Guest post by Mark Michael Stephens

Imagine a compact city on the water with multi-colored townhouses adorned with red-tiled roofs, cobble-stoned inclined roads, three story residential buildings with tiles on its base, and sloping lanes that extend to the very edge of a street where you look out to the mouth of the Atlantic and see boats cruising from the Mediterranean. Did I mention the great transportation system (the Metro) or the inexpensive rates for dining and accommodation? Keep reading.

Lisbon, Portugal is one of the most inexpensive, picturesque and accessible cities in the Eurozone, offering direct flights from NYC. It has mild, crisp air, moisture from the green sea, and long suspension bridges that will take you to the sandy shores of the southern coast. Its yellow cable cars in the town center will most likely remind you of San Francisco — you just hop on and off as you please. Little cafés with hardly any room to roam, let alone order a coffee, are plentiful. Still, it doesn’t negate from the virtual experience of being immersed in another world with character and charm.

lisbon barrio altoOne area that you might find yourself drawn toward is the Barrio Alto, a neighborhood known for its bustling nightlife, shopping districts and varying international cuisine. Perched on a hill, the Barrio Alto is a tiny nook with its own dynamic pulse, far from the tourist traps. It is a medieval haunt that dates back to the 1500s with dark alleys and gothic windows from top to bottom on every corner. After museums and long walks and sardine lunches with potatoes, I would end up in this haven sipping mojitos, and listening to techno grooves till the wee hours of night.

A couple of summers ago, I arrived on an impulse by a recommendation from my former Italian boss. I carried my apprehensions like any seasoned traveler — I didn’t know what I was getting into. I took a cab ride to the central area of town during the first few hours in Lisbon.

lisbon azulejoI arrived at a park that overlooked the entire city. It felt like Rome on smaller scale with a dash of Spanish and Danish influences. Perhaps it was the distinctive architecture or the colors of the sky before the sunset, but I began to idealize this romantic notion of Lisbon on a bench with the outdoor warmth basking on me as I inhaled a miniature baked custard pie from a street vendor. I sat for an hour and was transported to a vast culture of foreign languages and smells and sounds. Lisbon turned out to be something new — a jewel of Western Europe.

I spent the rest of my hours getting lost. I must have walked miles without even looking at a map. I had no idea where I was and I didn’t care, stopping into shops to ask storekeepers for suggestions. Much later in the evening I ended up in a cozy restaurant on a dead end street with large stones. Musicians walked up and down the block with their instruments outside the window. I opted for a prosciutto wrapped melon along with an appetizer of garlic shrimp, olive oil, and some crushed pepper with walnuts and basil. It wasn’t Portuguese, yet I still didn’t mind. I was resolved in the uncertainty of my surroundings and learned so much by just observing and talking to others who were receptive and warm.

I had done it. I completely booked a vacation based without bias or any prior knowledge. There were a few roadblocks along the way such as drinking too many glasses of red wine on an empty stomach or taking the wrong train on the further end of town (another story for a different time). Test your limits and book a trip to this historical gem, preferably in the summer where you can take in the sun and eat all the fresh seafood your heart desires.

Mark Michael Stephens is writing a memoir about his childhood in Northern Nevada. Mark is an avid international traveler who is inspired by culture, customs and cuisine. He is an honors graduate of The New School and lives in New York City.


  1. Portugal itself is a highly underrated country. I went to Lisbon but spent most of my time in Sintra and completely fell in love with Portugal’s national park and its beautiful castles!


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