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all around Lisbon

“We meet the places we wind up loving much the way we meet the people we fall for: on purpose and accidentally; at precisely the right moment and exactly the wrong time; in the highest of spirits and the lowest of moods,” wrote Frank Bruni about Lisbon for the NY Times. As he quickly discovered, Lisbon is easy to fall for, whether one intends to or not.

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There are plenty of sights and museums to keep one busy for days, but the best way to get a feel for Lisbon is simply to let one’s feet lead wherever they may. We strolled up and down the hills of Bairro Alto, window-shopped through Baixa, and got lost amid the winding streets of Alfama. The walls of many buildings are bedecked with azulejo tiles, which gives the city a festive look, especially when it is bathed in sunlight, as it was throughout our stay.

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We peeked into Lisbon’s iconic fortress-like cathedral, but largely stayed out of the city’s many churches. The only one that bears mentioning is the Igreja São Domingos, which miraculously still stands after barely surviving the 1755 earthquake that wiped out large swaths of the city, and then a fire after it was rebuilt. Its pillars are scarred with the memory of catastrophe, and it makes quite an impression in its mostly barren immensity.

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The skeletal Convento do Carmo was also all but devoured by the great earthquake, and it too makes for a captivating visit. Its shattered pillars and wishbone-like arches are completely exposed to the elements and create a stunning contrast with the new construction that can be seen through its vacuous window frames.

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It is possible to visit Lisbon’s three central neighborhoods in one very packed day, but it’s much more preferable to take one’s time and linger in each. One day we broke up our stroll to sample some Portuguese wines on the riverfront Praça do Comercio. Another afternoon found us trying port in the historic Solar do Vinho do Porto. A third day we ducked into a local hole-in-the-wall to taste ginjinha — a liqueur made by infusing sour cherries in alcohol and sugar.

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Our only disappointment was finding that Lisbon is not a baby-friendly city. The streets are all cobblestones. Some — like the plazas in Baixa — are laid out in intricate black and white designs. They are pretty to look at, but the paving stones are uneven and difficult to navigate with a stroller. The sidewalks are either cramped or completely nonexistent.

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This is especially true in Alfama, Lisbon’s working-class, immigrant neighborhood that is all narrow, steep, twisting alleyways. We spent the better half of a day winding our way past fado bars and down tight staircases. There was laundry strung from one window to another; humble apartment buildings crowded together in vibrant yellows, pinks, and oranges. Midway through Munchkin’s nap, we found that our route lay down a long street that was all stairs and we had to carry the stroller down innumerable flights before we found flat ground again.

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At one point, we were nearly a focal point for a small tragedy. We were walking on a major street whose sidewalk was so slim that even hugging the wall one of the wheels on Munchkin’s stroller hung in the air. An elder woman walking in the opposite direction stepped off the sidewalk to let us pass with the stroller and came within a whisker of being side-swiped by a passing bus that rounded the corner at that precise moment.

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We likely stayed longer in Lisbon than the average visitor. Our large company had several different arrivals and departures, yet we never ran out of things to see and do. On our last day, we realized that we were staying just around the corner from the partially boarded-up Santa Justa elevator. It was built in the beginning of the 20th century to connect the lower streets of Baixa with the Bairro Alto neighborhood above. The elevator’s deck, which juts out into empty space much like the Simpsons’ escalator to nowhere, offers panoramic views of the city all the way down to the harbor.

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Though not quite as hilly as the other city by the bay with which we are familiar, Lisbon bears more than a slight resemblance to San Francisco. There is a bridge that looks just like the Golden Gate, and trolleys from a bygone era still ply Lisbon’s streets. On our first day of sightseeing, we took one such relic to the parish of Belem, located a few kilometers outside of central Lisbon. Situated at the mouth of the Rio Tejo, Belem was the setting off point for Vasco de Gama and other famed Portuguese explorers. There are various monuments and museums dedicated to the Age of Discovery, most of them housed within the massive complex of the Jeronimos Monastery.

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There was one respect in which the NY Times recommendations proved a disappointment. Bruni’s reviews highlighted several Lisbon restaurants, and in a city with a wide variety of excellent cuisine, they proved unnecessarily overpriced. We ate at a stellar contemporary restaurant that offered inventive tapas-style gourmet dishes for a quarter of the price that the NY Times-recommended restaurant, located half a block up the street, charged for similar fare. Our favorite meal, however, was at Flor da Laranja, a tiny Moroccan restaurant run singlehandedly by a warm-hearted woman who somehow managed to serve, cook, and find time to chat with her guests. 

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In many ways, Lisbon was a compromise destination for us. S’s parents usually seek respite from Maine’s cold winters on a beach every January. Meanwhile, D wanted to spend his winter vacation skiing. Everyone agreed to make concessions in the interest of spending time together but it still took months to settle on a happy medium. S feared we might be setting ourselves up for disappointment because no one seemed particularly excited about going to Portugal. It is a testament to Lisbon’s charms that we all left absolutely smitten with the city.

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