Lisbon answers a question or two

Meg Robson Mahoney
7 min readNov 12, 2017


A wall nearby our house in Lisbon

Leaving home, I had some questions. After loving Lisbon a year ago, we came again this year to dwell a bit. We unpacked our bags to enjoy two weeks without an early-morning launch toward another destination. Two weeks for markets, some “home-’’cooked food, and to wonder why Lisbon caught my fancy last year.

We had time for errands as well as monuments. One morning, we had two: I wanted to see a shop I’d run across online, and we needed coffee (having finally run out of the Dorothea coffee we brought from home). We found our destinations on a map: A Avo Veio Trabalhar, a shop that serves as workshop and point of sale for grandmothers who make things; and Copenhagen Coffee Lab, someone’s favorite source for fresh roasted coffee.

Our apartment, two blocks uphill from the river, has a slice of the blue Tejo in its morning windows. Given our proximity to the sea, there will be hills anywhere we go. Lisbon has ways to get uphill if you can find them: an elevator here and there, a tram or two, an ascensor (funicular hiding inside a hole), and even a 4-story escalator inside the Baixo-Chiado subway stop. But our destinations didn’t look so far, so we plotted a walking path, hills be damned.

Two blocks up from the river
It’s all uphill

Once begun, our destinations faded into the journey. We started off expeditiously enough, along Rua das Janelas Verdes — the street of the green windows. By the time we took the fork at Rua da Esperanca, the street of hope, my walking pace had turned to a stroll. I was criss-crossing Hope, from one side to the other. Crossing to gaze at a wall or window from further away, crossing back to see a new pattern of tile up close.

Some wall tiles of Lisbon

I watched my feet, lest I trip on the bumps and valleys in the sidewalks made of smooth, white or black-and-white geometric tiles or in the streets made of larger, rougher pavers. What a stubborn genius Lisbon has had — building and keeping the patterns they walk on, gorgeous and lumpy as they are.

Street pavers, a curb & sidewalk tiles
Just a few sidewalks

I noticed that both of the two of us were strolling now, each on our own zigzag path, scanning for eye-catching surprises, noticing, stopping, taking a picture, lagging behind, and catching up. My eye was caught by details that were fresh and perfect but also by beautiful signs of decay: cracked or boarded windows, buildings left without care so long the roof is lined with weeds, walls with patches and scars. If Lisbon ever polishes all its derelict corners, it might accidentally burnish all its artfulness away. I crossed the street back and forth to examine its badges of age.

Rough edges

We found the grandmothers’ shop, closed til 2:00, but the metal door was up and the window full of what grandmothers make. With six weeks left to carry things before returning home, I came to look not buy. I looked in the window, and we forged on for coffee. Further uphill. Hungry when we arrived. Two bags of coffee richer, we stopped for lunch around the corner from the Coffee Lab at Pao de Canela cafe, opposite the Praca das Flores.

Pao de Canela, opposite the Plaza of the Flowers

We continued uphill some more, through the park of Principe Real, and happened upon the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara. Suddenly, thanks to another one of Lisbon’s prizes, its miradouros, all of Lisbon was laid out below. We could see where we were, from the top, a long view, a perspective. A clear moment of vision.

Views from the top

I haven’t even mentioned the people, the food, the street art. But walking through Lisbon was what I needed to answer a question I’ve asked myself: Why do I travel when I love being home so well?

Lisbon patiently explained it to me: It’s not to see the beauty, although we do. It’s not to pretend the world is clean and clear and perfect, because it’s not. It’s not to live in luxury, eat out, stop at all the best museums, or hop from charming spot to charming spot, although we sometimes do. It’s simply to explore. For the wonder of it, delights both derelict and freshly wrought, perspectives beyond our usual view. We travel because there’s things to see and understand. Travel’s like crossing a street for another point of view.