How to visit Lisbon like a local and responsibly? We caught up with Sandra Henriques Gajjar, a long time Lisbon resident and travel blogger at Tripper.
Sandra, if you had to choose one, which would you consider your favourite place in Lisbon?
That has got to be the most difficult question someone has ever asked me! Choosing one is impossible. After 20 years in the city, I have lots of favorite places and each one of them is attached to a memory. But if there’s a place I return to often is the gardens of Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian. They were designed by two renowned landscape architects and each tree and plant and stone pathway has a purpose and a meaning. One of the architects even helped the foundation design three self-guided itineraries that help visitors understand the purpose and meaning of the garden.
In addition to that, I used to live in the neighborhood when I was a student so that was a regular spot for studying, reading, and eating lunch on Sundays.
5 tips for travelers planning to visit Lisbon — Do’s and Don’ts?
Do eat at local restaurants. “Tascas” are your best bet for authentic local cuisine with a homemade touch. Portuguese food is so diverse and delicious that there’s always something for everyone, even vegetarian and vegan options.
Speaking of food, do your research regarding restaurants. If you have eating restrictions, look for a restaurant that will cater to your needs instead of demanding all restaurants to adapt to you as a customer. I’ve seen it happen and that just makes you come across as a self-entitled tourist.
Do use public transportation instead of tuk tuks to get around Lisbon (the network of trams, buses, trains, and ferries is quite user-friendly), especially to reach remoter areas, but respect the local passengers during rush hour (7-9 a.m. in the morning and 5-8 p.m. in the evening). Tourists can wait for the next bus or hail a taxi if they don’t want to wait, but locals can’t miss a day at work if they miss a bus because a large group of tourists went ahead.
Do experience riding the old trams, but avoid hopping on tram 28 when it’s crowded. It’s a public transportation, not a cheap tour ride as some guides and guidebooks lead you to believe. Most locals have stopped using it because it’s always full of tourists and there’s no room for them.
Do avoid the temptation of going on a free tour. Professional tour guides, like any other professional worker, should be paid for their work and their time. Not expect a tip at the end of their workday depending if the customers enjoyed it or not. Go on a paid tour in Lisbon, always. Pick one according to your budget if that’s an issue. If you don’t have a budget, do your own self-guided tour.
As a frequent traveler, what makes a city worth visiting for you?
I believe every city has a cultural identity of its own, regardless of how old or young they are. That’s the first thing I look for in a city and I always find it, even if it takes me longer or even if I only see it on a second trip. So, every city for me is worth visiting.
I wish that in 2019, and moving forward, that we’d stop looking at destinations as “worth visiting” because that’s one of the root causes of overtourism.
3 ingredients for the perfect Lisbon trip?
Bring a big appetite to taste as many “pasteis de nata” as you can. Pack comfortable shoes to explore hidden “miradouros” (viewpoints) over the terracotta sun-bathed rooftops of the older neighborhoods (Alfama, Graça, Mouraria).
Open your heart (and your ears) to the city’s pulse, mingle with the locals and, above all, respect their private space.
Overtourism brought crowds of tourists for which locals weren’t prepared for, despite the fact that we’re a welcoming bunch and we understand the value of the tourism industry.
Which green hotels or activities would you recommend to environmentally conscious travelers visiting Lisbon?
Monsanto Forest Park is typically unexplored by tourists, unless they’re looking for its most famous abandoned viewpoint (Panorâmico de Monsanto). But I believe it’s important to visit to understand and see Lisbon’s biodiversity. There’s an interesting 14km route, that starts and ends in Belém, that shows you a completely different side of Lisbon, connecting the riverside to Mata de Monsanto (a small forested area that’s part of the Monsanto Forest Park).
Any advice for travelers visiting Lisbon on a tight budget?
Although I understand free tours are a temptation if you’re traveling on a tight budget, please reconsider going on one. Free tours are one of the most unsustainable ways to see a city because the groups are too large to manage (the guide needs to account for the low tippers or people who won’t pay in the end). Instead, do your research in advance and bookmark some websites writing about things in Lisbon you’d like to see and do your own self-guided walking tour.
At lunch, choose small restaurants, snack bars, or “pastelarias” (pastry shops/cafés) that sell affordable lunch menus under €5. It typically includes a soup or a salad, a sandwich, and a non-alcoholic drink. You’ll be giving back to the local economy and still get a decent meal that’s not fast food.
In your view, how has Lisbon as a destination evolved in recent years, in terms of urban sustainability?
Housing is still an issue, with a mix of abandoned buildings and families being evicted from historical neighborhoods for short term rental businesses. I know things don’t happen overnight and laws take time to implement and enforce, but sustainable housing is one of the biggest challenges in Lisbon right now.
Overtourism is still a dark cloud over our heads although I don’t think it’s gotten as bad as in other destinations. Nevertheless, we need to start working now if we don’t want it to be an issue in the future, learning from other destinations’ mistakes.
There’s a gap between how the city is promoted (at the moment, the local authorities only seem eager to attract any kind of tourist) and how the city is lived by locals. Some tourists want to minimize their negative impact on their destination, but most of them simply don’t care or don’t know there’s even an issue.
There should be a bigger effort from the tourism board to educate tourists on what is accepted behavior. I believe it’s a process. We’re not there yet, but we will be.
Thank you, Sandra!
Connect with Sandra on Instagram, Facebook or visit her travel blog here.
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