My mum is 88. She’s a walker. Not a walker in the same sense as we’re walkers. She never really went on hikes as such, but she’s always walked just about everywhere. It’s what you do when you live on a small Scottish island like Bute. She still regularly heads off on her own to follow a flat walking trail along disused tram tracks between a lone church where my Gran is buried and Ettrick Bay, a beach which if it was in the Med would draw tourists in their masses. But she struggles with hills these days, and Lisbon is a famously hilly city.
We wanted to show her Lisbon’s capital, but didn’t want to exhaust her. There was one obvious and delightfully retro way to achieve this – the old tram.
Not tram 28
We’ve abandoned numerous attempts to experience the tram route which is a ‘must’ in guidebooks. Praça Martim Moniz used to be the place to catch the 28 to avoid queues. Not now. Thanks to social media everyone knows that tip. Subsequently, the queue there is soul destroying. Additionally, the 28 is almost always packed to capacity. Not only are journeys uncomfortable, especially if you’re a wee octogenarian wummin, it’s a pickpocket’s paradise.
A more comfortable alternative was to travel the same route as the 28 in an equally rickety tram built in the early 20th century, but a red tourist one.
There are three major differences between jumping on a red tram in Lisbon and squeezing onto the iconic number 28 which shakes, rattles, and rolls its way around the streets of Portugal’s capital.
One is the cost. Two is on one you get a seat, on the other you experience what sardines in cans in Lisbon’s tinned fish shops feel like. Three is one tram is red, the other is yellow.
The red tourist tram – the cost and benefits
At €18pp the red tram is three times more expensive than the 28. But you are guaranteed a seat; have an audio guide to tell you all about the streets you pass through; and get free access to the Aerobus (connecting the city with the airport), Carris Lisbon Public Transports trams, as well as the Santa Justa Lift and funiculars. A ticket also entitles holders to discounted entry to some monuments and museums.
(The €18 price tag was booking online at Hop on, Hop off Bus Tours. It’s slightly more expensive to buy tickets in the city.)
Catching the red tram
In theory this is a doddle of a process – red trams leave from Praça do Comércio every 25/30 mins. The Hop on, Hop off website advises “No need to redeem! Just show your voucher to the driver or the boat captain at the stop you’re joining from.” But it also states – “We’d recommend you arrive 15 minutes before the tram departure you wish to be on – to allow time to validate your voucher.”
For obvious reasons it’s easy to find the red tram stop opposite Arco da Rua Augusta. However, at the stop was a stationary red tram, a green tram, and a pool of confused people waiting to board something. Andy and my mum joined the small queue whilst I went in search of someone who might be able to make sense of what happened next.
It took me a while to find the tram tour rep as he was lurking inside a small shelter with his back facing the world outside, head down concentrating on his phone. He was amiable when I collared him, but he could have done with being more proactive rather than reactive. The people around us were equally unsure of what they were supposed to do, or which tram they should jump on.
After a few questions I discovered a) the green tram was only for tour groups and b) the printed voucher I had in my hand had to be redeemed for a ticket at the company’s kiosk located 100m away at the corner of Praça do Comércio and Rua do Arsenal. I could have done with knowing that upfront as a red tram departed in the time it took me to swap voucher for ticket.
The red tourist tram – the experience
From then it was plain sailing. We jumped on the next red tram to arrive, took to our wooden seats, plugged in the audio guides, sat back, and enjoyed the rickety ride.
The tram trundled inland through Baixo to Praça Martim Moniz where we sat in traffic for an interminable period due to a build up of trams in the square. I admit to feeling a tad smug as we rattled past the long queue for the No28 and a convoy of yellow trams packed to the gunwales. From there our tram climbed through Mouraria and then Alfama, where there’s a hop on, hop off stop at Portas do Sol, before cutting back across Baixo Chiado and up through Bairro Alto to the Basílica da Estrela. At the Basílica it turned sharp south to skirt Lapa before veering east to run parallel to the Tagus before returning to Praça do Comércio an hour and a half after setting off.
It had been a slow voyage through Lisbon’s narrow streets, which was exactly what we hoped for. From our shaded vantage point within the charming old tram, we watched at leisure a gradually unfolding diorama of life in the city’s historic streets, with scenic highlights occasionally thrown in. The audio guide, although difficult to hear in some parts (old trams are very noisy), added colour and meat; there were a few nuggets we hadn’t known previously. A newfound respect for tram drivers was also gained as we watched ours negotiate badly parked delivery vans and clueless pedestrians. It was delightfully slow travel in all senses of the phrase and my mum loved it, as did we.
On a hot, sunny day in October it was an unusual way to enjoy some of the best of Lisbon without breaking sweat.