I recently returned from a two week European vacation with my parents and my younger sister. We visited Paris, Barcelona, Seville, and Lisbon, four cities I was lucky enough to see for the first time. The trip was very different from my two previous study abroad excursions; probably because I spent my nights in a bed rather than in a sweaty club, and thus was able to better appreciate the sights we chose to visit during the day (funny how that works). It was fast-paced, exhausting, and absolutely rewarding, although by the end we were really dragging. However, forcing ourselves to take our last stop as seriously as the others proved to be a satisfying decision. I encourage everyone to travel Lisbon; it ended up being my family’s favorite city.
We awoke in Lisbon the morning after an evening arrival, refreshed and ready to tackle some major sights. Only two full days in the city meant we had to be ready with a fairly detailed plan for each day to fit everything in. Luckily, by that time we were veterans in making plans while minimizing arguments. Sifting through our itinerary, we decided to explore the historic Alfama neighborhood and the São Jorge Castle since they were closest to our apartment, then head to Belem for the afternoon to see the Jeronimos Monastery, Belem Tower, and the Monument to the Discoveries.
A cloudy forecast was a welcome break from Seville’s relentless heat, but it also added an element of solemnity to the city, which kept us from getting too comfortable with our surroundings. We wandered uphill over the worn cobblestone streets toward the castle, which unfolded unexpectedly as we turned a quiet, unmarked corner. There were other tourists around, sure, and a couple of souvenir shops, but that’s what took me the most about this mysterious city: its subtlety. I cringe when I hear something referred to as a “hidden gem”, but as I write this, I struggle to come up with a better way to describe the nature of this intriguing capital, no matter how many TripAdvisor reviews it’s racked up by now.
It was this authenticity that drew me in. In Alfama, tourist shops are nonexistent. There are no restaurants with large pictures and English signage to be found. No street vendors hounding passerby to purchase their illegal merchandise. Even Praça do Comercio, Lisbon’s main square, had both of its monuments completely covered up for restoration, with nothing left to distract the normally overstimulated tourists. Eventually we’d find that there were parts of town that had been exposed to the global tourism market, but our immediate introduction to Lisbon was both unexpected and welcomed.
We opted for lunch at a basic Italian restaurant on the main square. After a shock to our senses, it was nice to sit down to a familiar pizza rather than trying to decide how we felt about traditional Portuguese salt cod dishes. Then, it was off in a (very affordable) taxi to Belém. Of course the Jeronimos Monastery was impressive, with architectural features I’d never seen before, but it was the same dingy gray of Alfama rather than the gleaming white I had seen in pictures. The Monument to the Discoveries was imposing and majestic perched on the riverbank, as was the Belém Tower, but it was strange to us that more effort hadn’t been made to maintain the appearance of these important landmarks.
If the upkeep of major monuments was one of our biggest gripes, the possible correlation to the lack of lines and entrance fees at most attractions was definitely one of our favorite things about Lisbon. In Paris and Barcelona, our plans were thwarted constantly by hour-long lines, and it was painful to fork over a collective 60 euros for the four of us to see Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia (after student discounts!). I guess a little natural grime is worth not having to fight crowds, while getting to really take the time to explore and experience an attraction.
We ended up spending several hours in Belém because it felt inviting and we had time to kill considering the lack of lines put us ahead of schedule. But eventually we headed up to the Baixa/Chiado area, where we explored the Carmo Convent and attached archaeological museum. We walked around a bit until we were tired from the day, and, seeing no appealing dining options around, we made a beeline for the Italian restaurant where we had lunch. Though it was the first time we’d returned to a restaurant on our trip, it was also the first time that a city had overwhelmed us so much, and despite a little embarrassment after making eye contact with our waiter from earlier, we returned to our apartment satisfied and relaxed after a full, rewarding first day in Lisbon.