When you get a few days off work and are mulling over which city to visit, you could never go wrong by picking Lisbon. In many ways, it’s the quintessential travel destination, as there are so many things to do in Lisbon, be it the wilderness of the Sintra mountains and its ravines, sun-kissed beach scenes on Cascais, the delectable Portuguese gastronomy, castles and fortified walls — life is never found wanting across this coastal town.
Under continuous inhabitance for thousands of years, and having witnessed several power transitions over the ages, the essence of modern-day Lisbon seeps out through various facets of its culture and heritage — a story meshed together over eons, bordering the banks of the river Tagus.
Now in such a city, it is almost impossible to point out all the must-check-out places and experiences in a single article, so we decided to put together a list of things to do in Lisbon that are well-hidden from popular forums and tourists’ gaze.
Albeit a popular place for tourists to click pictures from, with it being a terrace view that opens up to the river Tagus and a skyline pockmarked by brown-tiled roofs, it is also a vantage point for us to observe the old town of Alfama in all its historic splendor. A few centuries back, Alfama was the district that held the city’s downtrodden and the brothels, being segmented away from the economically well-off civilians who lived closer to the city center.
But everything changed in 1755, when an earthquake struck Lisbon one morning, followed by fires and a tsunami, wrecking the city and killing nearly 100,000 people. Ironically, Alfama which was then widely considered as a place of sin, was one of the few districts that remained standing – confounding the common folk, and challenging the beliefs of the pious. This led to philosophers writing about theodicy, with it being one of the earliest such recorded instances – as to why a good God would allow a place of sin to stand while punishing the morally upright city dwellers.
The earthquake went on to be an impetus for philosophers and men of science to try understanding the reason behind earthquakes, with the work on its aftermath laying the foundation for modern seismology. Though Lisbon was rebuilt entirely after this horrible episode, a portion of Alfama was left untouched in remembrance, which you can explore if you trace your way back from Portas do Sol.
Custard tarts come in all shapes and sizes across the world, but not many could hold a candle against the fame that precedes the cakes made in this merry little patisserie in the district of Belem. Custard tarts have been sold at the Pastéis de Belém since 1837, with the bakery remaining tight-lipped about its recipe — a secret well-guarded for nearly two hundred years.
Only six people know the recipe in its entirety today, and all of them work on creating the tarts behind closed doors with even some of the regular workers prohibited from entering them. The store sells around 20,000 custard tarts a day, and some people who frequent the place regard their cakes to be the original Pasteis de Nata, or “custard tarts.”
In the Lisbon downtown, you could spot a few bell-shaped dustbins on the road transformed into brilliant works of art, but that aside, you would have to sweat to find full-facade murals on buildings. But enter Bairro Padre Cruz, the epicenter of Portugal’s startling mural corridors. And unlike Portas do Sol, you would be hard-pressed to find tourists out on the streets in Bairro Padre Cruz, as it lies on the outskirts of the city and has no value to the usual touristic crowd.
The hundreds of twenty-foot long murals painted on nearly every wall facing the sun would surely take your breath away. Then again, this neighborhood wasn’t always this pretty, but mostly contended with graffiti that spoke of the pain and suffering of the city’s poor. Padre Cruz owes its transformation to the Galeria de Arte Urbana, which organized a Muro Urban Art Festival in the area a few years back, inviting mural artists from all over the world to come in and beautify the economically-disadvantaged neighborhood. What now remains is a thing of beauty for everyone to behold.
When you walk around Lisbon, it is impossible not to notice the archaic yellow tram wheezing past narrow boulevards, with tinkling bells at its wake to warn pedestrians crossing the streets. Of particular interest is tram number 28, which happens to be one of the oldest tram cabs in continuous usage, dating back to the 1930s. When you are out ticking off the popular tourist districts around town, make sure to take No.28 as it connects most of them, namely Graca, Alfama, Estrela, and Baixa.
When in Lisbon, it is hard to miss the extremely steep roads that crisscross the city, making it look like a place straddled between numerous hills. Back in the day, this uneven terrain made it hard for people to commute across the city, as it involved them climbing up and down over several stretches.
Built in 1902, the Santa Justa elevator was used by the people to get to work sooner, as it eliminated the need for them to slave up the Carmo hill to reach the city level. Now, it serves as an attraction for tourists who go up the elevator to get a good view of the city rooftops. A wrought-iron facade with neo-gothic arches and varnished wood carriages, the lift is truly a spectacle and well worth a visit.