Is it time to give Lisbon a second chance?

Because the first time I went there I hated it.

Disgusting side streets, a hotel room that reeked of cockroach powder, hateful shop assistants who snarled at you when you attempted basic Portuguese, and a drug dealer with part of his ear bitten off. These were the things that greeted my first and only visit to Lisbon, back in 2003.

It didn’t help that we arrived by slow coach from Granada. It also didn’t help that all I’d had to eat on the bus was a jar of pickled chilli peppers. And it definitely didn’t help that when we arrived in Lisbon not only had we neglected to check the calendar, therefore discovering too late that we had arrived on the evening of Freedom Day and everything was closed, but also that it was absolutely pissing down. What took the biscuit was that we hadn’t booked any accommodation either.

Not the greatest of first impressions but not really Lisbon’s fault.

The freedom to be rude

I stood in a phone box and tried to get my stupid crappy phone card thing to work so that I could call a couple of the hostels and hotels listed in my woefully out-of-date guidebook, even though it was the most up-to-date edition. My rudimentary Portuguese utterance of “Fala inglês?” was not well received by the first two places, who basically just said “No.” and hung up on me. The rest of the listed numbers rang, and rang, and rang. Freedom Day includes the freedom to ignore the telephone.

A Portugese cockroach in our first hotel room in LisbonWe decided to walk in to a couple of places and see if there were vacancies. The first one was another “No”. The second had a shutter pulled halfway down over the entrance. “No”. The third was open, had vacancies, and unleashed us into a room. Under the circumstances we knew we had to take it, if only for one night. We wrung out our drenched clothes and, after finding a nice big dead cockroach in the bath, went to bed hungry because we knew there wouldn’t be much in the way of eateries open by now.

The next morning was spent looking for somewhere else to stay. It wasn’t straight-forward as the first two hotels were closed. The third had a good sized room so we took it, despite the interesting smell.

The shady guys at reception glared at us from under extremely dark and thick bushy eyebrows, and I won a cursory nod from the one behind the counter as I handed over some cash. My “Please” and “Thank you” attempts were clearly unworthy of the Portuguese equivalent of the “You’re welcome” that we had become so accustomed to in Spain. Maybe selecting this place wasn’t the best idea but who knew if we would find anywhere else? As soon as we handed over our cash we went back upstairs and discovered that the weird smell was down to the layer of cockroach powder spread under our beds. We went out to explore.


First things first we needed supplies. We found a supermarket on the corner of a pretty square. But we couldn’t immediately get in. Not because it was shut but because a huge group of what must either have been unemployed people or immigrants were sprawled across the doorway. We literally had to climb over their limbs to gain access as they smoked and chatted obliviously.

On the way out we got more dismissive rudeness from the cashier. Of course.

Hopping over the legs and trailing African gowns once more we moved into the square and sat beside one of the large circular fountains. Our peace did not last long because a scruffy and deeply tanned man siddled over to us. His small talk meandered between the upcoming Champions League match taking place in the city and how much he liked English football. Soccer is the universal language. Then, like some kind of nonchalant assassin, he slipped a quiet “Hashish?” onto the end of a sentence.

He cast a slow panoramic glance around the perimeter of the square and it was now that I noticed a large chunk missing from his left ear. It had human bite marks around it. Nice.

We declined his advances, and then turned down his quiet pleadings of “Ecstasy? Speed?” before making it clear that we wanted to be left alone to our lunches.

Column on a pretty square in Lisbon, just before being accosted by a drug dealer

That first full day in Lisbon then ended without anything else to note at all. It was dull. We wandered around the city and mooched wherever we fancied, if only for a few minutes each time. Sadly we finished the day in an Irish pub because almost nothing else appeared to be open.

We awoke early the next morning, our first in the smelly but cockroach-free room. The early hour was not due to our brimming eagerness to explore another new city but because of a strange chant drifting up from the street below and rat-a-tat-tatting on our blinds.

Creaking them open we found that a Lotto hawker was camped outside, singing “Ba-lalala-falahala-gnafasasha”, or something, to try and attract customers.

He maintained this for over three hours. Every morning.

We spent a whole week in Lisbon and tried hard to find something good about it. Alas, no joy. Literally. Most of the attractions were closed for one reason or another, or simply weren’t where we were told they would be.

Alley-crack and farty-OAP

One day we walked up to the fortress and took a wrong turn down a tight residential street. Every now and then there were tiny dark alleys and nooks running off of the street and in one of them there were two teenagers smoking. I recognised the weird plasticky but sweet smell clouding the alley as crack. Recognised, I must point out, from me previously smelling it in an Indie-rock club toilet once or twice. Not because I’m a crack head!

Lisbon was not selling itself well and it never improved.

The place was a bit of a dump. A pretty dump, but still predominantly a dump.

Originally we were going to leave Lisbon and stay in Oporto for a few days but the vibe in Portugal was as unwelcoming as it was possible to be. Instead we decided to head to Madrid for a few days. Taking the slow night train was better than the bus, but only just. The elderly Portuguese lady sitting in front of me farted all through the night.

Ever since then I’ve preached my bewilderment at how badly Lisbon felt as a place to visit. The rudeness, the drugs, the boredom, the untidiness, the closed-down and run-down nature of almost everything – I relate these points to people who almost all seem confused by my experience of Portugal.

So what I really want to know is whether it’s worth me trying Lisbon again, or whether it has remained stuck in its peculiar crappy vortex for the past decade? Every now and then I discover interesting titbits about the city, including the fact that its hostels are now really well regarded, but is it enough to wipe away the horror of my first visit? Please help me!

Let's destroy Lisbon!

Let’s destroy Lisbon!

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5 thoughts on “Is it time to give Lisbon a second chance?

  1. Well, as someone who lived in Lisbon for many years (I am Portuguese) i’d say give it a go. I may be biased, but if you read many other travel blogs people generally have a good experience in Lisbon and actually tend to find people friendly.


    Sometimes one has a bad experience for a series of events (happened to me in Brazil).. but nothing like trying again and finding out!

    • Yeah I’ve read plenty about people having a lovely time there recently. Has it changed or was I just very unlucky? That, I think, is what I really want to know. A decade can be a long time in any city. Just think of the utter transformation that Barcelona went though. Yeah, I suppose I’ll get back over there in the next year or two. Cheers for the comment too by the way.

  2. Ha ha! I loved Lisbon, but I know what you mean about a city just pissing you off sometimes. I’ll be happy to never see Hanoi again! The jar of pickled chilli peppers doesn’t sound like an ideal bus snack…

    • No, lesson learned on that snack choice!

      Shanghai is another city I largely despised. Yes it has a lovely shiny metro system but the environment is totally destroyed. I’ve rarely felt so depressed as when I looked out the viewing platform at the top of the Jin Mao tower at the grey pall masking most of the city…

      I’m happy to report that I’m off to Porto next month so at least I haven’t discarded Portugal entirely. Besides, I really need to try a Francesinha. REALLY need to.

  3. Portugal is highly bureaucratic, specially when we talk about the licensing of new projects (hotel, offices, housing, masterplans, and even factories, etc). Portuguese city councils are a true nightmare for private investors. They will try almost everything to stop your goals, except if you already know someone “inside”… a politician, etc.

    For example, look at this paradox: since the beginning of the crisis we had more refurbishment in Lisbon’s old buildings than in the previous 50 years. The troika (IMF) made pression to change many things, like the stupid laws on renting control (frozen rents since 1910… yes it’s true, since 1910), etc. Bureaucracy also decreased slightly…

    This bureaucracy scares many investors (portuguese and foreign) and the city stops in time and doesn’t progress. Buildings get old, the landlords get broke because of the fronzen old rents, investors run away, and the young population runs to the suburbs where new buildings are built more easily. In 1980 Lisbon’s population was about 800.000 people. Today is 550.000…

    Most portuguese politicians should be in jail.

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