Brainfood On Tour: Lisbon 2018

Hung Lee

I can’t say that traveling as ever been a passion of mine.

But since I started the industry newsletter ‘Recruiting Brainfood’ last year, my thinking about location and place has begun to change. Audience analysis has shown me the amazing geographical distribution of the growing subscriber base….

Map of the brainfooder community

…San Francisco, Chicago, Stockholm, Melbourne, Mumbai, Prague, Krakow.

There are readers from all over the world, many from places that I’ve never been to and really need to know more about. Seeing this global reach visually displayed in this way inspired me to make time and visit. I’ll be documenting the journey on this medium blog.

I should say that most of these trips are still not holidays in the traditional sense. They are associated with meet-ups or conferences to which I have been invited to speak at, moderate or host. I also plan to do some special ‘brainfood meet-ups’ alongside this itinerary, so the local subscriber communities can connect with each other, in case they don’t already do so. More on this in a later post.

So first up: Lisbon, Portugal.

Flag of Lisbon

Getting there & getting around

Most people are going to fly to Lisbon. It’s a good idea as the Humberto Delgado airport is surprisingly close to the city centre — no more than 20 minutes car ride away. It is also directly connected to the Lisbon metro system, so once you land you can forget the taxi’s and get straight onto the underground.

Lisbon Metro Map

Lisbon metro is super easy to navigate. There are only 4 lines, no crazy branching on any of them and no intimidating interchanges to navigate. Also, each line is conveniently colour coded and colour named — you don’t need much Portuguese to guess that ‘Verde’ means ‘Green’. It’s a small touch but I found that any form of familiarity in unfamiliar places provides psychological safety which can make a big difference for the newly arrived.

Lisbon metro barriers

Population density in Lisbon is also not high, especially compared to places like London or New York. And definitely not like any typical East Asian city. According to Wikipedia, there is around 552,000 in Lisbon, with around 2.7 million in the wider metropolitan. This lack of density is immediately apparent in the metro, which felt spacious, easy to move around in and relatively stress free.

Metro Kiosks

That is until you hit the kiosk. Buying a ticket on public transport is always a high anxiety experience — you have no local knowledge, no universal payment, likely a language barrier, an unfamiliar user journey in purchasing and a line of people behind you wondering whether they should jump to another kiosk as this idiot is taking way too long figuring it all out.

In the Lisbon metro, there seem to be two different types of kiosks (do they serve different tickets, for different passengers? No idea). Both have weirdly child like design aesthetic, presumably to reassure the user that everything will be OK. It was not OK. Of course there were way too many options on an unresponsive touchscreen, too many different ways to pay. Kiosk designers seem to think that users micro optimise for economic value, when most of us really just want a legal way to travel around, with the minimum amount of fuss to other travellers as possible.

I pushed a few buttons, put in a few notes and bought a ticket for around €13.00. I think it was a multi-day, multi-use ticket. I resolved to use it until it ran out, which it didn’t do until 2 days later. So all good, after purchase

Portuguese mosaics

One of the first things you notice once you get out of the metro is the stuff on the floor. Lisbon is paved with ‘Portuguese mosaic’. These turn out to be small cubes of basalt, around 10 cm x 10 cm.

Portuguese mosaic

The cubes don’t look machined but rather roughly hand crafted. Because they are non-uniform, they must also be placed and fixed into the ground by hand. Presumably there is an industry which specialises in doing this type of paving. It looks great and gives the terrain a historical look and feel. In the evening, the reflection of the stone from the yellowish street lighting, gives night time Lisbon is distinctive cinematic patina

Midnight somewhere in Lisbon

Melancholic cool

The contrast between colonial era antique and ultra modern can be seen in many places in Lisbon. The city is rapidly modernising and this is reflected in the people, the architecture, the technology. That said, some of the old stuff looks genuinely old and sometimes in a state of disrepair. I was reminded of parts of Hong Kong which have changed at different speeds. The sense of past grandeur reluctantly giving way to the future gives the city the melancholy which always comes with dramatic change. This might be a recurring theme in Portuguese culture which I had not realised was there before. I didn’t know much about Fado before I arrived, but now see it must come from somewhere.

Bairro Alto

The first thing you notice about the ‘Old Town’ is that it is multi-level. Lisbon’s hilly terrain becomes obvious in an area where you can easily go up in elevation the same distance that might cover across the ground. Combined with the narrow streets, the antique architecture, the ubiquitous mosaic, and the open air cafe lifestyle and you can get some pretty cool street scenes.


I actually did not have enough of this, which will come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen me eat. Mainly because of schedule, I only had 4 meals in total during my 72 hour stay in Lisbon, so no question I’ve missed on likely some of the best reasons of being in Portugal.

That said, the food I did get to buy and eat was excellent. It was also incredibly good value. In a busy restaurant, with high tourist density, you can buy a steak dinner for about €14.00. That’s including the beer.

Wifi / Connectivity

This is a probably a good thing — but you cannot easily find co-working / wifi’ed up coffee shops in Lisbon, as you might do in London or New York or Berlin. I suspect this is will change as demand for distributed working from the ‘always on’ generation will force it. As it is, you can see that the charm of the city has been retained, at the cost of the inconvenience of running out power and being forcefully unplugged from the Matrix.

I had to visit a Starbucks in order guarantee some wifi — I really had to do some work — and even this was a little suboptimal. No power outlets, and a wifi system with forced facebook login. However, the pastries were great.

This wasn’t at Starbucks

The Two Bridges Across The Tagus

There are two bridges which connect the two sides of Lisbon — the Ponte 25 de Abril and Vasca de Gama bridges. These cross the river Tagus, which I think most people would understand as an estuary where the fresh water from the mountains of the interior meets the waters of the Atlantic.

I had a free day on Saturday day, so I thought I would do a walk between the bridges, but then realised the famous Torre de Belém was a little bit further down the coast, so resolved to get there to see it. I would then get hold of one of the bike shares near the Torre and ride it back the other way to the Pavilion Portugal, where the Landing Festival by Landing Jobs was being held.

Ponte 25 de Abril
Torre de Belem plus tourist queue

Of course, I totally underestimated the distance, and over estimated the availability of the hire bikes along the route. I completed the first leg — took about 4 hours walk — and then had to take a taxi back into town.

Street Art on Coast

There’s a ton of graffiti in Lisbon. Most of it is not artwork of any discernible degree. Not sure why this might be — perhaps there is a general lack of canvass (lot of old buildings, narrow streets, inaccessible places). Maybe it is because of the architecture itself has artistic impression that street artists don’t wish to despoil. Most likely is that I simply didn’t go to the places where the best street art was. I did see some humorous efforts along the coast, where painted faces starting appearing on old mooring bollards. Anthropomorphism of the formerly functional is a good thing.

Oceanário de Lisboa

I discovered from my friends at Uniplaces that Lisbon was home to the largest oceanarium in Europe. As an avid fish keeper (well, turtles, frogs and shrimp mainly), I was determined to go. To avoid the queue, I booked my ticket online, where you can choose the timing of your visit — do this if you don’t like to queue.

Oceanário de Lisboa

Of course it was amazing with many exhibits presenting oceanic life in close-to-natural habitats. I took a few time lapses instead of photo’s as I wanted to capture the movement of the fishes. This is probably the best one — I think of the Pacific Ocean — click on the video above and check it out.

As a bonus there was also a temporary exhibition by the late, great Takeshi Amano. This is the man widely credited for popularising ‘aquascaping’ — the art of designing waterscapes as if they were landscapes. I took a picture of perhaps his most iconic design — the central path toward infinity.

The Event

It was actually two events, spread over three days, but my main contribution was to be a panel moderator at the first one, the inaugural Tech Hiring Conference Lisbon. The secret is pretty much out about Lisbon as a next big European tech centre, so I was intrigued to see how the hype mapped to reality.

I arrived just in time to see a packed house — 200+ recruiters / HR folks in a room learning about tech hiring. This was really impressive number to me, especially for a ticketed event. It seems that there are many companies in Lisbon carrying internal recruiters now, a clear sign of an escalation of the competition for talent and a booming tech economy.

The Panel: Hot Fixes For The Hiring Process

My panel was excellent — such an easy job for me to moderate talented folks like Andre dos Santos, Harold Jarche, Ana Tavares and Aleksey Narko. We talked about hot fixes for each stage of the recruiting process — practical stuff recruiters can do to improve on job design, sourcing, engagement, assessment, stakeholder management and closing.

One hour flew by — and we really could have talked through the evening. I think the panel went well and the audience enjoyed it. If there is a video of the talks / panel , I’ll post it up here once I get hold of it.

Brainfooders In Lisbon

Of course the trip would not be complete without connecting with the local Brainfooder community. Thanks for Manjuri Sinha of Zalando, Rafaela de Sousa from Hexis Technology and Ana Tavares from Pipedrive for coming up and saying hello, Francisca Matos and Marissa Esteves from Uniplaces for inviting me to visit their amazing office, and of course the awesome Landing Jobs — especially Rita Gouveia, Ana Gaspar, Jose Paiva, Pedro Saraiva and Pedro Oliveira for inviting me to visit their city in the first place.

Where Next?

My next trip is closer to home — my cousin is getting married in Edinburgh next month and I’m tacking on extra couple days before to check out the town. I’ve lived in Scotland for 5 years so I’ve been to Edinburgh loads of times — however, I’ve realised I’ve never really reflected on it like I’m doing now. I’m there early August, arriving on the 2nd — might be a good excuse for a Brainfooder meet up?

Hung Lee is the CEO of and the curator of Recruiting Brainfood.

Hung Lee

Written by

Hung Lee

Co-founder & CEO, at and curator at Recruiting Brainfood (

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