“The value of things is not the time they last, but the intensity with which they occur. That is why there are unforgettable moments and unique people.”
The line for the Number 28 Tram was already snaking past storefronts and apartment buildings when we arrived at the Praça do Martim Moniz. Our plan was to ride the tram to the São Jorge Castle, high on a hilltop overlooking the city, but even on an early May morning, the wait was long and arduous.
As we stopped to consider our options, a tuk-tuk driver named Antonio approached us, offering to take us to the castle and provide some commentary along the way. We agreed to a price, climbed in the back seat of the little red vehicle and headed off on what turned out to be a fast and fun way to navigate the old city. We wove through sliver-like streets, up hilly and tight-cornered slopes, past ornately tiled facades. Antonio pointed out various sights as we made our way to the castle entrance, even stopping to show us what he called “the best viewpoint in Lisbon.” It was a memorable ride and another lesson in being flexible when traveling: Sometimes the best experiences are because something else didn’t work out.
São Jorge Castle
The castle’s biggest attraction is the View Terrace, called the Miradouro de São Jorge. Panoramic vistas of Lisbon’s iconic red roofs spread out to the River Tagus, showcasing the 25 de Abril Bridge, the Praça do Comércio and other landmarks. It’s a wonderful way to get an overview of the city, and arriving early in the morning offers an unhurried look at lovely Lisbon before the crowds arrive.
We wandered along the ramparts and beautiful stone arches and explored the castle grounds. The Moorish São Jorge has the medieval feel that you’d expect from a castle, juxtaposed with its stunning backdrop of a view and its peaceful, almost sanctuary-like setting.
As we walked through the castle grounds, we began hearing loud noises that sounded like extremely hungry cats. Suddenly the “cats” began appearing on the walls and paths around us, and we quickly learned to identify the sounds of peacocks! The beautiful birds confidently moved around the tourists, as if to let us know that they were the real residents of São Jorge Castle.
The Alfama District
We left the castle and began walking downhill through the streets of the Alfama District, getting an up-close experience of the medieval maze we had seen from our tuk-tuk ride. The Alfama is one of those places that is almost impossible to navigate with a map, yet somehow the sights you’re looking for seem to appear around the next corner.
Miradouro de Santa Luzia
We stopped at the Miradouro de Santa Luzia – another wonderful lookout point – and found the 18th-century tiles that decorate the walls of the square’s church. We peeked in the open doors of the 12th-century Sé Cathedral. It was Saturday, and the church steps were filled with families dressed up and waiting for what appeared to be first communion services. And we found the restaurant where we had been hoping to have lunch, Restaurante Santo Anónio de Alfama. With its charming courtyard and welcoming interior, it was the perfect stop before continuing on our walking tour.
The Baixa District & Praça do Comércio
After lunch we headed to the Baixa District and Praça do Comércio, the waterfront “commercial square” we had seen in a distance from the castle terrace. It’s a grand space – much larger than I had envisioned – lined with yellow-painted buildings and a statue of King José I. The square was Portugal’s center of trade and the site of its royal palace until it was destroyed by the 1755 earthquake. The Marquês de Pombel, who rebuilt Lisbon after the earthquake, is featured on a medallion on the King José I statue and also on the square’s majestic Rua Augusta Arch.
Café Martinho da Arcada
Under the arcades just east of the Arch is the Café Martinho da Arcada, a coffee bar and restaurant founded in 1782, known for two Portuguese treasures: pastéis de nata custard tarts and poet/writer Fernando Pessoa. I discovered Pessoa’s work while doing research for our trip and became intrigued with his writings and his life. While Fitzgerald and Hemingway were discussing the issues of the day in 1920s Paris, Pessoa was writing in Lisbon, holding court at the Café Martinho da Arcada, where his image is quietly reflected on tiles in a corner of the coffee bar.
Reenergized from our fabulous Portuguese pastry break, we continued walking through the Baixa, stopping at the Praca Dom Pedro IV, also known as Rossio Square. With its stunning fountains, towering statue, train station and national theatre, Rossio is an impressive spot.
The Barrio Alto-Chiado Districts
From Rossio we headed to the Elevador da Glória, a funicular railway that climbs a steep hillside to the Barrio Alto-Chiado neighborhoods. It’s a quaint little trip and a fun way to reach the hilltop if the wait isn’t too long.
São Roque Church
Our first stop at the top was São Roque Church, a 16th century masterpiece of Baroque art. When we walked in, an organist was rehearsing The Wedding March. It was a magnificent sound and a magnificent space.
Elevador de Santa Justa
Next we passed the viewing point of the Elevador de Santa Justa, designed by an architect who studied under Gustav Eiffel. The view from the entry ramp is free and offers more stunning images of Lisbon.
Largo Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro
Not quite “tiled out,” we found the Largo Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, home to an interesting building covered in yellow and orange tiled images that depict mythological images of Earth, Water, Science, Agriculture, Commerce and Industry. Dating from 1863, the building is topped with the design of an eye in the center of a star, symbolizing the Creator of the Universe.
Our final stop was the Rua Garett, a street known for its shops and restaurants that blend old- and new-world Lisbon. We happened upon a parade, with trumpeters on horseback and costumed musicians. I waited in line at the Café A Brasileira terrace to take a photo by the Fernando Pessoa statue – another of his writing-and-discussing hangouts – where his table and likeness are immortalized in bronze. I bought a book of his poetry – written in Portuguese on the left-hand page with English translations on the right – at Bertrand bookstore, which has been open for business since 1732 and bills itself as “the oldest bookshop in the world.”
It was an unimaginably wonderful ending to a first day in Lisbon, where the soul of the city’s past seemed to seep into my veins. And in a strange way, a place I previously had known so little about had become important and meaningful and even loved.
Beautiful! On my bucket list! Thanks for sharing.
Thank you, Christi! It’s definitely worthy of the bucket list!
Really enjoyed this as it helped to visualize part of what I am planning for the two-day visit we will have to Lisbon next year.
Hello again Erin! Well…better late than never. This magically appeared just after your other lovely comment on my Lisbon Day 2 post! Thank you again. I’m so glad it helped with your planning, and I appreciate the feedback!
Thank you…I am enjoying reading your travel blog and it’s giving me ideas and also adding to the excirtement of our upcoming trip!
We will be on a cruise in Oct. with only 1 day in Lisbon, 11-8. We have been planning a DIY day,. but a fellow cruiser is organzing the walking tour described below. What are your thoughts? We’re both in good physical shape and walking is not difficult for us. I want to see things, but also want to linger and soak up the atmosphere of the city. One thing holding me back from this tour is that we dock at 11 and the tour begins at 1…I consider this wasted port time. And I do agree with you, often the best days are the ones with the least amount of plans. The tram line looked horrendous and the tuk tuk a wonderful alternative!!
Here’s the tour offered by Lisbon Spirit:
Come aboard the most famous tram in Lisbon that will take us on an adventure across the narrow streets of the old town. To start, prepare yourself for one of the best views over the city and the river.
By foot, we will go beyond the tram route to explore the most interesting places of the hill where the city was born. You´ll feel the life of the oldest flea market – the famous Feira da Ladra. Get a close look at some historical buildings like Sé de Lisboa, the medieval cathedral in which walls remain a thousand years of History and the impressive architecture of Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora (Saint Vincent Monastery) . You´ll also discover the legend behind Panteão Nacional (National Pantheon), with the most iconic dome in Lisbon´s skyline.
We will guide you through the maze of the traditional neighborhood of Alfama – walking the narrow and steepy streets that lead to small squares, witnessing the true way of living of the inhabitants and getting to know more about Fado, the traditional portuguese music.
The cost is 20-35E depending on the number ont he tour…2-10 people.
Thanks in advance for your ideas and opinion. ~~Judy
Wow, Judy, that’s tough to fit in so much in such a short amount of time. I definitely agree that you would be frustrated waiting two hours for a tour to begin! I would either book a private tour/guide that would tailor an itinerary to what you want to do or take a taxi or tuk-tuk to the castle and go on your own from there. Taxis are very easy to find and very reasonable. The tuk-tuk was a lot of fun! And yes, the tram line was horrendous, even early in the morning! The good news is that the port is close to everything. If you’d have any other thoughts or questions, please fee free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks so much for stopping by!
Mary, thanks so much for your time and thoughts in replying. I think we’ll take advantage of hiring a tuk tuk and do Lisbon on our own at our own pace. ~~Judy
You’re very welcome, Judy! That sounds like a great plan. Lisbon is such an interesting city…you will have a wonderful time! Just be sure to take a break and have one of those fabulous Portuguese pastries 🙂
Mary, one more question. My DH really thinks a tuk tuk is the way to go for a couple of hours in Lisbon and then we can end the tour where we want to spend more time walking. Do you suggest booking a tour or just hiring a tuk tuk that we see on the street? Hopefully some will converge at the port gates. If we hire off the street what should we expect to pay per hour? It looks like the organized tours are about 100E for 2 hrs. Thanks so much!! ~~Judy
Hi Judy, Our tuk-tuk experience was a destination ride and not a tour, so I’m not familiar with pricing. If you hire off the street, you can negotiate a price and decide if the driver is a good fit. I checked Trip Advisor, which has reviews of several tuk-tuk companies that you can book in advance and get pricing upfront. That might be a good idea with a tight timeframe. Just be sure to end the tour at the TOP of a hill – such as at the castle – so you can work your way down on your walk!