5 Things You Have to See and Do in Lisbon, Portugal
How to make the most out of a vacation to the historic Portugese capital
The cold Atlantic sea might crash on Lisbon’s shores, but this hilly, photogenic Portuguese capital has all the sunny, crumbling charm of the Mediterranean. Trams click clack their way up narrow stone roads past ancient churches and rows of gorgeously tiled and candy coloured houses and apartments. Squares, streets, parks and beaches stream with people under the bluest of skies.
Although hard hit by the global financial crisis, this southern European country has slowly earned its way back into contention as one of the continent’s loveliest destinations, with Lisbon leading the charge. A thriving dining scene, which encompasses Michelin-starred fine diners, heaving no-reservations eateries and cosy cafés means you won’t go hungry. And when it’s time to lay down your head, there are many stylish lodgings to check into. Welcoming, compact, beautiful and affordable, Lisbon is perfect for a short visit or as a base for exploring Portugal’s many riches.
Get Out of Town
With its towers and turrets, arches and ramparts, the Palácio Nacional da Pena, or Pena National Palace, is a wonder to behold. It’s the crowning glory of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed town and favoured royal retreat in the mountains just outside the city. The palace, a romantic 19th century confection that takes its cues from the fairytale castles of the German Rhineland, is mixed with Moorish, Gothic, Neo-Manueline and Renaissance Revival styles. It’s Lisbon’s top tourist attraction, best experienced with your own tour guide. Gonçalo Neto, the founder of Hello Tours, can take you there in the comfort of a Mercedes.
Seafood, Glorious Seafood
Seafood reigns in Lisbon. Head to a marisqueira or cervejaria for the freshest octopus, crab, lobster, clams, prawns and percebes, or gooseneck barnacles. These critters look ghastly, but are a delicacy and taste of the ocean. Fish is varied and plentiful, with sardines occupying a special place in the hearts and on the plates of the Portuguese. Cervejaria Ramiro is simple, very popular with visitors and locals and doesn’t take bookings, but its seafood is consistently excellent. A Cevicheria’s ceviches nod towards Peru, but its casual approach makes it a poster child for the new, confident face of Lisbon dining. Alas, no reservations are taken here, either, so order a cocktail and stand on the pavement people-watching until your counter seat comes up. Taking things up several notches is Belcanto, widely regarded as the best restaurant in Portugal. Chef José Avillez takes diners on a journey of contemporary Portuguese haute cuisine, and while the menu changes regularly, will almost certainly include his sensational take on 63-degree egg, covered in gold foil. Avillez is also the mastermind behind the playful Mini Bar, where cocktails might be edible, or breakfast is served at supper. It’s a great place just for a drink, too. To take in the diversity of Portugal’s bounty, head to Mercado da Ribeira. Once Lisbon’s primary produce market, it now also houses a terrific food court, with about 30 stalls serving up local and international specialities.
Dinner and a Show
Wandering through the atmospheric, medieval quarter of Alfama at night, you’re likely to hear the haunting, melodic and heartfelt sounds of fado, Portugal’s own distinctive music. It echoes out of the doorways of restaurants and bars tucked away in winding laneways. Singers, usually accompanied by guitarists, sing about love, loss, hope and hardship. It’s essential to book ahead for the best places, which are often intimate restaurants serving traditional Portuguese fare. Parreirinha de Alfama, Casa de Linhares and Clube de Fado are among the best in Alfama, while elsewhere, Senhor Vinho and O Faia attract many big names.
Find perfect souvenirs at A Vida Portuguesa, a one-stop destination for traditional and new products that say Portugal. Pick up lovely Claus Porto soap, delicious Tricana tinned sardines, warm Papa blankets and a heap more. For something more cutting-edge, head to LX Factory, a huge industrial complex turned creative and design hub housing cool shops, pop-up stores, a weekly flea market and restaurants and cafés.
The Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon is your best luxury chain option, though for a more local experience, check into one of Lisbon’s many boutique hotels. Among the newest, and loveliest, is the 19-room Santiago de Alfama, a meticulously restored former 15th-century palace high on a hill in the Alfama district, handy to sights while being away from the crowds. Facilities are limited (no pool or gym), but it more than makes up for in charm, service and style. Rooms are compact, so book a junior suite and up, preferably one with views of the Tagus river. The hotel’s restaurant has a pleasant terrace, where you can enjoy classic Portuguese fare with modern twists. Also in Alfama next to Castelo de São Jorge is the rough luxe Palácio Belmonte, which dates back to the 15th century. There’s no formal reception, nor air con or television in its nine unique suites, yet the hotel is said to be a favourite of shoe designer Christian Louboutin. It’s what you dream staying at a wealthy - and eccentric - relative’s place might be like.