A day in Lisbon, Portugal

 

I recently spent 5 days in Lisbon. Or maybe it’s more correct to say “5 nights” as I was off seeing other things for most of those days. So in the end I had just one day in Lisbon, although of course I saw bits of the city on my way to or from the train station on the other days.

Here is what I saw (lots of pictures are coming your way)!

 

Tram 28

Tram 28 is kind of famous for being a great tourist route around the city. I was a bit nervous about taking it actually as I’d read that it could get very crowded and the locals could get quite annoyed at the tourists. But it was absolutely fine, there was no reason to worry about it.

There are a lot of trams in Lisbon, but the coolest ones are the tiny Remodelado trams – meaning ‘remodeled’, because they were upgraded in the 90s to improve their brakes and workings. These trams are otherwise all original charm from the 1930s, complete with uncomfortable wooden bench seats. Tram 28 takes a very long winding route across the city, with lots of sharp twists and turns. As such the route is serviced purely by the remodelado trams, as the newer ones are longer and can’t make the tight turns.

 

Buying a ticket

You can pay for your ticket on the tram if you want for €2.85. However when I arrived in Lisbon I bought a Via Viagem card for €0.50 and charged it up with €10. This card lasted me for the whole time I was in Portugal and I used it to catch trams, buses and trains both around Lisbon and out of the city on regional trains to Belem, Cascais and Sintra. I had to top up the value of the card, but it was easy to use. It pays for itself as it gives you savings on all forms of transport. Tickets on the tram when you use the Via Viagem card are only €1.25.

 

The route

The full tram route can be viewed here.

Most people take the portion from Baixa to Alfama and the castle – to save a steep climb up the hill. I hopped on right by my hotel (near where the tram starts at Praça do Martim Moniz) at about 9am and rode up to the castle. It wasn’t too crowded, although I had to hold on tight as it’s a bit of a jerky ride! You will know when to get off as lots of other people get off there. It’s also quite obviously at the top of the hill. You will come around the corner and see an open space with a mirador (view point – shown in the cover photo for this post) across the city. If you want to mark it on your google map, the address is the corner of Rua Limoeiro and R. de Santiago.

São Jorge Castle

When I got off the tram it was just a 5 minute walk up the hill to the castle. As I was there reasonably early there was no queue for the tickets (although when I left at 10:30 there was a very long line). The entrance fee is €8.50 for an adult. The castle is open every day from 09:00 to 21:00 (peak season) and 09:00 to 18:00 (low season).

If you don’t want to get the tram, the nearest metro station is Rossio (Green Metro Line) but involves a 20 minute uphill walk. You can also get the 737 bus from Praca Da Figueira, which will drop you right at the gates of the castle.

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Cross-eyed selfie

The battlements of the castle provide fantastic views of the Baixa district and the Rio Tejo. There is very little shade when walking around the castle walls, which is another reason to get there early in the day if you can.

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Walking the walls

The highlight for me was seeing the camera obscura in action. I’ve seen a few of these around in England (Oxford and Bristol) but had never been able to see how they work because it’s always cloudy in England! For a camera obscura to work, it has to be a sunny day, and you have a pretty good chance of getting that in Lisbon.

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View of the castle from the street below (near where I got on the tram)
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The Se Cathedral

Santa Justa Lift

After the castle I walked down the hill past the Se Cathedral (the oldest church in the city) and from there across to the Santa Justa lift, also referred to as the Carmo Lift or even the Eiffel Tower of Portugal – because the engineer who designed it was a student of Gustav Eiffel. It is the only truly vertical lift in Portugal (the others are more like steep tram cars) and it’s quite lovely with wood panels and brass fittings inside.

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The view from the cafe at the top of the platform – you can see Rossio on the left, the castle straight ahead and the lift platform on the right

A platform at the top, reached by a spiral staircase, offers sweeping views of the Baixa, Rossio and the castle on the opposite hill (note – if you are afraid of heights, just skip this extra climb. I found the staircase a bit scary and really the view from the café when you step out of the lift is just as good).

I queued for a long time to ride the lift and I’m on the fence about whether it was worth the wait of almost an hour. I guess it was, but if you are pushed for time I would prioritise something else. After all, you can just walk to the top if you want to see what’s up there.

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The walkway at the top of the lift

A one-way ticket is €5.20 and you pay at the end of the line just as you are getting into the lift – I say this because a lot of people were wondering while they stood in the line if they were meant to already have a ticket as it’s not very clear. So, no. You don’t have to get your ticket before you join the line.

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Santa Justa Lift – it does have a certain Eiffel tower feel to it.

Carmo Convent

At the top you can visit the ruins of the gothic Carmo Convent, the only visible reminder in Lisbon of the devastation left by the 1755 earthquake. Everything else was repaired. In what used to be the main altar is now a small museum with an eclectic collection of tombs, statuary, books, ceramics, and mosaics. You can see a lot of cool stuff including shrunken heads, South American mummies, and ancient tombstones.

Entrance to the Convent is €4.

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Carmo Convent from inside – really pretty but sadly just not practical without a roof.
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One room of the quirky Carmo Convent museum.

Those were the main sites I saw within Lisbon. I spent a lot of time just wandering around looking at the various plazas, buildings, streets and trams. I also saw one of the oldest book stores in Europe, Livraria Bertrand.

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Livraria Bertrand – really old but not much to look at.

Complete your experience

Read

I haven’t read this, but it comes recommended, “Night Train to Lisbon” (Pascal Mercier, 2004). Mercier’s international bestseller, turned 2013 film, follows the travels of a Swiss professor as he explores the life of a Portuguese doctor during Salazar’s dictatorship.

Watch

Fun fact – Ian Flemming created James Bond while in Hotel Palacio, Estoril. The Casino of Estoril gave him the inspiration to write “Casino Royale” and “On his majesty’s secret service” featured many scenes of Praia do Guincho, near Cascais, as well as Lisbon. James Bond is driven by Draco’s henchmen, and later drives his bride over the Tagus River, on the 25 de Abril Bridge (then called Salazar Bridge).

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The 25 de Abril Bridge

Eat

Portuguese Tarts! (although, like English muffins which in England are simply called muffins, in Portugal Portuguese tarts are called pasteis de nata or de belem.) Created in the 18th century when – so the story goes – convents and monasteries used large amounts of egg whites to starch their habits, leaving them with large amounts of egg yolks with which to experiment and create delicious pastries. The main ingredients in pasteis de nata is egg yolks, although beyond that they can vary a little from one shop to another. I recommend you try them all so that you can compare.

Speaking of egg yolks, here’s another fun fact. My name means egg yolk in Portuguese! I got a lot of funny looks. I had always known my name was similar to egg yolk in Spanish, but it actually is the name word in Portuguese (gema). Thanks mum and dad.

Listen

“Oiça lá o Senhor Vinho” by Mariza — not my usual style but it’s a traditional fado song, which you have to listen to if you’re going to Portugal. It’s also kind of funny, sung directly to “Mister Wine,” asking questions about his behavior and influence on people.

 

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