When I go to a new place I mostly ignore the guides and top ten lists and just wander. It’s mostly because I’m really lazy when it comes to researching destinations, but also because I hate the stress of running from one sight to the next, following agendas and meeting expectations (what’s the metric for a good vacation?) That’s what soul-destroying office jobs are for! Instead I just go outside and start walking. Sure, I’ll ask a local for tips or scan a couple of blogs – I’d hate to miss something amazing like an abandoned theme park or zombie street festival that by chance is happening the one night I’m in town. But otherwise I just walk.
I only had one day in Lisbon so I picked two things which caught my eye and were in the same direction-ish. Within a few minutes walk I stumbled on a beautiful park with an impressive view of the city. An artist who was crafting jewelry from coins insisted that I should check out the Feira da Ladra or Thieves Market, which was actually one of the two things I was planning on trying to find. He pointed across the city, “See the castle in the distance? The market is behind there. And see the cathedral with two spires? Just walk in that direction, between the castle and the church, and you’ll find the market.” Vague, imprecise; these are my kind of directions.
Between me and the market was a warren of roads, narrow alleys, dead ends and winding staircases but as long as I could occasionally spot the castle and cathedral I’d be set. Easier said than done when the streets turn back on themselves or end unexpectedly but there always seemed to be an alley or restaurant courtyard I could sneak through, so even though my route was rather circuitous I never had to turn back and retrace my steps.
Soon after I spotted the Elevador de Santa Justa, a Neo-Gothic elevator in the Baixa district. Built to provide easy access from the lower streets of Baixa up to the Largo do Carmo or Carmo Square at the top of an adjacent hill, the tower stands 45m high. The elevator will take you from the lower street level to a walkway leading to Carmo Square but you can also climb even higher – up two spiral staircases to the observation deck. The whole thing is a bit baffling because it’s notoriously expensive, a long wait and a slow ride so for most people it makes more sense to just walk up the hill. And if you’re doing it for the view, it’s really easy to get a view of the city from a variety of places for free. Because Lisbon is so hilly you often find yourself cresting a hill or stumbling upon a park with a panoramic vista. It’s hard to not find viewpoints around every corner.
Anyway, it’s a very beautiful and interesting structure. If you want to see it you can either wait for hours (slight exaggeration) at the bottom and pay €6.50 to go up in one of the two elevator cars or you can pay NOTHING to use the walkway from Carmo Square. If you use the walkway you can still access the staircases to the top platform for just €1.50. So you don’t get to ride the actual elevator but dude, whatevs. A penny saved is still a penny which is a stupid and outdated and almost valueless weight in your pocket or however that saying goes. I mean, pennies, really? But a EURO saved is for sure a euro earned… #budgettravel #onashoestring #ISOsugardaddy.
Before leaving the hostel I had Google Mapped the distance to the Thieve’s Market to make sure it was actually walkable. G-Maps suggested it would take 45 minutes to get there… aaand 5 hours later I finally spotted the stalls and blankets lining the street behind the cathedral. The market dates back to the Middle Ages when presumably a lot of what was sold had ‘fallen off the back of trucks’ (wagons? ships?), one possible reason for the name. These days the market is dominated by vendors selling antique brass handles, hooks, keys and other miscellanea, collections of iconic Portuguese azulejos (hand-painted tiles which decorate facades around the city), and stalls flogging the usual Asian and Latin American mass-produced ‘handicrafts’ that seem to find their way to every market in the world. The tiles and antiques stalls were cool, but more interesting were the unique stalls peppered around like the guy selling vintage erotica photos and books or the woman displaying jewelry she crafted from Nespresso capsules.
During the 5 hours it took me to walk there and the further 2 hours walking back I browsed shops, observed the street culture and explored every nook that took my fancy. I watched women hanging washing out their windows and neighbours having conversations across their alleyways, observed a rad dude shooting and developing portraits in the street with an old large format camera, discovered 3 jewellers working in their studio space which was housed inside the store that sold their work, wandered through ruins behind the castle and poked around a dark, dusty store with collections of historic military medals and sets of old toy soldiers. And I took photos, lots of photos.
Hostel: I booked 2 nights at the Stay Inn Lisbon Hostel but they overbooked and moved me to the Hub New Lisbon Hostel for the second night which was a little annoying BUT bygones. Both hostels were nice and clean, with good facilities. The Hub was bigger and more social with a bar and oh yeah, a ball pit (?!?), but still quiet in the rooms. Both had standard free continental breakfasts and guest kitchens.
Food: Highly recommend Jardim das Cerejas – All you can eat buffet style vaguely Asian-influenced selection including a soup, cold salads plus 4-5 hot dishes. Everything is vegan. Open lunch and dinner, €7.50 (September 2016) at lunchtime, not including drinks or dessert. Located round the corner from the Elevador de Santa Justa
Getting around: I walked everywhere but there is an extensive and affordable metro system.
Activities: Spent just €1.50 to get to the viewing platform above the Elevador. Everything else was free. I considered going into the castle as I walked past around sunset but it was €8.50 and I was pretty tuckered out by then.