On our final night in Lisbon, we had dinner with Sofia, a total beauty I met in Amsterdam during a weekend trip three years ago. Our meeting this time around was pretty different from the first as we abandoned the smokey rooftop bar (with admittedly outstanding views of Castelo Sao Jorge) in favour of the low-key square below.
As we watched a band play, more and more people weaved their way over, creating an imprompteau dancefloor and switching partners frequently, seemingly moving just as effortlessly each time. It wasn’t until that moment, so close to our departure, that I finally found the real spirit of Lisbon – even if my overtly awkward Britishness prevented me from joining in.
So why, after five days in Lisbon, hadn’t I felt any particular connection with the destination until that moment? The September sunshine was glorious and the buildings famously stunning but the joy I usually feel when exploring new places felt dampened, almost as though I was seeing everything through a veil. I knew that I’d struggle to find the words to explain why and perhaps that’s why it’s taken me a month to sit down and start crafting my muddled thoughts into something coherant.
Each time I visit a new place, I try to remember how exceptionally lucky I’ve been to travel so often. I couldn’t imagine life without that strange half-nervous feeling before you board the plane, getting lost in the maze of new streets – usually as a result of my horrendous navigation skills – and indulging in guilt-free ice-cream after every meal because calories don’t count on holiday, right? And I’ve been lucky enough to adore so many of the places I’ve visited, from busy cities to stark mountains and lush countryside. But it’s got to be impossible to like every place equally, right?
As a travel blogger, it’s easy to feel the pressure to rapshodise about each and every place I visit and I wonder how many of us feel the same. But the reality is, there’s so much diversity in the world that it’s near impossible to fall in love with each and every place. I’d become enamoured with the idea of Lisbon from a few cute Instagram pictures of trams and tiled streets without any real clue about the history, culture or attractions that the city had to offer and that left me feeling a little empty at times. When I thought about how I could write about my trip, I became a little lost. It would have been easy to churn out yet another ‘Top 5 Things to Do’ post with very little thought but honestly, what would be the bloody point? Does anybody really want to read yet another generic post? So here we are!
While I didn’t dislike my trip at all – on the contrary, I loved being able to chill out in the sunshine for almost an entire week – it wasn’t somewhere that gripped me. You know when you come home and already dream of going back? I feel that way about so many places – even those that I didn’t immediately like – but not Lisbon. But does that have to be a negative? Maybe a taster can be enough in some destinations.
The thing is, I can’t even explain what it was that made me hold back. We had relaxed days, busy sightseeing days and days where all we spent money on was food and drinks at charming cafes dotted around the city. I’ve got great memories of each day in Lisbon but it didn’t feel special enough to capture my heart.
Perhaps it was the visible impact of tourism on such a compact city centre: quaint streets heaving with backpack-carrying Brits (myself included) and people absolutely packed onto Tram 28, the most famous of many routes, while many other trams weren’t even nearly full. While I’ve been to many of Europe’s most visited capitals, the crowds felt so much more apparent on Lisbon’s steep hills and I wonder if I would have loved it more, had there been less people around.
So, what do you do when you don’t love a city or country you’re visiting?
Explore the unknown
You can really see the influence of those ‘Top 10 Things to do in Lisbon’ guides and in all honesty, I’m not sure those recommended attractions were particularly worth it.
In Belem, we dutifully went up the tower and queued to try the famous egg tarts in Pasteis de Belem. But if I’m honest, I enjoyed relaxing in the cool shade next to the tower far more than actually venturing inside, and I’m sure we could have enjoyed similarly delicious egg tarts in a more comfortable environment than a loud, packed, sweaty room with very few windows. There’s no question that these are lovely things to do but are they experiences that I’ll look back on fondly forever? When I compare it to how I felt visiting the Sagarda Familia, there’s no competition.
So, instead of fighting your way through the crowds to see attractions you’re only really ticking off a list, see what else the destination has to offer. Perhaps there’s a particularly rich food or music culture that you could explore at leisure. Maybe it’s just finding some new and unique viewpoints to photography! Basically, don’t feel like you HAVE to tick off all the main sights if some of them don’t float your boat.
Take a day trip
Day trips are also a great way to explore more of the region outside of the city centre. When we took the train out to one of the beaches along the coast, the stifling heat was beautifully tempered by the sea breeze and we happily spent hours watching the waves, reading and sipping on cool drinks. So take a chance on heading a little further out – you may discover a complete gem.
The last day of our trip was one of my favourites. One of the things I did want to see was Sintra’s famous red and yellow Pena Palace, perched high in the hilltops about an hour outside of Lisbon. Again, the town was absolutely packed full of tourists but there was something about Sintra that managed to make me love it when Lisbon couldn’t. The palace was every bit as vibrant as the pictures show and I’d highly recommend making the journey – just time your visit carefully if you want to maximise photo opportunities.
Do what you love
Often, our habits change while we travel. Again, particularly as a travel blogger, I often feel like I should do and see absolutely everything in order to be able to showcase the best bits for you guys. But if you aren’t enamoured with the destination you’re visiting, a surefire way to enjoy yourself is to do what you love.
Can’t get enough of reading? Find a friendly cafe where you can enjoy local specialities while you lose yourself in that new thriller. Jamie and I have inadvertedly made a tradition out of visiting a cool bookshop in each new place we visit – see Lisbon’s Ler Devagar pictured above – which may not be cool but we love it! Shopaholic? Check out the local markets, vintage shops and local artisans to connect with a different part of the destination.
I suppose what I’m basically trying to say is that it’s okay not to adore each and every place you visit. It doesn’t make us worse travellers or bad bloggers – we’re just humans. And isn’t the beauty of travel how we can seek out places that we feel a connection to, even if they’re on the other side of the world? I know for sure that I’ll never stop searching for that.
Is there a well-known destination that you haven’t liked as much as you expected? Tell me why in the comments!
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