I’m not really a big fan of large cities. They’re usually crowded, noisy, dirty, and more expensive than smaller towns. Life is faster, and the people are often less open and friendly. Some places are even downright dangerous. Conventional travel wisdom dictates that a country’s cultural identity often becomes lost, or at least blurred, in vast, cosmopolitan cities.
I generally try to avoid them.
Lisbon, though, in many ways, seems a welcome, and notable, exception.
The world’s spotlight has been shining brightly on Portugal for the past decade. Many visitors become captivated by its beauty and choose to adopt it as their home—either for retirement, or to work remotely. Due to its growing popularity with expats, I decided to make it the first pitstop on our global reconnaissance mission.
So, after months of dogged preparation, my wife Beverley and I collapsed into our seats on an Air Canada flight to Lisbon last week. Fatigued, but not conquered, we felt the elation of liberty as we took to the skies. Our adventure was just beginning, our excitement overflowing. It was a perfect time to reflect upon past efforts and accomplishments and to rejoice at the freedom that lay ahead.
Cut forward a day, and to an epiphany moment as it finally dawned on Beverly and me that we were no longer planning, we were doing. We decided to celebrate our launch by indulging in a truly indulgent tasting menu at the lavish Fifty Seconds Restaurant.The world’s spotlight has been shining on Portugal.Perched high atop the spectacular Myriad by Sana Hotel, this intimate and romantic eatery is named after the amount of time it takes to ascend the 30-story tower in its modern glass elevator. The restaurant serves a maximum of 30 patrons, attended by a dedicated team of 24 staff, and is headed by Michelin-starred chef, Filipe Carvalho.
Designed by renowned interior architect, Nuno Rodrigues, the nautical and marine-themed restaurant gives diners an unforgettable panoramic view of Lisbon.
The experience brought tears to Beverley’s eyes, which she attributed to both the energy of the food and wine pairings, and her own happiness at beginning our long-awaited adventure together. (While I felt on top of the world–quite literally–I chose smiles over tears!)
A huge part of Lisbon’s charm is its eclectic blending of old and new. While much of the city’s ancient architecture was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1755, many remnants remain. Lisbon embraces its country’s heritage, and, while modern development continues across the city, any excavation that uncovers items of historical significance will quickly be issued with a stop work order. Preservation of culture and history trumps profit here.
Parque das Nações (Park of the Nations), also known as “Expo Park” (as it was home to the 1998 World’s Fair), was formerly an area of abject ugliness—riverside property debased by petroleum refineries and other smoke-spewing industries. But this neighborhood was transformed, thanks to that 1998 Expo, into a vibrant community of restaurants (including an assortment of international cuisines), hotels, and riverfront jogging trails.
We took the Telecabine Lisboa, a 65-foot-high cable car ($9.40 per person, round-trip) that runs parallel to the shoreline of the Tagus River between the Vegas-worthy 5-star Myriad by Sana Hotel (see: Myriad.pt, rooms from $205), and the Oceanario. The latter is Europe’s second largest aquarium, home to over 8,000 species of marine life.
The cable car ride afforded us an unforgettable view of Europe’s longest bridge, the Ponte Vasco da Gama, stretching 11 miles across the Tagus River. The waterfront design was a pleasant departure from cities such as Toronto, where breathtaking views are thoughtlessly obscured by high-rise office towers and condominium projects.
To keep with our theme of exploring “new Lisbon” first, we spent a few nights spoiling ourselves at the brand-new Epic SANA Marques hotel, which features glamorous décor, a very tempting spa, a fitness club for those who care about such things, and a scenic rooftop pool bar. (Lisboetas certainly love to admire the beauty of their city from above, and I don’t blame them!) Despite arriving in my weathered fedora, struggling with overstuffed backpacks (feeling a bit like the Beverly Hillbillies), we were nonetheless treated like royalty.Live here permanently? The jury’s still out.We strolled the streets of central Lisbon, which were vibrant and active—abuzz with cyclists, joggers, people on electric scooters (which are readily available for rental on almost any street corner), and people-watchers. We chose a wonderful alfresco-style pasteleria, DejaVu, to relax and enjoy a sandwich, custard tart, and glass of wine as we watched the passersby enjoying the energy and urban hum of their sunny metropolis.
Unlike many North Americans who struggle with obesity, most people here (despite the pastries) appear to be fit and trim. Perhaps it’s due to the many cobblestoned hills, which double as outdoor gyms.
Around the corner, at Parque Eduardo VII, vendors set up hundreds of pavilions at the busy Feira do Livro, Lisbon’s annual two-week book fair, now celebrating its 91st year.
Anyone concerned about the impending death of print books would quickly have their qualms abated by witnessing the crowd here. Throngs of locals were devouring the wide selection of new and used pulp on sale, including many history books. That made sense to me—while modernization continues to take place in Lisbon, you simply can’t escape the fact that there’s over 3,000 years of recorded history in Portugal.
Beverley and I spent a day exploring the Castelo de Sao Jorge, an 11th-century Moorish castle, which evokes both a colorful and bloody past. Over the centuries, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, and Moors have occupied this site. Eventually, Portugal’s King Alfonso I, backed by Christian crusaders, seized it from the Moors in 1147, and relegated its former owners to life behind the walls (effectively trading homes with Christian peasants).
Artifacts on display, many discovered during a recent excavation for a parking lot, date back to the 7th century B.C., the time humans first occupied the hill upon which it sits. Archeological digs continue on the grounds.
Much of the castle was destroyed by the massive earthquake of 1755 (which measured 8.9 on the Richter scale). However, 11 towers remain intact, each affording a mesmerizing view of the city below—a seemingly endless sea of red clay roof tiles, and brilliant pastel colors.
While the castle served as a royal residence at the time of the earthquake, the Royal Family was fortunate to have been visiting nearby Belem at the time and escaped the carnage that ravaged the city. After witnessing the devastation of the castle grounds, King Joseph refused to ever again live in a house built of stone. He commissioned a wood cabin to be built for his family on more stable ground. That’s now the site of the illustrious Palace of Ajuda, a more lavish structure which was built by the subsequent king after Joseph’s wood cabin burned to the ground. (Seems like you can’t escape fate—if the earthquakes don’t get you, fires will.)
We enjoyed the castle, so Beverley and I chose to stay at the Solar do Castelo Heritage Hotel, a 20-room boutique hotel located on the grounds. This hotel occupies a building known as the Kitchen’s Mansion, built on the site where the Royal Palace kitchens once stood. Many medieval throwbacks remain throughout the building, including an ancient cistern.
This moderately priced accommodation offers a full buffet breakfast, and free port wine, Moscatel, coffee, tea, and pastries throughout the day. There’s also a 24-hour honor bar near the garden courtyard (which you’ll share with some glamorous peacocks. The courtyard, that is, not the booze!) Heritage Hotels Lisbon offers five historical hotel options and are well worth your consideration. (See: Heritage.pt)
Nothing captures the heart and soul of Lisbon quite like Fado music does. As Beverley and I strolled through the black and white cobblestoned streets of the Alfama district, the aromas of piri piri chicken and salted cod added further ambience to the melancholic sounds of the soulful Portuguese music as it echoed throughout the narrow streets. Located in the area that descends from the hilltop castle’s grounds, an aerial view of the Alfama reveals that the streets were designed in a maze-like formation—a strategy to discourage and hinder invaders.
To business though. It’s true that Beverly and I are enjoying Lisbon immensely, but could we live here permanently? The jury’s still out.
Luckily, there's a lot more to Portugal than big-city life—small towns, beach towns, Old World communities—and we're ready to explore that too…
$2 Bottles of Wine, and Other Surprises…Counting Lisbon’s Cost of Living
As I tip the Lilliputian coffee cup toward the sky to enjoy my final sip, I feel a little silly—sort of like I’m finishing a tea party with my five-year-old niece. (I fight the urge to extend my pinky!) But, despite being a puny serving that puzzles most of us North Americans, the strong-bodied, dark essence of freshly roasted coffee is something I’ve been sadly missing back home. There’s a Starbucks right across the street, but it’s not even on my radar.
My wife, Beverley, and I are taking a break at a sidewalk café, sitting underneath a table umbrella that’s blowing ever so gently in the breeze. We’re right beside the Praca Dom Pedro IV in Lisbon, named after the 28th king of Portugal. It’s popularly known as Rossio Square. This lively spot has been an epicenter of activity throughout history. If the ground could talk, this square could write an encyclopedia.
In Roman times it hosted a racetrack. It’s also been home to palaces, an army school, a treasury, and a theater. It’s been torn apart by earthquakes and has witnessed its share of riots and strife. Bullfights were fought here, while public executions drew even larger crowds. Its purpose has changed over the years, but its boundless energy continues. Today, people are gathered around the fountain, chatting and laughing under sunny skies, as a musician plays live fado music to entertain growing afternoon crowds.
It’s here that I decided to indulge my senses while contemplating the cost of living in Lisbon. Is it possible to survive on less than a king’s ransom in this vibrant metropolis?
Big City…Big Prices?
Like many big cities, Lisbon seems to have it all. Top-notch restaurants, cultural events, theater, nightclubs, and more activity than you could shake a cork slipper at. But, as with most big cities, convenience and accessibility comes with a price. Literally.
While Portugal offers great value for many items compared with North American prices, the main culprit for high prices in Lisbon is real estate. Beverley and I spent a couple of days home-hunting, and the lowest price we found on the market was €215,000 ($249,400) for a 452-square-foot studio apartment with one bathroom, located in the heart of central Lisbon. A larger, newly renovated, 753-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bathroom, apartment, in a 250-year-old building in the Restauradores area of downtown Lisbon, was listed for €270,000 ($313,200). (See: www.portugalproperties.com.)
If you’re thinking of renting, most one-bedroom apartments in the city rent for around €1,000 ($1,160) per month, while most two-bedroom units will cost you about €1,200 to €1,500 ($1,392 to $1,740 USD) per month.
However, unless you’re relying solely on Social Security, the fact that other expenses are less than in North America may help to offset any apprehension you might have. Utilities (including heat, water, and internet) generally run about €150 per month ($174) here for one or two people. Pay-as-you-go cellphone service is available for just €8 ($9.25), which includes 5GB of data in any 30-day period.
Gasoline is expensive: About $6.85 per gallon. But public transit costs only €1.50 ($1.75 USD) per ride, or €6.40 ($7.40 USD) for 24 hours of unlimited travel on buses, trams, and subways. Reasonably priced Ubers are also plentiful—and as quick as lightning.Health insurance can be purchased for about €33 a month (from banks and grocery stores). And, once you become a citizen following five years of residency, it’s absolutely free!
Save 30% on Your Groceries
You’ll find most groceries are about 25% to 30% cheaper than in North America as well. Some prices will amaze you: A 500g box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, €1.29 ($1.50 USD); 1.5L water, 21 cents (24 U.S. cents); half a barbecue chicken, €2.19 ($2.54); quart of milk, 69 cents (80 U.S. cents); a dozen eggs, €1.49 ($1.73); loaf of bread, €1.79 ($2.08); a liter of extra virgin olive oil, €2.79 ($3.24 USD); and some of the tastiest canned tuna you’ve ever devoured, 59 cents (68 U.S. cents).
It might pain you to learn, however, that some of your favorite items may be very difficult or impossible to find here. You might have to give up peanut butter. And lemongrass will require a skilled smuggler (as will many other spices).
Alcohol’s a great deal, though: A case of 24 Super Bock beers for €6.49 ($7.53), bottles of wine from €1.49 ($1.73) (supermarkets buy them in bulk and pass the savings along to consumers), and spirits are about 30% cheaper here than in the U.S. or Canada.
Be aware that common non-prescription meds, such as aspirins and antacids, are kept behind the counter (you have to ask for them), and can be quite expensive. (As a side note, if you like to use aerosol sunblock, as I do, bring it with you. A small bottle here will set you back €30! [$35 USD] That hurts almost as much as sunburn.)
Sales tax in Portugal is 23% for most items. But, since all stickered prices already include it, you won’t even realize how much the government is charging you. The Portuguese complain that they pay about 40% of their earnings in government fees and taxes at the end of the day… But we North Americans are already used to that.
Possibly in part to creatively maneuver around the taxes, Portugal is very much a cash economy. Your credit cards won’t get much mileage here, except maybe in supermarkets and fancy hotels.
Everybody else will demand cash, so be prepared by bringing along plenty of euros.
I think I’ll order another coffee now.
They may be tiny, but they’re cheap—and they’re out of this world!
A Tour on Lisbon’s Metro—Kind Strangers and Cork-Covered Seats
Beverley and I stood on the subway platform, surrounded by hundreds of brightly painted azulejo tiles, apparently looking hopelessly lost. A friendly and concerned local, obviously adept at reading body language, approached us. Luckily, his English was much better than our Portuguese. He confirmed that we were on the right path—the Blue Line, that is.
Two more days and we’ll be pros at this. The four-line, color-coded Lisbon Metro is actually easy to navigate. But, for us newbies, the kindness of strangers was appreciated.
The train roared into the ultra-clean station, which was adorned with works by local artists, rather than with gigantic advertising posters. The subway train, however, was far too short for the platform, leaving dozens of passengers scrambling to reach the far end—as though it was the first time this has ever happened! Being first-timers ourselves, Beverley and I had a good excuse for joining this impromptu track and field club; I can’t speak for the other runners.
I haven’t had fun riding the subway in a long time. But in Lisbon, I felt like a little kid again, exploring a new playground. Unlike some of the other big-city underground subway networks I’ve traveled, it wasn’t a scary, chaotic experience.
Beverley and I found a tidy, uncrowded transit system with trains timed six to 10 minutes apart.
And, in true Portuguese style, the seats are even covered in cork!
Built in 1959, the underground network has expanded to 56 stations and four lines (red, blue, green, and yellow), covering a total of 29 miles. It runs from 6:30 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. every day (some smaller stations close at 9:30 p.m., so be aware). While it covers the eastern and northern sections of Lisbon very well, if you want to visit places in the west end of the city, such as Belem, you’ll need to jump on the tram instead.
Lisbon airport is conveniently located on the red line, while you can catch other long-distance buses and trains at the Oriente station on the same route. Trains to the popular beach town of Cascais can be found on the last stop along the green line, Cais Do Sodre.
Beverley and I had hopped on this train to get from our hotel to the sights in central Lisbon. While we traveled the few stops needed in the blink of an eye, the ride—and people-watching—was so much fun that we decided to stay on the train a little longer.
We finally got off at the Baixa-Chiado station, one of Lisbon’s busiest (although nothing like we’ve experienced in Toronto or New York). It’s also one of the deepest stations. Running 148 feet below street level, it took four escalators (tall ones at that!), and another two sets of stairs, to finally reach street level. (By contrast, New York City’s 191st Street station is 174 feet deep.)
Riding the rails on the Metro costs only €1.50 ($1.75) per trip, or €6.40 ($7.40) per 24-hour period, for unlimited travel. That includes all subways, buses, trams, funiculars, and even the Elevator de Santa Justa, a vertical street lift built in 1902 that affords a spectacular 360-degree view of the city (which normally costs €5.50 [$6.35] by itself). It also includes the famous “Tram 28E,” a 45-minute self-guided sightseeing tour on board a 1930s era electric rail car.
To enter the subway, you’ll need to buy a Via Viagem card from either a ticket booth or a self-serve machine. Do yourself a favor and do the latter, and save standing in line (ticket booths are often closed anyway). The self-serve kiosks are user friendly, with instructions available in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Simply select the flag that represents your language (that’s the Union Jack for English) and follow the prompts from there. You’ll be issued a receipt with your reloadable paper card; be sure to keep it just in case you have any issues. (Metropolitano de Lisboa has created a handy PDF showing the steps to buying from a kiosk at: https://www.metrolisboa.pt/../HowToBuy.pdf)
You’ll need to swipe the card to enter the Metro, and again to leave, so keep it handy. Also, since there’s an initial 50-cent fee for the card, be sure to hang onto it to reload as necessary.
If you find yourself in Lisbon, consider skipping the car rental, taxi, or Uber rides.
Lace up your running shoes and jump aboard the Metro instead!
David Gibb is a retired private detective exploring Europe and Latin America in search of a personal retirement paradise with his wife, Beverly. They’ll be touring Portugal, then they’ll visit Spain, Gibraltar, and even cross the water to Morocco. Then it’s back across the Atlantic to investigate retirement havens in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Look out for his latest updates at: Gumshoe in Paradise.