Lisbon Is One of Europe’s Most Beautiful And Least Expensive Cities To Visit

If you’re the type of traveller who gets bored easily, or prefers visiting destinations that offer an assortment of activities, varied landscapes, multi-faceted cuisine, a vibrant cultural experience, and striking architecture, then get packing, because Lisbon, Portugal will not disappoint. 

Europe’s oldest country, Portugal, at one point, was also one of the world’s most powerful. During the age of discovery, the Portuguese built a mammoth empire spanning South America, Asia, and Africa. Once a superpower, today, the country has seemingly receded from the spotlight, especially in comparison to neighbouring colonising contemporaries like England, Spain and France. 

Interestingly, this withdrawal has birthed a renaissance of sorts – at least for the country’s travellers. The land of the explorers is now, in turn, being explored and rediscovered by zealous visitors drawn to its marriage of old world charm and modern day glitz. Steeped in rich history, an abundance of natural beauty, an a dynamic culture, it is easy to understand why travellers marvel at Portugal.

My journey starts in the coastal capital of Lisbon, also known as the ‘Sunshine capital.’ Today, visitors to Lisbon will find a city that revels in its glorious past while harbouring a quiet optimism for the future. My first impressions, as I moved through city, were as if I was exploring modular time capsules. Lisbon is not a homogenous city; each district, niche, and locale seems to have evolved somewhat distinctly, with smells and sights clamoring and clashing at every street corner.  

This compelling, exciting evolution is best told through the city’s variegated architecture. The mixed styles can be seen in its churches, public buildings, squares, iconic structures, and bridges, each one capturing a piece of the city’s history in its own way. From the neo-gothic Santa Justa lift, the Portuguese Manueline-Rossia train station or the neo-classical Pombaline-Commerce Square, Lisbon’s buildings add interest, dimension and character to the city.

One of the best places to witness the story of Lisbon unfold is at the regal Terreiro do Paço or the Square of Commerce. With its vivid architecture and historical sculptures this U-shaped square, is one of the most important in Lisbon. It opens up to the Tagus River, once the starting point of some of the world’s greatest voyages. 

Standing in this square, you can easily imagine it as a bustling site in the 17th century, with large merchant vessels docked in the port, and merchants and vendors rushing about, conducting their daily businesses. On the northern side of the square is the Triumphal Arch of Rua Augustam, a monumental structure that ushers you into the Lisbon’s downtown district.

Once you pass through the arch, you’ll find narrow streets lined with antique looking haberdashery stores mixed in with contemporary brands, patisseries, restaurants, and of course, hole-in-the-wall stores selling a popular local delicacy – bacalhau or dried and salted cod. An iconic ingredient in Portuguese cuisine, this cured fish is an absolute favorite and a dietary staple among the Portuguese. In fact, no trip to Lisbon would be complete without a customary sampling of one of the city’s most popular dishes – pastel de bacalhau – fried codfish cakes oozing with pockets of melted cheese.

As you move further away from the water, Lisbon rises up. Like many of the world’s popular cities, Lisbon is built on hills – seven, to be exact. Despite this, Lisbon is a small and easy-to-navigate city, so don’t be worried; there is no need to climb every hill…well unless you want to. 

There are also numerous options to help you get around the city. My favourite – and by far the most fun – method is to hop into one of the city’s historic trams. These yellow vehicles date back to the 1940s, adding character to the city as they snake up and down the winding streets. Tram 28, is an absolute must-visit route that passes through many of Lisbon’s finest districts, including Graça and Estrela, though most visitors travel on it to bypass climbing the steep hill from the Baixa district to the castle and the Alfama district by foot.

As we made our way out of Lisbon’s downtown district, it seemed like the perfect time for a Portuguese pitstop, and to sample the city’s most popular drink, ginja/ginjiha.

Ginja is a sweet but strong liqueur made from local wild cherries, and there is no place better to sample this chest-warmer than at a traditional Ginja bars. 

Found all around the city, these bars are perpetually busy, as locals and tourist alike drift in and stagger out around the clock. I love these bars; with their aged charm and vibe, they look like they’ve not changed anything for the past 80 years -including the bartender! When you order a ginja, remember that the best part is the cherry at the bottom of the glass, so make sure drink all the way down.

After the ginja bar, I made my way onto tram 28, and headed straight for the old quarter – Alfama. 

The district was full of atmosphere, with old, whitewashed houses with red clay roofs lining its medieval alleys. The sameness in their architecture makes for an adventurous catch-22 situation – you’re sure to get lost, but you’re also sure to discover the beauty of the old town.

Alfama is also a good way to access Saint George’s castle. An imposing, Moorish structure that sits at the crown of the hill, the castle has a spectacular panoramic view of Lisbon that makes it one of the most visited sites in the city.

Whether you find yourself uphill or downhill, Lisbon is a city of endless wonders, with its magical fountains and churches, mosaic tiled squares, towering monuments, a historical waterfront, trams, the picturesque vistas, and off course its architectural styles.

It’s no surprise then that Lisbon appears at the top of most lists of the best European cities to visit. There’s still so much more to share on Lisbon and Portugal, so before you really get packing and book your ticket, stay tuned for the next week of Forward Forty travel.

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