Lisbon: a European gem with an exotic charm
Updated: Nov 14
Portugal was on top of my European destinations this year. I have always been appealed by its culture, which albeit different, feels familiar due to its proximity to Spain, both in terms of distance and in its history. I am fascinated by the fact that this relatively small country dared to brave the ocean and explore the world. Portugal is credited for many discoveries, including many parts of Asia, Africa and South America. This rich History can be felt in the country, even today when walking around the streets and visiting the many beautiful monuments that pepper the land.
So, it only felt right to start our year of adventures with Portugal, which offered us the comforts of Europe with a touch of exoticism.
Roaming the steep streets of Lisbon
Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal, is an incredible place. Located in the southwest of the country, it is a coastal city where the river Tagus empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The capital is very hilly, with steep little winding streets. For me, the architecture was what kept me in awe. It is truly a city where Moorish meets Baroque, and where Ancient meets Modern. It was quite difficult to keep my head down so as not to trip on the cobblestones that paved the city streets!
One of Lisbon's most famous sights is perhaps the network of yellow trams that connects its neighbourhoods. I thought it was a wonder that these charming old trams were still able to negotiate the challenging terrain. Naturally, a visit to Lisbon is not complete without riding one of those, especially the famous Tram28 which hikes up and down the hilly streets of the famous Alfama district. Their clinking noise can be heard before the tram comes into sight, and the vessel stops with a proper engine racket. Once inside, it truly feels like going back in time. The interior is wooden, and the ride is a little turbulent. Personally, it felt like I was on an amusement park ride, and enjoyed the experience.
A few cultural highlights
On our first day, we decided to walk around the city to get a feel for it, and we ended up walking to one of the many "Miradouros", or viewpoints. The views from above are breathtaking. From up there, one can take in the beauty of the city, with its narrow pastel-coloured buildings, the shooting spires of the Gothic monuments, and the glittering river out in the distance.
From the viewpoint, the Saõ Jorge Castle is a stand-out. The fortress was built in the 5th century and has seen many occupants, from the Visigoths who originally built it, to the Moors and, eventually, the country's Royals who occupied it. At the castle, one can walk the ramparts and enjoy different views of the city. I mostly enjoyed the 360-degree views through the camera obscura that is housed within a tower of the castle.
A big surprise was finding out that the castle was also home to many peacocks that roamed free. I have to admit that this added unique entertainment to the visit!
Another worthy visit was the National Tile Museum. The tiles, or Azulejos, are an important cultural singularity in Portugal. The Museum showcases an impressive collection of Azulejos and explains the evolution of tile-making techniques throughout time. Azulejos can be sighted on and in many buildings around Lisbon, but the Museum offers further insights into their historical significance. Furthermore, the Museum is housed in a 16th-century convent, which is a landmark in its own right.
Lastly, a walk along the Tagus River on a sunny day is a must. This is a great place to get a glimpse of local life, where many people can be seen rowing, jogging or simply walking their dogs. Along the river, one can enjoy a close-up view of the 25th of April Bridge, which bears an uncanny resemblance with the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. Further along, one can sight the "Padrão dos Descobrimentos" monument (which celebrates Portugal's Age of Discoveries in the 15th and 16th centuries), before encountering the famous "Torre de Belém", a 16th-century fortification.
Of course, the visit could not be complete without sampling some local specialties. I simply had to try the famous "Pasteis de Belém" which is delicious by the way! Many pastry shops can be found in Lisbon that offer a taste of this traditional tart, including the original shop located in the Belém neighbourhood which follows the secret recipe created at the Monasterio de los Jerónimos. Expect queues if you choose to try the tart there though!