40 by 30: Lisbon, Portugal

(Originally posted to Facebook in 2017. Part 1 of a series from Olivia’s birthday, where we traveled to her 40th country before her 30th year.)

Olivia and I took a six-hour, 6:15 pm flight out of JFK and arrived in Lisbon at 6am. It took a while for us to get through customs, since Portugal only honors electronic passports from EU and neighboring countries, but the line went pretty quickly.

Portugal’s flag flying above the city, from one of the towers of Castelo de São Jorge.

Since we had only twelve hours in our layover, we hadn’t really planned much in advance — we were just going to follow our guidebook (and the weather) wherever it would take us. We checked our bags with a storage service at the airport and stepped outside looking for transit into the city. Thankfully, the weather was more than cooperative, and we were soon on our way.

The Streets of Lisbon

The famous yellow cable cars were the most fun form of transit around the city. We didn’t need much time to find a seat — anyone not holding on when the car jolted forward was quickly put into a seat, (or their neighbor’s lap).

The famous yellow cable cars.

There was more graffiti than I was expecting… some of it beautiful, some trying to make a statement, but sometimes just a random thought someone had at some point. Later, we would encounter a tag protesting “mass tourism” in Lisbon.

Some random graffiti seemed to welcome us to the winding streets of Lisbon.

Some of the most beautiful graffiti was on our walk to Sao Jorge Castle. Pátio de Dom Fradique is a ruin on a less-traveled path to the castle, decorated with layers upon layers of tags. There were also random people roasting chestnuts, or “making art”, nearby.

Graffiti on the walls of Pátio de Dom Fradique.

Walking the lanes of Lisbon reminded me a lot of Rome: cobblestoned, with famous buildings seeming to burst out of nowhere. The roads also meander a bit, oftentimes leading you into what felt to be a private plaza, only to offer a nearby door out onto another road.

Patio de Dom Fradique, a ruin hiding a fun route to the castle.

There’s a carefree air to the roads. There are few cars, lots of parents with children on their shoulders, and residents hang their laundry to dry outside their windows. Indeed, clotheslines of undergarments or kids’ clothing appeared twice as often as flower boxes.

Residents of Lisbon seem pretty relaxed, and resourceful.

So matter-of-fact seem their sensibilities that an actual urine screen, complete with ancient drain, appeared shortly before the castle. The Manneken Pis silhouette reassured you, if you had any doubt, that yes: this was a place to piss.

No, I didn’t use it… sadly, I had gone at the airport before we set out. So I resigned to taking a picture before rounding the corner to the castle.

You can piss here. Legally.

Castelo de São Jorge

Castelo de São Jorge is an immense fortress overlooking the city. As we were visiting during the “off season” it wasn’t too busy, but there were still tour groups being led through. It would be inside, on its ramparts, that we would truly see Lisbon.

The towers to the right of the main entrance. The castle itself is sprawling and enormous.

After a quick stop at the ticket office, we were able to enter the castle and see the city from an unparalleled vantage point. I took so many pictures from up here that it was difficult to decide which to choose for the album!

A safely-secured cannon aims into the heart of Lisbon.

Lisbon spreads out at your feet from the narrow walkways atop the castle walls. It’s not hard to imagine soldiers defending confidently from here, even if running along the rail-less stairs would terrify me!

Lisbon from above, with tightly-packed buildings and twisting roads.

Inside the castle, the courtyard was much quieter. Rusting rails give you a bit of confidence in climbing the ancient stairs at various points, but people are comfortable waiting for them to clear nonetheless.

The main courtyard of the castle. Note the height of the spruce.

More delightful than the view, though, were the peacocks! Dozens and dozens of peacocks of various ages make Castelo de São Jorge their nesting ground. The more beautiful adults walk along the tops of the walls, while molting adolescents roosted on railings closer to the ground.

A peacock preens on the wall outside the castle.

Miradouro de Santa Luzia

Afterward, we made our way over to one of the best miradouros: Miradouro de Santa Luzia. It’s famous not only for its view but for the tiled panels by António Quaresma, depicting Lisbon before the earthquake of 1755. The bust honors Julio de Castilho, a journalist and politician from the late 19th century.

Castilho looks out over the domes, churches and Tagus river.

Lunch in Alfalma

Rounding a corner and descending a staircase, we happened upon this bit of protest, crudely scrawled in red crayon, (and in English). It would serve as a bit of foreshadowing an hour later, over lunch, in the square below.

A protest/demand on the wall of a staircase.

We decided to sit in the sun in the square outside the Museu Do Fado, at a restaurant called Taberna Ti Camila. Wine, cheese and a lit dish of oil roasting a pair of chorizo sated our ravenous (and jet-lagged) appetites… but the best was still to come.

Queijo de Azeitao (cheese), chorizo and Victor Horta Syrah+Touriga

Behold: a Francesinha. Popular with locals as a kind of after-hours-drunken-pleasure sandwich, this beast of a dish was amazing. I was so impressed I wrote a post about it.

A Francesinha, sliced to show its magnificence.

As we chatted with our host, the purpose of the graffiti up the stairway to Miradouro de Santa Luzia became clear: seven tour groups of at least twenty people each entered the square. The groups were all arranged by the same company (we reasoned a cruise ship). After a few noisy minutes nearby, they all climbed the narrow pathway… at the same time. I imagined a local, fed up with the noise, had left the impossible-to-miss message. I wondered aloud if it would have any effect.

Praça do Comércio

We wandered down a block to the Tagus river and walked its edge to the Praça do Comércio (Square of Commerce), the subject of Quaresma’s panels. The square was immense, visible from the castle, and housed interesting exhibits and tourism offices.

Praça do Comércio, with its statue of King Jose I crushing snakes with his horse’s hooves.

Our interest piqued with Vini Portugal, a Board of Tourism-backed wine tasting room. Dispensing machines presented a number of bottles, each costing between 1 and 3€ per two-ounce taste. The staff was incredibly nice and knowledgable, and we took plenty of phone photos of bottles we wanted to try at home.

The dispensing machine for the bottles featured at Vini Portugal.

Leaving Lisbon

As our flight to Switzerland neared, we knew we couldn’t leave Lisbon without doing two things: buying a shot glass from the Hard Rock Cafe, and finding a glass of port. After a quick pitstop at the HRC, we decided to sample Portugal’s namesake fortified wine at Hotel Avenida Palace, Lisbon’s oldest hotel.

The oldest hotel in Lisbon is as opulent as it is old.

It was an excellent decision: a generous pour of 30 year old port was only 21€, 20 year at 13€. The bar was empty, which allowed us to drink deeply and talk loudly about the day… and how quickly we’d like to return to explore more of Portugal.

30 year old port in Lisbon

After settling up with the quiet barman, we jumped on the nearby metro, recovered our bags and flew out… and just like that, twelve hours in Lisbon (and Olivia’s 37th country), were quickly behind us.

Liv and I in Lisbon.

User Interface Engineer and geek; Presentation Lead at Elastic, previously at Facebook; married to a gorgeous Canadian; community theatre stages are a 3rd home.

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