The Portuguese towns of Porto and Aveiro came as a pleasant surprise upon arrival. The infrastructure was well designed, comfortable and easy to use. More importantly, the people there were incredibly accommodating and helpful, and communication was simple.
But they did lack a certain wow factor. Porto was naturally beautiful. It’s geographic location – based on the Rio Douro which carves itself through a steep valley – provides remarkable views, but neither Porto nor Aveiro contained any major landmarks or buildings of great importance or note. Porto has dashes, and the architecture can often be stunning with it’s ceramic decorations, but ultimately it didn’t match up to the grander cities of Europe. Perhaps it’s for this reason that it isn’t often a place advertised by travel agencies or promoted heavily by travel guide books.
So what then would the Portuguese capital hold? Could it maintain all the comforts and hospitality of the Portuguese experienced thus far and have an abundance of landmarks to keep the traditional traveler entertained?
This capital of Portugal is Lisboa (or Lisbon in English), which situates itself slightly south of the middle of Portugal on the Rio Tejo. This river opens itself up just after the mouth to produce a bay that Lisboa is built on. Lisboa itself is built on the northern side of this bay, but various councils of the greater Lisboa metropolitan exist on the southern side and have ample connections between themselves and Lisboa.
The place is much larger than Porto and, at least in the inner city limits, much cleaner and well maintained too. There is also a great sense of safety and although some of the locals may, probably very wisely, tell you to avoid some areas at particular hours, even these areas don’t give the impression of being too unsafe.
Lisboa also contains a few hills within it’s metropolitan region, which is great for providing lookouts at various spots. One of these areas is where the old city was built and here the streets wind their way up the hill to an old fortification. This area is great for getting yourself lost in and discovering all manner of old and fascinating buildings.
Lisboa cannot be said to be the most densely populated city in Europe and instead spreads itself over a sparse area. The various attractions are also spread out all over town as opposed to being centrally located and so this means that there is a reliance on the public transport system there. This system is quite modern and efficient and composes itself of a combination of underground metro, above ground tram networks, a train network for suburban transport and a public boat system for crossing between the harbour. All of these systems use the same single transport card, which can be easily purchased at any of the automatic machines in each of the stations and recharged with credit just as simply. There is a slightly confusing system where the card can be topped up with a simple monetary amount or the specific trip can be purchased. Once the card has been loaded with either one of these options, it becomes exclusive to that option. So, for example, if there is credit on a card, it is not possible to then purchase a trip on the same card. This is very confusing and perhaps the only downside to the Lisboa public transport system.
The bayside coast of Lisboa is reserved for boating and fishing. There were no places along this coast that were observed where people may go to swim or cool off. Instead, this would normally be done in a place such as Cascais, a rich and modern town outside of Lisboa itself but well connected by a quick train network, which is situated on the coast with loads of beachside residences and dining.
Back in the inner city, there is a great deal of shopping to be explored. This never reaches the heights of some French or even Spanish towns, but is still more than enough to keep the shopping tourist happy. Here, Lisboa shows itself off with a collection of inner city squares containing fountains and benches for relaxing. These squares are surrounded by gorgeous buildings and are well worth admiring.
It’s also here though that one encounters the ugly side of Lisboa. The drug market. Hidden in these inner city squares are a network of people looking to sell drugs to people roaming the streets. They will spot you from a mile off and walk across to come right up next to you in order to conceal their possessions and show you what they have to offer. Walk another one hundred metres to the other side of the square and you’ll likely get another offer from someone else. It all depends on how you appear to them, but a guy in his mid twenties walking alone seems to be a prime target to these sellers. They were never aggressive or too persistent, but it quickly becomes an annoyance and a blemish on the beauty of the place.
Lisboa certainly continues the fine run of the Portuguese lifestyle displayed by the previous Portuguese cities, but does it contain the additional benefit of the landmarks?
As hinted earlier, they exist here, and are sparsely scattered around the metropolitan area. These landmarks aren’t on the global fame level but perhaps some of them should be and in all honesty makes them more exciting to discover as they have likely never been seen in photographs before.
The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is quite possible the most impressive of them. A large monastery in the suburb of Bélem, it’s architecture is certainly impressive. Not to the level of that seen in Salamanca (although not too far off the mark), it’s more so the sheer size and length of the building that impresses. Inside (at least, the free area to explore) was nothing extremely special but to admire it from the outside is a must in Lisboa.
Nearby is the Torre de Bélem (Bélem Tower), a 16th century fortification and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s here that the ships passed by during the early Portuguese explorations. This is much less impressive than the Mosteiro but is nonetheless worth a visit.
The bay is crossed by the Ponte 25 de Abril, a bridge that much resembles that Golden Gate Bridge of San Fransisco and provides a nice addition to the harbour view.
Unfortunately, Lisboa seems to follow the European convention of having extremely poor signage and direction. An attempt to find the bus station from the metro station led to a wild goose chase that lasted roughly an hour. Be prepared and come with a map of some kind.
Lisboa just seems to contain everything – historic inner city architecture, rich and modern beachside suburbs, hills, an active nightlife and attractions galore. In what may be the most underrated country in Europe, it’s capital may well turn out to be one of the most underrated cities in Europe too.
It’s only disadvantage may be it’s proximity to the other major, more well promoted cities. But if there is time and money enough on the itinerary, Lisboa is a town not to be missed.