Good wine, good food and good company are some of life’s most civilised pleasures, someone said. Add to that warm weather and Fado music and you’ll find yourself in Lisbon, one of the most underrated cities in Europe. If you appreciate the simple joie de vivre like me, you must visit this beautiful Portuguese city.
Time moves slowly and days feel longer, in a good way. People enjoy the warm, crisp evenings until well into the night, at least they did during my September visit, but still manage to go to work in the morning. During my short holiday, I made sure not to get up so early. My day started around ten with a short hop to the nearby bakery for coffee and delicious pastries, particularly pastéis de nata, my favourite. Then I was back to my small cozy apartment on the foot of one of Lisbon’s many hills to enjoy my sweet breakfast. Using Airbnb allowed me a glimpse of how locals live. After spending a week, people in my street started greeting me as if I’d always been living in the neighbourhood.
Around noon, it is time to go out. Take one of the small and colourful trams that regularly go up and down the hills overlooking the water. Head to a viewpoint, or a miradouro, as the Portuguese call it. Each offers wonderful views: monumental architecture and buildings often decorated with blue, white or green ceramic tiles brought by the Moors in the Middle Ages; panoramic scenery; the city’s port; and the 25 de Abril Bridge, a smaller version of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco. Grab a drink and have a long break.
Getting hungry yet? I am. Alfama, the oldest district of Lisbon, has many places that serve traditional Portuguese gastronomy as well as international cuisine. I felt right at home, with the Portuguese custom of eating various small plates of food. Petiscos, similar to the Spanish Tapas and my own beloved Lebanese Mezze. And of course: Vinho Verde, the unique made-in-Portugal-only green wine; young, cool, summery, light and low in alcohol.
While walking around the streets of cobblestone in Lisbon, I made regular stops on the long stairs to look at the buildings. In some areas the difference between various constructions was staggering; completely renovated apartments with shiny ceramic tiles on their facades, standing next to almost crumbling houses with broken shutters and no windows. When I asked for the reason, I was told that many often elderly tenants pay extremely low rents, frozen by an old law decades ago. So the owners can’t afford upkeep, buildings are in shambles. It reminded me of Beirut: some policy set in motion at some point because it served some populist politician, or even seemed wise at the time, but nobody bothered to look at the long-term consequences.
The last economic crisis hit the country hard. Although it is recovering very slowly, many elderly have to live off pensions 250 or 300 euros a month, which allows for very little. Youth unemployment remains high, many people beg on the streets, people complain about corruption in various official departments. That’s how locals explained their current situation, a big contrast with the more prosperous Northern Europe. But I am no expert on Portugal, merely an observer and obviously a curious listener to whatever the locals have to tell about their country.
I still loved the vibe in Lisbon. It feels way more leftist and hippie than in Amsterdam: more graffiti, young people never seem to be in a rush, the streets are full with endless kiosks, small casual restaurants and bars – rather than luxurious or sophisticated diners – prices are affordable. The coast is lined with a sandy beach, the water looks super clean. It is the perfect location to watch the sunset. Grab a glass of cold Sangria and sit on a bench to enjoy the amazing tones of orange, pink and yellow.
All in all, an ideal destination for a long and relaxing stay.
*Ginja is a sweet cherry liqueur that originated in Lisbon. You can drink it in a small chocolate shot and the trick is not to eat the shot in order to have a refill. It’s terribly good.