LISBON—These days, a typical trip to Lisbon can seem a lot like a visit to Disneyland: beset by mile-long lines, hours of tedious waiting and plenty of jostling, rubbing of elbows, and wading through thickets of selfie sticks.
Long little more than an obscure, crumbling afterthought on Western Europe’s farthest edge, the Portuguese capital has emerged in recent years as one of the continent’s hottest tourist destinations—and it has the crowds to prove it. More than 4 million visitors now descend on this city of just over 500,000 inhabitants annually, meaning that Lisbon is now thicker per capita with tourists than London and even Barcelona or Prague.
But a visit to Lisbon doesn’t have to be spent in endless queues. The city is chock-full of gardens and parks that have mercifully remained off the itinerary for most visitors and often even go overlooked by residents. And whether pocket-sized or sprawling, Lisbon’s green spaces offer calm, contemplative spots to escape the maddening crowds, savor the city’s raw beauty, and bask in the decadent, bygone ambiance of the pre-hype Lisbon of old.
Jardim Botânico da Ajuda
Take the Jardim Botánico da Ajuda, a tiered gem that dates back to 1768 and bills itself as the oldest botanical garden in Portugal. Built in the shadow of the Ajuda Palace, the seat of the Portuguese monarchy, it was the brainchild of the Marquis de Pombal, King José’s overachieving prime minister and the urbanist who rebuilt Lisbon after a devastating earthquake and tsunami razed the city in 1755.
Pombal’s Enlightenment spirit—his faith in the power of human intelligence and our ability to tame the wild world through reason—still lives on in the garden: On the bottom tier, a symmetrical labyrinth of hedgerows recalls the neat grid of streets with which Pombal replaced the tangled, Medieval knot that was downtown Lisbon before the quake. On the upper tier, hundreds of the estimated 5,000 plant species from around the world that once flourished here are neatly labeled and arranged by geographical regions of origin.
While much of the collection was destroyed in a 1941 hurricane that ripped trees out by the roots, there are still a few of the original plants brought back from expeditions to Portuguese colonies in the Americas, Africa and Asia—including an immense Dragon Tree that was already mature when it was transplanted from Cape Verde in the 18th century and is thought to be some 400 years old. Today the towering plant feels like a piece of monumental modern art: Ceding under its own weight, it’s been kitted out with an elaborate metal structure that recalls the work of Alexander Calder.
After a stroll through the grounds—in a place like this you can’t help but stroll—stop at the Estufa Real, a restaurant in a converted hothouse where they serve up a Sunday brunch worthy of a king. But be sure to call ahead and reserve, as Sundays are the one day when this little-frequented garden generally fills up.
Jardim Botânico Tropical de Lisboa
Just down the hill in the western neighborhood of Belem, the lush Jardim Botânico Tropical de Lisboa is also home to so many plants brought to Portugal from far-flung colonies that it reportedly has its own microclimate. Strolling down the walkway flanked with majestic palm trees—because here, too, one must stroll—you could easily mistake your verdant surroundings for Rio de Janeiro or—among the bamboo thickets of the Asian-themed area of the park, with its lacquered red pagoda—for Macau.
But the garden, which was founded in the early 20th century and changed names several times in lockstep with the ebbing fortunes of Portugal’s colonial empire, has a dark past: In 1940, under the regime of dictator António Salazar, it was the site of a human zoo. During the “Exhibition of the Portuguese World,” a sort of World’s Fair for Lusophone countries, the Portuguese public lined up to gawk at whole families snatched from their homes in Guinea-Bissau and other Portuguese territories in Africa, and “displayed” in native dress.
For obvious reasons, the research institute that now operates the garden doesn’t highlight this stain on its past, and so it’s all too easy for visitors to breeze by this uncomfortable fact—although the metal busts depicting African men and women that dot the property, relics of the 1940 exhibition, hint at the fraught history of the place.
Tapada das Necessidades
Once the center of Lisbon’s drug trade, the Alcântara neighborhood that’s sandwiched between Belem and Lisbon’s historic downtown is tourist kryptonite. Although it long ago cleaned up its act and is no longer even remotely dangerous, Alcântara has stubbornly resisted the wave of gentrification that’s swept up much of the rest of the city and is among the best areas to take in the decadent beauty of pre-hype Lisbon. Here, the crumbling, long-abandoned mansions haven’t yet been transformed into boutique hotels, and working class restaurants still serve 7 euro lunch menus, complete with Jello for dessert.
And nowhere is the bygone spirit of old Lisbon more palpable than in the Tapada das Necessidades, a sprawling hillside garden that was once the playground of nobility before falling onto hard times. Founded in 1742, the Tapada das Necessidades was once the site of the royal tennis court, the queen’s painting workshop, a round iron-and-glass hothouse, as well as one of the oldest cactus gardens in Europe.
Legend has it that French painter Édouard Manet visited in the mid-19th century, and that the Tapada served as inspiration for his polemic 1863 masterpiece, “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe,” or “The Luncheon on the Grass,” depicting a naked woman and two clothed men picnicking in a clearing.
But the garden fell from its former splendor after the sprawling royal palace to which it was attached was turned into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The vegetation grew thick and wild, and vandals smashed the hothouse glass. And while the city eventually ended up taking over the garden and opening it to visitors, it looks like most Lisboetas never got the memo. The place remains so deserted you could probably reenact Manet’s luncheon without raising an eyebrow. But even if you choose not to disrobe, the Tapada remains one of Lisbon’s best picnic spots, so be sure to pack a lunch.
Palácio dos Marqueses da Fronteira
Once you’ve reveled in those three gardens, a visit to a fourth might seem like overkill—particularly when you have to take a taxi to get there. But the grounds of the Palacio dos Marqueses da Fronteira, a sprawling, 17th century country house-turned-noble mansion across the highway from the Lisbon Zoo, are worth it for the extravagant tile murals alone.
Tile panels depicting the Zodiac, the months of the year and the Greek pantheon ring the garden, with its elaborate hedgerows and frothy marble fountains, on three sides. On the fourth side, an imposing fountain complex is covered with tiles depicting the kings of Portugal and topped by massive busts of the monarchs, which seem to glower down at the black swans swimming obliviously in the pond below. Another fountain is made out of shards of porcelain - broken, legend has it, after the king ate off the set in order to ensure that no mere mortal would sully the plates by eating off them.
The heirs—the 13th Marquis da Fronteira and his family—still live on the property, and so visits to the property are exclusively by guided tour. (It’s best to call ahead, and don’t go by the hours posted on Google). While it’s a little more crowded than the other gardens, the Palâcio’s tiles rival those on display at the National Tile Museum, across town, which is Lisbon’s tourism ground zero.