If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city, sure likes to flatter. It has a suspension bridge almost identical to San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate (built by the same consortium), its Cristo Rei statue is a clone of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer, and the city itself sits on seven hills, just like Rome.
But while you cannot help but notice these similarities as a first-time visitor to Lisbon, it would be a mistake to think this capital is a mini-me to other cities or countries (think Spain). Portugal has its own distinct personality, language, style and energy.
The locals make it clear by their friendliness, wide smiles and consistently helpful manner that tourists are very welcome here any time of year. Unlike European cities scarred by terrorist attacks such as Paris and Berlin, you will notice an absence of armed police regularly patrolling the streets here.
One of the things you soon pick up about this city is that Lisbon has more of a quaint old-fashioned feel rather than a modern edgy vibe. Many of the small shops pay homage to a bygone era when men wore bow ties and tipped their old-world hats to passers-by.
Virtually every travel guide on Lisbon will encourage you to catch the 28 tram, which is a terrific way to get your bearings as it slowly jerks its way around central Lisbon. The ride takes about an hour as it winds itself up and down the steep backstreets, almost feeling like an amusement park ride.
The tram is an easy and scenic way to get around in Lisbon
One historic site to visit on foot is the Castelo de São Jorge overlooking the city. A popular time to visit is at sunset to take snaps of sweeping views, so expect long queues to buy tickets into the castle and grounds.
Another place you can expect your patience to be tested with mile-long queues is Belém, about a 25-minute tram ride from the city. There is a lot to see here including the Maritime Museum, the tower of Belém, the Jerónimos Monastery and the Monument to the Discoveries. Don’t think you can visit all these in one day.
The Tower of Belém
An excursion to the Maritime Museum might bring back memories of what you learnt at school when the voyages of one of Portugal’s most famous explorers, the 15th century’s Vasco da Gama, were outlined. Perhaps less well known is that Lisbon was virtually wiped out in the earthquake and tsunami of 1755.
An absolute must in this part of town is to visit the famous Pasteis de Belém, which has been doing a bustling trade since 1837. Its Portuguese custard tarts and as-thick-as-mud hot chocolate are to die for.
The 25 de Abril Bridge
The locals certainly seem to have a sweet tooth: throughout Lisbon, you cannot fail to notice there are cake shops virtually on every corner. As for savoury dishes, Lisbon provides the traveller with everything from cheap and cheerful to fine dining. You can stumble on a “hole-in-the-wall” frequented by locals and sample a hearty Portuguese stew or find table service at a restaurant with cod – it is the local dish – served either boiled, fried, grilled or baked.
If you’re looking for real value for money and variety, head to the very-busy-but-doable Time Out market, which serves excellent meals and is open for lunch and dinner until midnight. If you’re a foodie, avoid the Baixa/Chiado area with its omnipresent spruikers hoping to lure the hungry tourist.
The bustling Time Out Markets are open until midnight
As for accommodation, you can find everything from Airbnb to five-star hotels. Our tip is to find accommodation a short walk away from the CBD, such as the Avenida de Liberdade.
(Feature image: John_Silver / Shutterstock, Inc.)
Have you been to Portugal? Share your experiences below.