A Love Letter to the Hills of Lisbon
One travel writer shares his literal up-and-down experiences with the charming city’s hills.
Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.
Back in December 2012, a friend and I were planning a New Year’s trip to Lisbon. At that point, I had already visited the city a handful of times, but it would be my friend’s first. As we started plotting what we would do, where we would stay, where we might celebrate the coming of 2013, I had to specifically recommend that she purchase a pair of flats for this trip. She lived in heels. She loves them. She goes grocery shopping in them. But heels would just not do in Lisbon. It’s way too hilly, and while locals might feel totally comfortable traipsing around the city in stilettos, I feared that those undulating, cobbled streets might pose a challenge in mobility for the uninitiated.
As agile as she normally is wearing designer stilts while going about her daily life in New York, I wanted to make sure that she would have practical footwear options for this holiday. So she bought a pair of flat boots, and to this day, we still talk about how glad she was to have them. For the Lisbon portion of our trip, she didn’t put on heels unless she was guaranteed a curb-to-cab activity such as dinner.
If you’ve never been to Lisbon, no photo will make you understand the physicality the city requires. These hills — some say there are seven, others say there are eight, it feels like there are millions when you’re walking them — define the Portuguese capital in countless ways. Many of the most beautiful photographs of its cityscape were likely taken from or of its miradouros, or the viewpoints that lay bare this terracotta-crowned metropolis. Usually, these miradouros (like Porta do Sol and São Pedro de Alcântara) are packed with people taking selfies or calmly soaking in the views while sipping a cup of coffee from a nearby snack quiosque. Miradouros are unlikely to exist without the hills; you wouldn’t really have them if the city were flatter.
I’ve now been to Lisbon many times over. In fact, it was the last city I visited before coronavirus halted travel. (I flew back to New Jersey the day after it was announced that flights from Europe to the US were being suspended.) And to this day, as prepared as I am, I still complain about these hills. Using Google Maps to figure out how long it’ll take to walk to wherever I might be going is always a tricky little game. The map might say that the bar is half-a-mile away; it’ll take 10 minutes — easy-peasy. If you’re not familiar with the geographic organization of Lisbon’s districts, you might not know that your easy-peasy walk is entirely uphill, because the neighborhood you’re going to is actually above the neighborhood you’re in.
That’s essentially what most of historic Lisbon is like: A bunch of beautifully realized neighborhoods butting up against and on top of each other. So you may find yourself (like I so often have) asking Jesus to take the wheel as you stare up a set of stairs headed towards heaven.
But whine as I might, the city's topography is so unbelievably voluptuous that conquering it is uniquely critical to the Lisbon experience. I rarely take public transportation or taxis in Lisbon. If I know I have to go uphill, I give myself more time than what Google might recommend to accommodate breaks to catch my breath. But I advocate that everyone do the same, because the hills amplify the way you connect with this city. Getting to see Lisbon from a particularly high miradouro (maybe the one in Graça) feels like an overwhelming reward for the trek you needed to complete to get there, and perhaps for a brief moment the views might inspire you to forget the throbbing pain in your hamstrings.
I don’t take for granted how challenging this can be, either, even for people who are 100% able-bodied. Some of these cobbled streets aren’t only steep, they’re also often slippery. They’ve been polished to perfection by the shoes of the people who have confidently stomped all over them for centuries. I do not possess such grace and have therefore fallen more times than I care to remember when walking down some of these hills. And to avoid that from happening, I have also succumbed to waddling — not unlike a disgruntled pelican — to maintain some semblance of balance. Between the sweating, the waddling, the inability to properly breathe, these hills have unfortunately not always brought out the best in me.
But I stick by them.
Because I love Lisbon, and these hills are as iconically Lisboeta as a sweet creamy bite of pastel de nata or a heartbreakingly dramatic note of fado. And there is something truly special about how the city’s maddeningly sloping terrain forces you to take in its singular personality in every imaginable way. You don’t use just your eyes, your taste buds, your ears to experience the destination. No. Lisbon demands that you use your entire body.
I like that this sharply contoured land gets to make its presence felt in your lungs, too — out of breath as you climb and climb from Avenida da Liberdade to Principe Real. Then you feel your lower back starts to ache and your quads scream from pain with every cobbled stone you pass. That’s the city saying ola. But that’s also you fully engaging with a place that is unlike any other. And unless you’re planning on wasting money on cabs, these hills are almost entirely unavoidable — so you might as well see the beauty in them.
And when you return home, and your stems have never looked better, consider them a gift — a souvenir. Because if you haven’t done them in a while, it’s important to know that in Lisbon, every day is leg day.