If you have $100 in your pocket, you could buy a nice dinner in Paris, or you could spend the entire weekend in Lisbon. I don’t know why anyone would choose the former over the latter.
Lisbon is small, not too touristy but has plenty to offer as a city. English is pretty widely understood in this capital of Portugal. When English fails to deliver, if you can muster up some form of bastardized Spanish you should be able to get the point across.
Lisbon encapsulates all the qualities of a nice Southern European city: warm, friendly, easy on the pocketbook (but keep an eye on that pocketbook). Of all the European countries I’ve been to, Portugal wins the best hostels hands down. The tall ceilings, open floor plan, and large windows characteristic of buildings in Lisbon made me wonder how I ever managed to live in that hobbit house I called home.
When eating out in Lisbon, assume that the napkin is free and that’s about it. Waiters often randomly drop off side dishes on the table without asking. If you leave them untouched, you will not be charged. If you eat them, you will have to pay for them. I really had to make a conscious effort to tuck away my homegrown attitude (“but you have to tell me that they’re not free when you set them down on the table, because this comes off a bit dishonest”). That stuff isn’t going to work here, and all of a sudden they don’t understand your Spanglish anymore.
Bairro Alto is an area full of lively bars. Alcohol is cheap and the ambience is casual, I was lucky to have made some friends at the hostel to go out with. It’s easy to lose track of time while knocking back caipirinhas but the small streets are narrow and the area is very hilly. If you get too wasted, the hike back to the hostel will feel like climbing Mount Everest.
The cute little trams that run through the city are literally over 100 years old.
Other than Bairro Alto, Chiado and Alfama are also lovely neighborhoods to walk around. I could never get tired of looking at the tile buildings in Lisbon, and it’s not hard to notice that the Portuguese are rightfully proud of their knack for making the most beautiful ceramic tiles.
Fado is the traditional music of Portugal consisting of a single vocalist accompanied by an appropriately tear-drop shaped Portuguese guitar. It is not to be missed. The word fado means fate, which almost always inevitably carries a context of resignation or reluctant acceptance of an impending doom. I was directed to a free show at a bar by locals (there are many places that will charge you an arm and a leg for fado + dinner, like flamenco in Spain). I found the experience of collective heartbreak with strangers in a tiny little bar sardine-packed to the brim unforgettable.
Enjoy some Ginjinha (Ginja) is a tart cherry liquor that is sometimes served in a chocolate shot glass, consumed with chocolate, or simply by itself. I had a shot daily, but some of the older Portuguese folks appeared to take a shot almost hourly.
Most importantly,do not go home without eating dozens of these flaky goodness. The pastels are served in almost every bakery, but the most famous place is Fábrica de Pasteis de Belém. Have one for breakfast, or dessert, or snack, or all of the above.