Sometimes the only real way to get the flavour of a city is to come back to it several times over.
I’m lucky that on my recent trip to Portugal, I got to visit Lisbon on three separate occasions. Each were short but sweet visits.
As always, I was keen to see to what extent it was easy to practise responsible travel— this time, in Lisbon.
It started with my arrival on the night train to Lisbon from Amsterdam—you can read about that in this post here. I stayed the night in a hostel with incredible views out over the river Tagus, the 25th of April bridge, and over to Cacilhas. The second time I visited for an evening with the Surfcamp I was staying at south of the city—you can read about my experience surfing here). The third and final time was on my way out of the country, I stopped for a last night and some final Nata pastries in this beautiful city.
What held my gaze again and again, on the first and subsequent visits were the narnia-esque street lamps, attached at right angles to the old, colourful and tiled houses on narrow twisting streets.
What stays in my memory the most is the experience of sitting on the grassy mound of Miradouro Santa Catarina, watching the fire fade out of the evening sky, listening to the sounds of guitars and singing and the chatter between friends—tourists and locals alike—all around me. Eating bolinhos de bacalhao and drinking red wine as I listened, all of Lisbon was spread out below before us.
If every city has a signature sound, then Lisbon’s is the sound of jamming musicians on guitars.
Exploring the City
Off the beaten track it is not, but the Sao Jorge Castle is great way to get a perspective on the city. The view is well worth the climb to see the moorish architecture in this fort. I walked up the hill, which provided a great work out for my calf muscles. On your way up, there are plenty of opportunities to take some pictures of some of the old style trams that run up and down. Why not take the tram? I’ll get to that shortly…
Another great way to gain perspective is to take to the water and to take the ferry across the river Tagus to the Cacilhas. Ferries run regularly from a number of terminals in central Lisbon, including the Cais do Sodre in Alfama.
To explore Lisbon is to eat your way around it. From sweet Nata pastries and flans to great cod dishes, cheese and wine, Lisbon is a food-lovers’ paradise. Lisbon is packed with characterful eateries, my only word of caution would be to avoid the overly-touristic (and subsequently overpriced) cafes around Rossio main square where the trams up to the castle leave from.
On my first morning I enjoyed breakfast in a local coffee bar on Praca Luis de Camoes – enjoying a latte and a pastry for the bargain price of Euro 1.50. In the evening I discovered a cheese bar on the Rua das Flores that specialises in everything wine and cheese (two of my greatest joys in life). An option that seemed to be very popular with locals and visitors alike, although of a less ‘authentic’ vibe, were the new food halls next to the Cais do Sodre—containing stalls inside serving everything from Portuguese Cuisine, to Pizza, gourmet hot dogs and everything in between.
Staying Green in the City
On my first visit I stayed in hostel Lisb’On, a budget hostel, which I liked most for its views. On my second overnight visit I chose something different and stayed at the Corinthia Hotel Lisbon. Normally I try to avoid ‘chain-style’ hotels (Corinthia is a small chain of hotels, owned by a Maltese family), in favour of staying in locally owned establishments. The Corinthia Lisbon caught my attention, as they had been named most sustainable hotel in Lisbon for 2 years running, and won numerous other accolades for their innovative energy programs.
As one of the largest (and older) hotels in Lisbon, their challenge had initially been to reduce costs through reducing the building’s energy consumption.
In 2015 the hotel was awarded as Europe’s leading ‘Green Hotel’. Over the last few years they have reduced their energy usage by 22 %. The best part: now other hotels are starting pay attention and follow their lead.
If this type of commitment to sustainability spreads to more hotel operators, then it will be good news for responsible travel in Lisbon.
The hotel is located in a less-touristic neighbourhood of the city, near the Jardim Zoologico. It’s well connected to Lisbon’s easy and efficient Metro system. The rooms in the hotel were luxurious, the quality of the food was great, and the club lounge on the top floor of the hotel offers views out across the city.
The best part of my stay without question, was my all-too-short time in their spa. There are hotel spas and hotel spas. This one is definitely the latter. The spa covers an entire floor of the hotel and includes an aqua area with pools and jacuzzis of different temperatures, an outdoor and indoor swimming pool, and treatment rooms with more treatment options than you can possibly think of—from floating water beds to space-like capsules which apparently simulate being in an embryonic state. I stuck with the more conventional treatment of an aromatherapy massage, and was in heaven for a whole sixty minutes.
What I liked about the Corinthia hotel is that they have put their money where their mouths are when it comes to sustainability. there’s no green-washing, there is simply them taking action to reduce their footprint so that their guests don’t have to worry.
Speaking to locals it became clear relatively quickly, that not all are as in-love with Lisbon as I was. Like many places, especially capital cities in western Europe, tourist arrival numbers have risen drastically over the last few years.
Lisbon is now the fastest growing city for visitor numbers in Southern Europe, and that is not necessarily music to the ears of residents. An estimated 4 million overnight visitors—6.5 times the city’s population—stayed in Lisbon during 2015. And that’s not including the day trippers or cruise visitors.
Locals are starting to protest to the city that there are simply too many tourists. Their streets are beginning to get overcrowded. The biggest complaint that I heard was that those who live in the city centre (particularly those near the castle) can no longer get on the trams to go about their day to day life because those trams are full of visitors, eager to have the experience of riding one of Lisbon’s vintage trams. But this is just one symptom of a bigger problem.
The cruise terminal has been given recent approval to expand by the government and city of Lisbon, and one has to wonder: how long is it before the Venice Syndrome sets in. Creating responsible travel in Lisbon looks set to be a challenge.
What is the message in this? It’s certainly not that taking trams is bad. A key part of responsible travel, and no less so in Lisbon, is to take public transportation wherever possible. The message is to be aware that visitor numbers are starting to put pressure on this city.
Resolution to this problem cannot come from travellers alone, although it does help for us to be aware of the issue.
Ultimately, the city authorities and tourist boards need to weigh up what is best for their city, take action accordingly, and resolve issues of poor planning. One must hope that Lisbon won’t wait until that time is too far in the past. For further perspective on the problem, this article lends additional perspective.
Have you been to Lisbon? Did you find it overcrowded? Let me know in the comments below.
Editorial Note: I’d like to thank Hotel Corinthia Lisbon for offering me a special rate and a complimentary spa treatment during my stay with them.
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