We meet the places we wind up loving much the way we meet the people we fall for: on purpose and accidentally; at precisely the right moment and exactly the wrong time; in the highest of spirits and the lowest of moods.
I met Lisbon in a snit. I was exhausted and impatient and thinking well past it, to the northern Portugal city of Oporto and the wine country nearby, my ultimate destination and real interest. Lisbon was just a 24-hour stopover, reached after a sleepless overnight flight from New York, and my hotel there didn’t want to let my companion and me check in and nap and shower and get into clean clothes for another six hours. After some fruitless groveling, we staggered into the streets, lacking a map or an agenda or any particular desire.
Immediately we noticed the castle. You can’t fail to. Medieval and partly Moorish, it sits astride one of the highest of the city’s many hills, both a topographical and an emotional point of reference, somewhat like the Parthenon in Athens. Your eyes are drawn to it. The rest of you, too.
“What do you think?” I asked my companion, Tom, nodding in its direction. I was contemplating all the eating and drinking we’d be doing in the week to come and calculating how useful some uphill walking would be as a metabolic down payment.
“Might as well,” he said. “The exercise will keep us awake.”
We didn’t plot a route. We intuited one. So the beauty we encountered was serendipitous: the mosaics of black and white stone with which so many of the sidewalks, esplanades and plazas are paved; the tiles — yellow, green, white — with which so many of the buildings are faced. Mosaics like these I’d seen elsewhere, although they had a special dominance and whimsy here.
But tiles like these, used this way, were a revelation. It was as if Lisbon wore a set of jewels that other cities didn’t bother to.
We climbed higher. And higher. And soon two colors took precedence over the others: the red of the roofs, terraced on the hillsides below us; and the blue of the Tagus River and the harbor, flashes of which entered and exited our field of vision depending on where we were standing. A major port in a country with a rich and proud seafaring history, Lisbon has a connection to the ocean — the Tagus meets the Atlantic only a dozen or so miles away — that is essential, intimate and palpable. It’s one of those places that’s not just on the water but of the water.
“I’m coming back,” I told Tom, because what I experienced during those first few hours, despite my exhaustion and wrinkled clothing and matted hair and overarching physical wretchedness, was a blush of the true, unfettered romance that I’d longed for and forced myself to feel in cities more clucked about, cities more fabled.
That was two years ago, and come back I did: not just for another 24-hour pause en route between Oporto and New York but again last September and then, yet again, in April. And that won’t be the end of it, because Lisbon and I, we sparked. And as I continue to revel in that, I continue to try to figure it out.
After all those other European capitals, each so splendid in its own way, why this one?
I could argue that this is a particularly good moment to visit Lisbon, and for a few paragraphs I will, although the truth of the matter is that I don’t think Lisbon needs any recommendation beyond the blessed fact of it. It warranted attention and favor years ago and will warrant them years hence.
As for now, well, there’s a clear economic rationale. Times aren’t flush, and Lisbon presents a noticeable price break from London, Paris, even Rome. It’s faded imperial glory on the cheap: Western Europe marked down 20 to 30 percent. And Portugal’s economic woes — it’s currently in a fiscally austere league with Greece, Spain and Ireland — have in some sense unleashed a creative spirit among its people, who are taking chances, improvising and, as it happens, trying to boost tourism. Outside money is one answer to inside need.
I sensed this energy during my last two visits, when I repeatedly met or heard about former architects, bankers or lawyers who had started small, idiosyncratic enterprises, and I repeatedly stumbled upon new, clever projects. I stayed in one of them: the Lisbonaire, a hotel masquerading as an apartment complex, or maybe it’s the other way around, where each spacious studio or one-bedroom unit has been decorated in a deliberately cheeky fashion by a different Portuguese designer or artist, with all the minimalist furniture made in Portugal. Each unit also has a fully equipped kitchen stocked with glassware, plates, utensils, pots and pans. All of this plus reliable wireless, a communal lounge in the basement and an ideal location sets you back as little as 65 euros (about $81 at $1.26 to the euro) a night.
Over the past few years Lisbon has experienced a boom in stylish hotels, including the lilac-colored Internacional Design Hotel on Rossio Square, the city’s majestic nucleus, and the Altis Belem, right on the water in the quieter, palm-lined neighborhood of Belem, where bikers and runners use paths along the river. It has also become a more exciting place to eat. You can find a table without making a reservation as far in advance as you often have to in cities that draw a greater number of gastronomic pilgrims. Lisbon lets you in.
It also lets you be. Not every stroll and every reverie is shared with other travelers. I wandered one afternoon into the tiny Church of Sao Miguel, just a few minutes by foot from the main cathedral; slipped into one of just 10 rows of pews; looked around; and was stunned at how thoroughly the ceiling, walls, various nooks and a variety of objects had been covered in gold leaf or gold paint. Midas would say his rosary here. I was even more stunned to realize that not one other tourist was present. I kept company with three elderly Portuguese women, all in housecoats, scarves covering their hair, saying their devotions aloud. Their voices rose and fell; their bodies rocked. For nearly a half-hour I watched and listened, hunching down low so as not to distract or disrupt them.
The true meaning of vacation
Wandering is what I relish most in a place that I’m still learning, and Lisbon encourages it, because it doesn’t come with the long inventory of must-see museums and must-photograph monuments that so many of its European peers do. There’s no equivalent of Madrid’s Prado, although I do recommend the Tile Museum, dedicated to the decorative fillip that makes the city so distinctive. There’s no religious structure as visually iconic as Florence’s Duomo, although you should treat yourself to the Jeronimos Monastery in Belem, just outside the center. It’s a fascinating example of a peculiarly ornate, late-Gothic style of Portuguese architecture known as Manueline.
While the sort of checklist you carry in Venice or Berlin can be thrilling, it can also be oppressive, a gilded prison of obligations. In Lisbon I have freedom. I can sprint into a random cafe to wait out a sudden downpour, discover that I like the progressive English folk music (Fink) pouring gently from the speakers, learn that the house white wine is utterly drinkable and just 2 euros a glass, and decide to stay for an aimless hour. This is what happened 15 minutes after I left the Church of Sao Miguel, which sits on a round plaza with a single thick palm tree in the center, and this is the true meaning of vacation.
In Lisbon it occurred to me that maybe our favorite places are simply those in which our expectations are routinely exceeded, happenstance cuts in our favor, and it doesn’t matter which fork in the road we take. It leads somewhere we’re happy to be.
“Psst!” says a Portuguese woman standing about 15 feet from Tom and me. She’s eavesdropping on our conversation with a hotel concierge, who has given us a lunch recommendation. She motions us over.
“Don’t go there,” she says. “Go here.” She writes down a name — Pinoquio — and gives us directions. When we arrive, we worry that she’s led us astray: Its location near the train station, its kitschy decor and its crush of outdoor tables scream “tourist trap.” But then the steak for two that she told us to get arrives — gorgeous, glistening hunks of beef in a cast-iron vessel with blood and oil pooling at the bottom. These drippings are the rightful destiny of the hunks of bread in an adjacent basket. We dunk and dunk.
In Lisbon I pop out for a routine run and am treated to something better: the sharp incline of Eduardo VII Park, a slanting rectangle of cobblestone framing a network of precisely manicured hedges that resemble a maze. The park rises, steeply, from the top of Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s grandest boulevard, and my legs burn all the way to its summit, where I’m rewarded with a view of Liberdade and all the trees and 18th- and 19th-century buildings skirting it as it descends toward the city’s main squares, which then give way to water.
I can see for miles. Exhilarated, I do several laps — restorative declines alternating with muscle-shredding inclines — and am entertained along the way by someone playing fetch with his dog among the hedges. The dog has learned to leap acrobatically over them, like a horse in a steeplechase.
Lisbon is always tickling me like that. Ana, one of several friends I have made in the course of reporting stories about Portugal over the years, takes me to the neighborhood that has grown up over the past several years around the LX Factory in Alcantara. There’s a network of boutiques, galleries and restaurants in industrial structures used decades earlier for manufacturing. My friend wants to show me a bookstore: a waste of time, I figure, given that most of the books aren’t in a language I read. But this store, Ler Devagar, doesn’t look like any other. It’s in an enormous, multistoried space once devoted to a printing press that’s still there. A series of staircases and ramps and catwalks have been created to lead you to and through shelves and more shelves of titles popular and obscure. It’s a library cum Escher print, with a few bars tucked in. A browser needs coffee and maybe even some wine.
Another new friend, Rui, says he’ll swing by the Lisbonaire in his car to pick me up for dinner. To me that means a more pleasant, economical alternative to a taxi, but to Rui it means the chance to stage a thrilling roller coaster ride down (and up) some of the city’s narrowest and most precipitous streets. The coaster pauses at Largo da Graca, a sort of square where there are trees and tables and a panorama stretching all the way to the 25 de Abril Bridge, whose reddish glow recalls the Golden Gate. (Much about Lisbon brings to mind San Francisco, including the trams, which are Lisbon’s version of cable cars.)
But Lisbon puts a greater premium on public spaces than U.S. cities do, and Largo da Graca has stiff competition from other gorgeously situated belvederes where you can find a seat, a beer, some company. My favorites include the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara, with its bustle, and the Jardim do Torel, with its quiet. Measure your mood. Tailor your perch accordingly.
A city with humility
Lisbon’s layout gives you clear, tidy options. From the relatively flat Baixa neighborhood, where the two grandest squares (Rossio and Praca do Comercio) are, you can choose to ascend into the scruffy past on one side or into the stylish present on the other. Two different hills. Two different sets of experiences and emotions.
Alfama represents the past. It’s a working-class district spared by the 1755 earthquake that wiped out whole chunks of the city, turning much of Lisbon’s history to rubble. I start my walks through it by fueling up at the Pois Cafe, which is about as pleasant a coffee and sandwich shop as I know, stuffed with curios and bric-a-brac and children’s toys, the furniture an eclectic collection of stools and armchairs and couches, the walls sculptured from handsome stone. I wend my way down curving alleys, past fish stores and butcher shops, under low archways, up tiny staircases. There’s laundry strung from one window to another, humble apartment buildings painted in yellow, pink and other pastels. Lisbon doesn’t shy away from color.
On the opposite hill everything’s fancier, better scrubbed. Fewer chipped tiles. More gleaming white cobblestone. On its slopes there are two neighborhoods. The slender byways, white walls and profusion of trendy bars and restaurants in one of them, Bairro Alto, give it the feel at times of a Greek isle. On weekend nights in particular it turns into a sprawling outdoor party — crowds of young people drinking, smoking and posing.
Chiado is Bairro Alto’s slightly more refined adjunct, with more conventional shopping and proper hotels. On the top of the Hotel do Chiado, I meet a new friend, Paulo, for a drink just after dark. We have the roof to ourselves and hover there above the soft lights of the city. Although there’s a criminal surfeit of vermouth in my martini, my contentment is absolute.
Later, as we walk through one of Chiado’s several small, elegant squares, I say how lovely Lisbon is.
“Really?” Paulo answers, and in that moment I realize what — more than the tiles, trams or water — endears Lisbon to me. It has a humility that is rare on a storied continent with so much reason and readiness to boast.
I wasn’t told to approach it on bended knee. I could instead stumble upon it, tumble into it and let it lift me up.
On that first day, Tom and I got to Castelo de Sao Jorge — that’s what the hilltop citadel is called — before noon. We still had three hours before check-in. But we were no longer in any rush at all.