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  • Writer's pictureSarina Harper

Meandering Through Lisbon

Updated: Apr 30, 2020

Touching down from a sleepless red-eye from NYC, tired I was not; it was nearing midday in Lisbon and I was fuelled by the particular energy you get when arriving somewhere completely foreign. It’s better than an espresso - though I shot one back soon after landing.

European coffee is a taste I can’t live without.

My Uber dropped me off a few streets away from my Airbnb, deciding his car couldn’t navigate the narrow streets. Though apparently nor could I…

Now, this was a challenge I expected when stuffing my extra-large suitcase with three months worth of “essentials”. Testing my backpack’s endurance, my electronics and camera equipment were a dead weight that I carried. But that was the easy part. No gym workout could have prepared me for the hardship of controlling my behemoth suitcase as it bumped down cobblestoned sidewalks. Gravity was a major disadvantage, causing my luggage to speed much quicker than I could walk - and dragging me along with it. Ignoring my husband’s “I told you so” in my head, my adventurous spirit prevailed, and my suitcase led the way to my first ‘home away from home’ of what was supposed to be three months in Europe…

I simply fell in love with Lisbon the moment I stepped from my tiny Bairro Alto apartment, ready to wander. Making my way down the rocky street, the Elevator da Bica squeaked up the steep hill past me and I paused to appreciate its antiquated beauty.

I was visiting in mid-February - low season - which it turns out is a fantastic time to visit Portugal. Dressed in a mid-weight jacket and sneakers, it was the perfect month to amble up and down those narrow, hilly streets without a drop of sweat or the need to chug endless bottles of ice-cold water. By midday, when the sun was overhead I was exploring comfortably in just a shirt.

Satisfying my sweet tooth is always a priority, so I ducked into a pastelaria. Not wanting to stub out their cigarettes, Portuguese men stood at the window bar throwing back their afternoon espressos. Having learned some key Portuguese phrases, I was giddy to conduct my pastry transaction in the local tongue. I’m pretty sure I nailed it. Smugly clinging my pastry bag, I hit the pavement.

Saving lively Bairro Alto for later that evening, I slowly meandered towards the old city center, pausing to appreciate the Praça Luís de Camões whilst enjoying my procured pastry (hint: it’s the most famous Portuguese dessert). While the ones I tried in Macau last year were fantastic, eating them in the country of origin was the real deal.

So I made it a daily habit.

Continuing towards Praca do Comercio, every block was lined with fascinating buildings - essentially works of art. From historic buildings to storefronts, apartment buildings to banks, ornate tiles of varying detail and colors lined the facades. Fragrant orange trees and springtime blossoms framed them, natural and manmade beauty together in perfect harmony.

I neared the historic center, taking in the stunning architecture framing the square. Majestic on its own, I couldn’t have picked a better afternoon: the traditional Portuguese yellow lining the buildings glowed under the bright blue sky.

Pausing while the historic tram 28 screeched by, I continued through the Arco da Rua Augusta to explore the historic streets of Baixa.

Climbing back up to Bairro Alto as the sunset, I wound through tiny bohemian streets. Pausing to catch my breath (that suitcase struggle really exhausted me!), I turned to peer between buildings and glimpsed The Castelo de São Jorge standing protectively over the city. Mouth-watering aromas of spices began to sift from tabernas - I decided it was time for my first authentic Portuguese dinner!

Just steps from my apartment was Os Bons Malandros, which I chose because I was anxious to try Polvo a Lagareiro. After eating the best prepared octopus of my life in Andalucia last year, I was hoping the Portuguese preparation would be just as enjoyable. I savored the tender octopus which was swimming in a pool of local oil, simply topped with fresh cilantro and nestled with earthy potatoes. My verdict? Portugal understands what to do with octopus. Realizing I hadn’t slept in over a day, I polished off my local wine and fell into bed!

After a solid nights’ sleep (what jet lag?), I awoke refreshed for my only full day in Lisbon before heading south. I would be returning in April with my husband, so I was saving the Castle for us to do together. But that didn’t mean I didn’t want to see it up close!

First things first: I needed a good brunch to fuel my day of walking. As much as I enjoy local restaurants when I travel, I made an exception for the Time Out Market which features food prepared by the top culinary Gods around Portugal. The highly-rated market didn’t disappoint - I moaned over expertly prepared pork belly by Marlene Viera, crispy on top, flavourful meat falling apart with a poke from my fork. I moseyed around the produce market next door, not noting any produce foreign to me but still enjoyable to meander through nonetheless.

Heading west towards the Alfama area, I popped into another pastelaria then savored an almond and orange bolo as I walked along the famous tram 28 route. Passing the impressive Paços do Concelho de Lisboa (Lisbon City Hall), I knew I had a long, uphill walk ahead of me. I could have taken that famous tram ride, but honestly - you know about my culinary indulgences thus far.

I’m not a city gal - but there’s something about wandering historic, European cities - I’m charmed by their stories, the obvious influence of various empires that built the foundations apparent in monuments, architecture, and municipal design. A far cry from the gleaming skyscrapers and Starbucks that are eyesores in so many places nowadays…

Alfama retains much of its authentic neighborhoods, with hundreds of cave homes built into the hillside that are still proudly whitewashed by their owners. I purposefully lost myself exploring paths, discovering many homes had tiny tabernas just through their cavern entrances.

Grabbing an espresso, I had a chat in Portugenglish with the lovely owner and recharged my batteries. Then I made my way towards the glowing cathedral I’d seen sticking up in the distance all afternoon. Unfortunately, it was closed - but I paused to appreciate my next pastry while admiring the view. Next door, the neighborhood school let out, and parents who spent the afternoon chatting in alleyways, smoking and playing games in cafes collected their kids.

Nearing the castle, gorgeous craft shops offered pottery, detailed painted tiles, and the softest woolen sweaters I may have ever run my hands across. Not just limited to houses and tabernas, the shops’ interiors tastefully exposed their natural stone walls and displayed goods on stone counters. Though tempted, I just browsed; not only was I saving the castle for my return - also the craft shopping!

After walking almost ten miles, I decided it was the opportune time to finally ride the famed tram 28. Though crammed, it was by far the most quaint tram I’d been on. My stomach rumbling, it carried me back to Bairro Alto in time for my final supper in Lisbon.

I began my meal with my newly implemented Portuguese tradition: basic bread with anything but basic local oil. I of course paired it with wine from the famous Douro Valley, a region I planned to visit next trip as well. Savoring delicious Bacalhau à Brás, I wondered how much of my infatuation with Lisbon had to do with the amazing food I’d been enjoying. I’d say a decent percentage - but hey, food is culture too.

Just steps away from my apartment, I turned for a final glimpse of the Elevator da Bica, capturing a photo worthy of my iPhone’s wallpaper. Goals.

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