Welcome to Belém, the scam artist capital of Lisbon

It has been quite a while since I was in Lisbon for a conference, but I still have a bunch of tiny travel stories. They may not be timely, but they're just stories.

Lisbon is a wonderful city, and unlike Madrid, it doesn't have the feeling that it's overrun with tourists. It may very well be overrun with tourists, but at least it doesn't scream it at you.

Well, until you get to the Belém neighborhood, which is where all the big monuments and famous historical buildings are. The sense begins to grow at the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries), and by the time you reach the Torre de Belém (Belém Tower), the touristiness is in full swing. I didn't notice any aggressive scam artists anywhere else in the city, but around the Tower of Belém you couldn't throw a rock without hitting one.

First, there were the usual vendors selling overpriced trinkets or "artists" whose paintings of quaint Alfama alleyways are, in fact, color-by-number. These are not actually scam artists, but they are still out to separate tourists from their money in exchange for something of dubious value.

As I approached Torre de Belém, arguably the signature landmark of the Belém district if not all of Lisbon, a gentleman approached me selling discounted tickets to enter the tower. "Half price, compared to buying them at the Tower." I politely declined, and when I reached the tower, I realized that the scam went beyond merely just selling fake tickets. You see, the tower was closed indefinitely due to a labor dispute. Even if the tickets were real, they were still no good. You could wander the grounds around the Tower but you couldn't go in, no matter how many tickets you bought or how cheap they were.

A short time thereafter, I encountered my second Belém scam artist. There is one public rest room in the area. It doesn't get a lot of traffic, but that makes the job easier for the elderly gentleman who sat on a chair outside the entrance to the women's toilet. When a woman approached, he would get up and assist her with the door, guide her to a stall, and afterwards run the water in the sink, pump the soap for her, hand her a paper towel to dry her hands, and when his "services" were complete, he would block the exit until the woman paid him a small gratuity.

(Just so you know, the sink area of the washroom is plainly visible from outdoors; I didn't go snooping into the women's bathroom for the purpose of investigative reporting. But I was intrigued when I saw the gentleman get up from his chair and go into the women's bathroom.)

Related scam (not true, but an amusing story nonetheless).

Random tourist tips:

  • If you choose to walk up to Castelo de São Jorge, you may see conflicting signs for directions, some of them official city signs and some of them merely graffiti. We decided to follow the graffiti and it worked okay, though the government path may have been more scenic (passing by more shops rather than wandering through a residential alley).
  • At least the day I was there (March 11, 2008), the Sintra train during off-peak runs every 20 minutes, not 15 as more than one guide book claims.
  • If you get a Lisbon Card, make sure to bring the booklet with you as well as the card, because many of the discounts are in the form of coupons from the book.
Comments (16)
  1. Marquess says:

    “I didn’t notice any aggressive scam artists anywhere else in the city, but around the Tower of Belém you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one.”

    And you tried, didn’t you?

    Also, the link the Alfama alleyways is invite-only. Basically, dead.

    [Changed to a different picture of an Alfama alleyway, thanks. (No scam artists were harmed in the creation of this article.) -Raymond]
  2. tsrblke says:

    Heh, Portugal must be a bit different than the US.  I’d imagine the bathroom scam would be given a small gratuity of mace in some places around here.

    That being said, I when I was in Madrid in ’02 I didn’t feel it being as overly touristy as you describe.  Perhaps though it was because I was a tourist, and thus blind to these things.

  3. JJJ says:

    When in Munich, I turned away a fast-talking, persuasive fellow who was trying to sell me at a discount his full-day train ticket that he had used but wasn’t going to use again that day.  I’m mostly sure I avoided being scammed, but it seemed plausible enough that I can’t say for sure.

    In hindsight, I should have asked him to take the ticket to the ticket desk and have them verify its authenticity to know for sure.  But then I would have felt obligated to buy it after wasting the guy’s time if it was legit.

  4. Pavel Lishin says:

    So, what you’re saying is, if you’re a lady going to visit the tower, learn how to scream "RAPE!" in Spanish?

  5. learn how to scream "RAPE!" in Spanish?

    "Fire!" is much more effective.

    But, in Portuguese, surely.

  6. Anonymous Coward says:

    I always think that crap like that spoils tourist spots to an extent, and the government should (and easily could) do more to crack down on it.

  7. Gabe says:

    Is this bathroom attendant "scam" any more of a scam than any other bathroom attendant that hands you a towel and expects money in return?

  8. GregM says:

    "Is this bathroom attendant "scam" any more of a scam…"

    Presumably yes because the person isn’t supposed to be there doing that, and because he is physically preventing the person from leaving until he is paid.

  9. Engywuck says:

    @JJJ: in germany there are "full-day" tickets for local trains (S-Bahn, U-Bahn (tube) etc) as well as sometimes on regional level[1] or even nationwide ("Schönes Wochenende-Ticket": 37€ for 5 persons, at saturday or sunday, regional trains only[2]).

    Although not necessarily "allowed" you see regularily people at stations selling or gifting their "still usable" tickets at other people or taking other people with them on their ticket for a small fee.

    So, yes, I’d assume the ticket the person tried to sell you was "legit" (in a way) – but then again, 37€ for a nationwide day-pass for five persons is not too much so I’d pay that willingly myself.



  10. Sam says:

    Reminds me of Cairo, where we visited the pyramids of Gizeh.

    When we approached the pyramids, someone was waiting there, telling us "the ticket office is closed, you have to enter through the stables, right here".

    Well, of course the ticket office was not closed, they just wanted to sell you a ride along with the ticket…

  11. Morten says:

    [(No scam artists were harmed in the creation of this article.) -Raymond]

    Pity. But then again, this is not a Tarantino feature so it would have been rather surprising.

  12. Vitor Spencer says:

    As a loyal reader of your blog, I’m happy that, besides the scamming "artists", you managed to enjoy the city where I come from!

  13. Gabe says:

    GregM: Perhaps your definition of "scam" is different from mine, but mine involves some sort of fraud or trickery. Generally this means demanding payment for a service never intended to be rendered.

    The gentleman in this case, however, is rendering services (regardless of whether the receiver wants them) then demanding payment. Even if what he’s doing is illegal, it doesn’t fall under my definition of a scam.

  14. GregM says:

    Gabe, the fraud or trickery would be that this person is pretending to be someone that was hired by the property owner to provide this service to the patrons.  It is only after the service has been provided that the subject of payment for this service comes up.

    A similar example would be someone going into a theatre wearing clothing similar to what an usher would wear, carrying a flashlight, taking your ticket from you as you walked in, escorting you to your seat, and then demanding payment for the service, which you had assumed to be provided to you by the theatre management as part of your admission price.

  15. Anonymous says:

    We got lost going to the Castelo in 2007 despite the official and graffiti signs. Although I have to say the graffiti was the more accurate of the two. After many wrong turns, a local gentleman in his bathrobe picking up his morning newspaper directed us the right way. He said tourists always got lost in his neighborhood. :)

  16. podfish says:

    when we were in Paris a few years ago, my wife used a public restroom in a park NOT frequented by tourists. However, it too had an attendant. And as it happened, we were in an unParisian hurry and she left the restroom quickly, not stopping to tip the woman. It wasn’t till we were several steps away that it occurred to us that the poor woman had just been stiffed by the uncouth Americains and was looking pretty unhappy about it. I suspect it may be one of those socialist Euro traditions  :)

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