An honest travel guide to Lisbon, the City of Lights

I visited Lisbon in November of 2016 and it was my first time exploring Europe in over a year. I was giddy with excitement, not quite knowing what to expect.

I packed my bags the way I used to and it felt right. The way my backpack didn’t sit on my hips but rather on my butt because of my height, how I shoved my large packing cube into the bottom of my bag before shoving the smaller one on top; the way I put on my “uniform” – plain t-shirt, black jeans, beat up sneakers, hoodie and coat, my scarf secured on top of my backpack in case I get cold, hair tied up in a bun.. It was a ritual I hadn’t performed in a long time, one I did before setting off on an adventure.

LSB - Travel uniform

Back to Lisbon. Lisbon is charming, cheap and cheerful. People are lovely, food is delicious, and on a sunny day, the city is painfully gorgeous. Why go now? Because it is an “up and coming destination” where prices are reasonable, accommodation is plentiful and people don’t hate tourists, yet.

 

Trip highlights 

  • Attending the Web Summit was a real treat. While I didn’t meet as many people as I hoped I would, I spent a great deal of time with my partner in crime Lucy, as we wondered around the halls of the MEO Arena, listened to tech superstars talk about this and that, and discussed the critical issue that is the lack of diversity in the tech. Read about my learnings from the conference here.
  • Meeting up with a friend from home was definitely my second highlight of the trip. I hadn’t seen her for a few months and it was lovely to spend evenings with someone from home as we caught each other up on our lives over bottlesglasses of Portuguese wine.
  • My spontaneous trip to Porto with another friend from work was something I didn’t know I needed until I was there. After spending a week in Lisbon with my head filled with tech and business and basically work, it was nice to get away for the weekend. The change in scenery was surprisingly refreshing and I returned to Lisbon recharged and ready to work (remotely). Read about my trip to Porto here.
Web Summit with Lucy
Lucy and I at the Web Summit in Lisbon, my first ever tech conference.

 

What you definitely need to check out while in Lisbon

LX Factory – A collection of eclectic shops and restaurants and pubs (read: the hipsters hang out here).

I stumbled into a book shop where Pietro Proserpio had created an alternate universe filled with his inventions on the third floor. Pietro walked me (English speaker), two French women and a Spanish couple through his little maze of his child-like and wonderful inventions. It felt like I was walking into the room of an excited child who couldn’t wait to show me what he had created with his Lego. Only this man looked about 80, told us stories about his inventions in 3 different languages and created beautiful machines from everything but Lego.

Also at the LX Factory, I found Rio Maravilha, a really fancy bar with a fantastic view of the Ponte 25 de AbrilHead up to the top floor and find a seat on the rooftop. The wines were delicious, the staff were friendly and it looked like it hosted especially spectacular club nights. I stayed out till it got too cold and retreated indoors where I lounged on a cosy sofa and a book before heading home.

LSB - LX Factory
LX Factory from Village Underground
LIS - Inventor
The bookstore where Pietro gave us a sneak peek into his mind

 

Lisbon chill out free tour – Our guide was simply incredible. From the very start, he made it clear that we would see both the beautiful and the ugly sides of Lisbon, and he delivered. Apart from the stunning architecture and the medieval enchantment of Alfama, we engaged in discussions about the gentrification of Lisbon and what that meant for locals. We learned about the giddiness locals felt a thousand years ago as the first ships returned from sailing around the world and locals were introduced to Chinese porcelain and Indian spices; to the deep longing, or saudade, that fado captures and brings any person with a heart to shed a tear or two. We learned about famous writers and thinkers who once walked the very same streets that now belong to Zara, Bershka and H&M. This was most definitely the most eye-opening tour I’ve been on.

Entrecopos – A restaurant a little far out from the city centre, this place had the most amazing grilled fish with a simple side of boiled potatoes and blanched long green beans. The house wine was good enough for me and the staff were ridiculously friendly old chaps.

Rua Nova do Carvalho or “Pink Street” – A great watering hole for nights out. Plenty of bars and pubs, guests spilled out into the street with a cerveja in one hand and most probably a cigarette in another. At one point, we joined a queue for what seemed like a club only to find after 40 minutes of standing in line and chatting to strangers that it was a cosy bar with an empty dance floor.

Thoughts about accommodation in Lisbon

There are plenty to choose from and I stayed in Nesthouse hostel. I spent two weeks in the same hostel and I really wish I didn’t. I chose this one because it looked really nice, had great reviews on Hostel World, suited my girlfriends’ different travel schedules, wasn’t too far away from the conference venue and it wasn’t a party hostel.

The downside was that the hostel had zero vibe. Nada. The staff were friendly but didn’t bother to engage in conversation with anyone staying there. The common spaces were silent despite having 3 or 4 people sitting there at any one time. It felt very clinical and detached. Probably a great place to stay if you really want your own space and not have to speak to anyone.

 

Thoughts about Portuguese food

Salted fish – There’s a difference between fresh fish and salted fish and you can easily pick up that difference by the price of the item on the menu. While I love salt, salted fish grilled or baked with tomato sauce and/or potatoes seemed a bit much for me. That being said, it’s something you should try at least once.

Dried up salted fish – This you’ll find in the supermarkets and it reminds me of our salted fish back home in KL. While I have no clue how it’s cooked in Portugal, the stench was surprisingly familiar which makes me wonder about the extent of Portuguese influence towards Malaysian and Baba Nyonya culture.

Custard tarts – We have this at home too so I didn’t bother trying it in Portugal, which is probably a mistake in hindsight.

Wine – Though I’m not a wine connoisseur, I genuinely loved the wines I tasted in Portugal. Apparently, the Portuguese love their wines so much, they’d rather drink it then export it, and I totally understand why. It’s delicious and cheap. Ask for local wine recommendations in any restaurant or head into a wine bar for a glass or two.

LSB - Square with fountain

 

Coworking spaces in Lisbon

Like I mentioned earlier, I was working while travelling and so finding a good place to work was important. I ended up skipping coworking spaces and worked in cafes all over Lisbon instead.

Choupana Caffé – This was an easy option because it was close to my hostel. However, it was often packed with other students and nomads.

Copenhagen Coffee Lab – You’re not allowed to sit by the window with your laptop, as I was told by one of their staff after I ordered and paid. It was the only free space available (with a power plug nearby!) when I arrived so that was incredibly annoying. They do have cosy nooks at the back of the cafe but it’s seemed to be constantly packed out. The incident didn’t particularly make me want to return to this place.

Cafe Tati – Great food, great staff, no power plugs, great work space especially at 11 am in the morning.

Montana Lisboa Cafe – Holy cow did I love this place. They serve great wine and coffee and it looks out to the sea. I found a fantastic spot outdoors and felt comfortable whipping my laptop out to work. It was the perfect mix of hipster cool, seaside chill, and high-speed WiFi.

Village Underground Lisbon  – Close to the LX Factory is Village Underground where there’s a cafe and a coworking space. Although I didn’t work here, a day pass is €10. If you’re using Google Maps to get here, it takes you to a gated entrance where you’ll find a map showing you where to find the actual entrance. To save yourself the trouble, head to Museu da Carris where you’ll walk past some guards and some old train cars before finding these fancy containers.

 

Stuff I wish I did

Attend a fado show – Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to catch a show.

Trip to Coimbra – I didn’t know of this town until Lucy told me about it and I got really jealous because I couldn’t go. It’s a stunning city and “cascades down a hillside in a lovely setting on the east bank of the Rio Mondego: it’s a multicoloured collage of buildings spanning nearly a millennium.”

 

Other tips

Getting around – Uber was very cheap in Lisbon so I never worried about finding my way home. My Uber drivers were also incredibly handsome students and engineers.

Book recommendation by my guide – Blindness by José Saramago

We were brought to Alfama during our walking tour. Immediately the sights changed and not a single car engine could be heard. We kept completely silent for a while and we heard nothing but people moving about in their houses, a cough from someone down the street, the distant sound of teenage boys yelling at one another.

Then, an old lady walking her dog stopped to greet us. She seemed to know our guide and so they had a short conversation. She also didn’t seem bothered that 20+ foreigners had more or less barged into her backyard, her home, the place she grew up and grew old in.

My assessment of Lisbon, the City of Light, is that it is struggling to keep up with the sudden influx of tourists and believes that more is good. But is it? All over the city centre, more hotels are being built, more touristy restaurants are popping up and more hipster shops selling €20 socks.

I worry for the place, that it might try so hard to attract travellers that it shuns and shuts out locals, who are the soul of Lisbon.

It is evident that there is a lot of money to be made from tourism, but Lisbon needs to figure out where to draw the line between making money and preserving the rich culture, heritage and warmth that travellers like me search high and low for.

LSB - Home

Until next time, obrigada, Lisbon!

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