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Willie Weir : October 28th, 2010

A Transit Nerd’s Dream Day in Lisbon

The goal. To ride on every trolley and funicular line in Lisbon in one day.

Kat and I leave our hotel/hostel (no bunk beds, but a shared kitchen and bathrooms) and walk two minutes to the Metro. We descend the steps, buy tickets and catch the blue line toward downtown.

Some of the folks around us have the look of boredom and drudgery of daily commuters. But we are excited. Giddy even. This will be a day filled with transit in a big beautiful city.  I love riding any kind of transit.  Give me a bus pass and I am one happy camper. But trains and trolleys?–I’m seven-year-old-at-Disneyland-happy.

We get off at the Restauradores station and walk less than a block to our first funicular stop. Funiculars (here in Lisbon they are called “Ascensores”, are vertical trains made to climb up steep grades. A pair of trams or trains are attached to a cable.  One goes up, while the other goes down.

Ascensor da Gloria was the second to come into operation in Lisbon. It began in 1885. First run on steam, it, and all the other funiculars run on electricity now.

The passengers are a mixture of locals and tourists. The tram fills up. This is the most popular line in the city. The ride is slow, smooth and steep. You could jog up the hill faster. But the folks seated around me haven’t jogged in 30 years.

The ride takes 2 minutes and 30 seconds. But without the funicular, many elderly residents wouldn’t make it down the hill to shop, let alone back up with shopping bags. Come to think of it … I’m not sure I’d make it up the hill loaded down with groceries.

Kat and I wander around Barrio Alta–its cobblestone streets filled with small shops and residences. This city has enough museums, galleries and churches to fill any length of visit. But give me the small neighborhood streets to explore anytime.

Our wanderings lead us to our second funicular stop. Ascensor da Bica. No tourists here. One old man is in the tram, waiting. The conductor is outside talking with his buddies. One must be a maintenance man, because he opens a large metal trap door at the top of the line and steps down inside. He is whistling to himself. He has his lunch and discretely wrapped up in some paper … a bottle of wine. He continues to whistle as he closes the trap door.

Some other locals board the tram, the conductor quickly springs into action, hops on and closes the modest metal gates. We have to ask him to reopen to one to let us board.

We slowly descend back down to the commercial district.

This is the entrance on the downhill side. All the funiculars were classified as national monuments in 2002.

We step out into the street and here comes our first trolley. The #25E runs out and up into the Lapa and Estrela neighborhoods.

These babies are old. They creak and groan and squeak and shimmy along the tracks. But the move at a good clip when the traffic allows or the operator decides to put the trolley (tram) into high gear.

We take the #25E to the end of the line. We walk about the shops.  Stop in to buy some sliced ham and then settle in at a corner cafe for a coffee.

Oh. And a smoke. Got to have a smoke. Well, we didn’t. But everyone else did.

After a stop to look at a local cathedral, we boarded the #28E. This is one of the longer trolley routes in the city and probably the most fun and diverse. The route winds and curves and climbs and descends along wide boulevards and impossibly narrow streets.

We managed to score some window seats on the sidewalk side of the trolley. This is the way to see Lisbon!

The windows slide open, so you have a open air view of life in the city.

I don’t know what kind of training the operators go through, but they are skilled drivers. Between the cars, buses, trucks unloading goods, the narrow streets and steep hills–they definitely earn their living.

Wait. Wasn’t that Rob Lowe??

The city reaches out and touches you … literally. I felt a hand on my arm and turned to see a young man who was grabbing a free ride by hanging onto the trolley. There were some turns that were so tight up against buildings, I thought he (and his girlfriend) were going to be scraped off. They both arrived at the top of the hill in one piece.

You can hop off the trolley at one of the miradors (scenic lookouts) where people by the hundreds pause for a coffee or beer and stunning views.

The trolleys fill up fast. I can’t imagine what it is like in peak summer. This girl couldn’t get on the trolley, but she did hop on long enough to get the photo.

We caught the #12E line back to the Rossio district for a lunch break and some spicy piri piri chicken. On this line we had an encounter with some pickpockets working as a team of three. One guy with tourist map. One guy standing way too close and eating a sandwich in my face.  There was room in the rest of the car, but they were packed in tight next to us. We hopped off the back and caught the next trolley.

After lunch, it was onto one of the more unique elements of Lisbon’s transportation network. The Elevador de Santa Justa. It is just that. An elevator designed by Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard and used to link Bairro Alto with downtown.

Great views from the top. You can pay extra for the higher lookout deck or linger at the cafe for another cup of coffee.

Having a much better feel for the city, we knew that funicular Gloria was a close walk away. So we boarded for the downhill journey.

These kids were so excited that they couldn’t contain themselves. Jumping up and down on the seats and laughing. But kids can get away with that. I had to remain calm and adult-like. I suppose I could have jumped up and down, but might have had the police waiting for me.

Our final funicular is Ascensor do Lavra. The oldest in the city. Unfortunately, the taggers in Lisbon will tag anything … even a national monument.

The street is barely wide enough to fit both trams. You can easily reach out and touch the buildings as it makes its way up the steep incline. At the top we wander around until we find a bus stop and take the first bus headed in what looks to be the right direction towards downtown.

Only a few more electric tram routes to go. We board the #15E. Not on old fashion trolley, but a large, two-car tram (light rail). We take it west near the waterfront to Belem …

where we locate “the place” to consume “pastel de nata.” We’ve eaten these custard pastries all over the country–served cold. They are good. But hot out of the oven with a cup of coffee? Wow! And that’s the way they are served at Antiga Confeteitara de Belem. Open since 1837, this place is enormous. You work your way through a maze of tiled dinning areas until you finally find an open table. Our waiter was friendly and happy to show the correct way to sprinkle first cinnamon and then powdered sugar on our pastales.

Full and content, we boarded the #15E again and down the line transferred to a #18E, the last of the trolley routes. The evening light reveals fewer flaws and adds more romance to our final trolley ride. It whisks us back into downtown–squeaking and creaking the whole way.

We walk down the stairs of the Metro and grab the first blue line back toward our hotel.

It had been ten and a half hours of exploration, transportation and exhilaration.

And the cost? For every metro, trolley, funicular and elevador ride combined?

7.40 Euros. Total. For both of us. (That’s ten bucks at the current exchange rate)! A day pass for the city of Lisbon costs 3.70 Euro for an adult, which gets you on all public transportation.

Possibly the best ten bucks we’ve ever spent. What a day!

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9 comments to A Transit Nerd’s Dream Day in Lisbon

  • Martha Kight

    HA! You never disappoint! I am grinning so wide just now… what a WONDERFUL way to tour the City – and the photos are just great. 🙂 A unique way of sharing it… I think I would have been jumping up and down with y’all… In my heart I am! 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing this gift!
    Ao vivo!

  • Chris Morfas

    Marvelous! One of the best day-in-the-city diaries I’ve ever read.

    Is there much bicycling in Lisboa?

  • Chris,

    Some cyclists. But no big cycling network. They are beginning to work on that. Saw a bicycle route map and most paths were dotted lines … meaning “not built yet”.

  • Aunt Nancy & Uncle Joe

    What a day! Wish I could have been there. What a thrill! Ten hours!!..that probably would have done me in. I’m “enjoying the ride”, none the less. Thanks

  • Andrea Brown

    Wow! This is the best yet. I had no idea Lisbon had all these delightful trolleys and funiculi. Oh, and could you bring home a few of those little pastelas, please? I’m sure Kat can persuade somebody to give up the recipe.

  • Hi Kat and Willie, what a great website. I have never been to Lisbon but wow, what a pretty picture you paint. The view from the top of the Elevador de Santa Justa is stunning. Your description of the people made your words come alive. Wine, smoke … and Rob Lowe! Lovely. Simply lovely. Like the kid in the trolley, I wanted to jump up and down on those seats. I was giddy just READING your story.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Mom & Dad

    Mom just said “ten hours would have done me in!” What a gas. What a marvelous experience. You two really show us the “way” to enjoy a place. And the price is soooooooo right.

  • Jan Long

    Thanks for your wonderful story of your all day trip around on the trollys and all. I felt like I was with you. Actually I do wish I was but it was great anyway! Thanks!

  • germany mobile

    Hola! I’ve been reading your web site for a long time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Porter Tx! Just wanted to tell you keep up the great job!

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