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Welcome to the land of sandy red rooftops, fish and seafood to no end, and ceramic tilework (otherwise known as azulejos). Being the capital of Portugal and the second oldest city in the world, I’ve learned that Lisbon (or Lisboa as the locals call it) is a force to be reckoned with, from its expansive arts and food scene to the series of important events in history which have shaped it to the city it is today.
But before we get in to all that, let’s rewind back to travelling en route to Portugal.
We had a connection in Boston and then made our way through the 6hr flight to Lisbon. Because we learned our lesson from our time getting to Athens earlier this year (read about that experience here), our transit and arrival in Lisbon was quite possibly the smoothest and most pleasant flight I’ve experienced. It doesn’t hurt that they started serving Portuguese pastries (pastel de feijão) on the plane. Bring. on. all the sugar!!
What’s the first thing you think of when someone mentions the city Lisbon? For me, it’s the iconic trams that hustle and bustle along the streets, following an extensive network that has served the main Lisbon area since 1873. This may sound strange, but what surprised me the most as I walked through the streets is noticing that people actually used these trams.
I’ve always thought these vehicles were used merely to be showcased as a historical landmark, but I observed that many residents of Lisbon hopped on and off in their rushed commutes, making it clear that the trams are still a vital and frequently used means of transportation.
Okay, a moment of appreciation for the best thing I ever did eat through my entire time in Portugal. Codfish croquettes. I’ll wait. To be honest, the photo above doesn’t make this dish look very appetizing, but trust me, my mouth is watering right now as I upload this photo onto the blog and write about it. We found a hole-in-the-wall restaurant to grab a bite and I’m so glad that the waiter brought this for us without us even asking.
Side note: In Portugal, be prepared to be immediately bombarded with loads of different appetizers (bread, olives, fish croquettes, etc.) brought to your table, and you then have to decide whether you want to eat them or not. Whatever you decide to keep, you pay for at the end with the bill.
We learned that codfish plays a significant role in Portuguese cuisine and history, with it being such a staple in their diet that the Portuguese overfished cod in their region and then went to other parts of the world in desperation for access to cod. Today, there are strict rules regulating fishing activity in Portugal, especially for codfish, but still remains one of the most loved foods here, where you won’t be surprised to find cod cooked in a hundred and one different ways and forms.
From Boston, we had taken a red-eye flight and landed at Lisbon Portela International Airport at a balmy 6am, luckily with our apartment allowing us to check in early right when we arrived. And because nothing is open that early in the morning and the streets of Lisbon don’t wake up until around 10am, we decided to give in to our sleep deprivation from the red-eye and we all took the most glorious power nap.
However, to prevent us from becoming too susceptible to jet lag, I booked a walking tour around the central city set for the late afternoon. We all woke up begrudgingly and sleepy at around 3pm and headed straight out into the streets.
If there’s one thing I can recommend from my time in Lisbon, it’s to do a walking tour. Any time I’m in a new city, I almost always prefer exploring the city by myself and with my own group, wanting to feel a little more “independent” in my travel time. But wow, I’m so glad a friend recommended me to do the walking tour. I realized how in my previous trips, I really missed out on learning about the history of a city.
For the walking tour we did, we were taken around the streets by a born and raised Lisboan, Cláudia, and she shared with us the little things that make the Portuguese lifestyle and culture distinct, such as fado (a musical genre sang with great expression and often melancholy) and Portugal’s greatest known lyrical poet, Luís Vaz de Camões.
As I walk through the streets, here are some of my observations.
- I love how narrow the streets are, paired with very symmetrical, long-running buildings set with rows and rows of windows and balconies.
- While the architecture of the buildings themselves can feel bleak at times, the lines of laundry found ubiquitously create a sense of warmth and homeliness.
- Tiles. They’re everywhere. In all shapes, colours, and sizes. If a ceramic tile could be compared to a blade of grass, Lisbon would be a vast forest. They are lined on all the streets and cover all sides of buildings.
And this is the most interesting fact I learned from Cláudia. If I were walking through the streets of Lisbon myself, I would have just thought to myself that those tiles were pretty and nice and then simply moved on. But she explained that these tiles (azulejos) bear great historical significance because Lisbon was affected by a massive disaster in the year of 1755.
One of the most powerful earthquakes recorded in history shook the city to its core, destroying all existing buildings and infrastructure and devastating people’s homes, stores, and livelihoods. When it came to rebuilding the city from the ruins, the people of Lisbon decided to incorporate tiles with beautiful, vibrant, artistic designs to help bring some light and spirit back into the city.
The next day, we decided to walk through the streets of Lisbon ourselves and explore areas we hadn’t gone to yet. We visited the oldest operating bookstore in the world, Livraria Bertrand, walking through the interior and being amazed at how this worn-down building with all its cracks has still managed to be sustained throughout all these years.
I really couldn’t write a post about Lisbon without mentioning the famous Portuguese tart (pastel de nata). Eating three a day seems reasonable right? Everything about these pastel de nata tarts are sensory experiences within themselves, from the warm, buttery aroma when you pick up one that’s freshly baked to the distinctive crunching noise as you bite down on the crust (Rec: pair with a cup of coffee or tea and you’ll never stop eating).
We visited one of the most famous ones in central Lisbon, but we were told that the original Portuguese tart can be found in Pastéis de Belém, where the OG recipe was created by monks in the Jerónimos Monastery and is now only known by 3-4 individuals, who must make it in the back of the kitchen to keep the special recipe a secret.
As we finished off the day making our way through more historical landmarks in Lisbon, I grew a much greater appreciation for the city. There is still so much I don’t know about the city, the nuances of everyday life here or the challenges and hardship that may persist, but in my two days, I felt an immense wave of joy and resilience that emanates from the people, the streets, the food, to the building tiles themselves.