LISBON — I’m in the thick of it, standing in Praça Luís de Camões, a little square smack dab in the middle of Portugal’s busy capital city. My long-time friend and now Lisbon local, Jaume, explains: For centuries, Portugal was the centre point for traders from around the world to congregate. From across the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and as far as the Indian Ocean, merchants pulled their ships into Portuguese waters, bringing treasures from their homeland to peddle to their international neighbours.
The imagery comes to life so quickly: the colourful tiled buildings brimming in shades of white and blue, the cobblestoned streets with intricate floral patterns, the steep roads once filled with horse-drawn carriages leading into the city. It’s all still there.
I close my eyes and I can see the mishmash of cultures, trading spices, silks, porcelain, teas, gold and silver, and other goods from all corners of the globe.
Above: Most of Lisbon's old buildings are wrapped in colourful tiles.
These days, the square is a focal point for locals to meet their friends before they venture to their favourite wine bar or coffee shop in Chiado. The tiled buildings are faded with an aging façade, and the horses have been swapped with Lisbon’s postcard-perfect yellow trams, but the charm is still there in full force.
This is my first visit to Portugal, and I had no idea what to expect. Yes, I made sure to get a seat on the famous Tram 28 and its loop around the city’s best landmarks (and made Jaume go, too!). Had my daily dose of pastel de nata — creamy egg tarts, topped with cinnamon, in a crispy pastry shell (irresistible!). And sipped my way through several bottles of wine from the Douro Valley — with some port wine tastings to boot.
Above: A ride on one of Lisbon's famed trams is a must.
But there’s so much more to this city than the quintessential bucket list items. Jaume takes me to Alfama, perched atop Lisbon’s highest hills, and home to the city’s most historic sites. It’s one of the few areas left untouched by an earthquake that demolished much of the city in 1755 — a keepsake of old Lisbon kept intact.
Jaume and I meander through the narrow streets of Alfama, passing cafés in little nooks, tiny bookshops, and taverns with patrons spilling out as they listen to street artists performing fado, a soul-stirring mix of vocals and guitars. He waits patiently as I snap photos of, well, everything — the myriad of faded tiles lining entrances to storefronts, locals’ little balcony gardens overflowing with gem-coloured flowers peeking out from under the day’s laundry hung out to dry, and, of course, the famous fado mural, a modern-day take on the neighbourhood’s artistic roots.
We wind up and descend down through Alfama’s steep streets — Jaume is on a mission. Turns out, he’s taking me to Castelo Sao Jorge, an 11th-century Moorish castle perched atop Lisbon.
Above: You'll never go hungry when touring Lisbon.
You can see the castle from wherever you are in the city below, but up close, you’re faced with Lisbon’s past juxtaposed with its present, Jaume says. His history textbooks growing up were filled with stories of the Portuguese conquering new trade routes, protecting their port cities, and fending off their Spanish neighbours. He grew up going to field trips to the castle, climbing the old cannons on display and taking in the enormity of the city’s fortress still standing.
And then there’s the view. Wherever you are on the castle grounds is a 360-degree view of Lisbon, with its endless red roofs leading into the Tagus River.
Jaume decides the history lesson is over. It’s time for a taste of Lisbon, just in time for lunch.
We trek back into the city centre to his favourite spot — a rustic Portuguese tavern with only a handful of tables and a chalkboard menu with the day’s offerings.
Above: Lisbon's neighbourhoods feature stately buildings and lots of public art.
Jaume and our waitress speak back and forth in Portuguese, stopping only once to ask me, “Do you want red or white wine?”
The waitress brings us wine glasses. “I hope you’re hungry,” Jaume says. He's ordered a smattering of must-try Portuguese staples for the table.
Our first dish arrives: it’s braised chicken with cabbage, zucchini, sauteed pears and toasted almonds in a white wine sauce.
Before we dig in, a few more plates turn up at the table: fresh prawns topped with garlic and cilantro in a tomato sauce, an unassuming stew packed with pork, white beans, carrots, and onions in a thick gravy, and what I’ve been waiting to try: bacalhau, or salted cod fish, pan-seared with a heaping serving of roasted potatoes. (You’ll see bacalhau everywhere —as large flanks of salted cod fish hanging in grocery store windows; made into codfish fritters for a portable snack; and on every Portuguese restaurant’s menu, served boiled, seared, or roasted and almost always with potatoes, eggs or olives.)
I pile my plate high, ecstatic to dig in. I smother rice in the stew’s rich broth, bite into the meaty cod, and go back for seconds and thirds of the chicken that’s perfectly charred.
Everything is delicious, just as I suspected it would be. It hits the spot after a busy few days exploring Lisbon on foot.
“I just want you to know, this is exactly what I’d eat at home while visiting my grandparents,” Jaume explains. I tell him he’s lucky. He’s hit the meal right on its head — this is precisely the kind of homestyle recipes you’d find in grandma’s repertoire of dishes.
Jaume isn’t done with the tour just yet, though. Bellies full, we venture into Bairro Alto, the epicentre of Lisbon’s nightlife for a nightcap. Think tiki bars, disco parties, and speakeasies with the tastiest signature cocktails.
But we’ve had a few nights of partying already. Instead, he takes me to one last stop: his favourite coffee shop to stock up on pastel de nata for my train ride to Porto.
There’s a queue every time we’ve been here, but it moves quickly. I think of ordering a box of three, but Jaume insists on six.
“You’ll finish eating three on the train and wish you had more,” Jaume says, almost all-knowing.
With two tiny boxes of cinnamon-swirled pastries in tow, Jaume delivers me to the train station.
Like the international travellers that pulled into Lisbon centuries ago, I’m leaving the city with a heart full of adventures, and a backpack full of spoils. I’m excited to return again some day.
About the Author
Carmen Chai is an award-winning journalist who's lived and reported from major cities like Vancouver, Toronto, London and Paris. It's safe to say that Carmen has a serious case of wanderlust. She's travelled to more than 25 countries and for a plethora of reasons: hiking along Italy's Amalfi Coast, gorging on street food in Bangkok and getting lost in Istanbul's bustling streets. Along with travel writing, Carmen has reported on crime, federal politics and breaking news for major Canadian publications, including the Toronto Star.