When we arrived in Lisbon in 2014 for our first visit, we had no conception of the city’s topography. We arrived by overnight train from Madrid and from there went straight underground to the Metro. When we finally surfaced above ground in Rato, we saw the hills. Lots of them. Some of the inclines were steep, others gentle. Regardless, the Bairro Alto, downhill from the Rato metro stop, where we spent most of our time, is plenty hilly, featuring streets and alleys and stairways winding up and down.
These hills make the heart of old Lisbon fascinating. In the Bairro Alto, near where we stayed, and along the roads toward the city centre, many of the hills are tall and steep. Walking up them was an experience in itself. The streets curve around tall, old buildings and up along ancient hills. The tram, which is an electric streetcar, rumbles along amidst all of this, up and down and all around those buildings and hills at what really feels like a dangerous speed, barely controlled around downhill turns. There are funiculars too, with inclined bodies, for the hills too steep for the trams. But most people walked, and to our American amazement, many elderly people could be seen climbing those hills, slowly and steadily, like they’ve been doing it all their lives (they had). It was a hustle for us young’uns, so it was amazing to see their grit and stamina on exhibit.
Lisbon is actually one of the older cities in the world and is in fact the oldest city in Western Europe. All those years have added up to having something historic and interesting around every corner and atop each hill. We’d be walking up a steep hill, sometimes steep enough that it felt like we’d need to use our hands to climb at any minute, and then it would level off, just like that. There’d be a clearing, a park, with a little restaurant and a place to rest our weary legs.
One of our favorite walks was up to an overlook on the edge of Barrio Alto that had a park and a little cafe. It had shaded outdoor seating around little tables, and even a few reclined canvas chairs, perfect for an afternoon beer. We’d have our drink then we’d saunter to the edge of the overlook and take in the expansive view across the city centre to the fortresses and church steeples of Alfama and the expanse of the Tagus River. It was amazing to just gaze out on some of the oldest parts of Lisbon, to take in all that is and has been for centuries, sprawled amongst the hills, a throwback to a time when the land wasn’t leveled, it was accommodated. To get above a city is to see how it grew, the old rooftops clash against the new concrete, they do battle with roads and bridges up the slopes to crumbling walls lining the ridges. Cities are wonderfully explained from their overlooks, and when you find a good view, and you spend a clear day deciphering the life stretching out below, you get another valuable perspective on the place.
If you visit Lisbon — and we strongly recommend that you do — bring good walking shoes, a healthy pair of lungs, and an open mind. It’s a wonderful city, but it is one in which you’ll need to traverse hilly terrain if you want to get anywhere off the beaten path, but that’s part of the experience. For all the walking and hill climbing to be done in Lisbon, the payoff awaits in beautiful views of a skyline that can’t be all that different from the way it was centuries ago, when the boats on the Tagus River set sail for the unknown coasts of Africa and beyond.