“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.