What a fun experience!
Won and I have lived in Portugal for just over 15 months now and our last – and only visitors (blasted virus!!!) – came to visit just six weeks after we arrived. My darling niece and her wonderful boyfriend came to Lisbon on the very last weekend of February 2020 after spending a few days in Paris celebrating her 24th birthday. We covered a lot of ground in the three short days they were here, but since Won and I knew so little of Lisbon at that point, we were just as much tourists as Kate and Liam.
With the rollout of the vaccines beginning to make a difference, and a promise from the government that our age group will be vaccinated by the end of May, we expect the country to open up to non-residents at some point this year. With this very likely possibility in front of us, Won and I felt it was time to up our game so that when friends and family ask us for suggestions on what to see and do, we can confidently respond.
This is especially important, because our friends John and Marion have already booked their flights for a visit in mid-September! Their trip includes a few nights in Porto, followed by a multi-day bike ride through the Douro Valley, and then a week in the south of the country, which will include time in Lisbon.
Lisbon. Hmmm…we have spent some time there, but not as much as we probably should have, or would have liked to, due to all the lockdowns and movement restrictions. Getting to know Lisbon is now at the top of our to-do list. Won and I sat down and discussed what we thought would be important for people to see. We knew that one of the more interesting things to do is to take a tram, but our experience with that was very limited.
It was time to remedy that shortcoming. We decided to focus on Tram 28, which is widely known to be one of the best experiences. Won jumped in and started his research online. He reviewed the route of Tram 28. Ahh…this is why people love it so much. It takes passengers through the Alfama, Baixo, and Chiado neighborhoods – some of the prettiest and most interesting parts of Lisbon. Additionally, it passes by some great landmarks including a spot with stunning views of the Rio Tejo. In the map below, you can see the route outlined. But, before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s start with some basics so you have some context and perspective.
Lisbon is hilly. Don’t underestimate that point. (Ladies…when you are here wear comfortable shoes that won’t slip on smooth cobblestones – trust me on this).
Back in the day it was the challenge of navigating those hills that led to the development of a tram system. Trams with horse-drawn cars pulled on metal rails made their first appearance in Lisbon in 1873. At that time they were called carros americanos, American cars, because the first ones were developed in the United States. The first electric trams were installed in 1901, which is why they are still called eléctricos by the locals.
Although it is commonly agreed that their heyday was in 1959 (when the network reached 76 km and it had a fleet of 405 trams), you may be surprised to know that the trams are still a popular way for locals to get around the city. The network is still pretty expansive and includes lines that go all the way past scenic Belém to Algés. But the fact that it goes through much of the downtown, appeals to residents and commuters alike.
With so many forms of transportation becoming available over the decades, the tram network has shrunk considerably, but there are still six active lines:
- 12 – Praça da Figueira → Miradouro de Santa Luzia circular route (clockwise only)
- 15 – Praça da Figueira ↔ Belém ↔ Algés
- 18 – Cais do Sodré railway station ↔ Cemitério da Ajuda
- 24 – Praça Luís de Camões ↔ Campolide
- 25 – Praça da Figueira ↔ Campo de Ourique (Prazeres)
- 28 – Praça Martim Moniz ↔ Graça ↔ Estrela ↔ Campo de Ourique (Prazeres)
This past Tuesday we drove into Lisbon to a large parking garage located under the Igreja do Santo Condestável (Saint Constable Church). The tram stopped right next to the church (the 3rd stop on the route beginning in Campo de Ourique). We hopped on, paid 3,00€ each, and off we went!
Important side note: Do not do what we did. We did not use our Viva Viagem cards. We did not plan to get off and get back on the tram so many times, but our plans changed mid-way (sigh, we are still learning…). This meant we paid 6,00€ each time we re-boarded (3,00€ each). It cost us a total of 18,00€ for the day. If we had used our Viva Viagem cards it would have saved us 4,20€. You can purchase a 24-hour Viva Viagem card at any metro station. They can be used on all forms of public transportation in Lisbon (trains, ferries, trams, metro, and buses). The reusable card costs 0,50€. Once you have the card it can be reloaded multiple times. The cost of a 24-hour pass is 6,40€ (for a total of 6,90€ with the card as a first-time purchase). It is totally worth it. I will also say that using the card is much faster when you board the tram (or any form of public transportation) because you simply swipe the card against the reader next to the driver. To learn more about the Viva Viagem card, click here.
The tram is such a fun way to move through the city. It is a little bit like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland. With the windows down (it was a lovely day) and the sounds of the city mingling with the sounds of the tram as it squealed, rattled, and occasionally jerked its way around (especially on tight corners), ensured that I had a smile on my face the entire time. The interior seating on the tram offers a bench seat for two on one side and a single seat on the other.
We learned, after watching other passengers, that the way to notify the operator you intend to exit the tram is by pushing one of the red buttons located above the single seats. The word parar (stop) is indicated directly above the button.
It was such a joy to see the city coming back to life with stores open and people moving about their daily lives. Here are images I captured out the window as we rolled along.
There are places on this line where the streets are so narrow, especially in the Alfama neighborhood, that the tracks overlap (see image below). We stopped and waited at one such juncture, I assume, to ensure there was no other tram coming the opposite direction. I must admit though, I could not see any discernable way our driver was able to assess whether or not another tram was coming. Apparently she must have, because after waiting a few minutes and no tram rounded the corner, off we went.
You think I am kidding about how narrow some of the streets are? Here is how close we got to one building. If there had been anyone standing on the “sidewalk” they would have had to put their back to the wall and suck in their stomach to enable the tram to pass by. EGAD. We had the same experience with a few trams going the other direction; we were literally inches apart. Reminder, keep all hands, elbows, and heads inside the car!!
We rode the tram all the way to the terminus point, Praça Martim Moniz, where you must disembark. (Unfortunately we did not time the ride, but it felt like it took about 20-30 minutes from the time we hopped on until we got off.) We told our tram operator that we planned to take the tram back, but she said we must exit and pointed to a nearby tram stop where we could catch one there. We hung out for about 15 minutes and then, as it turned out, the exact same tram stopped to pick us up! We paid another 6,00€ and sat right back down in the same seats we were in earlier.
Knowing what to expect on the way back, we made the decision to disembark at the Miradouro das Portas do Sol. “Miradouro” means viewpoint. When you are out and about in Portugal, don’t pass up any opportunity when you see a sign for a miradouro. I guarantee it will never disappoint. The Miradouro das Portas do Sol was a great place to stop for a few reasons. One, for the spectacular views, but also because there is a coffee kiosk right there (playing soft jazz no less) with tables on the terrace inviting you to sit down and soak it all in. These are the views:
While we were enjoying our coffee, a bold little bird kept creeping closer and closer with his eye on my dessert. I shooed him away a few times, but he was quite persistent. I finally acquiesced and decided to put a little bit of crust on the railing, but before I could do that, he flew right over and took it right from my fingers!! I was so surprised, I told Won to get his phone out and see if he would do it again. And, wouldn’t you know, that little stinker came back and we caught him in the act.
Right next to the terrace is an ancient wall called the “Moorish fence” more commonly referred to by locals simply as the “old fence.” The majority of the wall was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake, but this portion is still standing. What you see above is a narrow bar (with spectacular views!) and the bell tower of the Igreja de Santa Luzia, a church from the 1600s.
We walked around the corner and into the courtyard of the church to find the most beautiful, romantic garden and another miradouro! This one is called the Miradouro de Santa Luzia and it affords another panoramic view over the Alfama and the Rio Tejo. Decorated with azulejo tiles and colorful vines, you can either enjoy the shade by the tiled benches or the sun by the water mirror. Be sure not to miss the azulejo panels on the side of the church when you visit.
I won’t share any other images of the courtyard and surrounding area so you can discover it for yourself.
We continued to walk down Rua Limoeiro and spied some spectacularly strange trees whose trunks have become knotted and fused together. What made this little tableau even more unusual was the ‘hobbit’ door tucked just behind. I do not know how fast those trees are growing, but wherever that door leads, I hope there is another entrance available somewhere. (Doesn’t it look like wild creatures from the Black Lagoon all writhing together and climbing over each other to reach the top of the trees? Yikes!)
A few minutes walk further down the street is the Lisbon Cathedral. Just last week, when I wrote about Romanesque architecture in Portugal, I mentioned that we had not seen the Sé de Lisboa (also known as Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa) a great example of this style of architecture. Now was our chance to remedy that oversight. We walked up the steps and through a door within the massive door. There was a 4,00€ entrance fee for each of us.
What a gorgeous church. Construction of the main chapel began in 1147 which makes it the oldest church in the city. In the following centuries a Gothic cloister was added during the reign of D. Dinis (1261- 1325). The ambulatory was commissioned by D. Afonso IV (1325-1357) to receive pilgrims arriving to venerate the relics of St. Vincent. And, in 1649, a new sacristy was added. Other modifications and restorations have taken place throughout the centuries. The church was classified as a National Monument in 1910.
At this point, we decided to hop back on the tram and head home. There was a stop just across the street and a tram arrived within a few minutes. We paid another 6,00€ and climbed in. It took us back the way we had come passing Rua Agusta (with Praça do Comercio in the distance and the statue of King José I framed under the arch), Praça Luís de Camões in the Chiado district, and the Basílica da Estrela eventually depositing us back at our starting point.
Once we were home we looked at Google Maps and retraced the path of the tram. We were astounded to see how close we were to Rossio Square when we were at Praça Martim Moniz. We were also surprised to learn how close the Lisbon Cathedral was to Praça do Comercio (totally within walking distance). For being the capital of the country, it is shockingly intimate and easy to navigate Lisbon.
Every time we go out and explore it helps us build our confidence. Soon, we will be able to provide good advice to friends and family on what to do, where to go, and how to get there. Now, all we need to find are the great places to eat! (I love doing “research.”)
Oh! I almost forgot to report…I purchased an external battery for my phone and, sure enough, I needed to use it. No missed opportunities this time! I’m so happy to have been able to capture all the beauty, fun, and memories of the day.
Until next time, please stay safe, stay healthy, and stay in touch.
From Portugal with love,