I would have liked to make the title of this post a snappy reference to Night Train in Lisbon, one of my favourite books, but unfortunately we didn’t take a night train – just a very early BA flight from Heathrow. So my friend Hadleigh and I were up at 4am ready to jump on the night bus (close enough, right?) and were on the plane at 7, finally arriving in Lisbon at about 9.30 – in plenty of time to enjoy the whole first day there. Our other friend, Chris, joined us later, coming over from Luxembourg, where there are probably almost as many Portuguese people as there are in Lisbon anyway, but still…
So here are some of my impressions and highlights from my first trip to the Portuguese capital.
Portuguese is just like Spanish with a lisp, right?
Well, so we thought (or at least hoped) as all three of us speak Spanish. In fact, there is enough similarity between Spanish and Portuguese for us to be able to understand a small amount, especially if it’s written down. Signs and menus were easy enough, but as soon as people started speaking with their oddly Russian-sounding accent and myriad of ‘sh’ sounds where you expect a nice, clean, Spanish ‘s’, it was basically game over for the Spanish speakers. Still, we made good use of the odd few words we knew, even though our collective vocabulary basically consisted of ‘olá’, ‘bom dia/boas tardes’, ‘obrigado/a’ and ‘pastel de nata’. Like I said, we made good use of these, and at least managed to learn the words café com leite to order a coffee or three each day. One day, one day, I will definitely, probably learn some Portuguese.
Portuguese food (and beer) is great!
Personally I’m a big fan of trying out tiny local restaurants – the kind that real Portuguese people eat in. They don’t necessarily look at all special from the outside, but the food is great. But that becomes quite a bit trickier when you’re stumbling around the centre of Lisbon with a dozen waiters waving menus at you and trying to shove you inside their restaurant. That and the fact that we had to cater to the tastes and budget of all three of us. The highlight food-wise was probably our last night where a friend of Hadleigh’s who lives locally took us out to a fantastic all-you-can eat seafood buffet (unfortunately he drove us and it was out of town so I have no idea what the place was called) – where they brought us seemingly endless platters of hot and cold seafood – huge garlicky prawns in shells; cold, salty crab that you smash up with a hammer; funny, chewy tentacle-like goose barnacles and plenty of buttery bread. With all our meals we drank plenty of the popular local beers: either Sagres (which you pronounce like SAH-gresh – emphasis on the sa) or Super Bock. Beer is very cheap – you can easily get a small (half pint) beer for under a euro.
Trams are awesome
I’ve always really loved trams and those in Lisbon are no exception. Of course you can get around by Metro (euro 1.40 per journey with the zapping ticket – kind of like a paper Oyster card – that you can buy at any machine), but the tram is more fun. There are both modern and retro ones in the city. The modern ones are convenient and air conditioned, but the retro ones are really characteristic. We took one up the hill to the castle – clinging on for dear life as it rattled up the hill rather terrifyingly.
You can also take the funicular up a couple of Lisbon’s many hills. I didn’t actually ride it because it cost 3.50 and I’m a cheapskate who’d rather hike up the hill – but it’s pretty neat. Lisbon is very hilly, so if you don’t feel like walking everywhere, the tram, metro and funicular system are a must. I love walking, even up hills, and it’s a great way to explore, but even so Lisbon is fairly large and you can’t get to certain destinations such as Belém without taking the tram.
Lisbon is hilly – with great views!
If you walk up through Bairro Alto or up one of the other hills (I think there are 7?) you’ll be rewarded by awesome views of the city.
On our attempted trip to the castle we came across a really awesome bar where we drank cocktails in the sunshine (yes – even in early March it was 22 degrees during the middle of the day), looking out at the blue sea, blue sky and all the typically Portuguese buildings below. Portuguese service tends to be very slow, so relax and get into the Iberian mindset. No one is in a hurry, so why should you be?
Belém is a little area to the East of central Lisbon. You can get over there in about ten minutes on the tram, although it’s a little outside of walking range. Belém has a different sort of feel to the rest of the city – with more historical buildings and outdoor cafes and restaurants.
We visited the Presidential Palace – a tour and a visit to the museum for 3.50 with discount, 5 euro without. This was an interesting hour-long tour. We realised, to our embarrassment, that we didn’t even know who is the president of Portugal (turns out that it’s Aníbal Caraco Silva – he’s not that famous over here), and so we definitely needed to update our knowledge of Portuguese politics. But it was a worthwhile tour – the building and gardens are really nice. The museum features some of the gifts presented to the president by other heads of state, including some from the Queen of England and other royals. Oh – the tour was also in Portuguese. The (very friendly) tour guide made an effort to repeat things for us in English but gave up about halfway through – but it’s mostly visual anyway and the guide spoke English well in case we had questions.
You need a head for heights
Which I don’t have, incidentally. One of my main goals in life at the moment is to try to gradually get over my fear of heights, by repeatedly scaring myself witless going up towers and tall buildings. Lisbon was no exception. Aside from the funiculars, the cable car and the many hills, there’s also the elevador, which is simply a lift up to a high tower where you can look out over the city. Well worth a look for great views although I did have to go down again after a while as it was making me dizzy. It’s 5 euro for the ride, by the way.
Overall, Lisbon is a great place to spend a few days. The weather (at least for us) was fantastic – March seems to be a good time to go for cool mornings and evenings but warm weather at midday, so you can combine a lot of walking with sunbathing and chilling out in outdoor bars and restaurants. Prices are very reasonable. I have a feeling we could have found much cheaper restaurants if we’d had a better idea of where we were going, but it’s easy to find cafes for 40 cent coffee or 1 euro beer. In the end I spent slightly less than I expected. Be warned that there are a lot of beggars asking for your change. Some of the street musicians are fun and you might want to tip them the odd euro, but some beggars will simply approach you asking for cash or waving a cup. Second warning – there are also a lot of dealers pushing drugs. Almost everywhere around the city we were frequently approached asking if we wanted marijuana or coke, or offered strange looking pills – we politely declined 🙂
We found there was plenty to see in a five day trip and I’d definitely go back.