There’s a Portuguese saying that roughly translates into “good behavior starts at home.” It’s meant for ill-behaved kids but could very well adjust to tourists.
Being a “good” tourist is not as hard as it sounds and nearly every responsible tourism guide covers it: don’t do things at your destination that you wouldn’t do in your home country. It’s not rocket science and you don’t need a fifty-page essay-size list of rules to abide. But you’ll need some tips and we at Devour Lisbon put together four golden rules of how to be a responsible tourist in Lisbon.
1. Choosing Accommodation
Short-term rentals were a blessing in 2011 when the Portuguese struggled during the economic crisis. Renting their house to tourists staying in the city for a couple of weeks meant residents could keep up with mortgage payments. Travelers to Lisbon, on the other hand, got the coveted like-a-local experience. It was a win-win situation.
But then tourism exploded and short-term rentals exploded, with real estate dealers buying whole buildings for a bargain and selling them to investors and entrepreneurs who turned them into apartments for tourists only. Alfama, the oldest and most typical neighborhood in Lisbon, was the first to feel that wave and not in a good way.
Of course, tourists alone can’t solve the current housing crisis in Lisbon and for families traveling together renting an apartment is simpler, more comfortable, and cheaper than booking a hotel.
If staying at a hotel is not a viable option, choose a short-term rental in a less crowded area of the city (it’s easy to spot on any Lisbon map online) or, when possible, rent a room instead of the whole unit. Dismiss any so-called “superhosts” with more than one unit to rent or with all units in the same building. That’s a key sign of companies disguised as local entrepreneurs trying to make a side income.
2. Avoiding Free Tours
Not tipping is an option in Portugal. Not paying for a service, is not. In cafes, restaurants, hotels, taxis this is obvious. So why shouldn’t you pay for a guided tour? With the spread of free tours in Lisbon, travelers seem to have forgotten that a tour is not something put together for their amusement but a professional service. Both sides, of the offer and the demand, are responsible for this as we’ll discuss next.
Regardless if tourists intend to pay their guide handsomely with a generous tip in the end, it’s not enough to break the loop. Professionals should be paid for their work and their expertise. Customer service exists to deal with the situations when the service provided was not fitting. In addition to all these issues, free tour groups are often too large to manage because the guide needs to account for a reasonable revenue in the end. So, “the more, the merrier” is the motto, but navigating around large groups makes daily life challenging for locals.
If you can’t afford a tour, explore the city on your own with the help of a free mobile app. Sure, it will lack the human touch and the knowledge of a professional guide, but who knows where your explorations will lead you.
3. Souvenirs: the Offer and Demand Loop
Speaking of the offer and demand loop, buying Lisbon souvenirs is tricky for the misinformed particularly, if the unique souvenir you’re looking for is Portuguese tiles (azulejos).
This is a typical scenario: you’re strolling through Feira da Ladra (Lisbon’s flea market) and come across the irresistible bargain of antique tiles. You’re so focused on this rare find that there are questions that don’t even cross your mind. Like, how authentic are they? Or where do they come from? And the vendors know this well. But because there’s high demand, they continue to offer it.
Two things can happen. Either the tiles are antique, but they’re 19th-century industrial. Meaning, technically, they’re still antiques, but the value is not as high as they lead you to believe. Or, they are historical tiles illegally carved off protected buildings.
It’s not less authentic to buy a tile that was handmade last week or the mismatched leftovers of a 1960s collection. At Devour Lisbon we believe the value of a souvenir comes from its story, not the price tag or the rareness.
4. Using Public Transportation
To (almost) perfectly navigate the public transportation system in another city, you need to master yours in your hometown or at least understand how it works. If you’re not a public transportation user in your country, there’s a big chance you’ll struggle elsewhere, because it is a system you learn over time and with a lot of practice.
Learning how much a ticket costs and where to buy it is a start but it’s not enough. Some basic ground rules include respecting the line, waiting for people to come out of the Metro before getting in, knowing where to exit from the bus (in Portugal, it’s the back), and giving up your seat to those who need it most (for reference, the seats are of a different color).
Ask yourself if you really need to take that bus or if you can replace a ride on Lisbon tram 28 with any other streetcar? Knowing the walking distance from point A to point B is a smartphone app away and perfect to readjust your planning. And, a secret tip, if you’re in the tram line for the vehicle, not the route, trams 12E, 18E, 24E, and 25E are equally old, yellow, and Instagrammable.
Calling all curious travelers! Do you love connecting with the local community while in a new place? We’re right there with you. We’d love to keep connecting you to Lisbon through our newsletter. It comes out a couple of times a month, brimming with dispatches on culture, recipes, tips and even a discount or two!
Sandra Henriques Gajjar is a freelance web content writer and travel blogger born in the Azores and based in Lisbon for 20+ years. Since 2014 she’s been blogging about travel, culture, and the people she meets in between at Tripper, a blog on sustainable cultural tourism.