Portugal was a destination yet to be discovered for me. Thanks to the abundance of finer things in life available in Spain, I never even considered going next door to its neighbour. But after more and more enthusiastic stories popped up about Lisbon, it was time to switch up my favourite ‘good life’ destination and try something new. Luckily, I was not disappointed. Turns out that I could pursue my favourite activities from Spain here as well. What activities you may ask? Indulging in food and soaking up the Mediterrean lifestyle. Yeah, busy days.
We decided to check out the capital of Portugal, Lisbon, which is a charming, beautiful city that breathes authenticity. You’ll find the typical old, Mediterranean buildings with that characteristic peeling paint in different bright colours, and adorned with ceramic tiles (called azulejos), especially in the older neighbourhoods. I thoroughly enjoyed walking around for hours through the small streets in the Alfama district, the oldest neighbourhood of Lisbon. Located in between the castle of São Jorge and the river Tagus, it’s filled with winding streets and alleys and addictive to walk around in. It invites you to keep on taking another random turn, eliciting curiosity to what’s behind each corner. You’ll find people going about their daily activities; hanging the laundry, having a casual conversation (including heavy Portuguese hand gestures) staring out of the window or just sitting on a bench. Rather ordinary activities on their own, but walking through these typical street scenes here has a certain atmosphere to it and is quite enjoyable.
Besides this authentic appearance, Lisbon is also quite hip and trendy and on the rise of becoming one of the ‘hippest cities’ in Europe (according to several magazines and websites). I don’t know if that’s true, but there are definitely some parts of town that meet the criteria of being ‘hip’. Such as the LX factory, a former industrial estate of an old textile factory, located almost underneath the towering 25 de Abril bridge. Nowadays, the buildings at the site host trendy restaurants, shops, galleries, studios and workspaces and every Sunday there is a large outdoor market. At the end of the day the cobblestoned streets of the factory site fill up with people going for a drink or meal, making it a very lively spot. But our visit here starts with breakfast at the Wish Slow Coffee house, which also doubles as a concept store. Anything served on a cutting board is supposed to satisfy your inner hipster so we happily feast on our breakfast, which would have looked very ordinary on a regular plate. Besides satisfying your cravings in coffee shops, burger bars and cake shops, the LX factory is a nice area to stroll around, have a look in some out of the ordinary shops, spot some street art and wander off in the Kare building, where you find interesting murals, wall-art, graffiti and photo exhibits. The rundown buildings hosting modern venues attract many people and give a nice fresh, extra dimension to the city.
To get a better insight into the local life of Lisbon we are meeting up with Hugo, our guide that we booked on withlocals.com. On this great website locals offer tours to show you around their city. Seeing the city through the eyes of a local truly highlighted our trip and greatly contributed to our Lisbon experience. It is ideal when you only have a few days to explore a city that you have never been before. More often than not you get stuck in the main tourist areas, such as the Baixa district in the case of Lisbon, because without inside knowledge or enough time you wouldn’t know where to go. So, equipped with our local, we start the evening in Cais do Sodre at a place called Ginja de Óbidos, where we try the eponymous cherry liquor. You can choose to drink this from plastic cups or chocolate cups that you can eat, the obvious choice being the latter of course.
At our next stop, a teeny-tiny bar, I charged myself with the serious task of comparing the difference between Spanish and Portuguese charcuterie platters. It is safe to say, in my expert opinion, that both are equally delicious. Apparently solely out of politeness Hugo asked us what we wanted to drink here, because it appeared there is only one right answer, as my response ‘I’ll have a beer’ was countered with a firm ‘no’. ‘You drink wine here’. Very well then, wine it is. Which is also worthy of competing with Spain’s by the way.
We stroll with Hugo through old neighbourhoods with narrow streets, where old single-car trams pass through. This feels more like the true Lisbon than the touristy Baixa district. Hugo stops in front of a shabby looking, barely noticeable restaurant which we would have surely passed if we were on our own. This is where they serve Portuguese tapas (called petiscos) and play Fado tonight, the traditional Portuguese music. We step inside and are greeted with the pleasant smell of food and the lively chatter that fills the small and crowded place. When the musicians start to play you are not allowed to talk or order anything. As a result, everybody listens with a great deal of attention which, together with the expressive and melancholic nature of the music, creates a special, intimate atmosphere. In between them playing we order tapas, that is Hugo tells us what we are going to order and we agree. The tour would normally end after dinner, however, we get along quite well with our local host and head to a rooftop bar. Once Hugo started walking into a parking garage we were not sure what was going on (perhaps this is where he robs all of his customers at the end of a lovely tour, suggests one of my travel companions). We had to walk all the way to the top deck on the 7th floor of the parking garage to reach a cool rooftop bar, aptly named Park Bar, providing magnificent views of the city. There are no signs whatsoever indicating that there is a bar hidden on the top deck of the parking garage. Again, something we would never have encountered on our own, which is also confirmed by the fact that there are only locals present at this bar.
Still getting along quite well, we head to the nightlife district for some more drinks. On our way there, a small terrace on a slope provides us with magnificent views of something reminiscent of, weirdly enough, San Francisco and Rio de Janeiro at the same time. It’s the Christ the King statue (Cristo Rei in Portuguese), a Catholic monument and shrine inspired by the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro to express gratitude because the Portuguese were spared the effects of World War II. The statue is overlooking the Ponte de 25 Abril, which resembles the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco and the San Francisco-Oakland bay bridge, the latter which was built by the same company that built the Ponte de 25 Abril. After these remarkable sights we arrived at Rua Nova do Carvalho (pink street), the nightlife district of Lisbon. This street was once considered the red light district of Lisbon and filled with brothels and a notorious place for sailors that came ashore here to enjoy some rowdy and vulgar nightlife including all the sex, violence and drugs they could find. One of the remnants of this period is a former whore house, now a nightclub called Pensão Amor. Several memorabilia are found in this club, such as a room filled with French erotica books and a sex shop that is open during club hours, mighty convenient. The pink street has now transformed from a sketchy, decrepit part of town to a vibrant, lively street that serves many different kinds of nightlife demands.
Local Lisbon part 2
For our second trip booked through the Withlocals website, three enthusiastic young guys take us on the back of their vintage Vespas, up the steep hills, through narrow streets and in busy traffic, skilfully manoeuvring between cars, trams and pedestrians, accompanied with loud honking. We dismount every now and then for a coffee or to walk through the narrow, typical Lisbon streets, whilst listening to interesting stories about living here.
At night we look up a restaurant that was recommend by our Vespa locals. Upon arriving at the address we find an almost empty street with no restaurants or people, except for a big que outside some place called Cervejaria Ramiro. Nothing fancy, but very crowded with TL lights and busy waiters who barely have time to greet you. However, a que like that must mean it’s good and it is filled with locals. We do get a seat quite fast because it is not a place for lingering around after your meal. It is apparently famous for its seafood; crab, clams, shells and whatnot. We order the crab which is accompanied with a hammer and no further instructions. We look around and see people swinging their hammers around like they know what they’re doing but I believe nobody has a clue. Just beat that fucker as hard as you can until the shells start raining down on people 5 tables away, which is apparently the way to go, and now you feel you are a local in Lisbon.