It’s our first full day in Lisbon and we are ready to get out and see the city. Our plan? We are going to hop on the #28 tram to get a feel for the city. Afterwards, we will visit the Castelo. Little did we know that that would be too aggressive of a plan and that we would only get through the first item on our list!
The #28 tram is one of the most iconic experiences in Lisbon. Practically every guidebook or travel website will list this as a top thing to do in the city. The bright yellow vintage tram winds its way throughout the impossibly narrow cobblestone streets of the city. Along the way you catch a glimpse of many of the major tourist sites from Praça Martim Moniz to Campo de Ourique.
Let me say that I don’t doubt for a second the potential for the tram to be a top experience; however, in the middle of the summer, nearing peak tourist season, the actual experience of riding the #28 tram falls short. The lines are ridiculously long (we waited 2.5 hours just to get on it) and the tram itself is crowded and hot. Sadly, whatever charm was to be had in actually riding the tram was fleeting.
The best part of the tram experience was riding in the tram as it slowly made its way along some impossibly narrow cobblestone streets. At times the streets were so narrow that you could lean out and touch the beautifully tiled buildings passing by.
The worst part of the tram experience was when the driver unceremoniously yelled, “GET OUT!” at the end of our journey.
It turns out the tram ride is a one-way trip. We slowly filed out only to discover another line waiting to return to the place we started. At this point, we are going on a full three hours since we started this experience. We were hot, hungry, and ready to turn on each other any moment. We decided then and there to walk away and find a place to eat. And you know what? Something wonderful happened.
It didn’t take too long to find a local place for our late lunch of cold, garlicky gazpacho, grilled Portuguese sausages, local beer, and freshly squeeze orange juice. It was great and helped take the edge off quickly. And just as we were nearing the end of our meal, Alfredo walked into our life.
We could hear him coming a mile away. A booming voice speaking in Portuguese to passersby growing louder and louder from behind. Suddenly he was there, a spry 87 year old man with a huge smile and a newspaper tucked under his arm. He pulled out the chair at the table next to us, looked us over, and belted out a hearty, “Bom gia!”
Meeting Alfredo was an amazing experience. He shared with us his stories of growing up in Lisbon and his love of dancing, fado, and his family. He shared stories of taking his children, his grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren to the nearby beaches and teaching them how to swim.
He laughed heartily telling us he could never go to America because smoking is illegal. “What kind of place is that?” he declared as he laughed. We laughed too and at that moment I realized that he reminded me of my own grandfather who had passed away several years ago – loud and talkative with an edge and a twinkle in his eye.
Soon it was time to go and he helped us figure out how to get back to our neighborhood. He wrote out the directions in beautiful cursive and took the time to explain every step we would need to take to return to our home. We wished each other a good life and within a few minutes a bus arrived to take us back to our starting point.
I personally think that the #28 tram is overrated and it’s hard for me to give it an enthusiastic recommendation, especially during peak tourist season. There are other and better ways to see the same sights such as hiring a tuk-tuk (I’ll share more about the tuk-tuks in a later post). In the end, taking the tram opened us up to a personal and local interaction we otherwise would not have experienced. We met Alfredo and our trip to Lisbon was that much better because of this real and authentic encounter.
For me, that’s the magic and best part of travel. It’s not about seeing the sights and buying souvenirs. It’s about the real and human connections you can make in a place that is totally new. In the end, those are the memories that will endure.
In travel and in life, it’s the connections that count.
Dorothy Hoffman is the creator of the travel blog, Squirts and Seniors. She is a Gen X-er who writes about traveling at home and abroad with her young son and aging parents.