By Sharyn Alden
We fall in love with places the same way we do with people – by happenstance.
Lisbon is that kind of place. We hit it off right away.
Maybe it’s because of Lisbon’s colors. It’s a city that always looks like it’s wearing jewels. Streets, buildings, courtyards, plazas, and porticos are decorated with tiles of blue and white, punctuated by reds, yellows, and greens.
Maybe it’s because of the sea, which provides charm, fresh seafood, and an indelible reminder that Portugal’s intrepid mariners explored the world hundreds of years ago. Lisbon’s mild climate lets you take waterfront walks (and swims) year-round.
Or maybe it’s the city’s pervasive artistic flavor. Winding cobblestone streets are framed by wrought-iron balconies with life-sized props dressed in long-ago finery. Even the pastries in the bake shops are presented artistically, so beautifully that even haute French bakers would drool.
Or maybe it’s that you feel encouraged to wander at leisure—something I do best. At least, until I get lost.
In Lisbon, I never felt compelled to see the required sites, the city’s equivalents of the Louvre or Westminster Abbey. Instead, I was captivated by the locals’ humility, romanticism, and friendliness.
It’s also a great city for walkers. The sidewalks are said to be the most beautiful in Europe. In fact, the entire city is regarded among the most splendid on the continent. That’s by design, not coincidence.
In 1755, Lisbon was nearly destroyed when an earthquake consumed the city, leaving 30,000 dead. When the ashes cooled, the prime minister ordered Lisbon to be rebuilt as the most beautiful city in the world. The results are mosaic sidewalks, whimsical fountains, and symmetrical boulevards that lead to picturesque squares.
Lisbon has experienced a boom in stylish hotels in recent few years. Hotel Florida, a hot spot for movie lovers, is among these boutique hotels. Once a favorite stop on the whirlwind dash between Europe and Casablanca, this grand little hotel is where artists, spies and aristocrats sipped champagne beneath chandeliers as the world they knew dissolved and Europe drifted toward World War II. Throughout the war Portugal was neutral, yet the city was a hotbed of intrigue and espionage.
In the movie Casablanca, the Hotel Florida was a rest stop for travelers from North Africa to Northern Europe; appropriately, as I stepped off the hotel elevator, I was greeted by a very real Humphrey Bogart — in life-size-photo form. The art in my room was an ode to Metropolis, the 1927 Franz Lang sci-fi classic. Famous films and directors are honored in every guest room and hall — films like The African Queen, and directors like Coppola and Eastwood.
I caught the down elevator thinking I’d run into Bogie again. This time Audrey Hepburn was there to greet me.
There’s something characteristically Lisbon about everything in the city, even the music. Fado (which means destiny) is Portugal’s national music, and it’s particularly popular in Lisbon. It’s a music of nostalgia, usually sung by a woman, accompanied by two men on Portuguese guitars. Its themes are timeless — love and loss – and its words are derived from famous Portuguese literature and poetry.
Fado can be heard in Lisbon’s oldest neighborhoods after 10:30 in the evenings. A local restaurant recommended Clube de Fado for the best fado singers. The music there began around midnight, so an 11 p.m. arrival would leave time for dinner.
The drive seemed endless, and there were no commercial-looking buildings anywhere on the dimly lit cobblestone streets. Finally, a sign with small letters appeared, reading “Clube de Fado.”
A cheery young woman opened my cab door and guided me through the medieval entrance to the dining room. She introduced me to my tablemates as an “illustrious guest from America.”
At about 12:30 a.m. the first of three fado singers took the stage. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand the lyrics. As she sang, strummed her guitar, and dramatically re-draped her shawl, the room lit up with passion.
While waiting for the 2:30 a.m. cab, I talked to Rodrigo, a singer who’d never been to the U.S. We talked about Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, the Statue of Liberty, and Aaron Rodgers.
Sure enough, our cabdriver played fado tapes, too. We listened to gripping music while he missed a couple of turns, for which he was very apologetic, saying the music had “taken his head away” and caused his wild driving.
The next morning, I strolled along the waterfront at Belem, where the Tagus River meets the sea and where Vasco da Gama set out to explore India, Ferdinand Magellan left to circumnavigate the globe, and Bartolomeu Dias left for the Cape of Good Hope.
Today, Belem has numerous free (or nearly free) attractions. The Belem Tower, built in 1515 as a fortress to guard the harbor, is an architectural marvel, a UNESCO World Heritage site whose cavernous nooks and crannies are open for exploration.
Even if you don’t relish ships and sailing history, it’s worth exploring the Maritime Museum, one of Europe’s finest collections of 15th-to-19th-century sailing ships and pleasure boats. Once you’re there, wander over to the Berardo Collection Museum, a world-class contemporary art museum with works ranging from Salvador Dali to Andy Warhol.
In the museum elevator I tried telling a Portuguese woman that I liked her necklace of multicolored glass beads. She nodded in appreciation.
Later I saw the same woman standing by a security guard. I was surprised when the guard, acting as a translator, asked what I was trying to say to the woman earlier. She explained that the woman was an artist who didn’t speak English, and I replied that I simply wanted to compliment her necklace.
The woman then walked over to me, slipped the necklace off her neck, and put it around mine. “Enjoy,” she said in Portuguese, and walked away.
I tried to find her later in the museum, but never did. It reinforced my feeling that Lisbon is an easy place to love.
Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis.
Editor’s Note: Read more on Lisbon in our exclusive Graphic Journey here. And if you’re looking for insurance for that trip to Lisbon, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection has you covered — literally. Get it here.