2.5 Days in Lisbon
I’m planning a brief stopover in Lisbon, on my way to Morocco, this summer (via good ol’ TAP Portugal, read more about that here). The plan is to spend about two and a half days there, but I’m actually not very familiar Portugal at all, so it’s time to get in some trip planning, which luckily happens to be my most favorite of all activities.
A Place to Stay
Not knowing much about Lisbon, I’ll admit I first heard of the quaint neighborhood of Alfama from an Airbnb listing. I searched for Lisbon and one of the first images that came up for an available apartment was beyond ridiculously gorgeous, like something out of a movie about people much richer and fancier than myself, but also not too hard on the bank account!
Although I initially found this rental on Airbnb, I do want to point out that the group who owns this property has a separate site with numerous listings available, all of which look just as amazing. Judging by their reviews on Airbnb, it seems that they are very reliable to rent from and that the descriptions of their properties can be trusted (of course, I will update once I’ve completed my stay)!
Neighborhood Spotlight: Alfama
I started Googling the neighborhood and found that in the 12th century, the city of Lisbon was enclosed behind a defensive wall, known as Cerca Vehla (also known as Cerca Moura), which was rebuilt by the moors from an existing structure which stood for centuries prior to their invasion.
The Alfama neighborhood was outside of the defensive wall and thought to be an area of poverty (and prostitutes!) where those employed at the port worked and lived. By the 1600s, Alfama was actually considered to be the heart of criminal activity in Lisbon.
In 1755 an earthquake and a tsunami struck Lisbon, destroying much of the city. Alfama, however, suffered very little damage and was able to preserve much of its original architecture and character and is therefore considered to be the oldest neighborhood in Lisbon.
Azulejos (or tiles) dating back several centuries decoratively adorn many surfaces in Lisbon, but especially in Alfama.
In the 1700s, azulejo artwork shifted away from design for the sake of decoration, and toward more religious iconography to spread the message of the Catholic Church and to invoke protective qualities of various saints.
In fact, following the 1755 earthquake, St. Martial became a common figure seen in these works of art, as he was believed to protect against fire.
Interestingly, the traditional blue and white colors of the historic azulejos apparently came into fashion thanks to the influence of the Ming dynasty of China. What a globalized world it was, even so many centuries ago!
When planning a trip, I plan where to eat a little different than the way I plan where to stay or what attractions to visit.
It’s almost impossible to find really interesting, less touristy, delicious meals when you’re looking online. Generally, people reviewing restaurants on Tripadvisor were led to eat at those restaurants by other people’s reviews…on Tripadvisor. It’s a crazy little cycle, that also draws its power from the likes of travel superstars such as Anthony Bourdain and Rick Steves, both of whom I love, but obviously everyone else does too! So I try to let others crowd the restaurants that the gods of travel recommend and go my own way.
Instead of looking for places to eat, I generally look for places to not eat. That might sound negative, but it really helps to have a sense of where you don’t want to eat, ahead of time, so that if you should find yourself wandering and hungry, you might recognize a name and avoid a costly mistake; potentially to your wallet and your tummy!
Side note: I am SO looking at you, Borges y Alvarez Libro-Bar in El Calafate, Argentina! Note to reader: If you should ever find yourself in beautiful El Calafate to view the magnificent Perito Moreno Glacier, please eat anywhere, literally anywhere, but there. We’re pretty sure my mom’s dish came out of a can!
Disclaimer: the list below is not a list of “bad” restaurants in Lisbon but rather it is a list of places that are typically catering to tourists and which I would prefer to stay away from.
I read about a place called A Baiuca in a blog purporting to advise on “unknown” and awesome food spots in Lisbon. It sounded like a cool homely little place where you could eat a rustic meal while being entertained by an authentic Fado band; a place where locals go to chill. I was almost sold…until I googled the restaurant by name and saw multiple reviews that specifically mentioned visiting on the recommendation of none other than Rick Steves himself! Lisbon secret my ass! While I love Rick Steves, I have no desire to sit in a tiny place (7 tables), with a bunch of other tourists, potentially overpaying for dinner and a show (I believe I read that it is $25 per person)! I’m sure A Baiuca is lovely in its own right; it’s just not at all what I’m looking for.
Pastéis de Belém
Okay okay, I get it: Pastéis de Belém is THE place to taste Lisbon’s famous pastéis de nata (small custard tarts). On Tripadvisor this bakery has literally over 27,000, mostly positive, reviews. But sprinkled among those glowing reviews, are some that indicate that these little tarts taste similar to those found in the city’s many other bakeries-bakeries which require a lot less time spent waiting in line.
I learned a solid lesson about this type of situation on a trip to Montreal. There are two super ultra famous bagel shops in Montreal (are they at war with one another? I do not know), St-Viateur Bagel and Fairmount Bagel; both serving up THE quintessential Montreal style bagel (did you know that was even a thing?). On a weekend trip with friends, we were on a mission to try both. If it’s a must, it’s a must, right Wroooong. I LOVE bagels, they are my very heart and soul (genetically, I’m probably more bagel than woman at this point in my life), but these bagels? Not so much. Not only were the bagels from both spots distinctly unimpressive, they seriously tasted exactly the same. So, while I’m sure the pastéis de nata at Pastéis de Belém are truly delightful, I myself will save time by trying one at another bakery, one with less fanfare.
Rua das Portas de Santo Antão
What I have gleaned from the lovely folks of the internet is that Rua das Portas de Santo Antão is one of those pedestrian only streets in which there is an enticing atmosphere of al fresco drinking and dinning…and the not so enticing air of desperation emanating from the unfortunate employees who try so hard to get you into their restaurant instead of their neighbor’s (when in reality, you know you probably shouldn’t go to any of them).
These types of streets exist in the main tourist area of practically every major city in the world. Because of its proximity to tourist attractions, restaurants on these types of streets really do tend to overcharge for sub par food and drinks. They know you’ll be hot, tired, hungry, and unlikely to check online reviews on the spot before sitting down. My thoughts on this is that it’s fun to walk through these pedestrian streets, but not to order food or mixed drinks. Instead, if you find yourself tired of walking and wanting some shade while passing through Rua das Portas de Santo Antão (or any other pedestrian tourist street), just have a seat and order a beer. Beer is usually cheap and hard to mess up. Not only will this recharge your batteries, but will also give you a chance to use their wifi to find your way to something way better.
Where to Go, What to Do?
So now that we know where we’re staying, and where we’re not eating, the only thing left is to figure out what we’re doing!
Unless I have a burning desire to see a specific attraction (hello, Blue Lagoon in Iceland!) I don’t really plan the day to day of what I’ll do. When visiting a country or city I know little about, and have minimal time to research, my favorite thing to do is take a free walking tour, preferably on the first day I’m there. Free walking tours are typically a whirlwind experience through the streets, but they expose you to ideas of places you might want to visit more in depth on your own later, and can really help to orient you to the layout of the city. You might even end up in a neighborhood you love but would not have visited otherwise.
Guides of these tours are usually locals, or expats who have lived in the area for a long time, and you can tell they love their city and love showing it to you. I’ve honestly learned so much more about cities from these types of tours than I ever did from actual museums (not like I’m anti-museum or anything, that would be an odd thing to take a stance against). As a bonus, all of the guides I’ve had have been really funny.
Lisbon Chill Out Free Tours runs a free tour daily, with two tours per day beginning at 10am and 4:30pm in the summer (10am and 3pm in winter). Since my party will land in Lisbon at 9:15am, I will think about taking the 4:30 tour, unless we’re too exhausted (or prematurely tipsy, it happens. Hey! You’re on vacation! It’s like opposite day everyday, do everything you wouldn’t at home, like drink wine at 10am on a Tuesday)!
Now, just because they’re called “free tours,” doesn’t actually mean they’re free. Don’t be that jerk that walks away without handing the guide a tip, or wanders off mid-tour to avoid the awkward moment of not paying.
With that being said, it’s always difficult to know just how much you should tip at the end. Obviously the economy and value of the local currency varies widely by location, so it’s impossible to say something definitive, like a flat rate of $10 . Furthermore, you can’t really tip as a percentage, because there was no “charge” to begin with. So here’s what I do: if the tour was great and everything I hoped for (and they seriously always are) I tip the amount I would pay for a meal and a drink (think beer, not soda) at a mid-range restaurant in town. Not that you’ll have been to a mid-range restaurant if it’s your first day in town, but in my experience it’s easy to absorb the idea of what the cost of an average meal and a beer would be in your locale because of all the signage you’ll pass outside of restaurants. My thought process is that a meal and a beer (in my area) will run you $15 to $20, give or take, and if I were a tour guide I wouldn’t be disappointed by that at all. So, if I were in a really inexpensive location where a good meal and a drink would only run me $5, I’d tip tip that and not have any feelings of anxiety or guilt about it.
A Note for the Anxious Traveler
Joining a free walking tour for the first time is no big deal. Maybe large groups of people make you anxious, maybe not knowing exactly what you’re supposed to do when you get to the location makes you nervous and you don’t want to have to interact with anyone to ask for help, maybe you’re afraid that the tour will get going and you’ll stop to take a picture and they’ll all go on without you and you’ll be lost and alone in an unfamiliar city; whatever it is, don’t worry!
All walking tours are different, with some they will hand out little tickets (so they can limit the group size), sometimes there is a person wearing a specific shirt with a logo to let you know they’re the guide, and with others there may just be a sign or statue they tell you ahead of time to meet underneath (you’ll know you’ve arrived at the right place by the big gathering of uncertain looking foreigners hanging around close to each other but not in an actual group). The main thing they all have in common though is that you just show up, and they know you don’t know what you’re doing, so they will be sure to tell you how it’s all gonna go. Guides also have a uncanny ability to keep track of everyone, even in large groups, by walking at faster and slower paces to move back and forth from the front of the group to the back throughout the tour to keep an eye on everyone (and probably make sure everyone looks like they’re having a good time)!
It WILL be okay. And if you’re a solo traveler, in my experience, people on these tours are always more than happy to take your picture at points of interest. Many times they will offer even if you didn’t ask, especially if you find yourself on a tour with my mom, I notice she always thinks to offer to take pictures for solo travelers and engage with them a little, maybe because-like daughter like mother-she is anxious, too (and knows what it’s like to be an introvert on your own).
And that’s it
This is as much thought as I want to put into this leg of the trip, so I’ll end here, but will also come back to update this post after my trip (who knows, maybe I’ll end up eating pastéis de nata at Pastéis de Belém after all and tell you it was life changing, that I’m an idiot for ever doubting, and that you should never give credence to anything I ever say again-you probably shouldn’t, regardless).