alleys made of slippery cobblestones, I’m just glad it didn’t rain because Alfama is best explored on foot. “You need to get lost in Alfama”, was the coined phrase we kept hearing from locals. Known as the oldest district, Alfama has retained a lot of its history, as seen through its rustic buildings that have survived the 18th century earthquake. Some time ago, it was the home to dock workers and sailors, but today even foreign investors and the occasional millenial have managed to make a home here. It is not surprising then that it is also the birthplace of Fado, a melancholic style of music that explores themes of sailors at sea, the feeling of loss, death and sadness. This genre is perhaps best captured by the Portuguese word saudade, a deep emotional state of longing. And though this melancholy seems to be embedded in some of Alfama’s walls, this does not keep locals of all ages from assembling in the streets, putting out chairs or sitting on their front porches to talk about their days. The day we finally made it to Alfama must have been fate because the very first alley we turned into led us to a little old lady calling at passers by to buy some of her Ginjinha, a sight that could have entertained me for hours.
Bairro Alto & Chiado
A place one can surely spend much of their day is Bairro Alto & Chiado. Known as the working class quarter, locals and tourists can be found shopping and sightseeing. But my fondest memory still remains our meal at José Avillez’s Belcanto, the first restaurant in Lisbon to be awarded 2 Michelin Stars.
Just north of the Tagus River sits Belem, once known for being the district in which the richest resided. Today, it houses some of the most important touristic attractions and monuments. Most famously known are the Belem Tower and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, depicting a three sailed ship, D. Henrique of Portugal and other notable navigators who played important roles in the Portuguese Age of Discovery.
Belem is also the home of Pasteis de Belem, the original custard tarts pastry shop that still creates them through traditional means.
In some way, Belem was our Lisbon trip coming full circle. On our first night, we had mistakenly taken the 15 tram thinking it would take us to Alfama, but it inevitably took us to Belem. A week later, we were walking by the warm seafront with the wind blowing in our hair, trying to decide whether time had gone by really quickly or really slowly.
On our last day in Lisbon, we didn’t expect to feel any remorse. Every moment had been perfect in its own right – swiftly savoured and forever remembered. As we assembled our travel bags and headed to the hotel lobby, our parting was marked by the brisk handshake with the car rental clerk. It was the kind of quick goodbye that said that we would come back again soon. Driving out, I imagined me living in any one of those terracotta homes, my future children playing in the cobblestone pavements, the shrill sounds of the tram brakes resonating in the distance. For a moment I thought that I might have felt some saudade, but then I remembered that we had fallen into a comfortable rhythm, one that meant that Lisbon would always have a place for us.
Hoping you’ll get to visit soon,
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