Why I Fell In Love With Lisbon

Lisbon Portugal beggar and St Anthony statue

A beggar and a saint

“And here is the statue of St Anthony, patron saint of the lost. Every June we have a huge festival for him – people of all ages, everywhere in the streets, drinking and dancing.”

The three other members of our tour group nod, appreciatively. I am the only one not taking photos of the statue. I’m busy watching the beggar sitting on the steps of the tiny church behind us, as she thumbs through the dirty coins in a paper cup that sits stilted on the paving stones.

And if you lose your friends, well – you just make new friends!” says the girl with braces and green eyes, smiling encouragingly.

She works at the Yes hostel, fresh from a degree in Tourism from Lisbon University. Giving free hostel tours around the city are a great way to keep up her experience while she looks for a more permanent job.

“It’s been really hard though. I’ve spent three years absorbing every bit of information possible about Portugal”, she tells me. But her dedication shows. I’ve been on a lot of European walking tours, but I haven’t often had a guide so informed or so passionate about the places she’s pointing out.

With her steering us around the city, we catch sight of tiny graffiti pieces, old men in plastic chairs under ornate street lamps, bright swathes of pink flowers under blue mosaic tiles. She stops so we can listen to the ageing buskers, shows us the best views of the coast from above a set of ancient ruins, and tells me where to buy the best custard pastry in the city.

But when she finally leaves us at the sprawling Saturday flea market, I’m still thinking about the beggar and the saint.

Lisbon Portugal Saturday flea market


Catching my breath

I came to Lisbon alone, the same way I often travel. Normally, I don’t have any problems with flying solo, but after a week spent in the alcoholic haze of TBU’s excessively inclusive social scene, it felt a bit odd to be by myself.

I knew I needed recovery time before the next conference started though, so I was adamant that a few days alone in Lisbon would be the best solution. Somewhere I could get some work done, and settle for a bit before the next wave of socialising.

But I learnt two things about Lisbon. First, that everyone is just as industrious as I wanted to be.

And second, that this Portuguese city is inherently sociable, whether you want to be involved or not.

Lisbon Portugal Famous streetcars

First impressions…

Lisbon is grander than Porto – more austere, busier, more energetic. It’s made up of a network of slippery cobbles worn smooth by the countless sandalled feet of tourists.

People wear almost nothing, even in mid September; every figure is a honeyed shade of bare skin, every face a shine of sweat and sunglasses. It’s hard to tell the tourists from the locals – or, rather, a large amount of the foreign visitors almost look as if they belong.

When the waning heat of early evening hits, people use the warmth as an excuse for any number of countless little indulgences: an early drink, a cheeky cigarette, a custard pastry, extra cream on their coffee.

Lisbon Portugal cappuccino cream coffee

At the busy street cafe I sit in, there are pigeons underfoot, fluttering up at head height. Boys carry surfboards while girls carry beach bags; couples kiss on street corners. A saxophonist and a tambourine man start up with a smooth jazz interpretation of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’.

More kissing couples, more hand holds, more unintended open moments. Purple hair dye, tiny shorts, overweight leopard skin. Wedged cork espadrilles, pink wrist watches, empty arms in suit jackets and a cool, crisp, lime green sari.

The buskers segue neatly into ‘Strangers In The Night’. People whistle. I forget I don’t normally like public displays of affection and I grin at the people in love.

I compare shoes, dresses, tans, hairstyles; girlfriends, husbands, adorable children; facial expressions and accessories.

This is a city where the university students spend their first week of the new academic year busking in black Hogwarts-esque robes on the cobbled streets. There is a great deal of whooping and general jubilation; they strum guitars, shake tambourines, squeeze accordions, pose for photos from passers by, and even serenade those unable to make it down to the street for a better view.

Lisbon Portugal student university musicians busking to an old couple

At the next table over, a man extends his hand in greeting. He is Russian, working in Lisbon for three months on a computing job. He’s interested to know what I make of the city.

I think back to the tour I’d taken that morning, when I’d discovered the bridge across the bay in the hazy distance. immediately at immediately evoked memories of the foggy red structure I used to look at every day for a year in San Francisco, which in fact designed and built by the very same architect who created the Golden Gate itself.

You could have knocked me over with a barge pole (although I’m glad nobody did).

Suddenly I’d realised all the similarities between Lisbon and my beloved San Francisco, and it made me very happy that I clearly appreciate the same qualities in a city, wherever in the world they might be.

Cityscape of roofs in Lisbon, Portugal

Stan and I – “actually, it’s Stanislav” – talk politics, poverty, literature and poetry, while the people of Lisbon stroll past on either side of our tables. We question what it is about this place that makes us feel more positive than usual – whether it’s the people, the streets, the scenery or simply the weather? We don’t come to an agreed conclusion, but as I leave him in the cafe, heading back to my hostel to meet a fellow TBU friend, I keep dwelling on the topic.

Solo or sociable?

You can learn a lot about a place from a single street, watching its inhabitants from a single vantage point.

Lisbon reminded me that it’s ok to be alone, and that I’m actually often comfortable with being solo. But the city also gave me a push in the sociable direction, and pointed out just why being with other people makes such a difference when you’re travelling.

Not least because then there’s someone to share your pizza with.

Lisbon Portugal dinner with pizza and red wine



About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

37 Responses to Why I Fell In Love With Lisbon

  1. Chrystal McKay October 1, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

    ohhhh so well written! I am VERY happy to of been directed to your site by Twenty-Something Travels BlogHouse Review today! I’ve never been to Lisbon but this account makes me want to visit very badly! I look forward to reading more of your blog! 🙂

    • Flora October 5, 2012 at 1:20 am #

      Thank you for the compliment, Chrystal! You should definitely get to Lisbon when you have a chance, I’m already wishing I’d gone for longer 🙂

  2. Agness October 1, 2012 at 8:16 pm #

    I have never been here, but it looks like you had a great time.It is always good to share your pizza with someone, but travelling solo could be more adventurous in my opinion. You are more open to new opportunities and people around you. I guess I would fall in love with the food in Lisbon.Love the last photo in your article. Safe travels 🙂 P.S. I am going to make the Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, the one you told me about. Can’t wait :):)

    • Flora October 5, 2012 at 1:23 am #

      It’s sometimes about finding the balance I think – normally I travel alone and prefer it that way (particularly for the adventurous aspect!), but there are times and situations where you can almost benefit more from being with people.

      The food in Portugal is incredible, I can certainly vouch for it! Oh, and here’s that recipe :p Let me know what you think!


  3. Agness October 1, 2012 at 8:18 pm #

    P.S. 2 Keep me posted. I really enjoy visiting your web 🙂

  4. Audrey | That Backpacker October 4, 2012 at 4:20 am #

    I like how you described the city. I spent a few days solo in Lisbon last summer and I found myself observing people around me. A lot of the scenes you described remind me of my time there. 😉

    • Flora October 17, 2012 at 1:46 am #

      It’s a very observational city. I definitely want to spend some more time there!

  5. Rich October 8, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    I’m going there by myself for a few days at the end of the year and really looking forward to my first time in Portugal.

    Someone else recently told me about the similarities to San Francisco. It looks great from your post!

    • Flora October 17, 2012 at 9:48 am #

      If you’ve never been to Portugal then I think Lisbon is a good a place to start as any. And I still can’t get over how similar it is to SF!

  6. Cam @ Traveling Canucks October 10, 2012 at 6:09 pm #

    Enjoyed this. I have yet to visit Portugal… but the more I read about it, and the more photos I see… it feels like it should happen sooner than later!

    • Flora October 17, 2012 at 9:49 am #

      I’m sure you’ll find yourself there eventually, Cam!

  7. Andrea October 12, 2012 at 4:04 pm #

    Lisbon really is a sociable city, that’s a great way of describing it. I spent a little time alone there but felt welcomed by everyone I came in contact with. It was great meeting at TBU. Hopefully I’ll see you at WTM if you’ll be attending. 🙂

    • Flora October 17, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

      It really is one of the friendliest cities I’ve been to in a long while. Long live Portuguese sociability! Great to meet you at TBU, Andrea, and I’m sure I’ll see you at WTM too 🙂

  8. Jenna October 15, 2012 at 11:21 pm #

    The more I hear about Portugal, the more I want to go there, and now it looks like I will finally make the big trip there next June. I’m sure I will love Lisbon for all the reasons you mention.

    • Agness (@Agnesstramp) October 16, 2012 at 5:06 am #

      I guess you perceive things differently when travelling solo. Like, for example you, when you arrived in Lisbon alone. You were opened to every sound and focused on every details surrounding you. Lisbon’s amazing and I loved the food. Glad you’re enjoying yourself.

    • Flora October 17, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

      Oh I hope you do make it over there Jenna! It’s a really gorgeous city, I’m sure you’ll love it 🙂

  9. munchkin October 17, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    Love your post! I’m portuguese myself but have only been to the Azores. I just know I would love Lisbon. It’s on my must see list. 🙂

    • Flora November 11, 2012 at 4:39 pm #

      Thanks! The Azores look incredible though, I’d love to go there someday. I hope you love Lisbon as much as I did!

  10. Ellen Keith October 24, 2012 at 12:39 am #

    Lisbon seems to be the hot spot on everyone’s lists these days, and I can totally see why. I visited for the first time back in March, and also fell completely head over heels.

    I love your observation about the Hogwarts robes. I have a Portuguese friend back home, and it was something he was always telling me about, but I never got to see them in person

    • Flora November 11, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

      The robes were honestly incredible – perhaps JK Rowling had some partial inspiration from them?!

      • Marcelo Alexandre June 14, 2016 at 9:40 am #

        JK Rowling got inspired in those robes, because when she started to writhe the Harry Potter, she was living in Oporto at that time 🙂

  11. Jeremy October 31, 2012 at 8:40 pm #

    “We question what it is about this place that makes us feel more positive than usual – whether it’s the people, the streets, the scenery or simply the weather? We don’t come to an agreed conclusion”

    I feel the same way about Lisbon! Since visiting I’ve concluded that it’s an underrated place. It has a certain quality that just draws me back to it. 🙂

    • Flora November 11, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

      Definitely, there’s just something about Lisbon that I couldn’t name but knew I loved – and luckily a lot of people seem to agree!

  12. Clare - Holiday Addict November 15, 2012 at 9:13 pm #

    Flora, your writing is so lovely and brings everything to life! This is a really great post, I really enjoyed it and I really want to see Lisbon!

    • Flora November 29, 2012 at 6:54 pm #

      Thanks so much Clare! Glad you enjoyed it and I hope you make it to Lisbon soon 🙂 Let me know if you need any tips!

  13. Julie Dawn Fox December 7, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    Hi Flora, I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to discover this post. I’ve visited Lisbon many times since I moved to Portugal and each time, I love it a little more. Your writing brings the atmosphere and little details to life in a wonderfully engaging way and I’m glad you had such a wonderful experience of the place.

    • Flora December 8, 2012 at 12:47 am #

      Aw thanks Julie – I’m glad my impressions of Lisbon match up to yours! I’d love to explore more of Portugal on another trip, so do let me know any other must-see cities I should put on the list!

      • João Rodrigues July 29, 2014 at 8:18 pm #

        Hi Flora, I really enjoyed your article about my city and i’m glad you had a good experience. Sometimes i think we “lisboetas” don’t fully enjoy the little delights of our city. I guess that reading and hearing the experiences from outsiders helps me appreciate and discover the place I live in.
        Portugal is a small country but full of diversity and small wonders to discover. I could point you a few.
        If you like historical places i recomend you to visit Évora, Óbidos and obviously the romantic Sintra. There are also the small but lovely fortified towns of Marvão and Monsaraz rising over the plains of Alentejo.
        Algarve is the most touristic region of Portugal, full of great beaches and night life, but still there are some almost untouched gems, like Cacela Velha and its great view over the Ria Formosa. It’s a great experience to have some seafood at that village while watching the sun setting over the Atlantic ocean at a warm summer evening.
        If you love green go to the north, where autentic rural live is still preserved in the villages sitting at the slopes and vales of the rugged landscape. If you like nature I recomend Peneda-Gerês National Park.
        I guess you already know Porto and his charms. 🙂
        There is much to discover, but i guess it would be looong comment.

        I hope you return someday!

        • Flora August 4, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

          Woah, thanks so much for all the Portugal info Joao! I’d love to get back to the country sooner rather than later, so I’ll definitely check out some of these places.

  14. Endri Hasanaj May 24, 2013 at 5:13 pm #

    Well done with this post! It is really well written and I could sympathise with you. I was in Lisbon 1 year ago and I fell in love with it too, but not for the same reason. I also wrote an article about it:
    I hope you enjoy and I know it’s nothing like yours but I tried.
    Greeting from Athens!

    • Flora June 6, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

      Thanks Endri, glad you enjoyed the article!

  15. Georgia June 29, 2013 at 12:18 pm #

    Hi Flora,

    I’m heading off to Lisbon and just found this post while browsing around and absolutely oved it – it’s made me so excited about going!

    • Flora July 4, 2013 at 1:17 am #

      Great stuff Georgia! Have an incredible time in Lisbon, you’ll adore it 🙂

  16. Stefania September 5, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

    I’m sure I would be falling in love with Lisbon too!

    • Flora September 6, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

      It’s hard not to!


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