Not Disney

During the last few months, as we’ve made the ramp up to high season in Portugal (which expands by a few weeks every year, it seems), I’ve spent time in various neighborhoods around Lisbon (Lisboa) to get a feel for the changes my friends have witnessed taking place in this heart-seeking city that now feels like home.

They’d compared the rise in tourism to the barely controlled explosions of similar trends in Venice, Barcelona, even Amsterdam. I thought, really? Because on my last visit to Amsterdam I vowed not to set foot in the center again unless I had to arrive by the central train station. It’s bad there, folks, with drifts of college kids on spring break drinking and “sampling” as much as possible, and well-meaning folks on package tours succumbing to “Top 10 Itis.” There’s so much more of the Netherlands to see–even a very small country allows for escape from its beautiful, famous, most trampled city.

When we go into Lisbon from our perch out on the coast, we normally go to neighborhoods like Marvila, Penha de França, and Campo do Ourique. Unless we must meet friends in the center, we steer clear–and normally advise they do the same.

After our stroll through Baixa and Chiado on a Thursday afternoon in mid April, I stand by that. If you must, make your forays early in the day to see the things you’ve been told you must see (and consider by whom you’ve been given this advice)–then get out.

I spent three days this week taking a class at an institute just off of the Avenida da Liberdade, the lovely boulevard that rolls down under shady plane trees from the Marquês de Pombal roundabout. A lot of people work here–mostly avogados (lawyers) and finance pros in suit and tie–and while I sat on a park bench enjoying my sack lunch from a local pastelaría, I contemplated why places like Amsterdam descend into nightmares.

I think that well-intended people want to take what limited time they have and check off a list of must-sees in a particular place. As Americans, we’ve been coached a bit into a Disney mentality, that we’ll show up at a beautiful place and expect things to roll for us. But Lisbon is Portugal’s primary hub of…everything, from government to tech to finance to arts to just daily living. While you may have great “hosts” who are willing to guide you around, remember, they’re not Cast Members. Trip Advisor and similar sites have led folks to believe that if you see X and X you will have “done” a place correctly. As you move purposefully from A to B, you’re likely to cross paths with parents trying to pick up their kids from school, and the elderly making their careful way to a doctor’s appointment. Remember this.

The best thing you can do? Spend time in Lisbon’s incredibly varied bairros or neighborhoods outside the center, shopping in local markets, buying the fish for a dinner you make at your rental house or having a long lunch at that small café that TA will never find in a million years. People live here, and make it on what even Americans of modest means would consider a low monthly wage. Honor them with your business, in the ways that matter.

The other thing you can do? Leave Lisbon. There is *so* much to see if you just get on a bus or a train or into a rental car and go. I started traveling to Portugal in 2013, and moved here in 2015, and we have not even begun to scratch the surface. With every trip we take into the center or the northern reaches of Portugal, our list gets longer, not shorter.

Lisbon is not Disney World–it’s far more satisfying, lovely, and rich–and my efforts are honest ones to try and help ensure it doesn’t suffer the fate of Amsterdam.