If you’re planning to travel to Lisbon in times of COVID-19 please refer to these official sources when planning: COVID-19 Information from the U. S. Embassy in Portugal and Visit Portugal’s COVID-19 | Frequently Asked Questions.
For the sake of clarity, I define a Lisbon tourist trap as a business in the tourism industry that is more interested in turning a quick profit than showcasing the best of the city (and the country) or informing you, the tourist, about the local culture.
The majority of these business owners are masters of spotting a trend among tourists, adjusting their products or services to cater particularly to those consumers (for multiple times the real price of those products and services, of course) and riding the wave until the next fad.
I won’t point out names and addresses and you can do whatever you want with this list of handy tips. If by the end of this blog post you are a little more knowledgeable on how to spot a Lisbon trap, my work will be done. Oh and do share your findings (present or past) with me in the comments below!
The very typical handicrafts (and other souvenir shops)
The one souvenir everyone loves to take home from their most recent destination is a valuable piece of that place’s local handicraft, right?
Produced on a smaller scale, each piece is unique, and for every artisanal work of art you buy, you should feel the story of the person who built it. If you see a shop in Lisbon (I’ll give you a hint, they’re usually in the Chiado and the Baixa quarters) overflowing with “very typical handicrafts” you’re probably stepping inside a major tourist trap. Either that or the owners have a sweatshop in the back where artisans work day and night to produce such exclusive handicrafts…
Also, if you’ll be so kind not to give business to the mass-production industry of low-quality souvenirs when you visit Lisbon, I’ll be your number one fan!
I’m publishing a blog post next month listing my favorite shops to buy souvenirs (design pieces, food, wine, tiles), so bear with me because the list just keeps getting longer.
In the meantime, you can take a look at this blog post I wrote a while back about alternative shopping in Lisbon. It’s a good start!
The restaurants that feel the need to advertise their food to passersby
Some people travel to eat and some people eat to travel (in a city as hilly as Lisbon it’s perfectly understandable that one must constantly stop for fuel in the form of a sitting-down meal or pasteis de nata).
For those who eat to continue to wander around town (probably the majority of us), there comes a time when whatever the menu and whatever the price, we are ready to give in. Millions of tourists around the world make the same mistake over and over again: they look for a place to eat when they’re already raging hungry. Case in point, every time I stepped into a restaurant that turned out to be a tourist trap I was hungry, thirsty, and tired, therefore, the perfect victim.
The typical restaurant in Lisbon that doubles as a tourist trap will exhibit one of these signs (or two, or three, or all of them at the same time):
- A team of employees, that (most of the times) speak a handful of foreign languages in their broken form, standing outside the restaurant and trying to lure you in with promises of special prices “just for you” or “just today” and the best Portuguese cuisine you’ve ever tried in your life.
- A menu that has more pages than the Bible, listing all the possible “typical” dishes in the country and the Iberian Peninsula because it will usually include dishes that are typically Spanish… (for the millionth time, paella is not, never was, and never will be a Portuguese dish). To complement this menu that waiters flip in front of your eyes (“what do you feel like eating? We have it!”), there is usually ghastly photos of said dishes, protected by a thick layer of plastic, plastered on the façade of the restaurant.
- A solicitous waiter so dedicated to you that he/she will take up every second of your time while you’re waiting for your order to recommend this starter, and that snack, and this side dish. They are being so very, very, very nice that you forget to ask if all these recommendations they’re bringing to the table “just for you to taste” will be charged in the end.
- A service so fast that you begin to lose track of what you ordered, what is complimentary, what is paid, and what was included on that special menu the waiter outside told you about.
- A dish that, when served, looks absolutely nothing like the photo in the menu and in a portion that you could swear is a quarter of the size of what you expected.
Are all restaurants with warm and welcoming employees all tourist traps in Lisbon? Of course, not. I shared ten of my favorite restaurants on a guest post for LCS Kitchen and I vouch (very strongly) for any of them.
I can’t account for every single technique these restaurants will come up with (they have years of practice under their belts, my friend) but I would advise you to either research places to eat before you leave your accommodation to explore Lisbon or, in case you’re more of an impromptu traveler, during lunchtime always follow the suits. If there’s a restaurant full of office workers in suits this usually means that the food is good, the prices are affordable or they have a lunch menu option (including dish, drink, and espresso), and that the service is quick (lunch time is only one hour and folks have to leave plenty of free time to discuss important topics at the table between bites).
Plastering specific words on the signboard, doesn’t make a place authentic
If you see petiscos on a menu described like “Portuguese tapas” or “Portuguese-style tapas”, run. There is no such thing. Roughly translated, petiscos means snacks in English, in the sense that it’s food specifically made to eat casually between meals, paired with a nice chilled beer or a glass of wine (or anything else, depending on the season and if you don’t drink alcohol).
The list is long, but petiscos can be anything from tremoços (lupines) and peixinhos da horta (green beans tempura) to rustic bread and cheese (preferably Portuguese). It depends on your appetite, on the size of the group of people you’re with, and if you plan to actually have a full meal or not (trust me, you can live off petiscos).
If you see a menu like the one pictured in the cover of this blog post, does this say “we serve snack-sized Portuguese food” to you? Just because they branded the whole thing around the very Portuguese word petiscos, it doesn’t mean that’s what they serve. Also, notice the high-quality photos… (I’m obviously being ironic). Also, bolo do caco is not a “typical Portuguese bread” (it’s a cake-like flatbread typical of the Madeira island. Although a Portuguese island, no one refers to this bread as typical. At best, they should call it regional.)
Let me now address the case of the “grilled sardines”. Sardines are popular in Lisbon (there’s a reason I wrote a whole post about sardines in Lisbon that remains one of my most-read blog posts of all times).
First of all, the stock of sardines has decreased significantly due to excessive fishing. The MSC Certification (given by the Marine Stewardship Council to sustainable fishing).
Second of all, if you really must eat sardines in Lisbon, they’re in season between June and September (opinions vary, but sardines are basically a fish to be eaten in the Summer).
So, if a restaurant advertises “grilled sardines” all-year-long something is definitely… fishy. I know it’s a horrible pun, but hey!
Bacalhau (salted codfish) on the other hand is great every day of every month of the year.
When they try to present you authentic food with a twist
Ginjinha (cherry liquor) served in dark chocolate cups, pasteis de bacalhau (codfish cakes) with cheese filling, and fresh fruit stands. If you’re in a touristy place right now and look around, you will probably see one of these (or all of these).
These are the least harmless of all tourist traps in the sense that if you’re curious to try them, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t. If they’re trying to sell you these as typical, authentic, local products in Lisbon, rest assured they’re not.
Ginjinha is meant to be drunk from a shot glass (usually plastic because of EU’s sanitary regulations), pasteis de bacalhau are all made of just codfish (and they’re usually this compact, deep-fried mass of fish and parsley and eggs and potatoes), and as much as I’d love that all Portuguese would gladly go to a fruit stand during lunch time to grab a sliced pineapple or watermelon, that’s not gonna happen in the near future. We run faster to an ice-cream truck than we do to a fruit stand (I’d say it’s probably because we don’t trust the quality of that fruit and these only popped up recently with the tourist crowds in mind).
Also, roasted chestnuts (one of my very favorite things to eat in Lisbon) are meant for the fall and the winter. This year, in the first week of September, I saw a guy selling roasted chestnuts. Not only was it still too warm to crave roasted chestnuts but that was clearly a staged activity for tourists only. Oh, and I remember when they used old newspaper sheets to pack the chestnuts for the clients. Now they have these branded paper cones… Not a tourist trap per se, I’m just pointing out a detail in the evolution of the business.
Selling “drugs” in broad daylight and kids working for “charities”
If you’re ever approached by a sketchy-looking guy trying to sell you hashish and wonder why the police don’t do anything about it, no, it’s not because we’re an extremely liberal country when it comes to selling drugs to passersby.
The “drugs” these guys are trying to sell you are actually compressed bay leaves so, technically, since they’re not engaging in an illegal activity, the police can’t arrest them. Most people who fall into this trap and buy the “hashish” most likely won’t go the nearest police station to press charges.
Another famous tourist trap were these groups of kids raising funds for charities, most of which were organizations no one had ever heard about (even in Portugal). A few months ago, these groups were outed by a reporter so I haven’t seen any more of these around. That doesn’t mean they won’t come back one day.
The process was simple. Get a group of kids who could speak foreign languages in a typical tourist spot, teach them the sales pitch for the charity, and appreciate the giver’s gesture with a pin, or a photo, or a card, or a little something made by the people in the “charity” they were raising funds for.
When the public television channel broadcasted the piece, these organizations simply disappeared into thin air. I don’t think most of those kids even knew they were working for an inexistent charity.
I was approached by such groups many times. Most of them would go away the minute I replied to them in Portuguese (they were most likely instructed to target foreigners only) and those who still insisted on talking to me, didn’t know the answer to basic questions like their official address in case I wanted to volunteer directly with them (and when they called for a supervisor, the person in charge would usually tell them to let go and move on to another person).
I doubt this scam will come back but others could. Just try to understand if these charities are real, why they are only targeting large crowds of tourists and why do they ask for a specific amount in exchange for a gift (they usually pitch it like “if you buy this, you’ll be contributing to [insert charitiy name]”).
Santa Justa and tram 28
Let me tell you a secret about the most sought-out landmark in Lisbon, the Santa Justa Lift. It’s just an elevator that connects the street Rua do Ouro in the Baixa quarter to the Carmo Convent ruins in the Chiado quarter. Why the long queue outside this cast-iron beauty designed by Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard (an apprentice of Eiffel)? Because someone one day told the world this was a must-see and everyone seems too stubborn to admit that they’ve seen better or that there’s nothing to it.
Twenty years ago, people did use it as public transport to shorten the way between the two neighborhoods. I remember that. Now, like then, my public transportation pass still gives me access to use the elevator because, guess what, it still is a public transportation. But you don’t see any locals using it anymore because it’s always crowded with tourists.
What exactly happens inside the elevator? Nothing. A ride. You go up and you go down. And, no, you don’t need to get on the elevator to access the viewpoint on the top.
And now for the world-famous tram 28, advertised as the cheapest tour in all of Lisbon, taking you on a trip through the old neighborhoods of the city in the most authentic way. Like Santa Justa, this one is also (you guessed it) a public transportation!
Other ways you can experience the authenticity of Lisbon (with the help or not of public transportation):
- There are over 30 viewpoints in Lisbon, free and paid, explore them.
- Do you want to know the old Lisbon? Walk. All the neighborhoods are within walking distance and, frankly, the city is not that big. If you’re short on time and want to see as much as you can, get on a real tour bus like the hop-on-hop-off ones.
- If you really want the clacketing tram experience, try the 18E (Cais do Sodré/Cemitério da Ajuda), the 25E (Praça da Figueira/Campo de Ourique) or the 12E (Martim Moniz/Martim Moniz, circular). Do remember that these are public transports used frequently by locals and their need and time to go from point A to point B has to be above your need to sightsee.
- Go on a certified paid guided tour (here, check the Lisbon Sustainable Tourism directory to pick one). Look for the ones that keep the groups small and manageable and, please, skip the free tours. Going on a tour with 40 other people (yes, I have seen groups this big) just because it’s free adds nothing to our quality of life as residents or to your enjoyment of the destination. If you like to be paid for your job, pay others to do theirs – don’t tip them in the end based on if you liked it or not.
I do hope you enjoy Lisbon as much as you can when visiting. If you know where to look (and how to look) there are still many pockets of authenticity left to explore.