Lisbon’s Streetcars: On the Right Track

Things to Do — By Paul Bernhardt on May 27, 2011 at 9:33 am

It doesn’t take much to remind me why I’ve made Lisbon my home for the past 15 years. In fact, a morning bica – a beautifully rich black coffee with a soul-stirring aroma – usually does the trick.

But for a real pick-me-up it has to be a ride on one of the city’s iconic old-style trams.

These venerable streetcars are an endearing feature of the urban makeup and some of the most attractive and eclectic neighbourhoods in the capital are served by these whimsical lemon-hued carriages.

"Tram 28-1"

Photo: www.paulbernhardtphoto.com

Tram 28 is the one to catch. Departing from Martim Moniz, in Lisbon’s Baixa (downtown) district, the car makes short thrift of arrow-straight Avenida Almirante Reis before swinging a right at Rua Maria Andrade. A rich, nutty aroma from a nearby wholesale coffee warehouse often hangs in the air here and is thoroughly intoxicating.

The tram (eléctrico in Portuguese), by now invariably crammed with commuters, then climbs obediently to Graça, a compact and spirited enclave perched on one of Lisbon’s seven hills and bursting at the seams with local character.

From here the nimble eléctrico glides down Rua da Voz do Operário to pause outside the impressive 17th-century Igreja de São Vicente da Fora. If it’s a Tuesday or Saturday morning, this is where to alight for the Feira da Ladra, Lisbon’s boisterous flea market.

"Tram 28-2"

Photo: www.paulbernhardtphoto.com

Onwards, and number 28 enters the warren-like maze of streets that is Alfama. Slowing to negotiate an impossibly tight hairpin bend at Calçada de São Vicente, the tram, hissing and protesting, squeezes through a road so narrow that bemused passengers can actually lean out of the windows and brush the pastel-coloured facades with their hands.

Cheeky youngsters dash after the car as it gathers momentum, chasing their quarry over the cobble-stoned Rua das Escolas Gerais. Others cheat, and hitch a ride on the rear running boards while pulling faces at passers-by.

Bowling into Largo das Portas do Sol, it’s very tempting to alight here. The views back across the terracotta rooftops take in the ivory-white dome of Igreja de Santa Engrácia-Panteão Nacional and the gleaming River Tagus. Pictorially, this is one of the most rewarding stages of the trip.

"Tram-28-3"

Photo: www.paulbernhardtphoto.com

The tram meanders downhill to meet the landmark cathedral (Sé) and then trundles through Lisbon’s vibrant heart like a favourite toy steered by a happy child.

Elegant Chiado marks the halfway point. Lined with boutiques and cafés, the polished tracks skirt Museu do Chiado before traversing picturesque Praça Luís de Camões.

Another hill. This time it’s the spectacularly long and steep Calçada do Combro. The direction from Martim Moniz means it’s a downward roll, and only the fittest would walk back up this monster slope.

"Tram-28-4"

Photo: www.paulbernhardtphoto.com

Through São Bento – home to the Portuguese parliament building – and upwards, the roller-coaster ride screeches on in earnest. Shortly, the fragrant, semi-tropical Jardim da Estrela looms into view. Estrela is a leafy, laid-back neighbourhood famous for the magnificent domed 18th-century Basílica da Estrela.

Most passengers, at least tourists, jump off here to wander the tranquil gardens or to check out the church.

Those completing the journey to nearby Prazeres (a lovely word meaning “pleasures” often used when greeting people for the first time) will be rewarded with one last important landmark, another church – Igreja de Nossa Senhora Auxiliadora, on Praça de São João Boscoa, a striking example of 1960s urban architecture.

Want another go? Grab that bica, wait fifteen minutes and do the whole thing again in reverse order.

Tags: "journey", "sightseeing", "Tram 28", "tram ride" "streetcar", "travel", "trip", eléctrico"