The most beautiful ugly city in the world

A young man hawks up a ball of phlegm onto the cobblestone pavement. Nearby, an older gentleman unapologetically walks around shirtless, offending passers-by with his protruding pale belly. Along the bumpy street, graffiti marks each home. It fits in well with the local décor, whereby each apartment is coffee-stained and battered like a pile of books at a flea market. Each house varies in height to the next, as if fifty different architects fought to have their work displayed here.

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At the intersection, I stop to peer through history, counting the fossil layers of eroded bill posters. Above me looms a mountain of untrustworthy scaffolding. The makeshift protective sheets, designed to hide the construction work from public eyes, have been ripped apart. I make sure to move away from the area, unwilling to become a Kevin sandwich.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking; this is beautiful.

For a city at the wrong end of the global financial crisis, Lisbon is surprisingly attractive. Indeed, this is perhaps what makes it so appealing. Unlike its European counterparts, it does not boast classy museums, exquisite architecture, or expansive rail networks. On the contrary, it prides itself on its imperfections: its undulating surfaces, its forgettable history, its retrograde façades. Best of all, Lisbon seems to remain a traveller’s secret; unlike the overpopulated Spain, people don’t bother to include Portugal on their itineraries. As such, Portugal’s capital city remains rather traditional, allowing each visitor to truly live life as a local.

Part of the reason I say this is because I was fortunate enough to see Lisbon with a local either side of me. For the best part of two days, Portuguese couple Diogo and Joanna gave my brother and I the tour of all tours, transforming us from typical drop-in/drop-out sightseers to resident experts.

In Lisbon, the normally mundane practice of clothes drying is made beautiful.

Before our plane touched down in Lisbon, my brother had met Diogo and Joanna only once. By the time we had left for London, this pair had not only provided us with invaluable airport transfers, but had driven us almost 300km across the country, assuming the role of tour guides and educating us on the riches of Lisbon cuisine in the process. I’m inclined to attribute their generosity to the hospitable Portuguese “spirit”, but that would be doing them disservice. Diogo and Joanna, in their own right, were two of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met.

On our final night together, Diogo and Joanna led us through the back alleys of Lisbon’s city centre. They shared the sunset with us at Praça da Comércio, recommended local cheeses when we dined at a secluded dinner venue, and walked us to the top of the town’s famous miradouros (lookouts). It’s one thing to experience this kind of thing with a gang of tourists. It’s another to be the tourist, floating around in your own private universe of aura as locals point at you.

We attempted to finish the night around 9pm, wandering through the labyrinth of Lisbon’s nightlife hub Bairro Alto (pronounced BUY-RALTOE and spurted out at a lightning pace). Here, we searched up and down and left and right for an open pub. If this were Melbourne or London, locating such a venue would be a cinch. In Bairro Alto, though, we were faced with an unlikely crisis; nothing was open… yet. Only two hours later did the party begin to liven. At the turning of the eleventh hour, the cosy streets became clustered with alcohol-clad freshmen and gangs of party-hungry twentysomethings. The trendy restaurants began to shut their doors; the police began their evening stroll. The nightclubs, meanwhile, wouldn’t open for another two hours.

Lisbon sunset

Despite a momentary sample of local life, our tourist profile was about to be reinstated. As we ambled aboard our hostel-bound train station to conclude our day, thousands of Lisbonite residents hopped out to begin theirs.

All this leaves me with an ironic dilemma. My brief Lisbon feast makes me want to recommend this pretty ugly city to the rest of the world. I want to draw European visitors away from the plethora of art galleries and Starbucks and throw them into the narrow alleyways of Alfama, the dark pubs of Bairro Alto, and the panoramic miradouros of Baixo-Chiado.

At the same time, that’s probably the quickest way to pollute Lisbon, to turn its superficial ugliness into something really unpleasant.