How to spot a tourist trap in Lisbon
Tourist traps are businesses more interested in turning a quick profit than showcasing the best of the city (and the country) or informing you about the local culture.
Most of these business owners are masters of spotting a tourism trend, adjusting their overpriced products or services to cater especially to those consumers, 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 you are a little more knowledgeable on how to spot a Lisbon trap by the end of this blog post, my work will be done.
"Very typical" handicrafts and 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? Each piece should be unique, produced on a small scale, and for every artisanal item you buy, you should feel the story of the person who built it.
If you see a Lisbon shop (usually in the Chiado and the Baixa neighborhoods) overflowing with “very typical handicrafts,” you’re stepping inside a major tourist trap.
The restaurants advertising their food to people on the street
Some people travel to eat, and some people eat to travel. In a city as hilly as Lisbon, it’s acceptable to stop for fuel in the form of a sitting-down meal or pasteis de nata.
Occasionally, you’ll get so distracted wandering around town that you skip a meal. At those times, you ignore menus and price points. We’ve all made the mistake of looking for a place to eat when we’re already raging hungry.
These are the signs of a typical tourist trap restaurant in Lisbon:
- A team of employees standing outside the restaurant and luring 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 with 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 (paella isn’t a Portuguese dish). There are usually ghastly stock photos of said dishes plastered on the façade of the restaurant.
- A devoted waiter so dedicated to you that they’ll 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 they’ll charge all these recommendations they’re bringing to the table “just for you to taste.”
- A service so fast that you begin to lose track of what you ordered, what is and isn’t complimentary, 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 on the menu and 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 can vouch for any of them.
I can’t keep track of every single technique these restaurants will develop (they have years of practice under their belts). But I would advise you to either research places to eat before leaving your hotel. In case you’re more of an improvised traveler, always follow “the suits” at lunchtime.
If there’s a restaurant full of office workers in suits, this usually means the food is good, prices are affordable or they have a lunch menu option (including dish, drink, and espresso), and that the service is quick.
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.
Loosely translated, petiscos means snacks in English. It’s the food we 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. It depends on your appetite, the size of the group of people you’re with, and whether you plan to actually have a full meal or not (trust me, you can live off petiscos).
Let me now address the case of the grilled sardines. Sardines are popular in Lisbon.
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.
On the other hand, bacalhau (salted cod) 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.
The scams: "drug" dealers and "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, it’s not because we’re an extremely progressive country.
The “drugs” are actually pressed bay leaves, so, technically, since they’re not engaging in illegal activity, the police can’t arrest them. Most people who fall into this trap and buy the “hashish” most likely won’t go to the nearest police station to press charges.
Another famous scam were these groups of kids raising funds for charities, most of which were organizations no one had ever heard about. After these groups were outed by a reporter, I haven’t seen any more of these around. That doesn’t mean they won’t come back one day.
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 them many times. Most of them would go away the minute I replied to them in Portuguese (they were instructed to target foreigners only). Those who still insisted on talking to me didn’t know the answer to basic questions like their official address if 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. Try to understand if these charities are real, are only targeting large crowds of tourists, and asking for a specific amount in exchange for a gift.
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 Rua do Ouro in the Baixa neighborhood to the Carmo Convent ruins in Chiado.
Why the long line outside this cast-iron beauty designed by Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard (an apprentice of Eiffel) then? Because someone one day told the world this was a must-see.
Twenty years ago, people used 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 public transportation. But you hardly see any locals using it 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 city’s old neighborhoods in the most authentic way. Like Santa Justa, this one is also (you guessed it) 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 explore old Lisbon? Walk. All the neighborhoods are within walking distance and, frankly, the city is not that big. If you’re in a hurry 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 tram experience, try the 18E (Cais do Sodré/Cemitério da Ajuda), the 24E (Largo Camões/Campolide), the 25E (Praça da Figueira/Campo de Ourique), or the 12E (Martim Moniz/Martim Moniz, circular). Do remember that these are public transports too, used frequently by locals. Their need to go from point A to point B has to be above your need to sightsee.
- Go on a paid guided tour. 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 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.