Lisbon Light

It’s not uncommon for our memories from a short trip to be stronger than those from a long one. When a vacation is brief, we want to fill the time with as much action as possible. It’s a whirlwind, and it’s how Erika Suban first experienced Lisbon.

Sometimes it only takes a few hours in a new city to know you need to come back again. With only 24 hours to spend in Lisbon, I knew from the jump. And I knew had no time to waste, so I was certain to stay at a hotel in a sufficiently action-packed neighborhood. LX Boutique Hotel was the perfect fit — reinforced by the scores of people walking the square out front.

Despite the crowds below, my first surprise is just how quiet I find my room. Then I open the window, and I’m hit with the deafening noise of the city. Soundproofing, a truly underrated art.

Each of the floors at LX Boutique is dedicated to a different piece of Lisbon culture: a neighborhood, a famous character or music style, anything that makes the city unique. After a quiet, restful night and a hearty breakfast, I’m ready for my whirlwind introduction to the real thing.

Lx Boutique
LX Boutique, my perfect home base for a lightning fast trip to Lisbon.

A Walk Through History

My day in Lisbon begins with a walking tour, and while Lisbon’s known for its famously hilly streets, I somehow arrive in time to learn the basics of this ancient place. My expert guide from Get Your Guide begins a thorough walk-through of the city’s modern history. There’s the devastating 1755 earthquake — and the subsequent tsunami and fires — that forced residents to rebuild Lisbon, laying the foundations for the city it is today. There’s the years of dictatorship that only ended in 1974. There’s the largely bloodless “Carnation Revolution,” which gave way to today’s modern democratic government.

And there’s the iconic bridge at the south of the city (strikingly similar to the Golden Gate in San Francisco — they share the exact same color) that changed its name from Salazar, after the dictator, to the 25 de Abril, after the date of the revolt.

But it’s not all social studies this tour, and soon we’re tasting the famous local spirit, ginjinha.

A bottle of Eduardino, a perfect souvenir with a terrifying clown label, alongside the more standard postcard options.

Uncorking What to Drink

We arrive at Ginjinha Sem Rival to taste Lisbon’s proprietary cherry liqueur, called ginjinha. It’s strong. Especially first thing in the morning. The other sample on hand is no weaker, but at least I have a better excuse to drink it — we’re told you can only get “Eduardino” here, at this famous, tiny bar on Rua das Portas. Supposedly, the Eduardino is named for a shy clown who got over his reticence by mixing every booze available to him, but regardless of the backstory, I couldn’t recommend a more perfect souvenir. Just look at that freaky clown label.

Go ahead and pair that gift with something made from cork. Bringing home some cork is practically required by Portuguese law, as a third of the world’s cork forests are in the country and endless souvenir shops are full of the stuff. Did you know that you can make a purse out of cork? A lighter? A hat?

João Maurício “Violant”
A mural of Nobel winner José Saramago, by street artist João Maurício.

A City of Writers

Passing a peculiar statue of a bespectacled, bronze man outside a coffee shop, we’re told that this is Fernando Pessoa. One of Lisbon’s most celebrated writers, indeed we’re now outside Cafe Brasileira, the onetime artists hangout where he used to sit with his early 20th-century contemporaries and, apparently, pretend to drink bica (a Portuguese version of strong espresso) while really sipping absinthe.

But as celebrated as Pessoa is in Portugal, he’s no Jose Saramgo, the only Portuguese writer to win a Nobel Prize. And as that man’s famous quote goes, “the journey never ends, only travelers end.”

Trams and funiculars are other convenient solutions to Lisbon’s hilly geography.

The High Point

With Saramago’s words in mind, and my brief visit hurtling towards its end, I’m happy to leave the absinthe to Pessoa and keep moving to the final stop on our tour. And it’s a touristy one, right down to the transportation — we take one of Lisbon’s characteristic trams, small and packed with fellow travelers, up to the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte.

So say what you will about working off the typical tourist checklist — I’m glad we did.

This is the highest point in the city, and we’re treated to a truly breathtaking view of the metropolis and the Castelo de Sao Jorge, in particular. We get our fill, say goodbye, and go our separate ways with a smile.

Not for the last time today, Lisbon sends me off feeling warm and welcomed.

Panoramic views at the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte.

The Happy Wanderer

The lovely tour over, I decide to head to the castle I just peered down at from a distance. But as a lemon ice cream melts too quickly in my hands, I change my mind. I’ve had enough of the landmarks and — my time almost up, after all — it’s time to slow down. I’ve played the dedicated tourist enough today, now it’s time to treat myself. I head down Lisbon’s picturesque little streets without a particular destination in mind.

Wandering, I find myself in Bairro Alto, the neighborhood in Lisbon most known for its something-for-everyone nightlife. But at this hour, I’m more into the shopping. I duck into a small boutique — full of original products made by local designers — called WETHEKNOT, and come out with something fashionable and, I might add, not made of cork.

No shortage of public art in the Portuguese capital

The streets here are the narrow ones typical of Euro capitals, but fortunately that doesn’t mean they’re crowded this afternoon. Barrio Alto is full of colorful murals and street art, which I ogle along with the colorful tiles and windows full of flowers. I find myself with that feeling of contagious joy (no, I’m pretty sure it’s not the Eduardino) at just being somewhere new with nothing particular to do.

Chasing that feeling, I end up at the botanical garden, which was once considered among the best in 19th-century Europe. It’s since lost some prestige, but the opportunity for so much greenery in a major city is never a waste of time. The lack of tourists here makes for another peaceful moment.

Giardino Botanico
Lisbon’s botanical garden, once considered among Europe’s best.

Living Up to the Hype

In my haste, I realize I still haven’t tasted what is perhaps Lisbon’s most celebrated culinary treasure (besides cork, of course). Since I won’t have time for the big museums like the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, with its 40,000 works of art from the middle ages onwards, or Museu Nacional dos Coches , the former royal riding hall that’s been converted into a staggering collection of historical carriages, a quick stop at the Galeria de São Mamede will have to do. After perusing works of Portuguese a modern art to fill my cultural quota for the trip, it’s time…

The pastel de nata.

A custard tart with origins in the old monasteries, specific recipes are often well-guarded, but you’ll have an opportunity to taste test them all. You can barely walk a block without coming across a bakery window lined with a fresh tray.

My verdict: it lives up to the hype.

Museum and famous pasteis de nata
The Museu da Marioneta (left), which I skipped in favor of the famous pastel de nata (right).

Until Next Time

The perfect end to the perfect day would have include Lisbon’s homegrown music, fado, a traditional genre dating to the 19th century and still beloved as one of the country’s most important national treasures. But as such, it’s a popular art form, and I neglected to book a table at a fado restaurant like Café Luso or A Severa in advance.

So instead of waiting for a table, I opt to finish the day instead tasting local sausages and cheese at a quiet wine bar near my hotel, Ginja Com Elas. The meal’s accompaniment is delicious homemade oil and a friendly bartender (possibly the owner) regaling me with everything she knows about local wines and Muscat.

I sip my wine with one thought on my mind: when I’ll return next.

See all of our hotels in Lisbon