Lisbon Portugal is a very nice, very livable town. When I moved to San Francisco in 1997, the Fog City was also a very nice, very livable town. Yet, as the Internet grew in prominence, so did the demand for Bay Area real estate. The tech-fueled, skyscraper-spree that soon followed, turned The City’s skyline into a seismogram virtually overnight. It made this once-affordable small town a playground for the 1%. For everyone else, there’s still Lisbon, Portugal.
Lisbon Portugal has so much in common with San Francisco, it’s kinda scary.
Quick, name three things about San Francisco. Did you say crazy hills, cable cars, and earthquakes? Yes, yes, and yes, Lisbon has all of that. But that’s not the freaky part—lots of other cities have hills, cable cars, and earthquakes.
No, the similarities start to get unsettling when you find out that Lisbon is also an LGBTQ- and tech-friendly port city on the country’s West Coast. Coincidence? Maybe, but there’s more—Lisbon is located close to a world-famous wine region, too. Whaaaa?
Okay, you have to admit, that’s a little freaky, right? Oh, and there are giant Sequoia trees outside the city, did I mention that? Seriously?! Are you kidding me?! That’s statistically unlikely! And let’s not forget all the people offering weed on every corner, either. Come on, that’s sooo ’Frisco.
Still not convinced that San Francisco and Lisbon are the same city?
Alright, Mr. Skeptic, then explain this fact to me. Explain how Lisbon, an ancient city on the other side of the world, has its own Golden Gate Bridge. I mean, WTF, right?!? How are there two Golden Gate Bridges in the world?
Well, as it turns out, there aren’t—the one in Lisbon is a fake built in 1966. But, to avoid a costly trademark infringement lawsuit, the Portuguese don’t call it the Golden Gate Bridge. They call it, “Ponte 25 de Abril Bridge” instead (you’re not fooling anyone, Lisbon!)
The 25th of April Bridge looks a lot like the Golden Gate Bridge. So much so, that tourists (including me) immediately assume it was constructed by Joseph Strauss, the brilliant engineer who built the original Golden Gate in San Francisco.
Sadly, Lisbon’s International Orange-painted, visually identical suspension bridge was
ripped-off “designed” and built by the Gilded Age’s poster boy for income inequality, J.P. Morgan. He and his American Bridge Company erected San Francisco’s far uglier Bay Bridge over to the East Bay.
Lisbon Portugal is very pretty (and pretty damn conceited about it).
All over the city—and I mean, all over the city—you’ll find “miradouros,” the Portuguese word for “viewpoints.” Ostensibly, these vantage points identify the best places to see the city’s beauty—at least in Lisbon’s humble opinion, anyway. But they come off a tad disingenuous. It’s like when an objectively good-looking friend insists that you only photograph them from their “good side,” as if they had a “bad” side. Hey, Lisbon, thanks for pretending you have flaws like other cities!
Though, to be fair, Lisbon does look pretty damn good from those miradouros (see exceptions below). From just about any slightly elevated spot, you can see the entire breadth and length of the city. Or, at least, that of the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter is made up of Lisbon’s neoclassical neighborhoods, including Alfama, Chaido, Bairro Alto, and Baixa.
Sure, Lisbon has soulless corporate skyscrapers, too, but those are rightly relegated to the modern area to the North. That’s mostly because, if tourists had wanted to see a bunch of lame office buildings, they could’ve just stayed home.
Lisbon wasn’t always this attractive (it’s had some work done).
On November 1, 1755, Portugal’s capital city had an unexpected—and unwelcome—opportunity to rethink every one of its past urban planning decisions.
A tiny tectonic hiccup occurred 100+ miles away in the Atlantic Ocean and registered a 9.0 on the Richter Scale. Worse, it was followed by a tsunami and wildfires that decimated the country’s population, killing around 30,000+ Lisbonians. It killed another 40,000+ people across Portugal, even as far away as Spain and Morocco. The resulting property destruction required rebuilding ~85% of Lisbon, quite literally from the ground up.
Over the next year, Lisbon was mostly renovated under the direction of Sebastião José de Carvalho (“Sea-bass” to his friends). He was appointed Lisbon’s first Marquês de Pombal.
It’s a similar title to Prime Minister, only it’s in italics with those pointy arrows over the letter “e.” To the public, he was known simply as “Pombal,” much in the way Americans know our current leader as simply “Cretin-in-Chief.”
Lisbon’s first Marquês de Pombal was prescient.
Unlike our current anti-science demagogue, Pombal was a big fan of the Enlightenment and science. Not wanting to make rebuilding Lisbon a semi-annual affair, he enlisted the help of military engineers to develop the world’s first earthquake-resistant building techniques.
He used a newfangled approach called the Scientific Method, which was gaining popularity in the late Middle Ages among non-stupid people. (Here’s hoping it will catch on in America some day, too). #fingerscrossed
The point when Lisbon started really looking like the San Francisco.
Within a year, Pombal’s architectural renaissance littered much of Lisbon’s city center with gorgeous Victorian and neoclassical buildings no taller than a few stories. As a result, areas like Baixa, Chiado, and Bairro Alto veritably ooze with old-world, European charm.
Once Pombal’s instant urban renewal program was completed, Lisbon became a blatant knock-off of pre-Internet, 20th Century San Francisco. In fact, had it been done 200 years later, San Francisco probably could’ve sued.
Only Alfama survived the 1755 earthquake unscathed.
Alfama is the oldest neighborhood in Lisbon, for the reason I just mentioned in the subhead above. And, because Pombal didn’t have to rebuild it, the area still retains much of the city’s Medieval architecture and charm. Unfortunately, the area retains its Medieval lack-of-city-planning, as well.
Alfama once comprised the entirety of what was then called Lisbon. It’s now just a wonderfully cramped neighborhood of narrow streets and claustrophobic squares, extending from the Tagus River up to Castello and the Castle of São Jorge.
Its tight, physical constraints guarantee that you won’t see any American-made cars driving around. (Leave your Escalade® in Indiana, Karen!)
Historically, Alfama has been a poor neighborhood, but it’s currently undergoing “modernization” because that sounds better than gentrification.
In fact, most of Alfama’s bars, restaurants, shops, and homes are either being re-purposed or remodeled. Every remaining square inch of free real estate is being developed into a vape bodega or yoga deli.
Thankfully, the Alfama area still doesn’t look all that modern. Lisbon’s Office of Preserving Super Old-Looking Stuff has done an admirable job retaining the stone and granite bones of these crumbling Medieval buildings. At the same time, they’ve brought the interiors up to code with trendy steel and glass designs, as well as electric lights and—thank the gods—functioning indoor plumbing.
Night(s) at the (Eurostar) Museum.
Our hotel in Alfama exemplified this Euro-trendy “Neoclassical meets Laser Welding and Etched Glass” style of Interior Design. Both the lobby and rooms inside the Eurostar Museum were very upscale, with every modern amenity you could ask for.
Yet if the renovated exterior walls of this centuries-old building could talk, they’d tell you stories of the Roman occupation, the Islamic invasions, and even the ships that sailed to the New World. Luckily, the walls can’t talk, or you’d be up all night freaking out, and never get any sleep at that place.
The Eurostar Museum was centrally located along the banks of the Tagus River, a few blocks from Lisbon’s impressive public plaza, Praça do Comércio. It’s just a few doors down from the kind of graffiti-defiled area that would’ve normally made me book a different hotel in a better part of town. In just those two city blocks, I saw more tags than at a discount department store.
Okay, so Lisbon isn’t perfect.
Graffiti is considered an art form in Lisbon. Not surprisingly, there are very creative and attractive “street art” murals on building walls throughout the city just like you’ll find in San Francisco’s Mission District. It’s yet another way these two beautiful cities are virtual clones of one another.
However, in the same way that not all sound is music, not all graffiti is art. And Lisbon has a lot of the non-art variety—I mean, a lot. Tragically, Lisbon is not the only town having this tagging problem. There are apparently a lot of spray-can shitheads all over Southern Europe these days. It’s a pretty big problem because Photoshopping® graffiti out for tourism brochures can get pricey.
This misguided mischief nonetheless continues apace all over Europe. Even Lisbon’s punitive fine of 100-Euros per letter plus the total cost of power-washing the “art” off some 16th Century Manueline monastery isn’t curtailing it.
It’s depressing to see so much beautiful architecture defaced by GWK, TRES, NERK, or some other young “rebel” with no respect for public property, historical significance, or proper spelling.
The mean streets (and sidewalks) of Lisbon Portugal.
Besides its beautiful architecture, Lisbon boasts calçada, or “Portuguese pavement,” a grossly inefficient, expensive, and dangerous method of building streets that is, quite honestly, spectacular.
The sidewalks in the Old Quarter—and many of the surrounding streets—are surfaced with roughly cut, thick white tiles laid in a geometric pattern. It often includes a contrasting design inset with a second darker color, typically black. Very cool.
But calçada isn’t just attractive, it’s also antithetical to its stated purpose: “providing a safe and comfortable public thoroughfare.”
For walkers, the unstable and undulating tile surface creates tripping hazards that quickly destroy your calves and tiny ankle muscles. For drivers, the slick hard tile stones provide zero traction in the wet. It also impersonates rumble-strips in the dry, pounding vehicle suspensions like a f#%&ing jackhammer.
Worse, the calçada road surface wears out faster than concrete and costs more than asphalt to replace. It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone but the Road Repair Workers’ Union.
So be careful when walking and gawking up at Alfama’s Medieval majesty, because its beautiful, bastardy streets are out for your blood.
Lisbon Portugal is a very walkable city, assuming you like blisters.
You can see a lot of Lisbon on foot. Popular neighborhoods like Alfama, Chaido, Bairro, Alto, and Baixa are close enough to each other to walk between. Of course, that’s assuming you’re in decent physical shape, and brought along adrenaline shots and a time-release Fentanyl® skin patch.
If you want to venture much beyond the previously mentioned neighborhoods—to say, Belém or Park of the Nations—you’ll need some form of conveyance. Choose an Uber, taxi, bus, or tram (but avoid those funicular things as they’re just angled elevators). Not only will you get further faster, but you’ll also more likely to get there alive. Outside the city center, it’s always open season on pedestrians.
Like most cities that were built before the advent of the Hummer H1, Lisbon’s narrow, Medieval-era roads are only suitable for agrarian ox-carts, dirt-filled wheel barrels, and small motorized vehicles. Think Smart Cars, Twizys, Vespas, and tuk-tuks (an unholy motorcycle/minivan hybrid).
Not surprisingly, these tiny mechanized vehicles fly around Lisbon’s roads like swarms of murder hornets with a vendetta against gawking tourists. Fortunately, the locals drive on the right (i.e., correct) side of the road in Portugal—like sane, normal people. So it’s less likely that the Portuguese medical examiner will list your cause of death as “UberEats Scooter.”
We bravely took our lives into our own hands by renting a couple of those Lime scooters in Lisbon. And we had the intention of visiting the Belém District on them. The place looked close enough on the map, but turned out to be quite far away. It’s so far away, in fact, that I had to write a separate CrosbyReport about the Belém District.
Lisbon’s lackluster local cuisine.
This country has many things to recommend it—least of which is its extremely affordable cost of living. Sadly, Portugal’s indigenous fare is not one of those things.
The native chow consists primarily of meats like beef, chicken, acorn-fed pork, and bacalhau (or fried cod). While there, we dined at several Portuguese restaurants—even one that was recommended by a local chef—yet the dishes all tasted pretty much the same. Honestly, it was okay, but certainly not life-altering like Peruvian cuisine. Maybe that’s why, when you search for “Portuguese food” in the States, most dining apps return, “Did you mean Spanish food?”
While the food was pretty average, most of the Portuguese wines we had were consistently good, if not great. This is no doubt in large part to Lisbon’s proximity to the world-renown Douro Valley wine region). Still, the best thing about drinking Portuguese wine was the tiny bill afterward. Due to the country’s aforementioned low cost of living, its wine was so reasonable, we could afford to get super drunk.
Sweets are where Lisbon really shines.
Sugary treats are the one culinary bright spot in Lisbon. Take Ginjinha, for example—it’s a Portuguese liqueur made from sour cherries. Some drunk genius came up with the idea of pouring the stuff into an edible, dark (or white) chocolate cup. The combination of sweet and sour is delicious, and I recommend drinking twenty-seven of them.
Just be sure to leave room for Lisbon’s famous egg tarts from Pastéis de Belém. This combination café/bakery/pastry shop is located next door to the Jerónimos Monastery (where the original tarts were first created in 1837 by some super-bored monks).
These delicious egg pastries have a slightly crispy and light flaky crust with a sweet, but still pretty egg-y, custard-like insides. If you don’t like the taste of eggs, you probably won’t like the taste of these tarts—but we do, so we did.
Fado is the traditional Emo music of Lisbon Portugal.
While the local Portuguese cuisine was nothing to write home about, the local musica was. There’s a long-held musical tradition in Alfama called Fado, which I believe translates to “melancholy music sung loudly in restaurants while people are trying to eat.”
If that sounds about as appealing as Sudden Mariachi Band Syndrome, you can relax. Most Fado restaurants have signs outside that warn you of the impending sorrow before you enter. That way, you can steer your bachelorette party to a cheerier venue, like maybe a morgue.
The typical Fado ensemble includes a bouzouki player, a guitar player, and a male and/or female singer with no internal volume control. To be clear, Fado is decidedly not background music, it’s an artistic performance, and its vocalists are not shy about singing over your drunk, mouthy ass (don’t ask how I know).
Not speaking a word of Portuguese, myself, I had no idea what the songs were actually about, but to all outward signs and sounds, they clearly weren’t party anthems.
I gathered they were somber songs by the fact that performers were attired more appropriately for last rites than last call. Male singers wore dark suits, while female singers wore black, lace shawls. They were used to throw dramatically around their shoulders and put someone’s eye out so they could feel the performer’s pain more viscerally.
The songs sounded like my idea of “gypsy music” even though, for some reason, the Portuguese really dislike gypsies.
While listening to the musicians play, I couldn’t help recalling Monty Python’s Cheese Shoppe skit. In it, an increasingly frustrated John Cleese suddenly blurts out, “Shut that bloody bouzouki up!” I wasn’t sure everyone in attendance knew that skit, so I didn’t yell it during the performance. Probably a good call, in hindsight.
Fado music is undeniably popular with tourists visiting Alfama, but I didn’t get the impression that Lisbon’s local young people were listening to Fado over, say…Flume.
Along those same lines, I didn’t notice any Fado parties, raves, or music festivals being advertised, either. Most likely because being a “Fado-phile” isn’t going to get anyone laid other than maybe Morrissey fans.
Lisbon Portugal is more than just a carbon-copy* of San Francisco.
Having spent several days getting to know parts of Lisbon, Portugal, I can honestly say that its similarities to San Francisco are mostly superficial—they’re both very different cities on very different continents.
And, in the final analysis, who’s to say which one was the original? Which city came first? Was it Lisbon? Was it San Francisco?
There’s simply no way to know for certain without Googling it, and who has time for that? So let’s call it a draw and say they’re both fantastic cities that everyone should visit.
NEXT: Read about Lisbon’s Belém District »
*A carbon-copy—often abbreviated as “CC:”—refers to an antiquated duplication process. It was how a person could make a second copy of a typed letter, well before the development of photo copiers. Learn more about this incredibly anachronistic technology »