I’ve been wanting to visit Lisbon for the longest times, which is strange, considering that, before I researched the city, I knew little if anything about it except that it’s the capital of Portugal, a country I’m equally uninformed about. Maybe it was something about people’s reaction when I said I wanted to go to Lisbon, because it seems to be one of those destinations everybody wants to go, but nobody I know has ever been to.
So when my mom and I planned our mommy-daughter getaway, I suggested this ever-colorful city and – as expected – my mom was delighted, because she’s heard it’s „supposed to be amazing“. Spoiler alert: Lisbon is amazing. Let me count the ways.
Did you know that on All Saint’s Day 1755, Lisbon was hit by a tsunami, an earthquake and a devastating fire, all in the same day? The story says that all the Christian people of Lisbon celebrated the holiday, lighting candles in the churches and praying. Then the earthquake hit, a 8.5-9.0 on the Richter scale – I can’t even imagine experiencing an earthquake at all, having lived in Germany all my life, but can you even fathom how terrifying this must have been?
Lisbon has seen its fair share of earthquakes, but this one was something else. Historians dubbed it the Great Lisbon Earthquake. In addition to devastating the city, it had another unforeseen effect: it knocked over all the candles people had been lighting in honor of the religious holiday and created a terrible fire that would not go out for three days. The people ran towards the harbor, hoping to escape the fire and found the riverbed empty. Then, the tsunami hit in giant, disastrous waves that flooded the harbor and downtown area of the city. 85% of the buildings in Lisbon were destroyed, effectively changing the architectural face of the city forever.
The king of Portugal at the time, Joseph I, developed a fear of living inside walls after the tragedy and moved the entire court into what I can only call a glamping complex and lived there until he died. It was only after his death that his daughter, Maria I of Portugal, built the Palace of Ajuda.
This was only one of many amazing stories I heard when I went on in the Alfama Free Walking Tour. I tried out Free Walking Tours for the first time when I did my little solo trip in Italy and went to Rome. I’ve always loved history and wish I could spend more time reading and learning about it. Free Walking Tours give me the special opportunity to not only indulge in my interest in history, but also to see a city accompanied by somebody who knows it inside and out. Our guide, Francesca, a young girl originally from Italy, was great, told us all sorts of anecdotes and I went to dinner with her after the tour to pick her brains. I feel I got to know Lisbon in a way that would not have been possible otherwise.
If you love history, one thing you should definitely do is get into one of Lisbon’s many old-fashioned trams. The most popular (and therefore busiest!) line is 28. It visits many historical districts, such as Alfama, Baixa and Estrala. If you’re tired from a long day of walking and sightseeing, sitting down in one of these gems could be a wonderful of experiencing the city.
But: Since the 28 is desperately full all the time, that won’t be as much of a relaxing experience and I urge you to be very careful with your valuables when boarding the line.
If you want to really sit down, look out of the window and let the wind blow on your face, I suggest line 24, which isn’t as picturesque as 28, but it does climb up to Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara, which is a beautiful terrace from which you get a lovely view of the city, the Jardim do Príncipe Real, which is a nice little garden and the Amoreiras 360 degrees view point. Fun fact: line 24 has only been re-opened in May 2018. It had been inactive for 23 years! On-board tickets cost 2,90 EUR one way.
Another option to experience the historical trams of Lisbon is to get on a tram tour. They depart from the Praça da Figueira and offer tours (1:30h in length) around Alfama, Bairro Alto and Lapo. The tours operate every half hour, with their last tours at either 7pm or 5:30pm in Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter respectively. They cost 24 EUR per person, which isn’t too bad considering how much you see.
Speaking of transportation, you guys need to get the Carris card. When you arrive at Lisbon airport and go downstairs to the metros, you’ll see a few ticket machines, surrounded by huge crowds of tourists. Those machines offer you those Carris cards and you can charge („zap“) your cards there. The card itself only costs 50 Cents and is in paper-form. I collect metro cards from all around the world, so I was a little bummed out that it’s a paper ticket, since it didn’t exactly hold up well. At the end of my trip, it was creased and a little wet. In comparison to the Japanese PASMO card, it’s a little bit of a disappointment. But it does its job, and that’s all that matters. After you receive your ticket, you have to put it back on the sensor at the same machine and charge it. What I love is that you can load it with really small amounts of money (starting at 3 EUR), since transport in Lisbon is pretty cheap. The benefit of getting a Carris card is not only that you don’t have to buy individual tickets (which gets annoying fast), but you also save a little money! A single ticket sans Carris card costs 1,45 EUR, but it’s only 1,30 EUR with the card. It’s not much, but fares really add up, so why not save where you can?
Switching from historical trams to historical districts: If you want to visit Lisbon, you’ve probably heard of Alfama. In addition to being the oldest district of Lisbon, it’s also one of the few parts of the city that survived the Great Earthquake of Lisbon more or less unharmed and therefore gives insights into the „original Lisbon“.
Alfama is also notable for its beautiful street art. Did you know that Lisbon is one of the Top 5 cities in the world when it comes to street art? If you find one of those colorful murals, don’t pass up the opportunity to take a picture!
Overlooking Alfama is the Castle of São Jorges. This one was real surprise for me. Our lovely tour guide actually advised against visiting the Castle because she felt it was too much money for too little offered. I actually get that, seeing as the entry fee for adults is 9 EUR and 5 EUR for students. My mom was really intrigued, so we entered anyway – and I was totally blown away.
The view is incredible. Very little remains of the original castle, it’s mostly ruins today, so it’s used as a viewpoint on the city. You can climb the castle walls and look at Lisbon from above. It’s a breathtaking view and I would have loved to come up there with a takeaway lunch and just sit, you know? It has a wonderful, quiet atmosphere and I really needed that after a full day of sightseeing in the blistering sun.
Lisbon loves its dramatic history, so I’d like to share another wild story with you about São Jorge Castle.
Lisbon was under Moorish rule until 1147 when, as part of the so-called Reconquista, it was reclaimed by the King of Portugal. According to legend, Afonso I, lead the Siege of Lisbon, an effort to win back Lisbon from its invaders. During the Siege of São Jorge Castle, a knight, Martim Moniz, who led the attack, noticed the castle doors closing. He knew that if the door closed completely, the battle was lost. So he sacrificed himself by lodging his body in the door and his fellow soldiers had the chance to secure the door. The castle entrance was named Porta de Martim Moniz in his honor. The image of this man’s body caught between huge doors is super-gruesome. I love me some gruesome history, you guys.
I didn’t get to see a lot of Lisbon, which is one part sad and one part great. It’s sad because Lisbon is obviously a beautiful, exciting city and I would have loved to see more of it. On the other hand, it really made me want to return and give Lisbon some more attention. I tasted blood, as they say (do they say that?). I’ll be back, Lisbon. I look forward to getting to know you even better.
Have you ever been to Lisbon? What were your highlights?