An exhilarating ride through Lisbon's backstreets

author photo
Matthew Hancock

On a city tour with a difference, Matthew Hancock explores Portugal's capital in an old Jeep to find the best things to do in Lisbon.

I’ve always been averse to city tours. It’s the cheesy commentaries and obvious itineraries that put me off, but the prospect of taking part in a ‘safari’ in an aged Portuguese military Jeep round the streets of Lisbon was much more exciting.

You need a sturdy vehicle to handle Lisbon’s tortuous slopes and winding backstreets. The city is built on a series of hills, its streets sliding down towards the broad Tagus estuary that flanks the city’s southern edges like a becalmed sea. On a map, the historic centre looks small and easy to negotiate – few city maps show its dramatic contours and gradients, not to mention the chaotic traffic.

So it is reassuring to clamber into the back of the solid metal 4WD at 9.30 one misty morning – even though it’s open backed and has no seat belts. The starting point of the safari is apt, on Praça Luís de Camões, named after the poet who wrote about Portugal’s great Age of Discovery. The tour consists of myself, an English student and two Australians, and we wait with a sense of adventure and anticipation.

Image by Matthew Hancock

The Jeep revs up and we’re off, easily negotiating the slippery cobbles and narrow streets that make up the Bairro Alto, the “high district”. A quiet grid of graffitied streets at this time in the morning, it is usually the city’s nightlife hub: within twelve hours, this will become a throng of diners and party goers. A few late clubbers are emerging bleary eyed to head home. We veer past the beautiful Igreja do Carmo convent, ruined in the Great Earthquake of 1755 and head towards the river to the warehouses at the back of Cais do Sodré station.

We speed along Rua do Arsenal – it’s hard not to smell the produce from the traditional shops along here, a pungent waft of dried bacalhau (cod) which the Portuguese are so partial to eating. Then we head up through the Baixa, Lisbon’s downtown heart, our driver pointing out his favourite restaurants (“Beira Gare, great for octopus”) and the most expensive designer shops along the palm-lined Avenida da Liberdade. The Jeep easily negotiates a nightmare roundabout at Marquês de Pombal, and suddenly we reach the leafy suburbs of Estrela, where the driver leaves us to wander among the exotic vegetation of the local park while he fills up with petrol.

Next, we head to the east of the city, along the waterfront and into a somewhat desolate wasteland of half-demolished warehouses. I’m about to ask why we’re here when the driver pulls up below a dramatic piece of street art, a giant figure hammered into the plaster on the side of the building. This is a work by Vhils (his real name is actually Farto), Portugal’s answer to Banksy – and his work is equally eye-catching.

Image by Matthew Hancock

Next the Jeep really comes into its own as we attack the steep slopes of Lisbon’s oldest quarter, the Alfama, whose streets are so narrow you could take a can of sardines off the shelves of the shops as you pass. Our driver tells us this is where he grew up, and he takes the hills and bends as if they are second nature. This is really a village within the city, where kids play football on cobbled alleys, old women sit on doorsteps shelling peas, and where only drivers who know what they’re doing dare to venture with their cars.

We flank the castle and climb up to one of Lisbon’s memorable viewpoints at Miradouro da Senhora do Monte. The city is laid out below us, bathed in sunshine now the mist has burned away. The driver gives us all a mini bottle of Moscatel, a sweet local wine, which we sit and drink under a gnarled olive tree to admire the view, as white doves wheel and turn in the soft air. The castle is below us, the terracotta roofs of the Baixa below that, and the glassy Tagus river beyond. It feels like we’ve come a long way – though the driver points out our starting and finishing point, barely a mile across town.

Finally, we pile back in the vehicle and the Jeep wends its way back across town, dodging the odd tram and the driver downs his own little bottle of drink. Much like his passengers, I think he’s had a very pleasant morning out.

We Hate Tourism Tours' ( Kings of the Hills tour lasts three hours and costs €30. Explore more of Portugal with the Rough Guide to Portugal. Book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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