#651. Best city for street photography: Lisbon *

By Steffen Kamprath | Travel Photography

Oct 01

OK, this is a bold statement. But let me clarify this more: * “in Europe”, “as far as I know” and “in my opinion”.

Let me explain…


Old town Lisbon, Portugal, with colorful pennants and garlands

Old town in Bairro Alto with pennants and garlands


I stumbled upon Lisbon a couple of years ago during a business trip. Like many others, I didn’t have it high on my travel radar. From a European perspective (or at least for me), cities like Hong Kong, New York, or Mexico City are arguably much more interesting because they’re very different from our daily lives, far away and therefore more taxing to reach.


So, with this post, I want to introduce Lisbon to your must-see travel list, or if it’s already on it, push it some positions up.


My relationship with European cities


I have a love-hate relationship with European cities. Of course they’re easy to travel, have a deep cultural heritage, offer great sights and are interesting for other reasons and occasions. But photographically, I fail to connect. Amsterdam, London, Stockholm, even my own home town of Berlin don’t spark my excitement, don’t get me in the mood and simply don’t inspire me enough. It’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve been to Amsterdam twice for example. While definitely a nice city to live and visit, seeing all the places of interest and strolling the streets, I returned with just three keepers — and there were just average at best. Or take London: after two trips, I returned with only two keepers. Stockholm: zero. I have more keepers from Berlin because I shoot here more often, but it’s rarely about the city and their life, more about documenting my own life.


Furthermore, I haven’t seen any great street photos from these cities that couldn’t have been taken anywhere else — maybe I’m exaggerating but still no inspiration.


Lost in thoughts, Igreja De São Domingos (Lisbon, Portugal)

Igreja De São Domingos church


It’s not that these cities are bad to photograph in general. It’s me! Your mileage will vary. And that’s great. Through constant analyzing your own portfolio, you’ll discover what it takes to get you into your zone and what makes a great location for yourself.


I think that my personal problem with these cities is, that they are too similar to my own home town. Architecture, mentality and the way people act on the street is too common to me and won’t get my photographic juices to sparkle enough. I need change from my daily life.


What makes Lisbon different?


I came to Lisbon three years ago for a conference and spent some time walking around the city. I had no plan what to expect, where to go, what to see, or any idea of the city. But what I saw blew me away and sparked street photography within me again.


Sunset over Oriente station


What I love about Lisbon is the quality of light. And “quality of light” is something we all need to care more about. To me, it’s the unique way of the volume of light, its color, its brightness and the way it reflects color from surfaces and plays with the shadows. In Lisbon, it’s just beautiful, voluminous and warm, but also bright and strong, but not extremely contrasty.


Elderly couple on seaside promenade


Second feature is people and life on the street. Everything happens on the street, people are extroverted, gestures, talk, laughter, food — the Mediterranean lifestyle — and every kind of skin color. There’s always something interesting to experience. Portuguese people are a little bit more restrained then their neighbors from Spain or Italy, more like France or Greek — which I like very much — but still much more then we northern Europeans. Lisbon people don’t react much to photographers and cameras, they’re used to tourists. That makes photographic life really much easier. Berlin for example, also known to tourists, is much different. Germans are much more concerned about privacy and don’t like to get photographed in public.

Parque das Nações


Lisbon’s third feature are its many different styles of architecture that kind of clash together. From old to new to modern. From Alfama with its old, narrow and steep streets to the block towers of Chelas to modern, almost abstract architecture of the former Expo area Park of the Nations. And then they have this great color scheme throughout the city which consists of mostly pure white and earth colors with lovely textures and then they spread dots of colors, like a striking green house or wall painting or shop. That makes it quite easy to control the colors and the viewer’s eye. There’s some much variety, so many perspectives to find, so much beauty and oddity. And it’s all a little bit run down too — and I mean this as a compliment because I like that very much. Lisbon is also not very big so you can walk some of the distances and see more — or you take the excellent subway (the stations are a photographic destination themselves).


Taking snapshots from a boat trip on Rio Tajo


Without saying goes Lisbon is also safe, offers all vacation amenities of a modern European city you can imagine (food, history, sightseeing, museums, culture, music …) and (for European readers) is easy to get there.


Vasco da Gama Bridge


To me, Lisbon seems perfect for street photography, lifestyle, urban landscapes and urban geometry photography. It has features that in its entirety no other cities have and especially none of the above mentioned northern European cities.


For the last three years, I’ve returned to Lisbon once a year in late May or early June. And as you come back to one place over and over again, you start exploring things off the beaten path quickly or approach the same things differently each time.


My first time in Lisbon


In 2015, I came to Lisbon ill-prepared — actually not prepared at all. I didn’t knew anything about Lisbon, haven’t read any guide or any recommendation. That’s totally not my usual approach but it happened — and I enjoyed it and never fixed my lack of knowledge. After exploring my nearby surrounding, I simply looked at Google for some images of Lisbon and quickly stumbled upon great street art that covers whole blocks. I looked up where some of them are, took the sub-train to that direction and just explored the area. I later found out that this district is called Alfama and is part of the old Lisbon.


Old-town district Alfama


Kids bathing on the street in Alfama


While walking aimlessly through Alfama, I saw girls bathing on the street, old men discussing politics and playing chess in a park and a lot of simple, daily life. I took some classic street photography, let people walk into my frame, got close in and tried to capture Lisbon life as it happens randomly right in front of me.


Skyline of Lisbon


Old town Lisbon


On other days, I wandered through the old districts São Vicente and Santa Maria Maior, the resident districts Arroios (where I later found a nice, simple hotel) and Santo António and Parque das Nações where I stayed the first days. More in my Flickr album.


My second visit


The year after, I continued and embraced the no-idea approach, went out and waited for whatever crossed my lens and how I could theme it. I simply got off the subway at a station I had often passed-by. Between Bela Vista and Olaias the subway submerged overground over a green valley in the city. That looked interesting and I just got off at the next station and wandered around the area for a couple of hours and came back with some amazing documentary images of Portuguese social housings.


Daily life in Areeiro


Blue block, Areeiro


I’m very much drawn to these areas. Built after the latest social-architectural standards, they often turn into the opposite and decades later look like dead spaces. Often some kind of “modernization” starts to color everything and make it more “human”. Often not more than lipstick on a pig. Everyone who can afford it leaves these areas — at least it’s happening in Germany. To my surprise, while in Germany these areas are primarily inhabited by lower income classes, I found every kind of social class living in those districts Marvila and Beato.


Orange block, Areeiro


Green block, Areeiro


So I wander between these empty, almost anti-human places where life seems to try finding its way like a disease, sometimes people rush by and my biggest surprise was a wasteland right between those tower blocks with illegal gardens and unexpectedly, three horses.


Three horses in front of the Areeiro’s skyline


Subway, carneval and tower blocks, Marvila


Later I stumbled upon a huge, old cemetery, completely in white and people dressed in black walking around. Some old combs were decaying with scattered glass doors, exposing coffins and their interiors to the environment and curious watchers like me.


Two elderly ladies on Cemitério do Alto de São João


Cemitério do Alto de São João


Another big surprise awaited me at my conference hotel: The 2016 Lisbon ETU Triathlon European Championships took place right in front of it for two days. Not only was my hotel overbooked with athletes from every country and I had to by-pass stuffed lifts with bicycles several times, it also brought me the possibility to photograph a sports event with my manual glass — and it worked flawlessly! I’m normally not interested in sports and therefore not photographing them. But when I happens right in front of me without any effort from my side, I’m the last one to miss an opportunity.


For the team!


Marathon runner runs through the crowd


So, my second trip was very much people in environment centered, or people’s environment (not necessary people in the frame). More in my Flickr album.


The third year

This year, I had less time for Lisbon because my family picked me up early for a trip to the Algarve coast. But for the time I had, I explored Parque das Nações more deeply and the southerly located Marvilla district. There I found tower blocks, large empty spaces, industrial areas and convoluted motorways. I had beautiful, sunset light that bathed everything in warm yellow and people occasionally rushing here and there.


Smoker, Parque das Nações


Couple in Parque das Nações


So I concentrated on urban spaces, shapes, light and people. Unfortunately, it turned out complicated and after culling, ended-up with only a few keepers. But I like to challenge myself every time I’m here and failing is part of growing.


The Pavilion of knowledge, science and technology museum, Parque das Nações


Expo 98 pavillon, Parque das Nações


The other day, I’ve went to Alfama again, a different route, again with beautiful sunset light and I continued with my urban spaces theme for my third visit. More in my Flickr album.






Night at Oriente Station


Night at Oriente Station


So, that’s it for now. I’ll be in Lisbon again next year for sure. Let’s see what I run into and how it turns out.


Thanks for reading, Steffen


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  • Joakim Danielson says:

    There are some very good photos in this article but I would describe the photos as urban landscapes and travel photography, there is very little in the way of street photography presented here. Sorry for the negative remark but the title of the post promised something completely different to me when I read it.

    • Hello Joakim, I’m sorry for your disappointment and for the clickbait headline. But we need some traffic 😉

      But you’re right. This wasn’t meant to be a street photography showcase but a travel recommendation to a unique city that, in my opinion, is “perfect for street photography, lifestyle, urban landscapes and urban geometry photography.” Maybe, when you follow the links to my Flickr albums, you find photos more suitable to your definition of street photography.

      Btw: My definition of street photography is the attempt to capture the dynamics between humans, their environments, and the dynamic between humans and their environment. That includes candid, portraits, still life, urban landscape, and documentary street photography.

      • Joakim Danielson says:

        We seem to have quite a different view on what street photography is, thanks for the follow-up.

    • Adrian says:

      I will have to politely agree, and say that I think the article mostly contains travel and architectural photos.
      There are some very good photographs, but I don’t think that they fall into the general opinion of what is “street” – people in a place.

    • Bstrom says:

      Sadly, I must agree – perhaps London and other more notable locations deserve another chance. Based on your definition of street photography, I can’t get excited about Lisbon much at all if these samples are any indication of its most compelling subject matter.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I am avoiding the cross fire – for me, it’s whatever you want it to be, while you’re out with your camera – people’s opinions rarely coincide.

    But Lisbon – ahhhh – never planned to go there, just decided at the last minute when I was stuck in London & trying to think of something interesting to do before I came home to OZ. And fell head over heels in love with the place! And Portugal. And o portugues – fado kind of sums up a lot of it, I guess, but there’s so much more to it. They are a delightful people, entertaining beyond belief – charming, funny, and full of life.

    It was a bit of a shock having one of my mob (I’m part Moroccan, amongst other things – LOL) offer me a hunk of pure hashish, and some other idiot trying to sell me a clear plastic bag containing – so he claimed – about a kilo or more of cocain. I guess I’m the wrong generation to appreciate that kind of crap, and told them to bugger off and pester some other mug.

    After dark, the street theatre moves off the street and into some of the most interesting and exotic places I’ve ever spent the evening. King’s Bloody Cross, eat your heart out! 🙂

    I left after a week or so and headed to Paris, pour Noël et la nouvelle année in mid winter – but I am still living off my memories of those few precious days in what I still regard as one of the best tourist destinations I have ever been to.

    And as I was still a good little catholic boy in those days, the chain and crucifix that hang around my neck are another treasured memory of Lisbon – strolling through the gold market there, which is possibly one of the best in the world. (The church & I parted company in more recent years – I fight discrimination wherever, I always have – but I draw the line at people mucking around with children, and when all that stuff came out of the woodwork, I went!)

    • Yes, I ran frequently into these “offers” in very touristic places like Santa Maria Maior. You get easily out off it by the universally approved hand wave and a strict no. But the sheer number is just needling. In the end, it’s a major capital with all its problems. You’ll find these small-time crooks all over the world.

      And Joakim is totally right in pointing out that most of photos shown here are not really best represents of street photography. But as I was writing this post, I was looking for photos that support my narrative. For example the shot with the three horses is neither classic street nor a particular good photo at all but I found it important to tell the story how I wandered to the city. Or the skyline shot from Park of Nations just should underline my statement below about the clash of architecture. You are now invited to go in there and figure out your own perspective, for whatever kind of photography you’re after.

      But I’m glad you enjoyed your stay in Lisbon as much as I did.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    PS – I do love your photos, Steffen – I’ll comment further after I take up your invite and have a look at your Flickr albums 🙂 (Have to dash out to the airport now – run out of time, for the moment, drivelling on like that)

  • The anonymous grunter says:

    Dear Steffen,

    thanks for reminding me of this beautiful city. Discovered Lisbon and its light in the early 90s with 100 and 400 ASA film. Left great memories till today. On a side note: I can’t remember being approached even once in 2 weeks by dealers … times seem to have changed to the worse … how can we stop this ?

  • NMc says:

    Portugal seems to be in some sort of ‘goldilocks’ zone for photographers and people who want a generally more laid back holiday. Not too iconic in the scenery or attractions for hassled stampeding hoards trying to tick off as many sights as possible, and seeming to have an intimacy or humanity that big cities and must-see destinations often loose. I have always wanted to go, however I have always thought it is something that I could do when I am older and less tolerant of the hassles of travelling. And as I get older I am starting to see the error of that thinking as so many more difficult destinations are getting more and more easy to travel to. Though on the other hand, perhaps what I should tackle the big busy ones that are more of a harried hassle like Paris, New York and London before I get too grumpy-old-mannish.
    Thanks for the article, Noel.

  • philberphoto says:

    Delightful pictures, Steffen! I just have one problem with what you write. Berlin did to me exactly what Lisbon did to you…:-) So it may be a case of “another city, quite different from our own, is what gets our creative juices to flow…”
    I remember travelling to Berlin multiple times to visit those clusters of buildings left over from the East German times, and the buildings full of artist collectives. Wonderful stuff!!
    But none of that takes away from what you write, on the contrary. And did I say that I find your pictures deightful?

    • Thank you very much, Philippe. Next time you come to Berlin, write me an e-mail upfront! Are you from the same area like Pascal? Then Berlin would be quite different. I’ve never been to Paris because of it 🙂

      Well, it’s a hypothesis that seems reasonable for myself. I’m pretty sure, many other photographers are pretty fine with working direct in front of their door. But that’s what I briefly wrote: Do an analysis of your work and find out what was wrong there. Maybe you can avoid these places or – much better – leave your camera at home and just enjoy a beautiful short trip with your beloveds.

      There could be other reasons why some cities work and some not. For example company (your people affect you, or the lack off), time (time of the year and day; maybe some cities have other day cycles the you’re used to or just look boring 2/3 of the year), confidence (fear and malaise will have an effect on your images; like light, cleanness, and most important stereotypic ethos), expectation (the ability to pre-visualize (parts of) the trip and to switch both mentally and physically if that expected doesn’t happen), or lack of technical abilities (e.g. you have super-narrow streets everywhere and you’re simply not used to shot ultra-wide or so close, or don’t have the necessary lens at all).

      Am I the only one who thinks that some places don’t fit to me well and others way better? Or are you just taking pictures and come home with enough keepers?

  • Adam Bonn says:

    Some lovely images there Steffen that really give a flavour of the Portuguese urban landscape

    Of course speaking as a resident of Porto, I might suggest that Lisboa isn’t quite the best Portuguese destination 😉

    I wonder if what we’re used to at home defines what we get excited about when traveling… I grew up in the UK, so for me everything about Portugal (well outside of shopping malls etc) is so different to the environment I saw growing up, perhaps this impact would be lessened if I’d grown up somewhere with similar architecture and a way of life (SoF, Italy etc)

    I’ve not been to Lisboa enough to truly compare it to Porto, Porto is perhaps a little more run down, a bit more wabi and a bit more compact

    Drugs are decriminalised in Portugal, it’s illegal to sell them of course – but not to use them, so because of this swarms of dealers descend on tourists like wasps at a picnic – this is why visitors get bugged by the dealers so much. It’s just how it is, some days it seems every third person offers to sell me something!

    They’re harmless enough…. word to the wise though, the dealers don’t do requests for street portraits!!! 🙂

    • I knew you would say that and I made three disclaimers right on top of the post 😉

      I’ve never been to Porto but both my parents and my brother were fascinated by the town.

      But you may be a proof point for my hypothesis: You came to Portugal, it’s different from your life in UK and you got your photographic inspiration. But now that you live there for a while and the Portuguese life style became your daily life, did this inspiration and excitement change? How long are you already in Portugal?

      • Adam Bonn says:

        To be honest, many shots from Lisboa (that are landmark free) look like Porto, they’re not exactly worlds apart!

        I’m quite a compulsive photographer, I’ll always seek out things I might want to photograph, changing the subject as needed…. stick me in the wilds and I’ll start doing landscape, nature and animals

        Where I grew up in the UK is quite modern, very flat and open, lots of parks and lakes and green areas (all part of the design of the town) so for me, not only is Southern Europe different to the UK, it’s very different to my UK

        But nothing quite inspires like some where new

        I’ve been here 3 years. I’m just starting to get to the stage where my local photographer friends are asking me where is that Adam? When they see some of my shots, which I’m quite proud about

        But to answer (well maybe) your question,

        The excitement is different. It’s not so new, but still exciting and the excitement is to go back and shoot the same places, plus after a while you get an idea or how things look at various times in the year.

        I don’t think I’m answering very well!

        At some point it stopped being “wow Porto” and became instead “I’m used to Porto, but still wowed I live here” so I feel that I’m wasting Porto if I’m not out and about here

        Life and circumstances can be quite fleeting, perhaps I don’t get to live here forever, and I don’t want to look back and think “I wish I did more back when I lived in Portugal”

        That’s inspirational enough for me!

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