“I’ve arrived at Lisbon, but not at a conclusion.”– Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
I thought it’d be a good introduction to Lisbon upon arrival — a cultural tour of the city with some of the sightseeing highlights. I waited until the day before departure to book the tour to make sure the weather would cooperate, and it definitely did. I had an overnight flight and arrived at my hotel about 10 am, so I played it safe and booked the Free Walking Tour at 3 pm. This left me with plenty of time to wander around, grab a late breakfast, and find my way to the meeting location.
With almost five hours to get oriented, I changed some clothes and washed my face in the hotel lobby restroom, left my luggage with the front desk, and walked out in the direction I thought I was told would lead to breakfast (I was sleep deprived, so directions were not easy to follow).
What is a Free Walking Tour?
This was my first experience trying a Free Walking Tour, which I learned about when I met a biking companion in Myanmar who runs a tour company that offers such free tours in Prague. It sounded like an interesting idea to get acquainted with a city like Lisbon — I could see some sights and learn a bit of history; if there was anything I wanted to return to, it’d make it easier to get back. There are a few options for the free walking tours of Lisbon, so it was a matter of finding what was available during my trip and convenient to get to the meeting location.
The free part is sort of a misnomer. It’s more of a pay what you want tour. Rather than pay up front, you give cash to the guide at the end of the tour — if you think the tour was good, you might give a bit more. On average, it’s suggested to pay about $20 per person (or €20 in the case of Lisbon). Guides do not get paid a wage from the tour company, so they depend on the money from tourists (and they hope the group is bigger).
The most important thing to remember about the Free Walking Tour is that it is a lot of walking. It’s important to wear a comfortable pair of shoes and bring water. And in my case as I arrived on a red eye flight, it’s important to be caffeinated to stay awake for the entire tour.
On the way to my walking tour
From LX Boutique Hotel at the southern end of Rua do Alecrim, I wandered the streets that were mostly quiet before lunch — I kept directions back to the hotel in mind as I intended to take that street part of the way to the meeting location for the Free Walking Tour at Monumento dos Restauradores. I took a leisurely walk, relaxed with a double espresso and yogurt with granola at a pleasant cafe at which I neglected to purchase coffee as a souvenir on my way back through Lisbon.
As I still had plenty of time before the tour, I walked through the Christmas Market at Rossio Square, which I later learned was the site of book burnings and executions during the Inquisition — quite the festive location. But as I hadn’t yet learned the history, I wandered through the vendors to see what I might like — much of it was products I had no use for and blocks of cheese and cured meats that I didn’t want to carry around.
The only thing I purchased was a sandwich of cured meat and about half a pound of semi-melted cheese. As I got halfway through that sandwich, I regretted not having a way to save the rest. I noticed other tourists tearing it in half to share (good reason to have a travel companion). I followed that up with an espresso across the street from the meeting location at a pastéis de nata chain so I could have a place to sit for a bit and use the restroom before heading out on a three-hour walk.
On the Lisbon Free Walking Tour
It wasn’t difficult to find the guide at the meeting location — Carlos was holding an Free Tour umbrella on a clear day. Our guide was from Costa Rica but had been living in Lisbon for years — it provided a more interesting perspective of history and culture.
The tour itself was better than expected. Not only was our guide knowledgeable on the history of Lisbon and Portugal, he provided commentary on perceptions of events from outside society. He also provided us with some tips on seeing certain sites and cutting through the confusing streets (though I did not take all the shortcuts that sounded intriguing). I was at least able to visit the city’s oldest coffee shop, where artists and writers once spent their days.
I learned about the earthquake in 1755 and how Lisbon rebuilt afterwards, including Commerce Square (Praça do Comércio) on the site of the royal palace that was destroyed. There were also numerous stories of Salazar, the last dictator of Europe, and the fall of his regime — at numerous points along the tour, important historical events from the era were noted. Not much about the Moors was discussed on the walk, mostly as that would’ve taken us into Alfama, which was not part of the tour. But there was still plenty of history going back to before the Inquisition.
Obviously, as this is a free tour, we did not go into any museums or historic sites that required an entrance fee — we instead stood outside while our guide explained the history and cultural significance of the place. Pointing out statues, neighborhoods, and shops along the route was a great way to get acquainted with the city. Much of the tour was through Bairro Alto, Chiado, and Baixa neighborhoods.
Our tour ended outside Ruinas do Convento do Carmo (Carmo Church), which I stopped in while wandering around prior to the tour. From there, we were told that we could easily access the Santa Justa Elevator without waiting in the long line at street level — it’s free and easy to enter the upper level from the exit.
And thanks to the guide’s instructions, I was able to retrace the route back to Lello Bertrand, the world’s oldest bookstore, which was underwhelming inside. I also introduced one of the other tourists to an artistic tile shop that I passed earlier in the day (not everything gets pointed out on a tour).
After more than six hours of walking through Lisbon, I was more than happy to take a shower and sleep for more than 10 hours in the comfort of my hotel.
Have you been on a Free Walking Tour in Lisbon or elsewhere? What did you think?