An absolutely beautiful city — Lisboa, Portugal. That is without doubt. Viewpoints galore overlooking red roofed buildings, the Tagus River — a river so wide it feels more like a lake or even the sea — hills and more hills, ancient architecture, cobblestone streets, tiled buildings, old fashion street cars . . . everything you would expect from a picturesque European city. And it’s small — just 800,000 population (similar to San Francisco) in it’s city center so easy to absorb. It’s for now, affordable as far as European cities go which makes it a hot destination. And that is where the city lost me just a bit. Even in late October, it was full of tourists. And when i say full — I mean everywhere, tourists walking without regard, back pack laden, down every street, every alley, speaking every language. I began to wonder if it was possible to have an authentic Lisboan experience. And I wondered even more what it must be like at the height of summer tourism season — my guess is a place i wouldn’t enjoy very much.
Not to say that I didn’t partake in tourist activities. Of course I did. The first thing I did after a quick shower was hop a Tuk Tuk for a tour around the old part of the city to get acclimated to the area where I was staying. Tuk Tuks are an easy way to get around the most hilly parts of the city and the drivers are well versed in history. So a quick hour or two gives you the basics. I did learn from my driver that what started as a single company with 9 Tuk Tuks a few years back, is now a competitive business of hundreds of Tuks Tuks vying for parking spots at all the best viewpoints and jamming the narrow streets all over the city. I even witnessed a Tuk Tuk robbery where a motorcycle wizzed between lanes of stopped traffic reaching into Tuk Tuks taking driver’s money as they went. When tourism is high so, unfortunately, is theft.
I also scheduled a food tour for my first afternoon. Often one of my favorite type of tours in any city, this one did not disappoint. And to be honest, I would never have known where to go in this city for authentic food just walking up and down the streets. To me, everything looked touristy in Alfama, a neighborhood where throngs of tourists were wandering the streets, souvenir shops abound and little old ladies sell low quality Cherry Liqueur (Ginja) off card tables down every alley. But Ruthy (pictured above) and her husband, guides extraordinaire, took our small group of six to a series of tiny little, family owned businesses tucked away in places I never would have found where we tasted cod delights, sardines, olive oils, cheese, sausage, desserts, coffee, beer, wine, quality cherry liqueur — I was happy, full and drunk for most of the afternoon. I promised Ruthy I wouldn’t share her secrets but I will say this — take the tour and indulge your inner tourist in a good way. You’ll also get a healthy dose of sights and history along the way.
I was in Lisbon for a conference and so happened upon my most favorite of places by happenstance — The Foundation Champalimaud. I liken it to the Portuguese Salk Institute. A biomedical research facility, housed in a modern architectural setting along the river at the far end of Belem where most tourists don’t venture. Not only is the building beautiful, with a stunning central water feature, there is a nearly hidden, small amphitheater overlooking the river that is as spiritual a space as I have come across in quite some time. I could have sat in that amphitheater for hours (and very nearly did), soaking up the sun, taking in the view and contemplating life. Bring a picnic or enjoy lunch next door on the balcony of the center’s cafeteria which is open to the public.
From here you are well poised to take in the Belem sights with the rest of the tourists — a jaunty walk along the river back towards town and away from the sun thankfully, takes you past the Belem Tower, The Monument to the Discoveries, The Maat (another stunning piece of modern architecture with a roof viewpoint not to be missed), The 25th of April Bridge, The Jerónimos Monastery. Then cross over the roadway to the center of Belem where there is an odd collection of museums on various subjects and the famous Pasteis de Belem — the original home of Portuguese egg tarts which are honestly, worth the hype and the wait in line!
If only the sun weren’t cutting the artwork in half for better viewing. But if you like what you see, these tiles are part of a collection available for sale at a little family run shop whose grandfather bought out stock of closing tile factories in the 1960’s giving them a collection of locally made tiles that are simply beautiful and a far cry from the typical reproductions sold in every souvenir and antique shop in the city.
Like always, I try to find the things that are a bit more unique in a city as I am not a good or typical tourist by nature. I don’t know if I succeeded in Lisbon or if it’s even possible. But I’m happy to share more about my finds in this beautiful city here and in subsequent posts.
Eco Tuck Tours, Lisboa
Several standard 2-3 hour tours available or custom tours for $60/hr
Easy to book online in advance (recommended) or hire a Tuk Tuk in any major tourist venue
Treasures of Lisboa, Food Tours
Book through Ruthy’s website directly (link above) or on Air BnB Experiences
Twice Daily, Mon-Sat $67 US
Champalimaud Foundation/Center for the Unknown
Avenida Brasília,1400-038 Belem, Lisbon
MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture & Technology)
Av. Brasília, Central Tejo 1300-598 Belém, Lisboa
11-7 PM except Tuesday
Cortico & Netos, Tile Store
Calçada de Santo André 66, 1100-022 Alfama, Lisboa,
Monday to Saturday from 10h-13h / 14h-19h
Tile Rooster Artwork: Down a little alley about a block east of Pasteis De Belem
Pasteis De Belem
Rua de Belém, 1300 – 085 Belem, Lisboa
Open Daily from 8-11