Home Features Lisbon: A favourite city is now becoming swamped by visitors

Lisbon: A favourite city is now becoming swamped by visitors

Alfama, old quarter Lisbon in 2016. I suspect this scene has now disappeared.

My first Lisbon visit was back in 2016. The Portuguese capital was a latecomer to my list of “must visit” cities.

I loved Lisbon then. It was a place I could easily have lived in — if I had spoken Portuguese, that is. It is historic, stylish and had real character. But most important for me, it had largely escaped gentrification. Real people lived in the city, particularly in the old quarter, Alfama. See photo below.

Back in 2016, there were plenty of tourists in Lisbon but they had not swamped the city.

Big changes

When we visited Lisbon again in 2018 we felt that it had changed. Tourist numbers appeared to have increased exponentially due to the number of cruise ships making day stops and new airline routes opening up. Lisbon Airport passengers had increased by nearly ten per cent in 2018 over 2017 and I am sure 2019 will see a similar rise.

Lisbon had become a hot tourist destination and also, because of the relatively low property prices and the attractiveness of the city, a fashionable place to invest in and live. Even Madonna has purchased a “pad” — actually a minor palace — in Sintra, outside Lisbon.

More shocks

This year’s visit, last month, was a shock. Lisbon is being swamped by tourists. There were three huge cruise ships visiting on the day of our stay. This probably meant a minimum of 12,000 passengers swamping the centre of the city.

The airport is also flat out around the clock. Early in the morning and in the evening you can see the aircraft landing lights as they line up, coming into land. The airport is bedlam.

Buses and trams are packed. The traffic is as bad as in Sydney. And new building, gentrification and refurbishment are everywhere. The old Lisbon is disappearing fast. My dream city has disappeared.

Alfama, old quarter Lisbon in 2016. I suspect this scene has now disappeared.
Alfama, old quarter Lisbon in 2016. I suspect this scene has now disappeared.
A TAP jet en route to Lisbon airport. There is another one coming in on the left just out of the frame
A TAP jet en route to Lisbon airport. There is another one coming in on the left just out of the frame
Essential Lisbon: The wonderful trams.
Essential Lisbon: The wonderful trams.

Tram fan

The wonderful trams are still there and are a valued means of transport for the residents as well as a major touris drawcard. I love Lisbon’s trams. But beware of pickpockets and hold on tight.

Many old shops and cafes are still there but others are being forced out and replaced by multinationals. How can the Portuguese, with their love of coffee, possible tolerate having Starbucks in their beautiful capital?

A favourite haunt for us in Lisbon is the Madeira Shop on Praça Dom Pedro IV. It is tiny but it is in a prime position and the proprietor and his wife — pictured below — have run it since 1959. Both over eighty and serve in the shop every day, although their daughter does “help out”.


The Madeira Shop sells beautiful hand-made products from the Portuguese island of Madeira. The shop is so modest from the outside that most passers-by would miss it and, as the owner explained to us, nowadays very few people appreciate hand-made products. They prefer to buy something cheap made in China or stitched together by child labour in a sweatshop in Bangladesh rather than an item lovingly crafted by hand.

We have bought at the Madeira Shop on every visit but, sadly, I fear that its days are numbered.

The tiny Madeira shop
The tiny Madeira shop

The owners of the Madeira shop
The owners of the Madeira shop
Nicola cafe. Vintage Lisbon. Close to the Madeira shop.
Nicola cafe. Vintage Lisbon. Close to the Madeira shop.

Hotel gem

On our three visits to Lisbon, we have stayed at a wonderful little hotel near the National Museum of Antiquities. It is away from the centre, in a quiet neighbourhood, but very close to bus and tram routes. Nearby is a set of steps down to the waterfront.

Sunrise in Lisbon.
Sunrise in Lisbon.

As usual, I was up at the crack of dawn — in fact before dawn — when I came across this scene above with the old guy watching a glorious sunrise. He started talking to me and seemed to be completely unconcerned that I could not understand a word he was saying. I mouthed “Australiano” and pointed at myself. But on he jabbered. Perhaps he thought that we speak Portuguese Downunder.

  • All images taken with the Leica Q

You can find more from John Shingleton, at The Rolling Road. And on Instagram

More articles by John Shingleton on Macfilos


  1. Well, the irony of course is that the author is himself part of the problem.

    Here in Barcelona it is completely out of control. We live in the centre, but are moving out as most of the local shops are being replaced by tourist junk shops, expensive restaurants and bars. It is like living in a surreal Disneyland, where the traditional flower shops on La Rambla are replaced with stalls selling the tourists seeds for flowers shaped like genitalia and plastic cacti. The local culture prizes profit above all else – it is as much a problem with local governance as it is of the tourists.

    Sadly, most of the people that visit here seem to have little interest in the city beyond being able to show off their social status for being able to visit somewhere that seems to them “exotic”.

    BTW, Martin Parr (who else!) did quite a good series on the over-exploitation of tourism…

    • Mark , yes I do realise that I am part of the problem although I should say that I don’t travel on cruise ships and we have made a very conscious decision to travel to less popular destinations in recent times-see my Macfilos stories on Oman, Romania etc -and I am very aware of the local culture wherever I travel.

      Flying direct from Australia you have no option but to fly into Lisbon and it takes me a couple of days to get over the jetlag before I feel ready to jump into a rental car and head off on the”other” side of the road and into the country. On this recent trip to Portugal apart from Lisbon we spent three weeks staying in small towns and villages well away from the madding hordes of tourists.
      I know that flying -particularly from Australia -is damaging to the environment but I cannot do a Greta Thornberg and travel to Europe by yacht. I’d be seasick before we were clear of Sydney Harbour and my wife would be seasick before they had cast off.

  2. We’re rapidly approaching an era where access to the most popular tourist destinations will have to be severely limited and likely priced at a high premium. It’s quite likely that we will see tourist attractions develop fully-fledged VR apps to allow those who can’t afford the premium or hate the hassle to visit in the comfort of their own home.

    You can see the list and can see the opportunities for those tourist destinations to make still more money…

  3. Its the same here in Dublin where I live with regular cruise ship visits and an expanding airport. Plenty of visitors bringing in money, but a much less pleasant city to live in. This is a global problem caused by rising incomes, cheap air travel and manic cruise ship travel. We all want to have been everywhere and to have photos to prove it. It is all becoming a bit pointless and circular. For those who really, really want to travel regularly there are still plenty of places to visit that are comparatively uncrowded, but you can still enjoy yourself and take plenty of photos by staying at home.


  4. Visited Angkor Wat in 2005 and again in ‘07 (I lived in Vietnam at the time). In ‘05 Siem Reap (the nearby town) was little more than a village with one resort hotel. Two years later it could only be described as a city. The speed of tourist growth was so fast it was hard to comprehend. In terms of job creation though, it was a major boon to the people of the area. I don’t know what it would be like to live in an established major city that suddenly becomes a Disneylike environment. That would be a whole different thing.

  5. Steve, I had exactly the same experience with Hoi An in Vietnam. We visited in 2000 a year after the beautiful little village had been granted UNESCO World Heritage status. It was a delightful place. When we came back in 2009 it had changed so much that driving into the misnamed ‘village” I did not recognise it and thought that I had arrived at a Vietnamese Disneyland. It was truly awful. We could not get out fast enough. I cannot understand how it has kept its World Heritage status unless they are now awarding it for overall tackiness. If that is the case Hoi An is a worthy recipient.

    • Vietnam is moving at an incredible pace. I was looking at some photos of the Saigon skyline recently and could not recognise the city I’d live in for several years just a few years before. Then again, I once read a piece by Betjeman bemoaning the urbanisation of Oxford, written in 1928.

  6. Enjoyed the good atmospheric photos, John. As you may know, the initials of the Portuguese airline – TAP – stand for “Take Another Plane”. Sounds as if that should be recycled as “Take Another Place”.

  7. unfortunately, this phenomenom tend to happen everywhere. Any place of character whteher it is inland or by the sea immediately turns into a disneyland park. It applies even to small villages in France where they are turned into long lines of souvenir shops. Sadly, I don’t think that trend will be on the decline in the years to come.

  8. Jean, fortunately it’s not all as bad as you suggest. There are numerous places of character and natural beauty in Australia which are totally free of crowds- in some cases even almost totally free of people and the nearest souvenir shops are a very long way away.
    Almost all of them are not easy to reach and the tyranny of distance will protect them in the foreseeable future.

  9. We last visited Lisbon in 2014 and it was an unspoiled gem at that time. I am sorry to hear that it has changed so much, but then I saw similar changes to Prague in 2017. The Charles bridge was so choked with people we were walking shoulder to shoulder with strangers. It didn’t matter where we went, the main square, the old Jewish quarter, the river front, everywhere was a sea of humanity. I doubt we’ll go back.

  10. I did have Lisbon on my list of cities i want to visit in future years. And the images look nice, and do the Q justice as I would expect. But I find the over expansion of tourists taking over would probably ruin the experience for me. I like to see and find new people, but I would prefer to see the local populous rather than a load of other people visiting.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences John.


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