To love or not to love, that is the question…After a week’s stay in Oeiras with my friend Qi within the Lisbon urban area, here is my answer! In Lisbon I wandered on my own and visited the Castelo de São Jorge (Lisbon Castle), the Sé de Lisboa (Lisbon Cathedral), the Oceanário, the largest aquarium in Europe, and the Museu de Arte Antiga (or NMAA). Outside of Lisbon I took train rides to Sintra and Belém to visit Sintra Palace, Pena Palace, Quinta da Regaleria, the Mosteiros dos Jeronimos (Jerónimos Monastery), and the Torre de Belém (Belém Tower). With Qi and her friends I took train rides to Setúbal and Cascais to visit the Igreja de Jesus Cristo (Church of Jesus Christ), catch the ferry from Setúbal to the Tróia peninsula where there are some pretty beaches, to see the Boca do Inferno (Hell’s Mouth), a famous cliff formation, to play on the beaches at Estoril, and to look at the stalls at the artisan festival in Cascais. I also strolled with Qi and her parents to Carcavelos from Oeiras. Tips: It is popular to rent a bike to get to the Boca do Inferno, but you need your passport. The icing on the cake: If you are lucky, when crossing the Sado River you may see dolphins (we didn’t).
What to love about Lisbon
The public transport system: the Viva Viagem card is a pay-as-you-go card which you can top up and which is valid for the Metro, buses, trams, funiculars, and trains to tourist destinations near Lisbon (in my case Cascais and Sintra). Oriente station on the Metro’s Linha Vermelha (Red Line) has beautiful murals.
The language: Portuguese is more commonly spoken than French (I underestimated the size of the population of Brazil). The main difference between Portuguese and Spanish is that Portuguese has nasal vowels (like French!) but Spanish does not.
The Baixa-Castelo elevator: opened in 2013, it saves you from walking up all those stairs to reach the Castelo de São Jorge. I luckily stumbled upon it on my first walk to the castle, and thereafter used the same route to get to the Alfama quarter.
The câmera escura (camera obscura) in the Castelo de São Jorge (Lisbon Castle) which shows you a 360 degree panorama of the city with just 2 lenses. Queue for one of the tours, which operate in a number of different languages.
The postcards made of cork which I bought for €0.80 each at Sintra and 4 for €3 near Sé Catedral (Lisbon Cathedral) in the city centre to send to friends and family.
The drinking fountains along the Praia de Santo Amaro (Santo Amaro beach), which serve humans at the top and dogs at the bottom.
The murals on the Metro inspired by traditional azulejos (glazed ceramic tilework).
The food: mainly consisting of egg (ovo), salted cod (bacalhau), and sardine (sardinha, which features as a logo on souvenir T-shirts). I liked most of what I tried.
- Pastéis de bacalhau: deep-fried salted codfish cakes. Mini ones from Casa Brasileira on the Rua Augusta are €0.70 each (normal size ones cost €3.45 at the Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau on the same street) and sooo tasty!
- Pastéis de nata: egg custard tarts, best bought from the store Pastéis de Belém (at €1.50 each) which uses the original recipe handed down by the monks from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Monastery of St. Jerome).
- Pastéis de cereja: cherry tarts, best eaten in Fundão, a city known for its annual cherry festival. I bought mine from the Cereja do Fundão van (which is shaped like a cherry!) by the Arco da Rua Augusta.
- Pâté de sardinha: sardine paste which accompanies the bread basket in restaurants, alongside the usual butter.
- Pão com chouriço: chorizo-stuffed bread.
- Caldo verde: cabbage soup.
- Filhós: hand-stretched doughnuts.
What not to love about Lisbon
The near-homogeneity of the different Viva Viagem cards: they are all the same colour and design, and I ended up with 3 during my week’s stay. One for the Lisbon urban transport, one for a train to Setúbal in the suburban area, and one for a ferry from Setúbal to Tróia. Ticket machines refer to all simply as Viva Viagem, which doesn’t help, since it just confuses the tourist who expects to be able to top up any Viva Viagem card them, not just the specific type of Viva Viagem card the machine actually registers.
The lack of engagement with the visitor: there is not much in the way of detailed, interesting information at tourist sites like palaces. The information boards show improvement at the Oceanário but in one exhibit room a work sign was positioned so that it obstructed the information sign, as if visitors were not expected to want to read about the exhibit in the first place.
The sewers: unpleasant whiffs every time you pass by a manhole cover or gutter, and even (in this case, Estoril) the shower stands at the beach. They have a museum about the city’s water supply, but it seems that more could be done about the waste-water.
The lack of imagination: the skyline as viewed from the Lisbon side of the river Tagus includes the Ponte 25 de Abril, a bridge which looks like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and the Cristo Rei, a monumental statue of Christ the King which copied Rio de Janeiro’s statue of Christ the Redeemer.