Do you ever get lost (on purpose) when you travel? It's one of my favorite things to do. I have an especially fond memory of getting lost in Lisbon on the second day of my trip. That wander I took allowed me to see some of the "real Lisbon," something I would have missed out on had I stuck to well-traveled paths.

I love getting lost

I once got lost in Lisbon on an overcast Sunday afternoon in late October. I’d arrived the day before. Day twos on trips have a special place in my heart—I’ve had some sleep and have oriented myself a bit to my new surroundings, but everything is still new and fresh, and I have all the time in the world.

I love getting lost. Not the make-the-evening-news kind of lost, mind you, but the delicious kind of disorientation that comes with the unfamiliar. While I don’t often get truly “lost” around here, I do try to take random side streets I haven’t walked down before to see what I can see. Taking a different path helps awaken my senses to the wonders around me.

Getting lost is better done traveling, and best traveling solo

It’s even better to get lost while traveling, and best to do this solo. Just chuck the guides and follow whatever looks interesting to you. Wandering about solo means that you aren’t keeping anyone from something they’d rather be doing, and you need not negotiate wandering off to the left or right. With no conversation to attend to, we can pay attention to where we are and get out of our own heads for a bit.

Waking up Sunday morning after a busy first day in Lisbon

I woke up a bit late that Sunday morning to a view of Castelo de São Jorge and a sea of red-tiled roofs from my fifth-floor flat on Rua dos Mouros in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto.  Wow, I thought. I could get used to this (if not the trudge up all those stairs—Lisbon is nothing if not great for training for Everest). I’d managed to stay up the day before after landing in the very early morning by doing a whistle stop tour on Tram 28, getting oriented to the city on a classic tourist route.

Tram 28 Snaps

Lisbon is famous for its architecture and for its street art

Lisbon has a reputation for great street art, and I couldn’t get enough of it. That, and all the gorgeous tile. In my East Somerville neighborhood, I’d seen the tiled houses of Portuguese and Brazilian immigrants, but I’d never really appreciated them before. If I lived here, I’d want to be reminded of home, too.

With the exception of the Alfama district, a devastating earthquake and tsunami leveled Lisbon in 1755. Portugal was an incredibly wealthy nation at the time, its wealth derived from ruthless colonial exploitation, and it plowed its wealth into rebuilding Lisbon, and many of the stunning tiled buildings in the city date back to that period. That is a thing about Lisbon—its beauty is built on violence.

Finding the perfect local bar and eating late-night Bifanas

Here and there, I hopped off Tram 28 to see the things—including a closer view of the Castelo from a park below, and then I walked back to my flat from through Rossio. After a dinner at the Decadente (decent, but not fantastic), not far from where I was staying on, I’d found a great neighborhood bar that, if not a dive, was not not a dive, where I found lively conversation with other locals standing outside the bar.

One guy (a real character) went and got these delicious pork sandwiches with mustard (Bifanas) and shared them with us. Twenty-four hours before, I’d gotten on a plane in Boston, and now here I was, so tired that I was giddy, standing outside a bar on the edge of Príncipe Real in Lisbon, eating, drinking wine, and laughing with people I’d known for a millisecond (I went back there several times, and always had a good time, getting to know one older woman rather well. Our views on Trump were in sync). Late in the evening I got back to my fabulous flat and fell into bed, absolutely delighted to be alive.

Sunday morning coffee, with a castle view

After getting up, I made myself some coffee (instant, as is common in some European countries), and drank it sitting in a chair looking out at my castle view, and taking in the red tiled roofs around me, and laundry hanging out the windows on my little rua.

I took a shower in the narrow stall with an eye-level window opened to the back of the neighboring building. I made sure no one could see me, and I kept it open, curious. I made another cup of coffee and sat back at the window, waiting for my hair to dry.

Getting provisions

Clean and reasonably caffeinated, I set out to get some provisions at the little grocery store my host told me about. I ran into an elderly woman on my way out, who looked at me suspiciously. “Bom Dia,” I said, respectfully. She returned the greeting, but did not smile. Having lived in a building where a flat was rented out for tourists myself, I can imagine that she’s experienced some things. One thing I hope to be as a solo female traveler is at least a quieter guest.

Even on an overcast Sunday morning, the grocery was hopping, and I stocked up on tidbits that looked good (I copied some shoppers). I also got a proper espresso (um bica) and a pastry at a café before walking back to my flat to hang out for a bit longer. I wound up staying through lunch, which I made with my provisions.

Príncipe Real

Checking out the Jardim do Príncipe Real

There was a park, the Jardim do Príncipe Real, nearby on Rua Dom Pedro V, famous for a beautiful cedar tree, that sounded like a good place to check out on a Sunday afternoon. I thought about going to the nearby botanical garden, but I just didn’t really feel like doing anything significant.

Indeed, the park proved pleasant. After checking out the tree and sitting in the park for a while, I kept walking to see what I could see.

Following a cool sign and getting lost in Lisbon

After a few blocks, a vintage sign caught my eye, and I took it as a sign to wander down that hill. So I did. Off the main drag, the street grew instantly quieter.  I spotted a blue vintage car parked on a steep incline in front of a vintage shop and crossed the street to see what that was all about. Alas, it was Sunday, and the shop was closed.

Getting Lost in Lisbon

And then things grew quieter

I turned this way and that on, checking out the architecture and window displays, like the one with hiking boots hanging up and enjoying a peaceful stroll, with a few people out and about with their dogs. I noticed how the homes were built on angles to work with the hills, just was buildings curved to follow the bends in the street. No space was wasted here. I kept spying a graffiti tag that looked like it read “LAST” but also like “LOST.  I’d turned off my internet access, so no maps, and, as I was lost, I decided that’s what it said.

The Park I Found while Lost in Lisbon

Finding a quiet park and good espresso

I happened upon a quiet park, a corner of it filled with hydrangeas, in a sleepy square. On one side was a restaurant, with a canopied terrace; it wasn’t for tourists. Laundry hung from the window above the canopy, and a woman stood in the window, talking to a couple on the sidewalk.

At least one of the buildings in the square appeared to be abandoned, in rough shape, but with a for-sale sign, but otherwise, it was pleasant, if modest. At a far corner of the park opposite the restaurant, there was a little purple café kiosk, with some purple tables and chairs scattered about. Locals sat, quietly chatting, drinking coffee, reading the paper, and smoking. I decided to stop for a little rest.

Worried for a moment that not having exact change would earn me the stink eye, I ordered another “um bica.”  Thankfully, having exact change does not seem to be as big of a deal in Portugal as it is in Spain and France. A small white cup in hand, I sat at one of the tables. People definitely noticed me, but they turned back to their lives rather quickly when they realized that I was not that interesting. The coffee was good—it’s really good most places in Lisbon. I listened to people, not understanding them, but enjoying the sound of the language, and looked around me. This was not Somerville.

Lost in Real Lisbon

Reveling in being lost

Rested, I got up again to continue on my wander, following an older man at a distance onto another side street and enjoying being lost. He eventually turned, but I kept going. This was not scenic Lisbon. I saw a sign for a dentist that amused me, as well as some buildings that reminded me that Portugal is no longer a wealthy nation. Even some vehicles had “street” art.

My mind calmed, and I found myself fully present on that gray day, taking in everything around me. The sound of my feet on the gravel covered pavers. The sights. The smell of the air, which was cleaner than I had expected. This walk wasn’t the coolest thing I did in Lisbon, not by a long shot, but those moments wandering around lost remain one of my favorite memories of my time in the city.

Getting Found

And … getting found

Eventually, I spied a government building that I’d seen on yesterday’s Tram 28 tour off in the distance, and then I recognized tiled buildings from the Tram 28 route where the rua I strolled down ended.  A  particular piece of street art that had caught my attention the day before told me for sure where I was. Drat. I kept wandering, getting off the tram route, and finding myself at on the sidewalk that runs alongside the famous Ascensor da Bica. Even though I’d learned the day before that if you see one of those funiculars, you should just take it, I didn’t that day and walked up instead (only huffing and puffing a little).

I got back to my apartment just as the rain began in earnest. I took that as a sign to take a nap. So I did.

Enjoy getting lost, and then get your guide!

I hope I’ve convinced you that Lisbon is a glorious place to wander aimlessly. 

Sometimes, though, we need information. That’s where the Wonder & Sundry Guide to Lisbon comes in.

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