Lisbon: San Francisco deja vu, a perfect boutique hotel, and playful Portuguese humor

A case of San Francisco déjà vu 

Arriving in Lisbon, Portugal was almost eerie for me! 

As an American kid, I was taught that most of America's historic architecture and city planning was shaped by Europe. Europe set the model, America followed.  

Lisbon was about to send my nicely ordered, round world into orbit around Jupiter. Into a backwards orbit, no less. 

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In an old family mansion and perfume factory, the recently-renovated Monte Belvedere boutique hotel was a highlight of Lisbon for me.

I had chosen the tiny hotel partly because of its central location in the Baixa area of Old Lisbon. It's an easy walk down cobblestone streets to the Bairro Alto, the funicular tram, and the city center.  (I like exploring cities on foot.)

Warm welcome

What a warm welcome I got! Right when I arrived, I was treated to a personalized tour-planning session tailored for how I wanted to spend my long weekend in the city.

Then, the manager brought me downstairs to a charming, stylish room. It was at ground level, but thanks to double-glazed windows, it was surprisingly quiet. I slept soundly that night.

The Monte Belvedere got even better. Read below to learn about its fantastic in-house restaurant, bar and terrace.

Lisbon, Portugal boutique hotel Monte Belvedere by Shiadu

The Monte Belvedere had taken care in its renovation to preserve original floors, moldings and windows. They used bright cherry red paint in my room to highlight a preserved arch, now part of the wall. The bathroom was modern and clean.

Madame Petisca Restaurante, Bar e Terraço

The Monte Belvedere kept offering pleasant surprises. Up on the rooftop, I sat back to savor a  5-course homemade dinner with wines, at an incredibly low price. When the waiter saw that I was puzzling over which dinner item on the prix fixe menu was the most "vegetarian-ish" for me, the cook whipped up an amazing creation just for me on the spot. More warmth!  The staff here must love their jobs.

The hotel's rooftop terrace, with the Madame Petisca Restaurante, Bar e Terraço, is open from noon to midnight. It puts you at the summit of Santa Catarina, one of Lisbon's 7 hills. Half of the terrace is enclosed in glass walls, so you can enjoy the view fully.  

Heady thoughts

They say Santa Catarina is where locals used to watch ships arriving from India on the Tagus River hundreds of years ago ... back when Portugal was a world power and the globe was still being mapped. At dusk, looking over the river just before the electric lights come on, you can almost imagine stepping back to that time. 

This weeknight, the neighborhood, full of period charm and quiet, narrow, streets, felt safe. I wanted very much to stay longer at the Monte Belvedere, but I had booked late and they were full all weekend. (Booking note: They tend to be booked at least a month ahead.) So I moved to a convent. Literally. 

That might have been just as well in my case—I tend to turn in early when I travel solo. The area has gotten trendy for bars, so the streets get pretty busy on weekend nights. For you, that weekend vibe might be perfect! 

Portugal Bridge Of 25 April Ponte 25 De Abril Lisbon

Golden Gate bridge or Lisbon's Ponte 25 De Abril? Lisbon.

Déjà vu, continued from top

I'd been away from my old home in San Francisco for some time, and I was still missing it terribly.​ San Francisco, if you've never been there, is a charm-packed, cozy human-scaled city built on seven steep hills. It has antique cablecars that still clang up and down the town. And of course everyone knows its Golden Gate bridge—which visitors are always surprised to discover isn't golden, but rust-colored.

San Francisco, I'd always thought, was a one-of-a-kind city like no other place on earth.​

I was excited to visit historic Lisbon. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Portuguese empire made it a global epicenter for maritime trade. It powered the colonization of Brazil, Angola in Africa, Bahrain, Goa in India, Macau, Mozambique and more. I have friends from these far-flung parts of the world who have Portuguese ancestry and names, and I was going to see a part of the world that helped create and shape them. I expected great moments in history to jump in my head at every turn.

Everything did jump. But backwards.

Lisbon looked like San Francisco. 

San Francisco has seven hills. Lisbon has seven hills. They've both been razed by devastating earthquakes and rebuilt. Both have fog and maritime climates.

OK, but neither city created its geography, right? Those were just cool coincidences. It's a few steps later that things get weird. For me anyway.

San Francisco California Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate bridge or Lisbon's Ponte 25 De Abril? Golden Gate.

Monte-Belvedere boutique hotel in Lisbon

The Monte Belvedere boutique hotel in Lisbon (see above) became an all-time favorite. Here, the view over the Tagus River from the rooftop cafe.

What was going on inside General Salazar's head?

The late Portuguese dictator, General Salazar, hired a San Francisco bridge building company to construct a suspension bridge across the Tagus River in 1958. The thing is, it looks an awful lot like the Golden Gate bridge, which opened in 1937. It's even the same color. 

Virtual reality?

Looking at this not-quite-exact replica from my hotel's rooftop, I was feeling achingly homesick and a little unsettled. It was like the Golden Gate, but not quite. It was painted the precise same International Orange color, but the houses across the river were different. Both bridges were long, but the Lisbon bridge, called the Ponte de 25 Abril, was almost a fifth shorter.  

Well, I thought, maybe it's just a fluke. Why would a proud city more ancient than Rome copy a place across the planet? Must be my homesickness kicking in.

Window style-alikes

The next day, I went for a walk.  I found myself in a neighborhood of older row houses. They were spaced about exactly the same as in SF, at the same heights. (It turns out the cities are of similar sizes too).

The houses all had San Francisco-style Queen Anne and Edwardian (in other words, very modern for historic Lisbon) bay windows affixed to them.

Was homesickness for my old city warping my brain?

Cable cars far from home

Then I saw the cable cars. Art deco-style, from the late 1920s. 

San Francisco invented the cable car. In 1873.​

These, like the bridge, were bought from America!

isbon Europe Old Town City Night Portugal

Cable car in Lisbon's Old Town

Wandering Christ

But at least I wasn't from Rio de Janeiro. I'd been there, and I'd seen its iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer, built in 1922. Lisbon had ... well, have a look below.

Lisbon or Rio Christ Jesus statues

Is it Lisbon's 1959 statue or Rio's 1922 one? (Hint: Lisbon is the foggy maritime city.)

Lisbon is led by its people now.

A wish

I hope you let other places emulate you, Lisbon.  I hope your elaborately-tiled façades, your plaintive fado melodies, your delicious pastels de nata, plus all the things a tourist never perceives are what come to shape your future.

Mischievous street art

All the Portuguese I met were pleasant, and rather sober people. Going by their street art, however, there's a playful, mischievous sense of humor bubbling just below the surface.

Lisbon Portugal street art humor

Cheeky humor, this time next to a parking lot under a bridge.

Lisbon Portugal fish padlock

This Lisbon fish has it all locked up.

Lisbon Portugal graffiti street art

Lisbon was happy to share its mischievous sense of humor all over its buildings.

Lisbon Portugal street art humor

Was this alligator sent to find the bandito, above?

York House Lisboa: An historic convent turned boutique hotel 

After the Monte Belvedere filled up, off I went to my second boutique inn in Lisbon, a 33-room historic former Carmelite convent York House Lisboa in Janelas Verdes, 10 minutes from downtown.

It didn't start out in a promising way, unfortunately.  I can say that I gained immense respect for the 17th century Carmelite nuns who once lived there. My room was down a dark, damp, narrow corridor in the old nuns' quarters.

Ohh those nuns did not lead glamorous lives, I thought.

Once in the small, dim, low-ceilinged room with a tiny window, I started coughing. Asthma. Triggered by mildew. I called the front desk to apologize that I wouldn't be able to breathe in their assigned room; did they have any options?

Lisbon's converted Carmelite nun convent, The York Hotel

The highlight of Lisbon's converted Carmelite nun convent, The York House, is its courtyard.

The staff were eager to help.  

The new room couldn't have been more different. High up, bright and airy, it had hardwood floors and no dampness to be found. 

The hotel's bright spot, though, was its courtyard (above), a green sanctuary for dining al fresco. 

Personally, I'll pass on the York in my next visit, but if you do try it, I recommend requesting the upper rooms!

LISBON PORTUGAL best hotel

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