The Mole Diaries: Lisbon
Connie Searle studies French and Portuguese at King’s College London, and has just come back from a semester spent at Universidade Nova de Lisboa in Lisbon, Portugal. She says, "Lisbon is a really up and coming city, and has such a vibrant culture. I would whole heartedly recommend it to anyone – I haven’t spoken to a single person who has visited Lisbon and didn’t love it and want to come back straight away!" Here is her insider guide to the city.
1. Finding accommodation
Many people suggested finding somewhere to live in Lisbon after arriving, but I am a bit of a scaredy cat and wanted to sort something out before I arrived to make sure it was sorted.
There’s a site called UniPlaces where you can reserve a room online before you arrive in the country, and a lot of people I met in Lisbon used this site prior to their arrival. I really wanted to live with Portuguese people, so instead I managed to find an agency called The Housing Concept online where they let out rooms in apartments (kind of like private halls I guess) and I sent off an application form stating exactly what it was that I wanted, and they replied saying they had a room in an apartment of Portuguese people for just one semester. I filled out the form and then in February the room was ready for me.
Be wary of paying more than €400 per month – Lisbon is a really cheap city, so most rents would be around the €300-350 mark.
2. On arrival
When you arrive, I’d recommend heading to the Erasmus office in Bairro Alto – there are two ESN Lisboa and ELL (Erasmus Life Lisboa). ELL is great when you first arrive, they can help you find somewhere to live if you need. In addition to this, you can pick up the best SIM card ever. It’s a WTF SIM operated by the company NOS – it will cost you around €8 per month and you get unlimited (yes, unlimited) social media apps (think Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Skype, Instagram, Snapchat – all the things that drain data), 500 MB of normal data and unlimited texts as well as 500 minutes to Portuguese numbers. This offer is only available to students so it is well worth picking up to make the most of all that data!
I had to submit my learning agreement back to the UK once I had arrived – this went relatively smoothly, but the Portuguese university gave me very little support or information on the courses available. This meant that the classes I took were not really appropriate, but since there was barely any information given by anyone, I had no choice but to just grin and bear it. My only suggestion would be to try as best as you can to find information on what is covered in classes, and the assessment methods used. All else failing, just attend the classes and explain to the teacher that you are on Erasmus and they will probably be more reasonable with you.
3. Portuguese culture
Portuguese culture is very relaxed – things do not run on time. Classes often start late, buses arrive late, if they come at all. That said, everyone is very friendly and willing to help you if they can. Most people in shops and at the university speak English, so you will have little trouble finding your way in Lisbon. Café culture is very popular in Lisbon – Starbucks does exist here, but what is most popular are small coffee shops. Coffee is cheap, and therefore you should not be paying more than around €1.50 for one.
4. Getting around Lisbon
Lisbon has a really excellent transport system with trams (electricos), buses and the metro. Travel is really cheap and there are several options available. From the blue ticket machines in the metro station you can get a temporary Viva Viagem card for €0.50 and can recharge it either with money (zapping) – where each journey costs €1.40, or with a number of journeys or with a 24-hour travel card.
If you think you are going to be using the transport system much more, it is worthwhile getting a Lisboa Viva card. This is a more permanent card – it will cost you €12 to get it in 24 hours (or €7 if you want to wait 10 days) – you can request the cards at Campo Grande or Marques de Pombal stations. With the student card, you need to provide a passport photograph and then once you receive your card you can load it with money (zapping) or get a monthly travel pass for €35 which is really good value.
For going out of the city – to the coast (Cascais) or to Sintra, you will need to buy a €0.50 Viva Viagem card from a machine and buy a specific ticket or load enough money to cover the train fare to the destination because the train is not included in the monthly travel pass.
The food in Lisbon is one of the best things about Lisbon! You can get all sorts of different kinds of food, to suit almost any diet at all. I don’t eat seafood, and before going I had worried that I would be pretty stuck given that Lisbon’s proximity to the sea – but no, I had no difficulty at all. I’m going to list a couple of my food favourites:
- Time Out Lisboa – this is a giant food hall right by Cais do Sodre station, there are loads of food outlets and giant benches in the centre of the hall. There are so many different options available and the food is good value – often it can be hard to find somewhere to sit, so I would recommend finding a seat before you buy your food.
- Tease Bakery – this is a very cute and hip bakery in Bairro Alto. They serve breakfasts, lunches, soup and cupcakes and everything in between. The cupcakes are very yummy, and they do a really great brunch deal.
- Frangasqueira Nacional – this is actually not really a restaurant, but rather a take-out place. They only serve chicken, and they serve it very well. You can come here and get traditional Portuguese chicken and rice in a foil container to take away. It’s situated in Principe Real right by a bunch of parks, so those make for lovely places to go and eat.
- 100 Montaditos – actually a Spanish chain but it has several branches in Lisbon. On Wednesdays and Sundays, everything on the menu is €1 and it’s great value. They serve sandwiches and sides.
- Hamburgueria do Bairro – possibly the best burgers in Lisbon! There are several branches in and around Lisbon and it’s very good value.
- Pasteis de Belém – the best Portuguese custard tarts in Lisbon. Need I say more?
6. Going out
You may have heard that the nightlife in Lisbon is really great and really cheap, and it’s true! There are a couple of options, depending on your taste in nightlife.
If you like going to bars – Bairro Alto is the place for you. Bairro Alto is a very quiet neighbourhood of Lisbon during the day, with very quaint little streets. But at night, the neighbourhood comes alive. Behind the doors, are hundreds of small bars, all playing music and serving different kinds of very cheap alcohol – think €3 for a large mojito or €2 for a pint of Sangria. Need I say more? At night people buy their drinks and gather in the streets to talk and dance to the music. Nights in Lisbon are late, and you will find that people stay out until around 5/6am.
If you like clubs, then there are lots of different ones available. The Erasmus cards you pick up at ESN or ELL will give you free entry into many of the clubs depending on the night in question. Some really great options are Urban Beach, Arcadia, MusicBox and Main. Drinks in clubs are much more expensive, so be aware of this.
7. Essentials to pack
- A waterproof – believe it or not, it does rain in Lisbon sometimes… And when it rains, it really rains.
- Trainers – Lisbon is a city of hills and steps; you need comfy shoes. Even for going out, leave those heels at home!
- Dry shampoo – try as I might, I could not find this anywhere in Lisbon and I really missed being able to dry shampoo my hair.
- Robinsons’ mini squashes – need I explain? We Brits need squash when we are away, and I couldn’t find squash anywhere.
8. Top 10 places to visit in and around Lisbon
- Sintra National Park – a very large national park with lots of cool castles to see (Google Pena Palace and you’ll immediately want to go).
- Cascais – a little coastal town around an hour from the centre of Lisbon by train. Once you get there, you can rent bikes for free known as BiCas outside the station and can use these to cycle around the town and along a coastal path.
- Queluz Palace – a lovely palace accessed via the train on the Sintra line – it’s not very busy which is great.
- The Botanical Gardens – there are actually three botanical gardens in Lisbon, but the best one is the University of Lisbon one in Principe Real. There are loads of tropical plants to see and the entry is only €1!
- Cristo Rei – the giant statue of Jesus that is on the opposite bank of the Tagus River. From here you get the best views of the 25th April Bridge and of Lisbon itself.
- Belém – A neighbourhood of Lisbon, filled with some of the best sights – you can spend hours here.
- Parque Eduardo VII – the park at Marques de Pombal, you can see much of the city from up here and it’s a great place to sit and read/relax/sunbathe.
- Castelo São Jorge – Lisbon’s castle which outlasted the earthquake.
- Parque das Nacões – a very modern area of the city, there is a cool cable car along the shoreline and lots of things to see in the area.
- Miradouro da Senhora do Monte – this is Lisbon’s best ‘miradouro’ aka viewpoint – you have to walk up approximately 20 million steps to get up here, but once you’ve reached the top, you forget about the foot and leg ache and just enjoy the view.
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