LISBON - Johanna, the pencil-thin server, delivered pillows of pasta floating in a delicate rosé sauce to our alfresco and ordered us to “enjoy.”
When she returned a few minutes later from inside Lisbon’s most recommended Italian restaurant - Stravaganza on Rua do Crémio Lusitano - she asked if we were Americans.
“I have been to San Francisco,” Johanna reported just as garbage collectors dumped a load of empty wine bottles into their truck, setting off a cacophony that echoed off the stone walls of the old neighborhood.
As the lovely young Johanna headed back toward the restaurant entrance, she turned and told us: “You will find Lisboa (the Portuguese name for Lisbon) is much like San Francisco.”
Above: Even the main bridge in Lisbon has that Frisco look.
The two cities do have a lot in common we would discover:
- Both share similar hilly landscapes – Lisbon, in fact, is known as the City of the Seven Hills.
- Each has endured their share of earthquake woes – San Francisco was leveled by the great quake of 1906 while Lisbon was almost totally destroyed by one in 1755.
- The two cities even have similar transportation systems – Lisbon’s trams and vernaculars are not as historic as San Francisco’s legendary cable cars but their cheerful colors do brighten the handsome streets of its old quarter.
- Lisbon even has its own, smaller version of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge – the 25 Abril Bridge was built by the same company who constructed the American icon and it’s even painted “international orange” just like its San Francisco cousin.
- And just like San Francisco, Lisbon has its share of great neighborhood restaurants, with, as far as we’re concerned, Stravaganza topping that list.
The vernacular was not in service the night a young woman at the Hard Rock Café gift shop pointed us in the direction of Stravaganza, which sits atop a steep hill in an area of the city that had to be totally rebuilt after the 1755 quake, which also involved a tsunami and many fires. In all, over 15,000 people perished back then – the fires and tsunami killing most of them.
Above: The main squares in Lisbon rival anything in Europe.
So we huffed and puffed our way to the top of the cobblestone street where the restaurant was located and quickly got an introduction to the neighborhood life that make Lisbon one of the most enchanting places in Europe to visit.
Here, on narrow streets where car mirrors and walls are separated by razor thin spaces, people gather after a hard day’s work and enjoy a glass of port wine and reasonably-priced meals at one of the many café-style outdoor eateries – the ones where people have to move their chairs to allow the odd local car to enter a street.
And while Lisbon does indeed have a lot in common with America’s most beautiful city, it retains the regal good looks of Europe’s other great capitals while at the same time offering its own unique features.
There’s the regular collection of wide European boulevards, great squares and mammoth statues honoring Portugal’s heroes - the most massive and important of which is the one dedicated to the Marqués de Pombal, the country’s first prime minister whose responsibility it was to rebuild the city after the earthquake.
The handsome boulevards, like Avenida da Liberdade, that branch off the roundabout where the revered prime minister’s statue now stands have that Paris look about them – flower laden Jacaranda trees form a canopy to protect strollers and diners from the blistering sun and outdoor cafés are manned by servers wearing long black aprons.
Above: Lisbon’s quaint bars and cafes inspire writers and poets.
Another feature that makes Lisbon Paris-like is its version of the Eiffel Tower. The wrought-iron Elevodor de Santa Justa was built in 1902 by a student of Gustave Eiffel to connect Lisbon’s upper and lower towns. It’s not as dramatic a structure as Paris’ landmark but it’s still pretty impressive. It costs $1.20 to go up and $1.40 to come back down. The elevator is wedged between narrow buildings on Rua de Santa Justa in the city’s old shopping area.
Most of the buildings that make up the city’s upper area look much the same as the next. That’s because in an attempt to rebuild quickly after the 1755 earthquake, architectural design was sacrificed for haste - it took only two and a half years to rebuild Lisbon.
One structure that makes Lisbon unique is the massive Roman-style aqueduct that runs through the city. Built by Portugal’s King John in 1747 to carry fresh water to the city, the impressive structure has 109 arches and dominates the skyline.
Lisbon is a joy to walk and many of its buildings are covered with hand painted tiles that date back centuries. The tiles were the building material of choice over history here because they kept houses cool in the painfully hot summer months and were easy to clean. Unfortunately, some of the beautiful buildings in Lisbon have been scarred by urban artists and their ugly graffiti.
One place spared the artist’s brush was the beautiful Soo Domingos, located in the old quarter, which served as headquarters during the Inquisition. The handsome structure is just off the main square.
The only part of the city not damaged in the great quake – by the way, the last major earthquake to hit Lisbon was back in the 1960s and the next major one is not expected for another 200 years – was stunning Rossio Square in the city centre or Baixa area. Dramatic fountains and more statues dominate the square that sits in the shadow of the city’s ancient fort. Most of the great squares in Lisbon are made of black and white tiles and designed in such a way that it gives visitors the impression they’re walking on waves. It takes a few seconds for you to adjust to the sensation.
The city’s main attractions are connected by a small subway system, the Metro, which, at .75 cents, is one of the best bargains in town.
The pungent smell of salted cob piled high outside Lisbon’s small fish shops is a constant reminder of this country’s sea history. Cod, while in short supply these days, still makes up a large portion of the Portuguese diet and we spotted one cook book with “365 recipes” to make dishes using the fish.
The Chiado area is where you’ll find some of the city’s more traditional shops, ones displaying hand painted ceramics. There’s also lots of eating and dining spots in this area, including a famous café called Brasileira on Rua Garrett, where Portugal’s famed poets and writers once lingered over espresso.
You can hop on a tram known here as an eléctrico and head over to the amazing Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, a great church started in 1502 by order of King Manuel I. The massive church is a mixture of Gothic and Manuel architectures and its stained glass and sculpted columns are some of the most beautiful in all of Europe.
This is the place where kings and queens where married back in the days of Portugal’s monarchy, which ended in 1910. The church was named in honor of St. Jerome, the patron saint of writers and poets, many of whom came from Lisbon.
The most impressive of all Lisbon’s great monuments is one called Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument of Discovery), which dominates the city’s revitalized waterfront along the Taugus River. The massive stone structure was erected in honor of Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator in 1960, 500 years after his death. It also commemorates Portugal's many other famous explorers and adventurers. You can ride an elevator in the belly of the statue and get a great panoramic view of the city and its handsome skyline.
Another feature that sets Lisbon apart from other European capitals is its mixture of new and old architecture.
“The people who live in Lisbon don’t have to travel to America to see new designs because we have so many futuristic buildings here,” a local woman named Helena Ribeiro told us.
Most of those “new” buildings are grouped together on the site of the Lisbon’s successful Expo 98, known as Parque das Nacoes. An overhead rail system connects all the buildings left over from the world’s fair. They now house the city’s aquarium, modern arts museum and its brand new casino.
The casino is one of the biggest in Europe and has been an overwhelming success since opening in April of 2006. The glass and chrome interior of the casino, which features floors that change color every few minutes, is truly spectacular and its 800 slot machines and gaming tables are usually standing room only most nights. The casino’s restaurants have quickly caught the eye of city diners with their imaginative menus and creative cuisine.
Lisbon offers visitors a varied nightlife, with lots of chic bars and restaurants but in recent years has become known for its erotic clubs, where performers from Brazil are the headliners.
Just another thing it share in common with San Francisco.
- Rua Augusta is one of the best streets in Lisbon for shopping and dining.
- Lisbon’s museums are free. They are closed Mondays.
- The city’s transportation authority offers visitors 24 and 72 hour pass options that cost just a few dollars but allows access to the subway, buses and even inner city trains.
- There are seven women for every man in Lisbon.
- Stravaganza Restaurant is located at 18 Rua do Cremio Lusitano. For information go to email@example.com or call 213-468-868.
- Two highly recommended places to stay in Lisbon are Hotel Dom Pedro at Av. Eng. Duarte Pacheco in the city’s business district, not far from most historic sites. Go to www.dompedro.com for information.
- The other hotel TNNworld highly recommends is the chic Bairro Alto Hotel, a boutique style property with just 55 bedrooms in the city’s old quarter. Go to www.bairroaltohotel.com for information.