In what universe could there ever possibly be enough time?
That was the first panicky sentence that whirled through my mind as I reached the top of what may possibly be the world’s longest escalator at Baixa-Chiado metro station, and caught my first glimpse of Lisbon through the elegantly stone-lined archway marking the exit.
It was closely followed by One would need years here as I stepped fully outside onto the decorated cobblestone road and had my first true look of the city.
The view made it just shut down – my mind that is. Suddenly there was nothing. Just complete and utter blankness. I couldn’t form a coherent thought to save my life. Or cure cancer. The only thing I seemed capable of was dumbfoundedly staring at any and everything as my head turned every which way so as not to miss one single building, movement, or individual.
Somewhere in the far reaches of my brain is the vague recollection of taking my bothersome sunglasses on and off as the inexplicably sunny weather demanded I wear them, yet at the same time the landscape and everything it beheld sat so achingly beautiful as if it were meant for the naked eye alone.
There are no words. Nothing I say could ever capture Lisbon correctly.
As that third thought took shape, I came to the realization that there was really only one solution – don’t even attempt to describe it.
Because I can’t. It’s indescribable. Lisbon just is. It’s an essence. A vibe. An aura. A living, breathing place that embodies an authentic spirit. It’s more than just a string of museums, iconic bridges, city plazas, scenic river walks, and architectural wonders.
Lisbon is an experience in and of itself. One that shouldn’t be contained in a neat and tidy box of itineraries and sights to be crossed off a list.
Its cultural fluencies are the DNA that make up this historic city’s character and are at the core of its very soul. Discovering what lies beneath the skin and wholly immersing yourself into the Lisboeta lifestyle is the best way to make the most of your time in this mesmerizing European city.
1. Revel in the Outdoor Culture
Not to be confused with the great outdoors – you’ll find no climbing, skiing, mountain biking, or hiking here (though your calves may beg to differ after days spent navigating the hundreds of steeply twisting hills making up its foundation) – Lisbon is more in-line with the I’m outdoorsy in that I like getting drunk on patios mindset.
Whether it’s gathering at the Marquis of Pombal Square to celebrate a major soccer win, sipping a traditional ginjinha in the late afternoon, busking along the banks of the Tagus River, sunbathing at nearby beaches, selling homemade wares at the al fresco markets, decorating empty facades with colorful graffiti, or flooding the alleyways outside the late-night bars in the Barrio Alto, the Portuguese take full advantage of Lisbon’s year-round perfect climatic tendencies and revel in the constant sunshine.
2. Watch the Sunset and Then Rise – Without Any Sleep In Between
I’m sure there’s a whole dedicated blog post in here somewhere, but I’m 99.97% positive that Taylor Swift’s lyrics “Hey – I don’t about you – but I’m feeling 22” were penned after a night out in Lisbon. Because never in my life have I felt more 22 than when arriving home at 7:14am after that first revelry-filled evening (or rather revelry-filled early morning) and watching the rising sun reflect off the azulejos adorning the periphery of the surrounding buildings.
In a metropolis where restaurants start bustling around 9pm and whose cultural indulgences encompass the characteristic European standards of drawn-out meals mingled with a seemingly devoid waitstaff, it should come as no real shock that the energetic bar scene doesn’t hit its peak until 2am.
Locals can be found in the Cais do Sodre district – where a prohibitive open-container law is nil – resulting in the multitudes drinking in the streets as they stagger in and out of the hip late-night spots peppering “Pink Street”.
4am sees the emergence of the discoteca as queues begin to flourish amongst the adjoining streets as locals prepare to dance til dawn. Resident favorites include the often tobacco smoke-filled Jamaica where the DJ spins a quirky combination of reggae, hip-hop, and retro music while the other end of the spectrum holds the popular Urban Beach. Set dissonantly beside the Tagus River, this unconventional sand-filled venue’s beachside vibe induces nostalgia for the clubs of Ibiza.
The nights (or once again – mornings) cap off around 7am when flocks of club-goers move as one towards the nearest food counter to consume one of the delectable sandwiches peeking from beneath the glass surface. A comical sight to behold as the hungry partiers inhale their food while dispersed amid commuters in business suits hastily grabbing breakfast before work.
3. Be One with the Slowness
No offense to masterful lyricist Billy Joel – but he clearly had it all wrong.
Because if there’s any place one should slow down, disappear for a while, and lose a day or two – it’s Lisbon that waits for you.
The beautifully unhurried lifestyle beseeches you to sleep past noon and greet the day without a set agenda. Take in the street performers from the steps of one of the plenteous monuments found throughout the city or catch a slow ride aboard Tram 28 – the classic 1930’s remodelado that still idly rambles along the lantern-lit lanes of the Alfama District.
Get your daily dose of culture by leisurely perusing the Oriental, Classic, and European art exhibits on display at the little-known and uncrowded Museu Calouste Gulbenkian or rent a bike and pedal along the Tagus toward the neighboring town of Belem to sample the world-famous Pasteis de Belem – a delicious pastry that’s still whipped up from the same secret recipe dating back to 1837.
Watch the sun slowly descend and cast shadows over the heart of Lisbon from behind the protective walls of the Castelo de Sao Jorge before heading back into town for a local vinho verde accompanied by the melancholic tones of traditional fado at Sr. Fado de Alfama.
4. Eat Lunch While Standing at the Counter
If dining alone rouses a discomforting feeling, imagine doing it while standing up. Yet many Portuguese partake in this seemingly awkward penchant when grabbing a quick lunchtime meal.
Hey, when in Lisbon right?
For an authentic experience, stand with local patrons at O Trevo and try their traditional bifana sandwich washed down with an invigorating imperial. The whole meal will only run you around 5 Euro.
Did I also mention it’s a preferred Lisbon haunt of my personal hero, Anthony Bourdain?
5. Take Advantage of the Portuguese Hospitality and Have a Chat
Defining the character of any city all boils down to one simple factor – its people.
The convivial and social nature of the Portuguese is unmatched and further rounds out this already remarkable European capital.
Indulging in a bit of small talk may lead to offers of rides up to Porto in the north, the gifting of handmade glazed tiles at a local artisan shop, a new Facebook friend, or even a hug from the elderly man who stopped you on the street while you were taking a photograph and communicated in sign language that he would be happy to snap a shot with you in it.
6. Blend Into the Scenery and be Colorful
I’m wearing way too much black – that was the fourth thought upon my disembarkation onto the streets of Lisbon.
A colorful vibrancy literally and figuratively sweeps through every nook and cranny of the city with its multi-hued building facades, blossoming purple Jacaranda tree-lined public squares, burgeoning graffiti art scene, impossibly blue skies, and ornately painted ceramic azulejos plastered on countless cathedrals, palaces, train stations, houses, and even some park benches.
The contagious nature of a place so full of life and color implores you to play along and done your brightest frock to dance about the streets.
7. Relax at an Overcrowded Beach
As Lisbon is favorably situated near the Atlantic Ocean, residents habitually escape to one of the numerous beaches conveniently lying less than an hours train ride away.
Trains depart frequently from the city center and are filled to the brim with teenagers jamming to the music blasting from their boom boxes (apparently these still exist), young couples indulging in some mildly nauseating PDA, and families with hyperactive children who’ve clearly been bribed with too much sugar.
Cascais lies at the end of the line and boasts plentiful restaurants, shops, and galleries. A personal favorite spot of mine that encompasses all three is Café Galeria House of Wonders. The first floor houses a distinctive collection of artisanal art pieces and is the perfect place to buy those one-of-a-kind gifts for friends and family back home.
More handmade crafts line the stairwell leading to the second floor café where light refreshments are served and juice is freshly pressed on demand. Hidden further up the stairs sits a charming rooftop adorned with pillowed seating alcoves where you can hide out and while away the afternoon.
8. Immerse Yourself in Futbolmania
It must be the American in me but no matter how hard I try to get onboard with soccer (sorry – futbol) I just can’t get into the sport. I mean come on – it’s basically a bunch of really hot dudes kicking a ball back and forth for what feels like days and the end result might just be 1 goal.
And while I may appreciate the male physique of these god-like players (seriously Lord – share the wealth), I still find the game quite boring.
But trust me – if I could force myself to be passionate about anything in the world – it would be soccer.
Because let’s face it, no other fans hold a candle compared to soccer aficionados and the Portuguese are no exception. Planning a trip to Lisbon during futbol season will let you see a side of the city most tourists don’t.
If you’re lucky enough to be visiting when Lisbon-based team, Benfica, is crowned as league champions, then you’re in for a real treat as 500,000 Lisboetas gather in the Marquis of Pombal Square to view game highlights projected onto the exterior of buildings while zealously waiting to greet the players as they arrive back from the big game.
Standing in the packed square as fans chant and sing in unison, wave team banners and flags, sit on traffic lights while shaking champagne bottles before uncorking them to rain all over the crowd below, and shooting off would-be-illegal-in-the-US fireworks is a truly unforgettable experience.
Do you have a favorite city you fell in love with at first sight? What were your favorite cultural experiences? Let me know in the comments below!
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