Lisbon is an old soul looking back on her past with sadness. It permeates the ancient streets, a palpable melancholy. There’s a sadness and longing to the local music, called fado. Embodied in the untranslatable word saudade, a nostalgic longing for the past. Once a world power, the richest city in the world, fallen, then subjugated by a brutal dictator, only the young seem to be free of it. A dour gruff on the faces we pass. But easily overcome with an “Olá” and a smile. Then a reluctant welcoming warmth.
Lisbon is a bit different than Porto. The language sounds different. It reminds me more of northern Croatia with its sharp consonants and liberal z sounds. Where Porto sounds more rounded like Spanish. The people are noticeably more diverse. More mixed. And the culture feels more metropolitan than its more predominantly white cousin.
The people seem to be impatient but very controlled. You might get a horn tap a half second after the light turns but generally there’s no honking. I stare with amusement at our driver speeding around the narrow streets with noticeable agitation at every passing car but he never honks. He waits patiently. His frustration only finds surface in silent hand gestures. He never vocalizes.
The city is old, like Neolithic old. And the conservative catholic authoritarian regime that crushed it under its boot heel from the mid 30’s to 1974, managed to keep things from changing much at all. The limestone mosaic tile sidewalks were probably much the same in the 400’s when the city was like most of Hispania, Islamic. Creaky and indelibly cute electric yellow trams with wooden interiors still wind through the outrageously curvy and steep hillside streets. You feel lost in time. And somehow perfectly modern.
A short history. (It’s a long history.)
Lisbon is the second oldest capitol in Europe after Athens, older than Rome. Sites in the Alfama district where we are staying date back to 1200BC and the Phoenicians. Aiding the Romans with their conquest of Hispania in 138BC, the city, then called Olisipo, was declared a Municipium with full citizenship in the Roman empire without taxation and given the name Municipium Cives Romanorum Felicitas Julia Olisipo. After the fall of the Roman empire, the area was conquered successively by the Sarmatians, Alans, and Vandals, and later by the Germanic Visigoths who called it Ulishbona. In 711AD, Lisbon was taken by north African Islamic forces who established a peaceful multi-cultural and multi-religious region for 433 years, renaming the city al-Ušbuna. Much of the surviving old world structures date to this era.
In 1108 the city was taken by Norwegian crusaders led by Sigurd I but recaptured by Moors 3 years later. In 1147 Afonso I of Portugal, with the hesitant assistance of English crusaders (or more aptly a loose confederation of pirates) forced ashore near Porto by bad weather (promised the city’s pillage and prisoners to ransom), besieged and conquered the city as a part of the Reconquista returning it to Christian rule with around 17,000 soldiers, probably more than the population of the city. After the city agreed to a surrender and was assured their property and their lives, the forces entered the city and immediately disregarded the agreement. Muslim residents were forced into ghettos outside of the city and the mosques were destroyed or converted into churches. In 1496, after the recapture of Granada, King Manuel expelled all Muslims from Hispania.
The Alfama district is a maze of narrow mosaic tile streets that wind around a steep hillside in erratic and unexpected ways. The buildings are irregular and follow the streets with endless staired pedestrian lanes trailing down to the sea. Yellow trams wind through impossibly narrow turns inching by tiled facades and scraping cafe tables smashed into thin impassible sidewalks. But the entire neighborhood is alive with drying laundry and loud voices, the echo of fado music and the clap clap of children’s soles racing down the stone streets. It’s a magical place.
The neighborhood derives its name from the Arabic “al-hamma” from the word for hot springs in the area. When the area was under Islamic rule in the 6th century, this neighborhood was basically the entire city. Atop the steep hill was built the Moorish castle, rebuilt and renamed the São Jorge Castle. And the streets winding down the hillsides comprised a dense medieval city, Lisbon or al-Ušbuna as it was then called. With an improved wall originally built by the Romans surrounding it. Most of the old city of Lisbon was destroyed by the earthquake of 1755 but the Alfama was one of the few areas to survive.
Southern Portuguese food
The food here is simple and unadorned. Usually grilled meat or seafood with a few boiled potatoes and olive oil. Less stews, less tripe, and more seafood. An overwhelming abundance of fish, octopus and cuttlefish, the fish markets awash with strange denizens I am unfamiliar with, from small oily fish to enormous eel-like bug-eyed monsters with sharp teeth coiled around other smaller fish on the ice. Pastel de nata, or egg tarts, are omnipresent. Bacalhau, or reconstituted salted codfish, is still foundational but here it’s generally served grilled or mashed and fried into balls like fritters called pastel de bacalhau, a common bar snack.
The most common bar snacks seem to be small sandwiches made with soft white bread buns with a crispy shell and a grilled meat with coarsely chopped grilled garlic. The steak version is called a prego and the pork version is called a bifana.
Ask any chef where to eat in Lisbon and you’re going to hear Ramiro. It’s a down to earth and rowdy beer hall with first class seafood unlike any place you’ve ever been. Everything comes by the kilo. Order a beer and they just keep bringing more until you says stop. End your meal with a prego steak sandwich. They call it dessert here. Locals line up outside in the evenings, best get there early.
100 Maneiras is the Michelin starred restaurant of well known Lisbon chef Ljubomir Stanisic. The meal is a marathon of delicious and interesting bites, both familiar, evoking traditional Bosnian dishes, and entirely new and exciting. An autobiographical 17 course tasting menu lasting almost 5 hours, this was one of the best meals I have had. You can read the full post about my experience here.
The local beverage is ginjinha or ginja /jin-jah/, a very sweet morello cherry liquor that’s about 20% alcohol. You’ll find walkup ginja bars all over the city and even little old ladies selling shots on foldup tables on stairways and remote lanes. It’s usually around 1 euro or up to 1.5 euros a shot. You can drink a lot of this stuff. In the more established bars, a carafe filled to the top with cherries is filled with ginja and you can request with or without cherries, which gets you a bit of the fruit in the bottom of your shot glass. In other parts of the country, specifically the Obidos region, the liquor is served in little edible chocolate glasses. I bought a bottle on our first day but it’s so sweet it took a while to drink it.
The Bairro Alto neighborhood
The Bairro Alto is an old pedestrian neighborhood to the northeast of the Baixo and is generally the center of Lisbon nightlife. At night the streets are usually choked with barhopping locals and tourists alike. Current covid restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of a new variant shut most the place down on the weekends early, but I’m sure that will change soon. We did also visit an amazing restaurant there called 100 Maneiras and ate at a cereal cafe mentioned in the food section of this article.
Pop Cereal Cafe
In the Bairro Alto we happened across one of those magical places that you need to spread the word about. The Pop Cereal Cafe is a wacky coffee and snack cafe where you can mix and match your favorite breakfast cereals. The basic bowl lets you pick three cereals, two toppings, and basic milk, but you can add more cereals, toppings, or flavored milks. They also have a selection of pre-made concoctions and other treats like cereal milkshakes. Katy and I are huge fans of the Empty Bowl podcast (a meditative podcast discussing the latest breakfast cereals) so this place really intrigued us.
The Baixo neighborhood – city center.
The city’s center is tourist central. We beat the wave of crowds, first in after covid, but the unmistakable vibe of tourist trap still lingers. Large patios of overpriced and underwhelming restaurants fill the flat tile streets. In the Praça do Comércio (main public square) we are besieged by drug dealers masquerading as sun glasses hawkers. First one and then another. “Hash? Weed? Cocaine?” Relentless. One guy follows me all the way across the square and for several blocks giving me the hard sell, unswayed by my “fuck off” refusals. We realized the only course is to not engage at all from the start. Don’t be fooled by the ubiquitous, “Where are you from?” line. I found this to be true throughout the Baixo. Especially in the Praça Dom Pedro IV and Praça do Comércio or anywhere near them. But basically anywhere in the neighborhood. Being an American in a printed band shirt probably didn’t help. I didn’t like being a target so I generally avoided this area but the squares are impressive and you have to check out the Santa Justa Lift, though it was closed due to covid while we were there.
The Lisbon earthquake of 1755
In 1755, Lisbon suffered a cataclysmic event. It was All Saints Day and everyone was in church when the earthquake struck, destroying 85% of structures in the city. This was followed by an enormous fire so large that people standing 100 feet away were instantly suffocated. And then a 20 foot tidal wave crashed into the city destroying what was left. Nearly 50,000 of the city’s 200,000 inhabitants were killed, making it one of the deadliest earthquakes in recorded history. The 70,000 volume municipal library, all of the municipal records, the royal archive, all of the city’s hospitals, destroyed. Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant were all deeply effected by the quake.
The 28 tram.
One of the cutest things about the city are the ancient looking yellow trams clanging their way through the impossibly thin and steep roads of the Alfama. At first it seems like a vestigial tourist thing but you soon realize it’s a major form of public transportation in the steep neighborhoods. Modern trams are too large and unable to navigate the small spaces so the old trams originating in the 30’s were retrofitted with new engines and brakes. The 28 tram winds through the Alfama, downtown, then across to the other side of town. But there are other trams winding through the city as well. From where we stayed, this was the most convenient way to get around. The best way to ride is to get a refillable transit card available at any metro station (no one seems to mention this). Paying on the tram is inconvenient and costs 3 euros while paying with the card is less than half that price. You simply tap the sensor when you get on. If you’re doing a tourist blitz there’s a 24 hour transit pass also available at the metro that works with a tap card. Note: at peak times the tram can get crowded. We didn’t have this problem because the tourism was still low but it’s recommended to catch the tram at the end of the line across town and ride the full loop back to get a seat.
The São Jorge Castle
The site of the São Jorge Castle has been used as a fortification all the the way back to the Celts and after the Phoenicians, later the Greeks and Romans, then improved by the Berbers. The Christian invaders took it over after sacking the city in 1147. Damaged by the 1531 earthquake and later by the 1755 earthquake, it was nearly completely gone by the 1930s. The structure has been restored and is under city historical protection. It’s a great viewpoint and interesting to walk around in, but there’s really not much left but the walls.
Pink Street and the Time Out Market
To the east of the Biaxo and to the south of the Biarro Alto is the Chiado area. Previously a rough area (Bourdain described it as “The crummy part of town, a strip populated by cruiserweight hookers with bad dentistry.”) it’s gotten a make over and is now a bustling night spot. They’ve painted the pedestrian street that curves under R. do Alecrim pink, hence the moniker. A few blocks away towards the water is the Time Out Market, a massive fresh market open in the mornings with a neighboring food hall filled with dozens of stalls from simple to high end. I opted for the francesina, a multilayered booze-mop filled with a variety of meat, topped with cheese and a fried egg, then doused with a special tomato-based sauce. It’s delcious. It’s more of a Porto thing, but I failed to get decent photos the last time I had one.
The Muslim Quarter
When the Christians sieged the city in 1147 they negotiated a surrender promising to allow the Muslims to keep their property. But when the gates were open, the Muslim population was forced out of the city and into ghettos nearby. This area became the Muslim quarter and has since become the default home to many waves of immigration. A reputation as a bad part of town, the area boasts an eclectic mix of residents and types of food. This is a great place to find the affrican inspired frango churrasco, or spiced chicken.
The Thieves Market
This is basically a flea market held every Saturday and Thursday in the Alfama. The market stretches down several streets and squares and past bustling bars and cafes. We can’t accumulate anything but it’s a great place to pick up various bric-a-brac if you have the luggage space.
One of my favorite things about a city is the graffiti. You can tell a lot about the spirit of a city by the street art. And Lisbon is exceptional. Murals can be found around every corner.
Doors and tiles
Portuguese buildings are often covered in decorative tiles, a throw back to the Islamic era. There seem to be an endless variety of patterns.