Having just returned from my trip to Lisbon, I wanted to put pen to paper right away to share all the things I learned when travelling to Portugal for the first time! Lisbon is just as wonderful as you hear it is, the streets are as vibrant as the personalities, and it’s a tremendously laid back and yet bustling city all at the same time. I was so busy leading up to this trip, so I felt more unprepared than usual and as such made a few blunders which I felt like needed to be shared for other, just as unknowing travellers, to learn from.
1. Thinking Portuguese is Spanish
While many travellers might initially assume that Portuguese is similar to Spanish, trust me, it’s NOT! I had just been to Mexico City earlier in the year, and when I started my Portuguese lessons, I thought for sure all that Spanish would have helped - nope, not the case! I found Portuguese a harder language to learn than even Japanese, and I have huge respect for anyone who has mastered the language. Don’t try to speak Spanish thinking that locals will understand that more than English if you don’t know how to speak Portuguese. Most Portuguese people prefer English to Spanish. I was surprised by how many locals spoke terrific English, but don’t rely on that. Ensure you learn at least a few words; the basics are pretty easy to get a grip on, and it makes a big impression on those you speak it to. Below are a few key phrases I found to be the most useful;
Hello - Olá
Goodbye - Adeus
Good Morning - Bom dia
Good Afternoon - Boa tarde
Good Night - Boa noite
Thank You - Obrigado (if said by a man) Obrigada (if said by a woman)
Sorry - Desculpe
Yes - Sim
No - Não
Please - Por Favor
This (good for pointing to menu or food items) - isto
How Much? - Quanto custa?
2. Rushing Through the City
One of the biggest mistakes I think that people make is to try and rush through cities. And a part of me understands this, we don’t all have unlimited vacation time, and flights are expensive, especially if you’re visiting from outside of Europe. It’s not like we can pop over from Spain or France on a long weekend. But Lisbon is such a vibrant city, and even though it appears to be very small, it’s both dense in physical form and history, steeped inside its walls. Spending a week here made us feel more like we could explore those hidden corners or get lost without worrying about losing precious time. I know a lot of people can see all there is to see here in a jam-packed three-day itinerary, but we adored having an entire week here to both relax and see the sights. Europeans in general, but perhaps Portuguese more so, take things slow. They don’t like to be rushed or be on time for that matter. So being able to adjust to their way of doing things, felt more authentic than trying to rush through lunch and run out without savouring that last glass of wine. I felt like a week here with one or two little outings outside the city was the perfect amount of time!
3. Waiting for the Santa Justa Elevator or Torre de Belem Elevator
The Santa Justa Elevator is one of the oddest yet most stunning sights in the city. It was initially built in the 19th-century for locals to use as a means of getting up the steep hill from the Baixa district to the Largo do Carmo. It’s elegant design made in wrought-iron and covered in neo-gothic arches, and striking geometric patterns is a spectacle for the eyes. But when the city of Lisbon bought the tower, they changed it from being a free mode of transportation and turned it into a touristy nightmare. Now lines run around the block and tourists pay €6.40 for a 1-minute trip up to the top. At the top, you do get one of the most astonishing views across the city, but this area is easily accessible without taking the lift. If you take the escalators inside Rossio Station, up to the Carmo Convent, the viewpoint is located just around the corner. To get to the viewpoint you pass through a small restaurant but don’t worry about going inside, they are used to this, and it’s not a problem. On there you’ll find the same view all those other tourists, who wasted hours in line, get to see. The Torre de Belem has the same kind of issue. While the outside is absolutely a must-see when in town, the interior is pretty lacking and the view from the top of the tower not that impressive. The lines can be hours long, and you are so much better to skip it altogether and instead spend more time walking along the beautiful waterfront with waterside views of the tower.
4. Not Exploring with a Local
Lisbon is one of those cities which seems to have a million hidden secrets and things you can’t learn from a book. We hired a private tour guide to give us a 4-hour walking tour of the city on our first full day we arrived. This is the PERFECT way to get introduced to the town. Bruno, our historian for the day, told us so many charming stories as we wandered through the streets. He took us to not only the tremendous must-see sights but also unknown little treasures. There are plenty of free tours you can take, but Lisbon is booming with tourists, and often these tours are enormous with over 30-40 people in one group with one guide. This makes it hard to hear over the sound of streetcars and traffic and almost impossible to ask those burning questions you might be wondering. If budget allows, go for the private tour options, which can also be customized to your group’s interests.
5. Not Bringing Shoes with Grip
I realize you might think this is obvious, of course, comfortable shoes are essential when travelling, but I’ve never had so much trouble walking than I did in Lisbon. The worn down cobblestones sidewalks combined with the steep hills mean that you not only need comfy shoes but shoes with a great grip! I have a few excellent pairs of travel shoes which I’ve never had problems with that failed me on a few occasions when I was almost sent flying down the hill! Thankfully, a few other members of my party had some grippy shoes, and we would take turns holding onto each other when walking down those steep hills. I had heard that Lisbon was like Rome, in that it was a town built on seven hills but unlike Rome, these hills are incredibly steep, and climbing up and down the streets of Alfama is a workout and a half!
6. Thinking that Bread is Free
At many restaurants in Lisbon, not just those cheesy touristy ones, you’ll often be served bread and olives before the meal. Coming from North America where bread before a meal is usually served without any charge, I just assumed it was free. It wasn’t, and although the cost wasn’t expensive, I was surprised to see a cost associated with something to me without asking for it. Thinking that this one restaurant experience was a fluke, we had dinner the next night and experienced the same charge when we got the bill after digging into the olives and bread. I finally looked this up, wondering if this was something that just kept happening to me and found that no, it’s prevalent. If you aren’t interested in paying for the bread and olives, say no, before they place them down on your table and they will take them away without incident. But sometimes you’re starving, and bread and olives sound like just the ticket to tide you over before dinner is served. If that’s the case, ask the server the cost, so you know what to expect and make your decisions from there.
7. Not Jumping in an Uber
In a city as hilly as Lisbon, you can quickly get tired. Many times people might think of hailing a cab to get home after a long day but often are afraid to in case they take a long, unnecessary route to get to your destination to run up the meter. Uber, on the other hand, is all priced up front. We loved taking Ubers in Lisbon since we were a group of four and often taking an Uber was much, much cheaper than for each of us to pay for a ticket on the metro. The Ubers we took were all super clean, the drivers extremely friendly and some would even give us a little tour of the buildings we were passing by! A trip from the airport in the Uber cost less than 10 euros (leaving from the departures terminal) which even included our luggage. Ubers make it so you can take that trip up to a miradouro (lookout point) before sunset even if your legs are tired and there isn’t a nearby metro station. It’s such a great way to make the most of your time in the city without totally tiring yourself out going up and down those hills.
8. Forgetting to a Buy A Transport Card
At all the metros station in Lisbon, you can buy these little reloaded metro cards. They only cost 0.50 euros, and you can load them up with as much money as you think you’ll need. This makes getting on and off trains a breeze, no need to buy separate tickets, or calculate the fares. Simply tap on and tap off and the money will automatically be calculated and removed from the total on your card. The line-ups for train tickets can get long, especially at stations like Rossio where the trains depart for Sintra. Having yourself, a swipe card will mean you don’t need to line up either at the ticket booth or electronic machines, savings yourself what can be a lot of time!
9. Paying for Overpriced Fado Shows
Fado is a form of Portuguese singing which originated in the 1820s in Portugal’s urban cafes and pubs. It is notable for being profoundly melancholic and yet despite these sad tunes; it’s one of the most popular things for tourists to seek out when in Lisbon. There are signs all over for tickets to Fado dinner & show experiences. Most of these places are super overpriced and the food incredibly subpar, especially when there is SO MUCH great food for cheap you can find in this city. There are plenty of amazing places to see real Fado around the town, which won’t cost you an arm and a leg. A Tasca do Chico puts on FREE Fado music Mondays and Wednesdays in the Bairro Alto district. The restaurant can get SUPER crowded, so get there EARLY! Fado is a late night experience so expect performances to start around 9 pm and go till 1 or 2 am! Unlike other places which might charge a cover fee, this restaurant doesn’t. That being said, since you need to show up so early to save yourself a table it’s only right to order some drinks and perhaps a few bits of tapas to make your time there worth it for the servers and staff. But the cost of this is far and away cheaper than what you’ll find at the Prix-fix places.
10. Not Tasting Ginjinha on the Street
Ginjinha or Ginja is a Portuguese liqueur made from fermented sour cherries, blended with sugar and cinnamon. You’ll see dozens of shops selling and advertising this sweet treat. And despite its prevalence in the tourist hubs, you’ll be surprised to know it isn’t just a touristy thing. You’ll see old ladies sipping it outside ancient bars and men grabbing one quick glug before heading to dinner. Ginjinha has been around since the Romans brought cherries to Lisbon in the 5th century. The same family has run many of the tiny closet-sized shops which sell shots of Ginjinha for multiple generations. In here, they serve just one thing; Ginjinha. You can order it one of two ways, either with or without the fruit. (Personally, I found the fruit to be SUPER strong so I preferred it without). You can also get it served in chocolate cups but this was actually a modern day invention by the Portuguese chocolate manufacturers who made a chocolate Ginjinha cup at one of their conventions, and it seemed to catch on from there. Still a delicious way to have Ginjinha but not as authentic. Every different brand tastes a bit different. Some are more strong and some a little sweeter and wine like. The little shots cost just 1-2 euros so its really easy to grab a one wherever you see them sold to find your favourite.
11. Not Being Aware of your Surroundings
Locals we met with, mentioned to us time and time again to beware of pickpockets. Having been to Barcelona without incident, I employed many of my same techniques, most importantly of which is to be AWARE. If you’re in a crowd, always be sure to have a hand on your bag or at the very least we conscious of who gets close to you. You don’t need to be paranoid about it, but there is always an element of catching people off their guard, which is when pickpockets make their move. If someone seems too nice or if you have a bad feeling about something, go with your gut and just remove yourself from the situation. Tourists trams are one of the worst places for pickpocketing since space is at a premium and thieves do most of their business when you’re too busy taking pictures to notice. There are plenty of great theft-proof bags you can buy, but a solution I found was to buy a tiny lock which latches the two zippers of my back bag together, therefore, rending it theft-proof. Always be sure to keep your bag on your lap when at an outdoor restaurant or cafe and not on the floor or on an empty chair where it can quickly be snatched up. I didn’t feel like there was ever a moment when I felt unsafe or vulnerable, but I also felt that by knowing these things and taking precautions I would be much safer than if I had gone about my business without taking it into consideration.
12. Not Remembering to Reapply Sunscreen in the Afternoon
The sun is the strongest in Portugal between noon and 3 pm, and you’d be surprised that late in the afternoon is when you’ll actually feel the warmest. Even at 6 pm, the sun was beating down on my shoulders, hotter than it felt at 2 pm! I’m absolutely that person who puts on sunscreen in the morning and forgets to reapply, which on this trip resulted in a mighty sunburn. Painful enough to teach me a good lesson! Around when you have lunch, it’s always a good idea to grab some sunscreen out of your bag and reapply for the rest of the afternoon. During the afternoon when the sun is high in the sky and the temperature is at its hottest so if you find it unbearable try to schedule some indoor fun during that time. Bring a good hat (which won’t blow off in the high winds which Lisbon is famous for) and drink plenty of water. Obviously, this advice is moot if you’re travelling during the winter months, but even in the springtime it can get surprisingly hot so don’t hesitate to slather on that sun protection or you’ll be left like I was, having to get after-sun cream from a very judgmental pharmacist.
13. Only Sampling the Belém Pastéis de Nata
Portuguese custard tarts are one of the most popular things tourist come to eat while visiting Lisbon. They are a centuries-old recipe passed down from monks in monasteries, and one of the most popular places to try them is in Belém, where they originated the recipe. While the Belém tart shop is undoubtedly the most popular and historical, there are so many other places to try all over Lisbon. It would be a shame only to give this one location a try when there are so many others you can try. Give that diet a break while you’re in Lisbon and eat to your heart’s content! You can find these “pastéis de nata” in trendy cafes as well as tiny unknown bakeries you’ll find in hidden around quiet street corners. The line at the Belém location sometimes stretches for blocks and although it might give you a good idea of the benchmark flavours of the original, modern chef’s as well as enterprising home bakers have developed their own versions which might be even more appealing to you! They also sell these pastries at the grocery store, and you never know where you’ll find your favourite.
14. Not Learning How to Order Coffee
If you’re anything like me, no morning starts off on the right foot without a nice cup of coffee. One thing I’ve learned from travelling all over the world is that ordering coffee is never the same from one country as it is in the next. In Lisbon I managed to order my coffee is just fine but all my friends who were travelling with me had great trouble when ordering. Cafés function in a completely different way in Lisbon than they do in North America. In Lisbon, most coffee shops aren’t a place to have a seat, pop open your laptop, and relax with some Wi-Fi. No, in Lisbon, cafés are where workers order a shot of espresso and down it at the bar before quickly heading off. There are no signs across the counter with menu options. It’s up to you to give your order to the barista to get what you want. To get something similar to a latte you should be ordering “Um galão” and for a coffee with milk ask for “uma meia de leite” which is half milk, half coffee. You’ll almost always be given a side of sugar since it seems like the Portuguese never drink their coffee black. To order a standard espresso ask for “uma bica”, which is a Portuguese word only used in Lisbon specifically. If you’re looking for something similar to an Americano ask for “um abatanado “and if you want milk with it, ask for “um abatanado com um pouco de leite”. Cafe in Lisbon are places people pop in and out of all day. Instead of getting one colossal coffee in the morning, you’re more likely to be served a tiny little coffee, but that means you can visit more cafes as you go throughout the day!
Let me know if you found anything on your last trip to Lisbon you’d recommend travelers to avoid or be aware of! Or if you’re planning a trip let me know anything else you’re curious about for your first time in Portugal!