On All Saint’s Day in 1755, a huge earthquake struck Lisbon, destroying nearly every church in the city. The earthquake, which wiped out an estimated one-quarter of the population, not only destroyed a large part of the city but also greatly damaged the future of the colonial empire.
In Lisbon today, it’s practically as if the aftershocks can still be felt. Even into more recent times, the Portuguese economy has been struggling. In the midst of the beautiful late September sunshine, there was something a little “off” about my trip to the Portuguese capital.
Lisbon does not feel like a modern city. The buildings are beautiful but in massive disrepair, cracking and crumbling from the ceilings. Besides the part of the grid area of the city re-built after the earthquake, the city is a maze of winding streets, disappearing street signs and streets that somehow change name without notice. Then, there’s the public transportation, which is somewhat of a disaster. I ended up waiting for trams. A lot. For hours at a time. And then getting lost on those disappearing streets.
But even with all the getting lost, Lisbon stole my heart just the littlest bit. Here’s how you can fall in love with Lisbon, too:
1. Ride the bright yellow trams.
I have a love/hate relationship with the Lisbon trams. My first impression of the trams: what is a Streetcar Named Desire doing in the middle of Lisbon? My second reaction: these are the most inefficient forms of transformation I’ve ever seen. We ended up waiting for the #28 tram to come for three hours, then once we finally got on the tram, we ended up getting stuck at a stop when the tracks were blocked by another car. It was not the most pleasant experience. Still, Tram #28 takes you around the hilly city, past all the major landmarks. So if it ever comes, it’s worth the ride.
2. Get lost in Alfama.
This is not a difficult task. The winding streets of Alfama, the former Arab district, are beautiful — huge tiled ceilings, gorgeous buildings — but quite confusing. Navigate your way to the top of the neighborhood, and when you’re completely out of breath, you’ve probably reached São Jorge Castle. The Moorish castle at the peak of the city offers great views of the water and sprawling red tiled roofs.
3. Do a picnic lunch at the Cais de Colunas.
This point in the city is a makeshift beach, a great place to lie in the sun and take a nap. Portugal is also a really cheap place to visit. If you feel like doing a picnic it’s even cheaper. Grab some snacks from the closest supermarket and you can probably feast for under five euros.
4. Take a trip to see the Belem Tower.
The town of Belem is not far from Portugal, accessible by bus (and tram, but we all know that story). The Belem Tower is an icon of Lisbon. The fortified tower is at the end of a long walk down the Tagus River, from which it emerges like something out of a fairytale. On your way back, be sure to stop at Pastéis de de Belém. This was quite possibly my favorite part of my trip to Lisbon. Their pastels de nata are world famous — straight out of the oven, with powdered sugar and cinnamon, it’s hard to describe them other than delicious.
5. Go out in Barrio Alto.
In Lisbon, there are no open drink laws and everyone drinks in the streets. On our first night, we made the rookie mistake of having an early dinner and ended up missing the night out entirely. When we were walking back at midnight, the streets were empty — but at 2 o’clock the next night it was if the city came alive. At 2 a.m., practically the entire city was out in the streets, drinking small cañas and taking in the scene. It was a lot like one big tailgate for the football game that never came. The Barrio Alto lifestyle is definitely not something to miss.
Lisbon is not a place that I originally planned on visiting. In fact, I knew next to nothing about the city before deciding to go there, but the temptation of a city so close pulled me away from Madrid for yet another weekend.
Next time, I’ll stick a little closer to home, to my home for the past semester, the Spanish capital of Madrid.