Although neighbors, Portugal is an unusually different place than it’s adjacent popular buddy, Spain.
Even our tuk tuk tour guide, a young Portuguese man driving an auto rickshaw around town, said he could relate more to the Moroccan culture than to Germany, France, Italy or any part of Western Europe.
Seeing that Portugal is one of the oldest countries in Europe, oldest global empire as well as the oldest colonizing nation, it has plenty of beautiful historical hidden treasures to explore.
We started our journey with a taxi ride to the apartment loft that took us through narrow cobblestone streets in the heart of a historic area. The paths wind their way up a steep hill past old tiled buildings and the city’s timeworn charm. When we arrived at our exact street, it was so narrow and tight that I wondered how the driver was going to squeeze in with the car, but he managed to do it!
The building housing our loft was pretty old. It’s where life has carried on for centuries. Standing at the entrance, the rustic door slid open from the other end and we were greeted by the owner of the apartment, a cheery Portuguese woman named Clara. She helped us with our luggage up to the 4th floor and from there, gave us a quick guide of the rooms and a map of Lisbon, pinpointing its main hotspots and her personally recommended places to visit. Lisbon is also the city of 7 hills, our apartment being situated on one of them.
Clara also spoke of Amália Rebordão, a Fadista singer of Portugal’s traditional Fado music dating back to the 1820’s, and how she popularized Fado worldwide. Clara mentioned that it makes herself and all Portuguese people proud of the way Amália had given Portugal a face and a voice in the outer world. Because Portugal is becoming more popularized as a destination, Fado music might be seen as an experience for tourists to go after in Fado Clubs like they would a Flamenco performance in Spain. However, the melancholic melodies of the genre are enjoyed for entertainment by locals in neighborhood pubs, cafes and restaurants at dinner theaters too. So it’s not necessarily a cliche activity that only tourists do, but a part of everyday local life.
We left our baggages in the apartment on spot and proceeded to go out and explore the region for the day. Walking around the city, we could already feel the six other hills in our calves because of it’s irregular urban cityscape.
Discovering the city, immediately the first thing we noticed are shops and mini marts dedicated to Portugal’s much-loved staple food: sardines. Before traveling to any place, I really like to get to know what a particular destination is known for and what locals love to eat and do.
There are two ways to have sardines. One, are the small ones in the tin cans which are eaten with a piece of bite-sized bread. Another way is to enjoy the bigger sardines that are cooked/grilled as any fish with their signature Piri Piri Chili oil and some lemon.
Cirque de Sardine, a touristy sardine shop. They all have years printed on the lids with an interesting fact about an event that happened during that year, which is an unusual souvenir to bring with you!
The shop is themed around a circus, with carousels and ferris wheels displaying cans of sardines. It would definitely catch anyone’s attention!
Portugal’s love for fish doesn’t stop at sardines. To talk about Portugal, is to talk about the Cod fish. I was expecting to find it everywhere around Lisbon, but the fish is not as popular as sardines due to it being regarded as a delicacy reserved for special occasions and family holidays, especially the buttery cod pâté. We visited a hip, contemporary Portuguese restaurant for a taste of traditional cuisine in an area called Praça do Comércio in downtown Baixa district. The famous square used to be home to a royal palace destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1755.
The Rua Augusta Arch in Praça do Comércio serves as a noble gateway to downtown Lisbon and a commemoration to the rebuilding of the town after the destruction caused by the earthquake.
So we sat a restaurant called “Ministerium”. It was already getting chilly around this time of year (October).
My husband ordered the chicken wings doused in Portugal’s favorite condiment, the Piri Piri hot sauce. It’s really interesting to look back at the origins of such unexpected staples which in this case, go back to Portugal’s colonial history. Piri Piri is a type of chili that the Portuguese discovered when they conquered the world during their global voyage, specifically in the lush jungle of South America (Brazil) and Africa. The hot sauce is also obviously still used in Portugal’s former colonies in Africa and translates to “Chili Chili” in Swahili.
Now, let’s talk about the cod! Unlike other types of fish, it has an unusual texture. We ordered one of the most traditional types of dishes you can ask for in Portugal: salted cod with potatoes. The cod itself is initially salted and then poached until it turns creamy and flaky, giving it that rich and distinct texture. As mentioned by one local, “you know you are eating good cod when it falls apart into slippery flakes.”
Salted cod with potatoes and sautéed spinach. A simple dish but oh-so flavorful.
Of course, sardines and cod (or any other tinned fish) make the perfect Lisbon souvenir, as you are practically taking the flavor of the city and the country’s love for seafood home with you. The preserved fish comes in olive oil, tomato sauce, chickpeas and plenty of other marination and spices, and even better, the cans are wrapped in vintage-looking paper resembling an antique memento!
In most things in Portuguese shops, there is an old-school aesthetic evident everywhere. From the retro packaging of sardine tins to embroidered napkins and artisan soaps. The cupboard essential, a can of sardines, is not only loved for what’s inside but also for the art on the can itself with colorful retro designs.
We arrived at Cais De Sodre to board a ferry to Belem District. Since we were in the area of Cais De Sodre, we happened to find the Time Out Market, also known as Mercado de Ribeira. The hip riverside food court, which used to be a very old fresh food market in Lisbon, is said to be a renovated culinary destination bringing the capital’s best chefs and most popular restaurants in town. There are various stalls displaying tempting food and communal tables in the center. We first surveyed the stalls around the food center, trying to decide what to settle down for!
There is also a small shop full of old-fashioned artisanal soaps, canned fish (of course!), and other vintage-looking souvenirs.
Hand-drawn stenciled illustrations on retro journals.
Belem is one of the places that one should visit when in Lisbon. We retreated to Belem on a ferry boat along the Tagus river opening up to views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Christo Rei statue from afar as we crossed under the 25 de Abril Bridge Suspension Bridge. It is said that the Christo Rei was originally inspired by the Christ the Redeemer statue of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The Christo Rei statue and 25 de Abril Suspension Bridge as seen from our ferry
As seen from the plane on our way to Lisbon!
Capturing that moment right under the bridge!
One of the most iconic monuments in Belem is the Belem Tower (Torre de Belém) representing the Portuguese maritime discoveries of the past. It was the main site and launch point from which Portuguese explorers departed on their voyage of discoveries. The tower also served to protect the Lisbon harbor.
Inspired by Venetian and Moorish architecture, the tower was initially built on dry land in 1515. However, over 500 years the tide had risen.
Over here where I sit, there is a visible slot of sand in front of me, which is completely submerged in water during high tides.
People lining up to enter the tower
Another unique monument in Belem pays homage to all the explorers of Portugal, which was around the time that the Portuguese began to colonize lands, although it doesn’t directly represent “colonialism” per se.
In Lisbon, we didn’t stumble upon any museum that told a comprehensive or illustrative history of colonialism. When asked about this, one local told us, “Portugal was the earliest colonizer and we basically started the whole trend when establishing our dominions overseas in Africa for gold and diamonds, Brazil for their sugar cane, tobacco and cotton, and India (Goa) and China (Macau) for their exotic spices. What spurred our expansion was colonial wealth coming from valuable items such as cinnamon, which at the time was worth more than gold!” He continued, “We amassed such huge fortunes that it encouraged the Dutch and British to follow our footsteps. We were very rich, now Portugal is a poor country. Honestly, deep down, we do feel ashamed of this part of our history. But at the same time, proud of our strong past.”
Statues of heroes on the monument who braved the uncharted waters during their discoveries (captains, navigators, cartographers)
After a good look at both monuments, we walked around Belem.
An artistic installation
This boy was fishing with his father.
The red-brick lighthouse of Belem
This is the national monument for the fallen Portuguese soldiers of the Overseas War fought in colonial Africa. The memorial is in memory of the Portuguese military who lost their lives during the African’s nationalist movement for independence (1964-1971).
There are two soldiers on either side of the monument that change every 2 hours. In the center is an eternal flame.
Sailing along the Tagus River
They say you can’t leave Belem without also trying their famed pastries. Before boarding the ferry back, we tried what is known as Pasteis de Belém, a custard pie. The confection of the Belem pastries was created in 1837 and the recipe remains exactly the same until this day. It is particularly from this place that only the masters of this pastry know the real, original family recipe!
After leaving Belem, we visited the LX Factory. The LX factory is considered to be the place where hipsters go in Lisbon, as it’s filled with street art and creative expression integrated into old industrial buildings housing design shops and funky restaurants. The place, which is said to have been an 1800’s sewing factory, stretches under the 25 de Abril Bridge that I showed here previously in the post. The locals wanted to breathe new life in to the desolate area by turning the district into a vibrant spot.
Some of the street art around LX factory. Make sure to check out my photo series on Street Art in Lisbon, Portugal!
Having lunch at LX Burger
LX Factory is also home to one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, a former printing space called Ler Davagar Bookstore. A variety of interesting books are stacked from floor to ceiling and I would have loved to spend hours there looking through each and every intriguing title!
Found this nice book that illustrated the symbols of Portugal
Some quirky shops…
One of the most interesting and unusual places I was looking forward to is the world’s oldest surviving Doll Hospital, an antique repair shop for all dolls in need of fixing! For those who cherish dolls and have always been fond of playing with them, like myself (even until now!), this is where beloved dolls can go through a check up which determines whether they need; chipped paint? beautify and restore your doll. Is there a missing eye? leg? fingers? Your doll can get transplant. Or just a quick makeover (new dress?)
For over 200 years, the family-run business has had a curious trait for restoring antique dolls of sentimental value to its owners.
I love these doll collectibles!
Wandering around Lisbon and wondering where to go next, we located the old Barbadinhos Pumping Station. The museum, also know as Museu Da Agua, introduced us to the once painstaking process of pumping the river and bringing drinking water to the residents of Lisbon. The museum is pretty small, which is why it’s never crowded and probably because not that many people even know about it. We were actually the only ones there at the time.
The main attraction of the museum is its grandiose engine room, where 19th-century steam-powered pumping machines have been preserved in magnificent condition. I took a moment to imagine the complex process of which it took to get fresh water to the homes of people. The antiquated machines made the room look very steampunk. I would have loved to see the engines in action!
AlFama and Mouraria are the raw historical hilltop districts of Lisbon. Mouraria comes from the Moorish influences of the medieval period and Alfama traces back to the Arabic word “Al Hamma” referring to baths and fountains.
We started by exploring the oldest district in Lisbon, AlFama, home to the soulful Fado singing and sardine-cooking taverns. The district holds the strongest roots in Portuguese culture and heritage. With a steep tangle of narrow streets, AlFama is a prized relic of the past that remained almost unaffected by the 1755 earthquake. The district is filled with surprises at every corner, with endearing cafes and local eateries that tingled our senses. You could feel the history all around you.
AlFama is amazingly photogenic!
As we wandered about in search for a car ride, we came across a tuk tuk driver, Pedro, who offered us a ride around Alfama, Mouraria, and Chiado, the noblest district in Lisbon. We thought, what better way to explore these districts even better than to hear some stories from the local himself?
Pedro is the friendly Portuguese tuk tuk guide that I mentioned earlier in the beginning of my post. Through out the ride we exchanged cultural information about one another and we gained a lot of insight into the various aspects of Lisbon. It was fun getting to know the city through Pedro! We spoke about the Portuguese and Arabic language and I pointed out how difficult the Portuguese language actually sounds, and it mostly has to do with the pronunciations. Although Arabic and Portuguese sound vastly different, there are many words derived from Arabic such as Soap – Sabonete (Sabon in Arabic), azeitona – olive (zaytoon in Arabic) to name a few. What surprised me the most is that Portuguese is actually one of the most spoken languages after English!
As we drove between the narrow streets of Mouraria, we observed the various buildings adorned in artistic ceramic tiles traditionally called Azulejos. Interestingly, the name of this art form comes from the Arabic language too and was originally introduced from Granada, Spain, which used to be a host to Arabic culture in the past. Some tiles are decorative with geometrical patterns while others portray mythological tales and historical imagery. The most common and oldest colors used for the tiles are white, blue and yellow.
As mentioned by Pedro, Azulejos are not only utilized for their decorative purpose, but also have a more practical function by helping control the temperature in rooms and protecting the buildings against heat. The close proximity of houses also provide shade and prevent overheating.
This is one of my favorite photos taken in Lisbon. A cozy local restaurant.
Next, we stopped our tuk tuk next a church. “You have to see this place,” said Pedro. “It might look like an ordinary and humble-looking church from the outside and you might not even give it a second look. But inside, the bland facade hides a rich decorative interior.” Igreja de São Roque Church is reportedly one of the richest churches in Europe, meaning it’s of priceless value. The dazzling interior is adorned with marble, gold on top of gold, and sacred art pieces. He even mentioned that if any of the pieces are being transported, there is only that one designated person responsible who is allowed to even touch it. That’s how precious it is!
To absorb Lisbon from above, Pedro took us to a hilltop terrace overlooking the vistas of the city – Miradouro da Graça. From this height, we observed the medieval buildings that dot the horizon as all as Lisbon’s Castle. The amount of large trees surrounding the terrace shades the entire place making it the perfect place to relax.
Some scenes around Alfama and Mouraria…
After bidding farewell to Pedro, we took a short trip to Lisbon’s Aquarium although we weren’t really planning to but decided to go there anyway to have a look…
The Oceanarium of the capital hosts marine habitats of the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian and Antarctic. At the time of our visit there was a temporary exhibition by Takashi Amano, a Japanese Aquascape creator who is also know as the Aqua Architect. With this lifetime project of his, he aimed at recreating tropical forests inside an aquarium to place emphasis on the preservation of sea life and its habitats. Amano did this through the practice of Ikebana, a Japanese gardening art form, and the concept Wabi-sabi which is a philosophy often described as appreciating the beauty in imperfection.
Takashi Amano’s creation. The place was filled with such serenity and otherworldliness.
Here are some photos of various marine creatures.
There was also another small exhibition inside showcasing artwork made out of debris, waste and other pollution to shed light on protecting the marine environment.
Now one last meal in Lisbon…! 🙂
We sat at a very local restaurant serving typical Portuguese lunch.
For pre-starters, a couple of various fish pâté (Sardine, tuna, salmon) and our main course was bean rice and cod fish cakes. Delicious!
See you next in Portugal, Sintra!
The city of fairytale palaces and castles.