5 places I have learned to love in Lisbon

I moved to Lisbon two years ago. It’s crazy. I remember leaning against a wall in Graça, looking over the city. It was my first week in Portugal. The horizon was an orange line in the distance, which the silhouette of the bridge embellished with black lines and distant glimmers. The castle was dark and majestic, towering over sultry palaces and ragged homes alike. As with a Flemish painting, the eye never tired of exploring every tiny detail of the view. The only problem, I thought, was that it looked a lot like a postcard. A place you’d sip your cold wine looking at, wearing flip flops and a straw hat.

But could it ever feel like home?

Turns out, it’s a complicated question. I don’t know that I can say what feels like home and what doesn’t.

What I do know is that it is fascinating to get to live in the bowels of a new city. You carry groceries up and down some unknown byways; you nervously check Google Maps on your way to getting the first haircut; you line up outside of a tax office in the August heat to change your legal address to your new home address. Living through all of these steps is, in a way, like embarking on a special kind of journey. Not one that moves you from a place to another — but one that takes you deep down into the soul of a city. These two years have been as much a constant urban exploration as they’ve been an inner journey of growth. And I love pacing self-knowledge with the knowledge of the city I live in.

So for this post, I have put together a list of places that have become my “places of the heart” in this city. Places that I never knew existed, that made me go wow! for one reason or another — places I’ve learned to love. If you happen to come to Lisbon, and if you can spare a day or two, I think these spots could be a nice addition to any holiday here in the capital city.

On top of a hill sits the Santo Amaro Chapel, surrounded by a beautiful churchyard. From there, you can admire an unobstructed view of the river and the bridge. My favorite way to access it is from Rua João de Lemos, which is not an actual street but an infinite flight of stairs — as discouraging as it may sound, don’t give up, it’s worth it. The chapel is often closed to the public; but if you’re lucky, you’ll get to admire its impressive tiles from the 1700s, all subtly decorated with reproductions of limbs (yes, you read that right). Santo Amaro is the patron saint of limbs, after all, or so an old lady told me, one day that the chapel was open.

I must say I love the whole Alcântara area, nestled under the towering shadow of the bridge. Most tourists head there to explore the LX factory complex, a former factory turned popular destination for local creatives and travelers alike. You can reach the Miradouro de Santo Amaro with a five-minute walk from the LX factory, yet nobody seems to know. Personally, I love to climb up there, sit underneath one of the olive trees in the churchyard, and take in the view.

Tapada das Necessidades is a green area that descends from Campo de Ourique to Alcântara. Not only is it stunning — it’s dear to me for very personal reasons. I don’t quite recall how I stumbled upon it, but it’s been my go-to park whenever I want to take a quiet stroll close to home. It was also the first place we ventured to after the COVID-19 lockdown was eased. Oh, and my surprise 30th birthday party happened here. But why is it so special? Be sure to enter from the Campo de Ourique side, and slowly make your way down through the biggest succulent and cactus garden I’ve ever seen. You will probably find it empty and quiet, and at some point, the bridge (surprise!) will appear beyond the mass of greenery. The park is full of interesting creatures — stray cats and chicken populate the bushes, and the occasional peacock will disturb the silence with its high-pitched cry.

Down towards Alcântara, the thick greenery opens up to reveal a picnic area, as well as a victorian, decadent greenhouse on the left. Bring a towel, a good book, some water, and be mindful of the closing times (yes, I’ve been locked inside the park before, and yes, it takes a while for the police to come and free you).

Many social gatherings in Lisbon, and even some work meetings, take place at the iron tables of a kiosk. The idea of an open-air esplanada, and a little bar selling icy cold beers, permeates the soul of the city.

The kiosk in Jardim das Amoreiras is special to me. Many times I have sat there with friends and colleagues, looking at the majestic shape of the Eighteenth-century aqueduct that shelters the park from the noise of the street. That aqueduct arches over a small church and leads to a water reservoir, called Mãe d’Agua (literally: mother of water), in a corner of the Jardim. It is a huge and ancient stone building, open to visitors. It is always a good idea to go for a silent, refreshing visit among those arches and walls, and (surprise…) there’s also a great view from the top of the building.

To conclude the description of this special area for me, a few steps away from the Mãe d’Agua is the red door of the Procópio bar, framed by a wall of ivy. It was one of my favorite spots for a quiet aperitivo, at least before COVID-19 hit (and I can’t wait for it to reopen). The cobbled square in front of the pub is small and cozy, roamed by the occasional house cat and filled with plants that an old lady waters every evening.

If you ever happen to go to Procópio, make sure you ring the doorbell — a sharply dressed waiter will let you in.

Some great landscape architecture produced one of the quietest, most scenic esplanadas in Lisbon, and right in the middle of the business district. Right beside a shopping mall, and continuing as an extension of the big, better known Eduardo VII park, Jardim Amália Rodrigues is a relaxing retreat for young Lisbon workers. It has a great cafe, Linha d’Agua, with tables on the edge of a huge, calm fountain. This is a great spot to relax for hours on end, chatting in front of a beer or a slice of cake as the sun slowly sets. If I were to pick a spot where I’ve shared most of my deepest conversations, it would be over the reflections on Linha’s fountain.

Sometimes I like to climb on a nearby hill and watch as people come and go from Linha’s tables. Some other times I like to sit on their reclining chairs and just bask in the sun. Plus, I am a fan of their trufas de chocolate. Mark my words, they are gooood.

I have debated whether it made sense to include a whole neighborhood as a “place of the heart”. Isn’t it a bit too easy of a choice? Is it meaningful? In the end, I decided to go ahead with it because I couldn’t choose a single spot that conveyed all that comes to mind when I talk about Campo de Ourique.

Campo de Ourique is a Sunday breakfast, an evening stroll, a Saturday morning grocery shopping trip to the local market. It is an old man slowly pacing on the calçada, and a grandma enjoying the breeze in the main square of the neighborhood. The overly famous Tram 28, usually bursting with tourists, ends its race in Campo de Ourique, but tourists barely get off. They simply wait for the carreira to head back on its majestic tracks towards the more known hills of Alfama, Graça, and the plains of Baixa.

Very rarely does someone get off, and that is how the neighborhood has retained much of its authenticity and charm, and the cats in the Prazeres cemetery can sleep peacefully over the tombs of the ancestors.

This is my most recent discovery. I had known for months about the Estufa Fría, I had seen signs pointing to it but never got around to visiting it until last week. I am now itching to do a photoshoot here because the place is just surreal. The entrance fee is only about 3 euros, but I promise it’s worth every cent. It is a hymn to bio-diversity — the visit can take from 30 minutes to two hours, easily, depending on how long you are willing to stay in this green oasis in the middle of the city center. You can even take a book and sit on one of the benches. The light seeps through tiny gaps in the ceiling, so on a sunny day, it’s never fully direct or fully indirect. For me, this adds to the magic of the place.

It’s not really a place of the heart yet, but I plan for it to become one very soon.

Linguist, writer, photographer