We spent one month in Lisbon October - November 2020 and witnessed a rather different Lisbon to most visitors who had been here prior to COVID. Compared to its usual over-crowded reputation, the Lisbon we experienced was quiet with mostly locals going about their daily lives. Sometimes we had to deliberately wait for some people to walk into our photographs so that it doesn't look like a ghost town!
We really enjoyed our stay and can confidently say that Lisbon exceeded our expectation. Here is why.
Lisbon boasts miles of well developed riverfront areas with wide cycle paths, footpaths, green spaces, exercise equipment, cafes and restaurants. Although staying at the oldest neighbourhood of Lisbon - Alfama, we found it easy enough to get to the river front and exercise in the open spaces.
From the main waterfront square of Praça do Comércio, you can walk or cycle along the river all the way to Belem, and if you prefer, continue another 20km until you reach Cascais. We walked from Alfama to Belem and back a couple of times and found it a very pleasant day out. You get to see the April 25th bridge from different perspectives, some great public art, beautiful buildings and park lands.
On the north side of Lisbon, the Parque das Nações area is another well developed river front filled with contemporary architecture, urban art and open spaces. When we visited on a Saturday, we saw a lot of locals cycling, jogging, boot-camp training and strolling. It would be lovely area to live in.
In addition to the river front open and green spaces, there are numerous nice looking urban parks of different sizes dotting Lisbon. These parks are well maintained with benches, art works, sometimes fountains and great views. It's really not hard to find one of those oasis if you want to find a peaceful setting to read or have a picnic.
Being a hilly city, Lisbon has the benefit of many great viewpoints. Our favourite one is Miradouro da Senhora do Monte where under large beautifully shaped pine trees, locals often sit on the benches, reading, playing a guitar and admiring the breathtaking views of the city.
Lisbon has a lot of grand monuments, buildings, squares and tree-lined avenues. After the the 1755 devastating earthquake, the city planner took the opportunity to replan and rebuild the city on a different scale to its previous narrow-lane pattern. As a result, unlike other Portuguese and European cities, Lisbon feels open and modern with good traffic flow. For pedestrians, it also means wider footpaths and less traffic noise as one can keep a reasonable distance from the traffic.
Lisbon feels cheerful with those colourfully painted buildings - often pastel pink, yellow and blue. Even the President's residence in Belem is painted pink! Most buildings are well maintained. There are some abandoned buildings, but the percentage of them is far lower than in Porto.
Lisbon offers a great shopping experience with several large shopping malls around the city. Housed in a unique postmodern complex, the Amoreiras Shopping Center is especially delightful with all the major clothing brands, a large upmarket supermarket and two levels of food courts to choose from.
We also enjoyed exploring and getting lost in some of the old neighbourhoods of Lisbon such as Alfama and Graca. It's intriguing walking through those narrow lanes, up steep stairs only to find a grand church or new view point in front of you! We love looking at those residential buildings with wrought-iron balconies and hanging laundry. We stayed in one ourselves and definitely felt part of the community (we only managed to drop one t-shirt and one peg from our 3rd floor washing line). It's also funny to see those old ladies sticking their heads out of windows to check us out or randomly pointing to give us directions assuming we were lost. We jokingly call them "CCTV cameras" as they seem to function like one - always surveying!
We didn't get to experience much of the food scene in Lisbon - due to the risk of COVID, we mostly cooked ourselves. But we saw there was no shortage of traditional and modern restaurants as well as trendy cafes and bars. It's a shame that we couldn't try some of the places as eating out is quite affordable in Portugal generally speaking.
We enjoyed the ease, comfort and price point of public transport provided by the city. We actually used all the forms of transport - tram, bus, metro, urban train and even the elevators going up hills. The wide network of transport made it a piece of cake exploring the city and beyond.
The majority of people we dealt with on different levels were friendly and a large percentage of them speak English. We were especially impressed by the hospitality of our Airbnb host who took us out for coffee & Pastel de Nata and then tried to get us drunk by treating us to several tasty local alcohol drinks. She also went out of her way to help us with a printing task. It's so lucky to meet a friendly local like her!
On the opposite of sunny side, we did find dodging dog poop on footpaths annoying. You have be vigilant constantly! Despite our great efforts, we both got "lucky" and hit a fresh batch a couple of times.
Another annoyance was spitting! We used to think among the worst offenders were the Chinese and the Mexicans in this category, now the Portuguese joined in equal ranking! On so many occasions, a guy (almost always a guy) cleared his throat and spit right in front of us. In this COVID era, this behaviour should be considered "murder" in my book. I wished that I had a superpower that could make them lick it off the ground!
In summary, Lisbon is a cosmopolitan city that deserves at least a week to appreciate the highlights. If you have more time to spare, we would suggest 2-3 weeks to slowly savour all the little details including those stunning sunrises and sunsets!
Accommodation in Older Neighbourhoods
Houses in the older neighbourhoods don't have much sound proof ability. We have two involuntary alarm clocks during the weekdays: 11pm garbage collection and 6am two kids getting dropped off at their grandparents house downstairs. Weekend is party time - noises of excited talking from nearby restaurants and neighbours often went on until after 3am. A pair of ear plugs certainly helped!
A lot of houses in the older neighbourhoods have been renovated nicely, but they tend to have low ceiling heights. Brad is 6'2'' and had to duck his head a lot of times in our Alfama apartment. These places were not built for tall folks!
Houses in hilly neighbourhoods such as Alfama and Graca tend to have very steep internal stairs. We were on level 3 and had to climb up 33 steps over only 7 meters with about 50 degree incline. Mind you those steps were narrow and won't fit size 37+ shoes! Imagine the day when we arrived with our giant suitcases! It was very daunting once our host opened the front door!
Although one of the Portuguese princesses who married an English King in the 17th century brought the tea culture to England, the Portuguese are big coffee drinkers. We notice most locals drink espresso coffee out of those tiny cups. People with an espresso coffee and a cigarette sitting at a table outside a cafe or "snack bar" is a common sight.