Ode to Lisbon

by Amy & the world

View over the Alfama district, Lisbon

I bet you know someone like it. Someone so comfortable in their own skin that it doesn’t matter what they wear or believe. They liked knitting before it was cool and can throw a mean sprinkler on the dance floor (in fact, their moves often resemble Neil’s in The Inbetweeners Movie, but they make it look so good you want to join in). They don’t crave popularity or seek attention – they’re actually pretty grounded. But there’s just something about them – about their quiet confidence, their good nature, their refreshing view of the world – that draws you in.

At the seafront, Lisbon: people and trees share a seat

When it comes to Western European cities, Lisbon is the equivalent of that person. It’s not many people’s first choice for a place to visit though. It’s not as hip or historical as Berlin or Amsterdam, as renowned for its culture and romance as Paris, as fast-paced and multi-faced as London. But Lisbon doesn’t care what you think. It doesn’t need you to think of it as beautiful or historical or party central. For a city built on seven hills, it’s incredibly laid back. And for that reason, it’s more exciting and relaxing and intoxicating than any other European city I’ve visited.

Graffiti/wall art and pavement tiles near central Lisbon
Library wall art

Lisbon’s not needing to conform is immediately apparent in its appearance. It is not typically beautiful. It doesn’t have an equivalent to Barcelona’s Gaudi architecture, it’s not as elegant as Paris, it isn’t as picture-perfect pretty as Bruges. But there is something about it that is undeniably attractive. It features ‘wall art’ that may be graffiti but might not be. It has cobbled streets and narrow backstreets and traditional yellow trams. Blue and turquoise and yellow tiles (azulejos) adorn walls and doors and streets; it doesn’t matter that they’re sometimes chipped. And then there’s the viewpoints, or miradouros. Looking out over the sea, or the city, or both, each offers a different perspective and every one takes your breath away. They’re best enjoyed with a glass of sangria of beer from the kiosks selling food and drink you will often find at these spots (it’ll be well deserved once you’ve trekked up the steep hills). Or, even better, from the (usually cheaper) newsagent down the road.

View from the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara


Also, the city’s cultural sights might not be as renowned as the Berlin Wall, the Louvre or the Sagrada Familia, but there is still lots on offer.&nbsp I’ll discuss specific attractions in more detail in another post, so for now I’ll just use the old cliché: Lisbon has something for everyone, from Design Museums to Bélem’s monastry to the modern attractions of the Parque das Nacaoes. What’s more, many of the museums here are free, making this a perfect city break for those on a budget.

Mahjong bar, Bairro de Alto. Photo Credit: What Katie Does

But the best experiences in Lisbon are often those you just
happen upon. Although hilly, the majority of the city is quite small and so easily walkable for most people (there are trams on hand however for those with mobility issues, or just tired feet). I’m always an advocate of exploring by foot if you can, and in Lisbon this is truer than ever. Not only does is walking the best way to explore the crooked backstreets, but it also enables you to soak in the this city. So for me, Lisbon is the smell of sardines barbecuing in the Alfama. It’s watching older Lisboetas challenge one another at chess in the afternoon sun at the Jardim de Principe Real and drinking sangria with the backdrop of the ocean and the soundtrack of locals playing guitar in the Placa de Santa Catarina. It’s meandering through the streets of the Bairro Alto as they fill with high-spirited drinkers, before entering a bar to find its lights are modelled on pak-choi and the standard bar snack offering is popcorn. It’s eating warm pasteis de nata (custard tarts) in a park in Belém and licking cinnamon from my fingers.

Famous Pasteis de Nata in Bélem. Add cinnamon and eat hot.

Lisbon is hardly undiscovered. Tourists aren’t rare and, as in most cities, there are areas in the centre that feel designated for them, such as the street lined with restaurants featuring men clamouring for your custom stood
outside or, for different reasons, the majority of Bélem. After coming second in Lonely Planet’s ‘must-visit cities of 2012’ pole – beaten only by Reyjavik – it is only going to grow in popularity. Nonetheless, it still feels
like you’re able an insight into the heart of local life in the city, much more easily than in any other cenral European capital. It just seems much more accessible and welcoming to visitors in that way. And regardless of how popular it becomes, I think Lisbon’s the sort of place that will be able to retain that charm.

Placa de Santa Catarina during one of its quieter periods

Perhaps this is because Lisbon is small, making it easy to unintentionally stumble upon the less touristy areas. But it could also be due to the Lisboetas. They’re friendly, they’re unpretentious, they’re happy. They
all seem exude the spirit of those aforementioned people who are just quite happy to be them, just
living their life how they want to do so. And with a city like Lisbon to live it in, who can
blame them.