Point of departure: Martim Moniz
As I wait to catch the tram, I see a group a Spanish teenagers, a couple of foreign tourists tall and blond, a hunchbacked old lady with a shopping bag. Across the road, an old man with a cane and a beret is seated on a park bench and a group of African men sit on the grass under a tree. Two Indians pass by and hug each other, and a man with a turban joins the ones seated.
This is Lisbon’s most multi-ethnic area. The shopping center to my right has Chinese shops that sell…just about anything, Indian food delis, African hair salons, and Gypsy-run clothing stands. At the same time, the hills surrounding me are home to two of the city’s most traditional neighborhoods (Mouraria and Pena).
- Tram tickets are sold in kiosks and shops all over town and in the subway. The closest place from this stop is Praça da Figueira. Buy the 24-hour ticket that will allow you to hop on and off whenever you want on all trams, buses, and subway lines. Cost: 3,95 euros.
I sit by the window and the cool breeze coming in is a nice relief from the heat. The old yellow trams have been riding these hills since before the Second World War, so there are no modern touches like air-conditioning, and as it moves I feel cradled by the cliqueticlac of the gears and rails.
We start the ascent. The hill here is so steep that even the most experienced locals totter every time the car stops and starts with a sudden pull.
Stop 1: Graça
I look around at the old tiled buildings and palatial houses and feel happy that so many of them are still kept up or are being restored. In the small garden of Largo da Graça, white-haired men read the newspaper while small kids chase the ever-present pigeons.
The bell of the Graça church sounds as I sit in the churchyard, facing the viewpoint. Some guys are playing guitar, drinking beer, and smoking joints. I think I’ve seen them here before.
In front of me, Lisbon opens up. S. Jorge’s Castle to my left hides most of the Tagus River, which shows only a bit of itself before the next hill blocks its view again. Bellow me and covering everything else are rooftops of all shapes and colors. It looks like a play town.
- The kiosk/café at this viewpoint, to the left of the churchyard, is good for a beer, coffee, or snack. There’s usually always people here but it has a really nice vibe. If you want more tranquility, there’s another viewpoint to the right, around the church.
- Down the Voz do Operário to the left, where the tram makes it’s next stop, are the grounds of the Feira da Ladra (Robbers Flea Market, Thursdays and Saturdays till 5pm). It’s a great place for real bargains and a few laughs at the ridiculous items sold (secondhand underwear, anyone?). Around the same area is the S. Vicente de Fora church, with whitewashed walls and an interior mosaic based on La Fontaine’s fables.
Going down Calçada de S. Vicente, I see the tourists holding their breath as the tram grazes the edges of balconies and sounds its bells so cars coming in the opposite direction don’t hit it. All of them stay on as I leave.
Stop 2: Escolas Gerais
I walk back to S. Vicente and turn right. I’m in Alfama. As I burrow into the neighborhood, the streets get narrower and intertwine. I get lost on purpose. The houses start getting smaller, some restored and others hardly standing, small stairs show up at corners, I go up and down and around.
It’s a maze populated by middle-aged men with mustaches and rosy cheeks, young men with attitude, old ladies dressed in black looking out the windows, children playing and screaming in the streets, and the light filtering through the trees and the corners and the window glass. Here, people live like they did 50 years ago.
Back on the tram I head to…
Stop 3: Portas do Sol
This is where you should leave if you’re going to S. Jorge’s Castle (and you should!).
I head to the viewpoint on the right and stare again at the Tagus. I’m on the other side of the hill now, with the castle at my back. Now I can see the river to both sides with the Alfama rooftops heading down to it. A tall ship is docked down at the harbor, as if reminding everyone this is the City of the Discoveries.
The place is packed with tourists but it’s impossible to escape them here.
- From this point to Lisbon’s Cathedral (Sé) is downhill, with viewpoints, cafes, urban handicraft shops, and art galleries. It’s better to walk down and look around. If you’re a church-going person you can go inside the cathedral; also, in front of it to the right is the church of Santo António, where the patron saint of Lisbon was born.
Personally, I like the look of these from outside and prefer to walk around the cathedral and get lost in the side streets.
Stop 4: Rua da Conceição
I’m now downtown. Walking down Rua da Conceição, I remember my friend Carole and how she was crazy for the haberdasheries that line it. Looking at the old shelves overflowing with colorful handkerchiefs, buttons, beads, sashes, needles, and thread, I remember I have a jacket that’s been missing a button for a year now, and I go inside one of the stores.
I choose a button and ask the old lady behind the counter about business. “It’s enough to make a simple living. Now with the tourists it’s getting better.” I feel sorry for us as a people; we’ve always had a problem valuing our own things. I promise to come back again.
Turning left at Rua Augusta and passing under the Triumphal Arch, I’m facing the Tagus across Praça do Comércio, one of the biggest squares in Europe. The light reflecting off the white ground, the white columns and the river, and the inexplicable near absence of sound, despite the traffic, make me feel as if I’m in a glass bubble.
Under the arches that line the 36,000m2, slow-moving tourists mix with fast-paced locals making their way to public transport or the yellow Public Office buildings that ring us. In the middle, more tourists concentrate around the statue of King D. José while scattered groups of young students sit on the ground and go over notes.
Crossing the square, I sit down at the recently reopened Cais das Colunas, my feet almost touching the water. It’s only a couple of stairs leading to two columns that frame the river, but it’s been crowded from day one.
Rationally I don’t get it, but then again I’ve been sitting here the past 20 minutes watching the cacilheiros cross the river and the seagulls fly by.
- If you want to get lost in your thoughts where Pessoa used to, over a pastel de nata and a coffee, go to the oldest café in Lisbon. Martinho da Arcada is under the arches, to the left of the Triumphal Arch on R. Augusta.
- If you want to see more of downtown, walk up Rua Augusta to the Elevador de Sta Justa, a 109-year-old elevator designed by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel. It will take you to the Carmo area, where the ruins of the Carmo Convent and Church, destroyed in the 1775 earthquake, hold the only remnants of early Gothic architecture in Lisbon. From there, you can walk up to Chiado.
Trying to catch the tram again on Conceição, I have to let two go by before I can get in. Businessmen unbutton their suits as they hop on and curse the tourists. Sitting next to me is an old lady with a black and white twin set, pearl necklace, and the sweet but oh-too-strong smell of granny-style perfume, holding tight to her purse and pharmacy bag.
Stop 5: Chiado
As we approach this area, even more people get in; it’s the students from the arts and cinema schools close by.
I leave in front of Brasileira, the most famous café in Lisbon, but it’s too crowded for my taste. Instead, heading back on the same street I check out the square in front of São Carlos Opera House from the café next to São Luis Theatre.
- If the weather is good it’s always better to be outside, but if you come in winter or if it’s raining the inside of this café is lined with bookshelves and it’s great for a hot tea.
- To get to the Carmo ruins, you should walk down Brasileira and turn left at Sacramento.
- Following the tram line is Camões Square, the meeting point of everyone heading into Bairro Alto at night and also a nice place for a traditional refresco at a kiosk.
(Refrescos are sweet drinks made according to traditional recipes, with unique Portuguese ingredients — things like lemonade, capilé, and groselha that aren’t served in cafés and restaurants anymore. There are four kiosks in Lisbon that have recovered this tradition; this is one of them.)
I manage to squeeze myself in the tram and stand next to the lady driver. Three more people get in and the rest are left behind. At the next stop the line is even bigger and she doesn’t stop. “It’s like they grow from the ground, the tourists. They just keep coming!” She unloads.
Suddenly, she claps her hand on her forehead: “Oh, I forgot to tell those Spanish where they should get off to go to the castle…. They’re so many, asking about different stops…. Whatever…” and with a sudden move she opens her window and screams to the street “Eh, nice life yours! I want your job!” It’s a colleague from the Bica funicular chatting on the street.
Stop 6: Estrela Basilica
I leave as the Spanish are asking if the castle is still far.
We’ve gone down Calçada do Combro, passed the Parliament up Calçada da Estrela, and are now in front of the Estrela Basilica. Across the street is the Estrela Garden. I walk through the green metal gates and sit on the park benches, checking out the jugglers and the couple doing acrobatics between two trees.
- If you like poetry, the house of Fernando Pessoa is close by. Go around the garden to the left, all the way up Rua da Estrela. Turn left at Rua Coelho da Rocha. It’s number 16.
The house is a museum and a cultural center, showing some of Pessoa’s furniture, his personal library, and a poetry library. Conferences and workshops are also held here.
Stop 7: Campo de Ourique
The tram’s next stop is a residential neighborhood, known for its street shops and café life. I stay in appreciating the buildings and street scenes as it heads for its last stop in front of the Prazeres cemetery.
- The Campo de Ourique market is one of the best known in Lisbon. It’s seen a comeback recently, partly because of its outside stores: a gourmet chocolaterie, a biological market, designer jewelery and clothing shops, and the traditional haberdasheries, butchers, and shoe stores. The inside stands are only open until 2pm, and the busiest day is Saturday, when the young join the older customers that have been coming here since it opened in the ‘30s.
- In front of the market is the Sto Contestável Church, with vitrals by Almada Negreiros (painter, writer, and contemporary of Pessoa).
As it gets ready to start the same route back in reverse, the tram is almost empty.
Stop 8: Calhariz
I head into the Sta. Catarina neighborhood, to its viewpoint. I finish my day watching the sun set over the Tagus, sitting next to the giant Adamastor statue, a Super Bock in my hand, drums being played by a group of Rastafarians to my left. This is the city I didn’t know I loved so much…my city.
- Noobai Café is also a good place to end the day here. Face the riverwalk, move along the wall on the right, and enter the small gate that leads to the descending stairs. The bar has a terrace with lounge chairs and chillout music.
- Across the street from Calçada do Combro, where the tram passes, starts Bairro Alto. It’s where to go for dinner and a night out.