Lisbon: Destination of the week
Portugal's capital retains a firm sense of its past while looking to its future.
Wed, Mar 21 2012 at 5:29 PM
The Portuguese city of Lisbon has been a hub for culture, commerce and exploration for centuries. The well-kept remnants of its colorful past make it an interesting addition to anyone's Iberian itinerary. Even compared to other European metropolises, Lisbon has retained much of its Old World charm. The narrow lanes, historic buildings (some dating back over 500 years), and laid-back pace of life make this a worthwhile destination for people who want to do more than simply cross the major European sightseeing spots off of their bucket list.
While Lisbon's classic urban charms are the main reason to visit, Earth-conscious travelers will find plenty to make their stay green. Portugal's rustic, sea-centered cuisine relies heavily on locally caught or grown ingredients. Widespread public transportation, newly expanded bicycle-friendly features, and a high degree of walkability make it possible to explore the city without having to worry about leaving a huge carbon footprint. For those who want to leave the city behind, the rugged natural beauty of coastal Portugal is less than an hour away.
Despite not having the same population numbers as Europe's mega-cities, Lisbon has a very useful public transportation system. Buses, trams, a metro system and commuter rail lines make this a surprisingly easy city to traverse without a car. Great pedestrian facilities in the middle of the city and newly developed bike lanes make it easy to go green in Lisbon.
The four-line metro system, buses and trams (called electrico in local vernacular) can be paid for by a stored-value card. These cards make any public transit trip more than half the price of regular one-ride tickets sold in transit stations. The metro can get commuters to most central places, and the 160 bus and tram lines cover the rest of the city nicely. Announcements on public transit are in Portuguese, but the metro has English signage and ticketing info, and bus and tram routes have a color-coded system that makes it easy to get around the city. Bike rentals are available in Lisbon, and newly built bike paths make it possible to get around by pedal power, something that is not always easy, especially in the hilly, narrow-streeted sections of the city.
Like other major European metropolises, Lisbon has accessible organic and vegetarian eating scenes. Shiila's Place is a great example of the unique Earth- and health-friendly eats available in Lisbon. This eatery has vegetarian and vegan options as well as raw dishes and even some living ingredients (think sprouts, not sushi). Paladar Zen is another Asian-inspired eatery serving vegetarian, mostly-organic dishes in a serene Zen-like setting.
Restaurant Terra is one of the most well-known veg-oriented venues in Lisbon. Set in a classic building in one of the oldest sections of Portugal, it serves organic food and even has a wine list featuring naturally made wines. Diners can top off their meal with a vegan dessert.
An impressive array of local markets takes place throughout metro Lisbon each week. These are good places to browse and buy locally made or produced items. The Ribeira Market, once a thriving wholesale market, has been one of Lisbon's most interesting public retail markets for over a decade. Set on the riverside, the historic, 130-year-old building, complete with mosaic tiles and other classic touches, is as much an attraction as the locally grown foods sold at Ribeira's stalls. Even tourists with a passing appetite for fresh seafood will be enthralled by the variety and freshness of marine edibles at this market.
Lisbon's neighborhoods and main squares are ideal venues for foot-powered sightseeing. Despite its sometimes-hilly terrain, this is a very walkable city. People who don't want to stroll solo can join a walking tour offered by a local company. Lisbon Walker, for example, is a specialty tour company that leads English-language tours around different neighborhoods of the city, although a good map is all that is necessary for people who prefer to go without a guide. Those who want to wander solo can find the kind of atmosphere that Lisbon is famous for in the Bairro Alto, Chiado and Alfama neighborhoods. Another district, Belem, is known for its monuments and historic buildings, which were built at a time when Portugal was one of the most powerful nations on Earth.
Nature-seekers and people who want to break from the more-urban sights of Lisbon can stop by the 10-acre Botanical Garden. Dating back to the 1850s, the garden's best days are in the past, but it still has a huge collection of native and imported trees and plants and is well worth a visit for nature-lovers or horticulture enthusiasts.
Lisbon is also home to an oceanarium and a zoo. The zoo houses pelicans, sea lions and other zoo-visitor favorites. It is also involved in conservation of endangered species. At the Lisbon Oceanarium, visitors can gain a deeper understanding about how human interactions with the ocean affect the lives of the creatures that live there. The oceanarium has ISO 14001 certification, a nod to its sustainability and conservation efforts both on site and in ocean waters around the world.
Walking excursions do not have to be confined to Lisbon's urban neighborhoods, as nature is easily found outside the city. Serra da Arrábida, about a half-hour from the city's core, is a great place for a casual day-trip, as it has footpaths that skirt the shoreline and give walkers some of the best ocean views in the entire Lisbon metro area. A similar natural spot, Serra de Sintra, is equally attractive to hikers because of its scenery and the easy access to hiking trails. One of the most historic (and scenic) places in the Sintra region is Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in mainland Europe. Its beautifully rugged, rocky shoreline is the main attraction today, but before the age of exploration, this was considered the “edge of the world” by many.
Bird watchers can find ideal conditions and plentiful winged species at the estuaries in the Lisbon area. The Tagus Estuary, 30 miles outside Lisbon's core, is a haven for seabirds and wading birds such as flamingoes, which flock to feed at low tide. The Sado Estuary is another option for bird watchers, boasting a similar set of avian residents and also beautiful natural surroundings.
Nearer to the city's center, the Ecological Park of Lisbon at Monsanto Forest Park focuses on educating people about nature and conservation at an onsite interpretive center. Monsanto was almost completely void of trees and has benefited from a massive reforestation project.
One of the best examples of eco-conscious renovation of Lisbon's classic hotels is the Belmonte Palace Hotel. Constructed in the 15th century and expanded throughout its history, the Belmonte's green factor goes beyond keeping the aged building intact. Recent renovations have relied on sustainable building materials and have focused on creating natural light and ventilation to reduce energy consumption. The Inspira Santa Marta Hotel is a more-modern sleeping option that also has eco-friendly traits. Santa Marta buys renewable energy and has installed LED lighting throughout its property. The hotel's drinking water brand, which is sold in recycled glass bottles, is used to fund Pump Aid, an NGO that brings water pumps to developing areas of sub-Saharan Africa so that residents can have access to clean water. Solar do Castelo is a boutique sleeping option and one of Lisbon's Heritage Hotels. This venue has implemented a plan to reduce water and energy consumption. Its classic décor and history-infused design give it an attractive atmosphere that should appeal to those who have fallen in love with Lisbon's Old World vibe.
Lisbon is a city that puts a premium on its past. Though it has plenty of modern elements, it is still defined by its timeless feel. This trait is so noticeable because of the city's efforts to keep historic buildings, streets and even old means of transportation intact. For tourists seeking a place that has balanced the European Old World with the new, Lisbon is an excellent itinerary addition. It doesn't hurt, from an environmental perspective, that the city's eco-consciousness is also a major part of its personality.
Want more vacation ideas? Check out more eco-friendly destinations.
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