I first fell in love with the city of Lisbon when I came on vacation in 2011. I am convinced the city enchants everyone who visits because of it’s easy charm, its mix of grand plazas and rabbit-warren streets and, above all, the welcoming attitude of the Portuguese people.
That wonderful first experience planted the seed that would eventually motivate me to move to Portugal full time. I cherished a fantasy of living in a quaint little apartment in the Alfama district with a view of the Tejo river. Alas, the reality is that prices in Lisbon were out of range of my meager budget. On top of that, a Lisbon native warned me that those old buildings in the Alfama usually needed extensive and expensive repairs. So, I settled in the country.
But a trip to Lisbon is still a source of great pleasure. I had the opportunity to visit over the Valentine’s weekend and fell in love with the city all over again. What’s not to like when you can stroll through the geometrically laid out streets of the Baixa area and browse the fancy shops or be amused by street performers in the pedestrian Rua Augusta. The grid pattern is thanks to the Marquis de Pombal who oversaw reparations after a devastating earthquake in 1755 destroyed much of the city.
A visit to Lisbon always means climbing. From the sea-level Baixa neighborhood you wind your way up through steep and narrow alleyways towards the Castelo de São Jorge and into the Alfama. This is the oldest area of the city, inhabited by the Romans and Visigoths, then developed by the Moors in the early Middle Ages. The name derives from Arabic meaning “hot fountains”. Wandering the Alfama you can enjoy peeking into the myriad tiny restaurants and shops. Many of them sell tourist souvenirs, but you will also find the hole-in-the-wall stores that sell basic groceries to the locals.
I’m not a big fan of Fado music, but it is an integral part of the Portugues culture. The Museum of Fado in the Alfama district is definitely worth a visit. You might even find out what the essentially Portuguese term “Saudade” means!
After a trip to the Alfama, you can descend and take a stroll through the Praça do Comercio, one of the grandest city squares in Europe. It faces the river Tejo (Tagus) and a series of steps leading down to the water forms the perfect hangout spot on a sunny day.
One of the things I noticed about Portugal when I arrived here, was the number of independent book stores. For anyone who loves books, like me, the sight of so many book stores was a joy to behold. I’ve even seen one on a beach in the Alentejo and at Lisbon’s Oriente train station. In Lisbon, the Chiado district has so many little bookshops you could spend almost a whole day browsing from one to the other.
My favorite Chiado bookstore is the historic Bertrand Livraria. Founded in 1732 by two French brothers, it claims to be the oldest continuously operating bookstore in the world. Drifting slowly through the seven consecutive rooms of the bookstore, you can feast your eyes on a huge array of titles, authors and subjects. Most are in Portuguese, but there is also a wide selection of books in English, including many translations of works by prominent Portuguese writers like Fernando Pessoa and Jose Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.
And of course, if you have the time, climb to the Bairro Alto where the densely packed streets are full of restaurants, bars, night spots and a lively fun atmosphere!
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