Sometimes places can be too much of a good thing, and become a victim of their own success. Our Lisbon travel blog looks at our first visits to Lisbon in 2016 and revisiting in 2019, and advice for those wanting to practice responsible travel in Lisbon.
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A lot can change in three years. Lisbon has held a soft spot in my heart for a while: It was my first stop in 2016 after leaving my full time job: I packed my bags, boarded a train (or two) and arrived from Amsterdam at Lisbon Oriente train station. At the time, there were grumbles and whinings that the growth in tourism to Lisbon was getting a bit too much.
Fast forward three years and the grumbling has turned to screaming. In recent years, only Japan has seen a steeper increase in visitor numbers than Portugal, which most of the Overtourism concentrated in Lisbon and Porto.
The problem is this: In the 90’s, Portugal courted tourism and in many ways tourism has contributed positively to the recovery and growth of Portugal’s economy, lifting it to levels comparable with the rest of Western Europe, while remaining cheaper and more attractive to visitors compared to, say, Spain or Italy. The campaigning worked, and visitors began flocking to the city.
Visiting in June 2019 we felt overwhelmed. By the sheer number of tourists and lack of locals in the Aflama district – the old part of the city. We wouldn’t be the first to point out that Lisbon looks at risk of becoming the next Venice as locals can no longer afford to stay in the old city, and it becomes an open air museum reserved for AirBnB profiters and tourists.
This Lisbon travel blog covers:
- Responsible Travel in Lisbon
- Tips for how to make your trip have a positive impact
- Things to do in Lisbon
- Where to Stay in Lisbon
- Best Day Trips from Lisbon
Responsible Travel in Lisbon (The Warning)
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. Avoiding Airbnbs and choosing hotels instead (see our recommendations above) helps to avoid the issue of inflated property prices and locals being pushed out.
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.
Lisbon Responsible Travel Tips
Overtourism is a complex issue, but we do believe that we all have it in our hands to do something positive for the destinations we choose to visit. Here are some simple responsible travel tips for visiting Lisbon:
- Think carefully about whether you want to visit Lisbon. There are many other beautiful cities in Europe that are less crowded as Lisbon (we don’t recommend Porto as an alternative based on what we’ve heard).
- If you do decide to visit, visit outside of the peak season (summer – particularly July and August) and avoid weekends if you can, when Lisbon gets busiest.
- Avoid AirBnb’s & Apartments in Lisbon. Much of the anger about tourism in Lisbon is caused by renting out of apartments to tourists at triple the rate (than would be offered to locals), effectively causing locals to be priced out of their own city. Alfama is becoming affordable only for affluent tourists. Stay at hotels and support local jobs instead.
- Don’t even think about buying original tiles at a Flea Market – many walls have tiles missing because they can be sold for a pretty price at local markets to visitors who don’t know better.
- Avoid wheeling your bags around the cobbled streets which are delicate – given the amount of stairs in Lisbon, we suggest packing light (!) and preferably into a backpack.
- Support local operators who are promoting sustainable tourism such as Lisbon Sustainable Tourism
- Choose sustainable hotels such as the Inspira Santa Marta, Corinthia Lisbon, or NEYA Lisboa hotel who invest into social and environmental responsibility.
- If you want to stay away from the crowds, you’ll want to limit your time spent in the Alfama district, and definitely stay clear of riding the old trams.
48 Hours in Lisbon – Travel Blog – Things to Do
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 2016 trip to Portugal, I got to visit Lisbon on three separate occasions – each were short but sweet visits. Lisbon also holds a special place in my heart: It was the first city that I visited since going full time with this travel blog. Lisbon welcomed me off a long train journey from Amsterdam as a fresh full-time “digital nomad”.
My weekend in Lisbon offered insights into the Portuguese cultural scene, eateries, history and castles galore, but it also showed me a less than charming side to this beautiful city (see above).
This Lisbon travel blog is a starting point for exploring the city, with recommendations on where to stay in Lisbon, the best things to do, as well as tips on how to avoid the crowds and support responsible, sustainable travel in Lisbon – in an easy way! If you have suggestions to add to this guide – drop me a line in the comments at the end of this post.
First Impressions of Lisbon
My Lisbon trip started with my arrival on the night train to Lisbon from Amsterdam. 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, when 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 (update 2019 – the Miradouro Santa Catarina is currently closed, for construction it looks like…) 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.
Things to do in Lisbon
2 Days in Lisbon is a short time to explore the city, but is the perfect time to give you an initial flavour of Lisbon! Here are some of our favourite things to do in Lisbon to help you get the most out of your weekend trip.
Sao Jorge Castle
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? See above for our responsible travel tips.
Take the Ferry Across the Tagus
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.
Visit the World’s Oldest Bookshop
One of the things that struck me about Lisbon was the books. The Livrarias were everywhere, on narrow streets, downstairs at train stations. Lisbon is home to the oldest bookshop in the world, Livraria Bertrand. Opened in 1732, it holds the Guinness record as the world’s oldest bookstore still in operation today.
See the Torre de Belem
A short trip from Lisbon, the Tower of Belem was being built as part of a series of fortifications designed to protect the natural port of Lisbon. Inspired by the return of intrepid Portuguese Explorer, Vasco de Gama from the East, it includes beautiful elements of design from Venice, Morocco, and even India. To get to Belem you can take a train from the Cais dos Sodre station, or take electric tram number 15.
Explore Jeronimos Monastery
Next to the Belem Tower, the Jeronimos Monastery is a UNESCO world heritage site and the final resting place of Vasco de Gama. Built between 1501 and 1800 over 300 years, the monastery includes diverse architectural styles and the Church of Santa Maria inside is truly unique.
Eat your way Around Lisbon!
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 Time Out 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.
Where to Stay in Lisbon
Over my trips to Lisbon, I stayed in different hotels, ranging from budget to luxury. Here are some of my favourites that I recommend!
On my first visit I stayed in hostel Lisb’On, a budget hostel, which I liked most for its views. This simple hostel with dorm rooms is located steps from the Cais do Sodre and has incredible views out over the Tagus and to the 25th April bridge, from big, bright windows.
Inspira Santa Marta is a certified eco friendly hotel as well as a 4* hotel set a short walk from the historical centre of Lisbon – it gets rave reviews all round, not least for its vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free menu options. Its rooms have even been designed according to Feng Shui principles, and its spa is heavenly. The only problem.. you may not want to leave your hotel room!
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.
Day Trips from Lisbon
If you find yourself with more than 2 days in Lisbon, there is plenty to explore outside of the city. Here are some of our favourites:
Explore Sintra Castle
For those who love a good castle, they don’t come much better than Sintra. Set in the greater region of Lisbon, Sintra rises up like a colourful dream from fairytale mountains and forest mists. Located to the North of Lisbon city, and a former royal sanctuary, Sintra is a resort town in the Sintra foothills. There’s more than one palace in Sintra – the most famous (and colourful) is the Pena Palace.
Although Sintra is easily accessible from Lisbon by train or bus, to get the full Sintra experience it is better to spend a night in Sintra – that way you can get up early and have the palaces to yourself before the coach tours and day-trippers arrive!
Visit the Cascais
Cascais is a coastal resort town, to the Northwest of Lisbon and south of Sintra. Easily accessible from Lisbon city, its a popular spot for weekend holidays (so note, you’ll get much better deals if you can avoid visiting at weekends, especially in summer), known for its beautiful beaches and lively marina.
Cascais was originally a small fishing village, and this pretty historic town still seems a world away from the busy streets of Lisbon. The beaches in the centre of Cascais tend to be the busiest but are sheltered from the wind and offer safe swimming. Explore the museum district, head out for a cycle along the estoril coastline (stunning!) and simply sit back and relax in one of the courtyard cafes.
Cascais was also voted as one of the top Sustainable Destinations in recent years in light of its commitment to environmental preservation. If you can spend a few extra days in the Lisbon area – a trip to the Cascais is highly recommended!
We recommend the boutique hotel Pestana Citadela Cascais – set in a quiet part of town and beautiful designed!
Have you been to Lisbon? Did you find it overcrowded? What did you love the most? Let us know in the comments below.
Read more about Travel in Portugal on Soul Travel:
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