From touristy Rome to cool and unassuming Lisbon

Lisbon is experiencing a new tourist boom

We’ve fallen into a pattern of staying in a place for a week, then flying/driving/catching the train to a new destination every weekend. The last two weeks have each been spent in Rome and Lisbon, two polar opposite cities.

The eternal city

I wanted to love Rome. It seemed so sophisticated, so romantic, teeming with ancient wonders and monuments. While our introduction to Italy via Venice and Florence had been charming (and delizioso), Rome was going to be a real city to behold. A city of substance. But alas, Rome, along with many other great cities in Italy, Europe, and indeed the world, has become too hot and crowded to truly enjoy. We battled the masses at the Colosseum, jostled for elbow room at the Treviso Fountain, and fought our way up the Spanish Steps. We imagined ancient chariot races under the blazing hot sun at Circus Maximus, sat under orange trees in the pristine Giardino degli Aranci, and climbed up to the top of the Castel Sant’Angelo for views out to the Vatican and beyond. Each sight was indeed astonishing as all the guidebooks had promised, but after a while it felt like we were ticking things off the Rome checklist just so we can skip it all on our next visit.

Sunset at the Spanish Steps; inside the Colosseum; the hall of maps in the Vatican Museum

My favourite moments were strolling down the Appia Antica (Appian Way), the first ever paved road engineered in the 4th century BC. You step on the same stones the ancient Romans used, and the road is remarkably intact flanked by catacombs, tombs, mausoleums, and ruins of ancient villas. The Baths of Carcarella were another highlight — a huge public bathing complex which housed not only hot thermae fed by a dedicated aqueduct, but also cold frigidarium, swimming pools (Olympic-sized), gymnasiums, courts, boxing rings, libraries, etc. As with everything constructed by the rulers of ancient Rome, it is built on an extraordinary scale and lavishly ornamented with classical statues and mosaics.

The Baths of Carcaralla — public bathing house or epic luxury spa resort of Roman times?

History lessons

While riding the bus from one attraction to the next, we listened to the excellent Hardcore Histories podcast series ‘Death Throes of the Republic’, Dan Carlin’s dramatic recounting of the rise and fall of the Roman empire. Our history lessons continued at the Museo Nazionale Romano, chock full of archaeological findings from the same time period. To guide us through the overwhelming Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, we plugged into Rick Steve’s audio tour — he’s like Bill Bryson, but with even more dad jokes injected into his script. Nonetheless, his audio app proved immensely useful in navigating the sites of Rome, and we‘ll keep it on hand through Europe.

We got a taste of the local scene walking the streets of two lively neighbourhoods, Trastevere and the Jewish Ghetto, caught some late night jazz at Gregory’s Jazz Club and filled up on traditional Roman food like artichokes and beans and lamb and porky pasta sauces. Heavy but delicious.

Walking along the Tiber towards Trastavere

Now that I recount all we did in a week, Rome sounds pretty awesome. But onward to Lisbon, which was so much more our scene.

Getting to know the neighbourhood

Again, we got our bearings via Rick Steve’s Lisbon city walking tour which begins in the Plaça do Comércio on the harbour, opens up to the main road Rua Augusta, and explores two central neighbourhoods Baixa-Chiado and Bairro Alto. Along the way, you’re invited to sample some traditional fare like pungent dried salted cod or the much more appetising pasteis de nata (egg tarts), take a shot of ginjinha, a sour cherry liqueur made by monks, visit churches, admire vistas from the many hillside lookouts, and marvel at intricate tile work on building façades. In the evening, we hiked up to Alfama, the young fashionable area for a huge annual street party called Festas de Lisboa. Seemingly every other person in Lisbon had the same idea because the maze of narrow streets and squares were packed with locals dancing, eating, drinking, parading, with colourful garlands strung overhead. Once you entered the mélee, it might take several hours to fight your way out. What they were celebrating remains a mystery — maybe the Lisbon locals just love summer?

Summer street party; egg tart; next level canned fish

The classic and the contemporary

Lisbon is a beautiful city where old meets new. Classic glamour of palaces and castles, terraces and tile work, melds with contemporary glitz of shops, bars and hotels. Historical ruins are a constant reminder that much of the capital was levelled in a devastating mid-1700’s earthquake and resultant tsunami and firestorm. Seven steep hillsides make up the city. The dramatic topology provides panoramas of ubiquitous terracotta roofs, pastel façades and white tiled walkways from every angle.

Iconic red roofs of Lisbon

Further afield

Egg tarts for days

Within striking distance of the city are numerous surfing beaches like Guincho and Carcavelos. We day-tripped to Belém, the place where nuns first discovered that you could spoon yolky, custardy, deliciousness into flakey pastry puffs. The main sights of Belém are the Fábrica dos Pastéis de Belém (egg tart production on an industrial scale, but without losing any of the charm), historical monuments (Jerónimos Monastery, Belém Tower), very pretty gardens, and the underrated Berardo Collection Museum, a compact retrospective of 20th century art. From any vantage point in Belém, you can look back towards Lisbon and catch a sight of what appears to be a direct replica of the Golden Gate Bridge. We never got answers to its mysterious existence either.

City beach in Lisbon. Just like Bondi.

If you need more reasons to visit Lisbon, it is very cheap (and not just by European standards), people are friendly, and it is coming of age as a tourist destination while also attracting a growing community of creative nomads.

Now we’ve reached Málaga on the Costa del Sol in Southern Spain — birthplace of Picasso and travel destination of the year, according to the New York Times. We can’t wait to explore.