WHAT TO DO
Lisbon is one of the most underrated cities in Europe and a must visit for any traveler wanting to experience a dynamic culture, fascinating history, delicious cuisine and beautiful architecture. Situated on the River Tagus (Rio Tejo), Portugal's capital dates back to circa 800-600 BC, when it was a Phoenician trading post - making it one of the oldest cities in western Europe. Lisbon's trademark seven hills are scattered across the cityscape and provide panoramic views of its cobbled lanes, ancient ruins and white domed cathedrals. Some of the best viewpoints (miradouros) in town include: Portas do Sol, Sao Pedro de Alcantara, da Graca, Santa Luzia and the popular Castelo de Sao Jorge - more on this later.
Lisbon is a city of neighborhoods and public squares, each with its own character and spirit - decorated with historic monuments and majestic art. Begin your journey just outside the city center in the Belem district. Take the 15E tram from central Lisbon (Baixa) and ride about 3 miles west along the river. Belem is a wonderful section of the city, which lines the banks of the Rio Tejo and is filled with many of Lisbon’s most iconic buildings. It has a close association with the great Portuguese explorers and it was here that Vasco da Gama spent his last night before discovering the sea route to India in 1498. Exit the tram in front of the National Coach Museum (Museu Nacional dos Coches). Located at Av da India 136, this former riding school houses one of the largest and most valuable collections of royal coaches in the world and is one of the city's most popular attractions. Most of the 70 gilded coaches are from the 17th to 19th century, but a simple wooden coach used by Phillip II (former king of Spain and Portugal) dates to around 1600. Do not miss the equally impressive main hall with its paintings, murals and 18th century architecture. Note: the museum is closed on Monday. Nearby is the magnificent Jeronimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos) at Praca do Imperio. This block long, white limestone building is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was commissioned by King Manuel I in 1502 to commemorate Vasco da Gama's voyage to India. Both the church, built on the site of a sailor's chapel founded by Prince Henry the Navigator, and the cloisters are fine examples of Portugal's unique Manueline style - a combination of Gothic, Renaissance and Moorish architecture, embellished by nautical elements such as ropes, shells, anchors and nets. Jeronimos was once populated by monks of the Order of Saint Jerome, whose spiritual job for four centuries was to comfort sailors and pray for the king's soul. Vasco da Gama is interred in the lower chancel of the church and there's a superb view of the surroundings from the upper choir. Once inside the cloisters, keep an eye out for symbols of the age such as the armillary sphere (a globe surrounded by movable rings for navigation) and the cross of the Military Order. Next door is the modern Berardo Collection Museum (Museu Coleccao Berardo), which houses a fine collection of contemporary art. This ultrawhite, minimalist gallery displays Jose Berardo's splendid collection of abstract, surrealist and pop art - including works by Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. The museum is open everyday from 10a-7p and is free of charge. Before moving on, stop in and enjoy a pastel de nata (custard pastry) at Casa Pasteis de Belem. Located at Rua de Belem 84-92, this is the birthplace of the delicious treat. Since 1837, this patisserie has been satisfying the sweet tooth of locals and tourists alike with its mouth watering delights. The crisp pastry nests are filled with custard cream then baked for that perfect golden crust, then lightly dusted with cinnamon or sugar. Snag a seat and admire the blue ceramic tiles (azulejos) in the vaulted rooms as you devour your small piece of heaven. Conclude your tour of Belem by visiting the Instagrammed sites - the Monument to the Discoveries (Padrao dos Descobrimentos) and Belem Tower (Torre de Belem). The monolithic monument was inaugurated in 1960 on the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator's death. The 184 foot high limestone giant is full of famous Portuguese explorers including Henry, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan. Walk up the 267 steps for nice views over the river and check out the mosaic in front of the monument which charts the routes of the mariners. The tower, also a World Heritage monument, stands at the mouth of the harbor and was the sailor's last vision of home as they headed off to sea and the first on their return. Francisco de Arruda designed the gray chess like piece in 1515 to defend Lisbon's harbor. Notice the fine stonework and seek out the stone rhinoceros before climbing the narrow spiral staircase to the tower which provides sublime views over the river and Belem.
Next, head to the Bairro Alto and Chiado districts. Bairro Alto is the trendy area, especially at night, and Chiado is the popular shopping and theater district of Lisbon which has a selection of historic monuments, traditional shops and interesting cafes. The two funicular routes of Gloria (Elevador da Gloria) and Bica (Elevador da Bica) transport passengers up the steep hills into Bairro Alto and Chiado. The slow and ponderous cable cars have been in operation since 1885 and there is no better way to enter the districts. At the top, gardens provide a panoramic view of the city. Visit the Port Wine Institute, located at Rua Sao Pedro de Alcantara 45. Housed in an 18th century mansion that takes up an entire city block, this space is filled with several hundred varieties of Port available by the glass or bottle. The introductory sampling is the way to go and gives you a nice history lesson about this sweet dessert wine produced exclusively in the Douro Valley in the northern provinces of Portugal. From there, explore the Sao Roque Church (Igreja y Museu Sao Roque) which was built by the Jesuits in the 16th century and named for the patron saint of plague victims. Its facade is plain, but inside eight side chapels dazzle with gold, marble and intricate tiles. The most lavish chapel named for Saint John the Baptist (Capela de Sao Joao Baptista) was built in Rome in the 1740s as a gift from Portugal's king to the pope. Precious gems and materials such as jade, ivory, gold and silver were used to display the riches of Portugal's colonies around the world. The pope rejected the gift so the chapel was disassembled and sent to Lisbon. The museum adjoining the church is filled with sacred art and holy relics. Nearby, take a break at Lisbon's most famous cafe - Cafe A Brasileira. Located at Rua Garrett 120, this art deco spot has been a Lisbon institution since 1905. The terrace is great for people watching and street performers entertain next to the bronze statue of Fernando Pessoa, one of Portugal's greatest poets who hung out here with his literary friends during the 1920's. Order a bica (coffee), which takes its name from beba isto com acucar or drink this with sugar. Not far away is my favorite spot for pasteis de nata, those delicious custard tarts. Manteigaria Fabrica de Pasteis de Nata is located at Rua do Loreto 2 and is the best in town.
After more treats, make your way to the Baixa and Rossio districts. Take the totally rad Santa Justa Lift (Elevador de Santa Justa) down from the top of the hill. Note: lines are usually much shorter to take the lift down - enter from behind Convento do Carmo. The lanky, wrought iron Elevador de Santa Justa is 147 feet tall and resembles the Eiffel Tower, for good reason. This neo Gothic marvel is the work of Raul Mesnier, the apprentice of Gustave Eiffel. It's Lisbon's only vertical street lift, built in 1902 and steam powered until 1907. Baixa was completely destroyed by the devastating 1755 earthquake and the reconstruction followed one of the first examples of a grid and block layout. Once below in Baixa, make your way over to Comercio Square (Praca do Comercio). With its grand 18th century arcades, yellow facades and mosaic cobbles, this riverfront square is the heart of Lisbon. Bustling with activity and rattling trams, it features at its center the dashing equestrian statue of Dom Jose I. In 1908, the square witnessed the fall of the monarchy when anarchists assassinated Dom Carlos I and his son. The square's biggest attraction is Verissimo da Costa's Triumph Arch (Arco da Rua Augusta). This triumphal arch was built in the wake of the 1755 earthquake and is crowned with Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. The view from the top provides panoramas of the square and the river. From Comercio Square, walk down the main drag Rua Augusta and do some window shopping until you reach Rossio Square. Known to locals as Rossio, this lively public space has a neighborly vibe, wave like cobbles, ornate fountains and a monument to Dom Pedro IV (Brazil's first emperor). Just off the square is Rossio Station (Estacao do Rossio), a neo Manueline train station with horseshoe shaped arches and swirly turrets. Note: trains depart here for the lovely town of Sintra, less than a one hour journey. Rossio is filled with street cafes and closet sized ginjinha (cherry liqueur) bars. I especially enjoyed A Ginjinha, located at Largo de Sao Domingos 8. Get in line, chat with some locals and watch the master line up the sweet shots at the bar under the watch of the drink's 19th century inventor, Espinheira. Nearby are 2 more spots that are worth a visit - Ginjinha Sem Rival and Ginjinha Rubi.
I saved my favorite neighborhood for last, the Alfama is one of the oldest districts in Lisbon and is a delightful maze of narrow cobbled streets and ancient houses which lead up the steep hill from the Rio Tejo to the impressive castle. Contained within this diverse and charismatic district are several historic buildings including the Castelo de Sao Jorge and the Se Cathedral (Se de Lisboa). As far back as the 5th century, the Alfama was inhabited by the Visigoths, but it was the Moors who gave the district its shape and atmosphere. With narrow lanes of residential houses and family shops, it has a distinct village feel. It was one of the few districts to survive the 1755 earthquake. The Alfama’s labyrinth of streets are best explored by simply getting lost in, as around every corner or steep climb is a delightful tiny plaza, unique shop, funky cafe or wonderful viewpoint. One of the best viewpoints (miradouros) is Largo das Portas do Sol. This original Moorish gateway affords stunning angles over Alfama's jumble of red rooftops and pastel colored houses, emphasized by the blue water of the Tejo. Next, make your way to the castle. Towering dramatically above the city, the mid 11th century hilltop fortifications of Castelo de Sao Jorge top Lisbon's highest point. Wander its snaking ramparts and pine shaded courtyards for commanding views over the city's red rooftops to the river. This castle has seen it all, from Visigoths and Moors to Christians and royals. Guided tours are offered daily, there are galleries displaying relics from past centuries, but the standout attraction of the castle is the view. From there, walk down to one of Lisbon's icons, the fortress like Se Cathedral (Se de Lisboa). It was built in 1150 on the site of a mosque soon after Christians recaptured the city from the Moors. Take a stroll inside the cathedral and notice the rose window and leering gargoyles peeking above the orange trees. Do not miss the Gothic cloister which opens onto a deep pit full of archaeological excavations going back more than 2000 years. The plaza in front of the church is home to one of Lisbon's most charming kiosks, Quiosque de Refresco. Take a break and enjoy a refreshing Sagres beer. The Alfama is where fado (traditional Portuguese melancholic music) was born. It comprises of a lone female singer accompanied by classical guitar – fado is an emotional and moving style of music. Located at Largo do Chafariz de Dentro is the Fado Museum (Museu do Fado). This engaging museum traces fado's history from its working class roots in the Alfama to international popularity. The collection includes recordings, posters and a guitar workshop. I will discuss some places to attend live fado performances in the next section. To conclude your tour of Alfama, take a ride on the quaint number 28 tram as it screeches and rattles through the streets. Note: be aware that pickpockets are prevalent on crowded trams so be sure to secure your valuables.
Conclude your tour of Lisbon with an always recommended city bus tour or a visit to a few additional museums. Yellow Bus Tours runs a 90 minute hop on, hop off city highlights tour and departs from Praca do Comercio every 30 minutes. Add on tours include highlights of Belem. 2 more museums that I highly suggest are the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian and the Museu Nacional do Azulejo. Located at Av de Berna 45, the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian is famous for its outstanding quality and range. This world class museum showcases an epic collection of Eastern and Western art - from Egyptian treasures to Old Master and Impressionist paintings. Highlights include: gilded Egyptian mummy masks, elaborate Persian carpets and a fascinating Roman gold medallion collection. Going west, admire Rembrandt's Portrait of an Old Man, Rodin's Eternal Springtime and Lalique's Dragonfly. The museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Tuesday. The Museu Nacional do Azulejo (The National Tile Museum) is housed in a marvelous 16th century convent at Rua Madre de Deus 4. This museum covers the entire azulejo (hand painted tile) spectrum. Here you'll find every kind of azulejo imaginable, from early Ottoman to present day. Star exhibits feature a 120 foot long panel depicting pre earthquake Lisbon, a Manueline cloister with exquisite blue and white azulejos and a gold smothered baroque chapel. The museum is open from 10a-6p and is closed on Monday.
WHERE TO EAT
Lisbon has several great spots to eat, drink and enjoy fado. Begin your culinary journey at the Time Out Market and Mercado da Ribeira. Located at Av 24 de Julho, these adjoining food halls are a foodies dream. Half gourmet food court - half fresh fruit and vegetable, fish and flower market since 1892 (Time Out Market opened in 2014). Do as the locals do, come for a browse in the morning followed by lunch at one of the more than 40 kiosks. I sampled many of the different booths and standouts included: Cafe De Sao Bento, Henrique Sa Pessoa, Croqueteria, Trincas, Marisqueira Azul and Santini ice cream. Also located inside Mercado da Ribeira is the excellent Pap'Acorda. It relocated to this new modern space after 35 years in the Bairro Alto district. Chef Manuela Brandao's house specialty acorda (bread and seafood stew) is delicious, as is the chocolate mousse. Another outstanding food court is Palacio Chiado (Rua do Alecrim 70). Housed in the former home of Portuguese barons, this gourmet food court excites the senses. A magnificent grand staircase, swamped by original stained glass and archetypal frescoes invites you to explore seven gastronomic concepts spread over two floors - from burgers and grills to wine and seafood. Bacalhau (dried cod) is the most popular dish of traditional Portuguese cuisine and Clube do Bacalhau dedicates an entire menu to it. It can be found inside an old salt warehouse at Travessa do Cotovelo 12. It is safe to say you know what you're going to eat, but try the contemporary version of the old recipe for pataniscas (fish fritters).
Taking it up a notch, head to Loco at Rua dos Navigantes 53B. In the shadow of the Basilica da Estrela, one of Lisbon's in demand bookings comes courtesy of chef Alexandre Silva whose bold and modern take on Portuguese cuisine is a gastronomic adventure. It offers two daily changing, description free tasting menus - you choose either 14 or 18 'moments'. Each moment is unexpected and unpredictable. A few of the creations I recall included: tuna with lemon, oxtail ravioli under garlic foam and a Thai green curry ice cream. Henrique Sa Pessoa (has a stand at Time Out Market), one of Portugal's most talented chefs, moved his flagship Alma (Rua Anchieta 15) to Chiado in 2015. This casual space exudes understated style amid its original stone flooring and beautiful hardwood tables, but it's chef's outstanding nouveau Portuguese cuisine that draws the crowds. Seasonal menus focus on the freshest Iberian flavors possible and the wines are equally as good. My dish of charred red peppers and suckling pig confit was scrumptious. Not far from Alma is the brilliant Belcanto, located at Largo de Sao Carlos 10. Chef Jose Avillez' two Michelin starred cathedral of cookery wows diners with creativity and service. Menu highlights include suckling pig with orange puree, sea bass with seaweed and a roasted butternut squash with miso. The wines are superb and reservations are essential.
My favorite restaurant in Lisbon is Cervejaria Ramiro and it is at Av Almirante Reis 1. Opened in 1956, Ramiro has legendary status among Lisbon's seafood lovers. Here you can feast on rich plates of giant tiger prawns, lobster, crab, clams and barnacles. The atmosphere is bustling and informal and there are always crowds waiting to get in. Note: they are closed on Monday and do not take reservations - arrive early, add your name to the waitlist and score some tokens from the inside bar for the tokens only beer keg on the outside terrace. If you saved room for something sweet after eating half the ocean (as I did), then head to Gelataria Nannarella at Rua Nova da Piedade 68. This is where you'll get Lisbon's best gelato. This tiny space is where Roman transplant Constanza Ventura churns out over 25 spatula slabbed flavors of traditional gelato to lines of customers. Nannarella is open everyday from 12p-10p. You can also visit Tartine (Rua Serpa Pinto 15) for tasty baked goods such as almond croissants, eclairs and cookies that pair nicely with a cup of coffee. Around the corner is Pastelaria Benard (Rua Garret 104), a cafe and pastry shop that has been open since 1868. In the cobblestoned esplanade, yellow tablecloths set the tone for relaxed people watching over a perfectly brewed espresso and one of their famed croissants.
Lisbon has many cool places to have a drink and see a fado show - I would like to share a few of my favorites. Start at Park, this excellent rooftop bar has sweeping views over the bell towers of Santa Catarina Church right down to the Rio Tejo. It is located above a parking garage at Calcada do Combro 58 - take the elevator to the 5th floor and head around to a sunset facing wooden chair late in the afternoon. There are 2 excellent wine bars in Lisbon, the first is BA Wine Bar do Bairro Alto. Found at Rua da Rosa 107, its staff is welcoming and the wines (Vinho Verde) go perfectly with the artisanal cheeses and charcuterie. The second spot is located near the entrance to the Castelo de Sao Jorge at Rua Bartolomeu de Gusmao 13. The casual Wine Bar do Castelo serves more than 150 Portuguese wines by the glass, along with gourmet smoked meats, cheeses, olives and other tasty accompaniments. Next, head to Foxtrot (Travessa Santa Teresa 28) where a cuckoo clock doorbell announces new arrivals to this dark, decadent space of art nouveau glamour. The mood is mellow at this cellar bar, the drinks are dynamite and the jazz music is jazzy. For superb cocktails, make your way to Cinco Lounge at Rua Ruben Antonio Leitao 17 in the Prancipe Real neighborhood. This upscale cocktail bar has a candlelit, turquoise kissed funky setting, in addition to an impressive drinks menu. Try the Alfie, it's a combination of floral infused Tanqueray, cardamom and black tea, Dubonnet, Campari, and citrus juice - it's quite delicious. Conclude your evening in true speakeasy fashion at the signless Red Frog (Rua do Salitre 5A). Look for the red frog on the wall and the doorbell that says 'press here for cocktails' then enter a sophisticated world of mixology where craft cocktails are king. The seasonal drinks menu includes old fashioned favorites and the classy space is intimate and stylish. Note: be sure to inquire about the secret room.
As mentioned earlier, fado (traditional Portuguese melancholic music) can be traced back to the 1820s in Lisbon. It comprises of a lone female singer accompanied by classical guitar – fado is an emotional, moving style of music and means 'destiny' or 'fate'. One can not visit Lisbon without attending a performance. There are a number of great spots to experience this Portuguese tradition. Located in the Alfama district, A Baiuca (Rua de Sao Miguel 20) has a wonderful family like vibe where locals take a turn and spectators hiss if anyone dares to talk during the singing. Another solid choice is A Tasco do Chico at Rua Diario de Noticias 39. This always crowded dive is decorated with soccer (football) banners and welcomes everyone to sing their hearts out - reserve ahead. Mesa de Frades (Rua dos Remedios 139A) is a magical place to hear fado, as it once was a chapel. This tiny space is tiled with beautiful azulejos and has only a handful of tables. Shows begin nightly around 11p and they are closed on Sunday. Clube de Fado can be found at Rua de Sao Joao da Praca 92 and it hosts the cream of the crop in a vaulted, dimly lit setting. Past performers include Cuca Rosetta, Maria Ana Bobone and Mario Pacheco on guitar. Owned by Fado legend Argentina Santos, Parreirinha de Alfama (Beco do Espirito Santo 1) offers good food amid candlelit ambience. This spot always has top quality performers with 3 singers and 2 guitarists per night. Note: tables fill up quickly so advanced bookings are suggested.
WHERE TO STAY
Lisbon has plenty of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations that provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Hotel Avenida Palace, located in Baixa next to historic Rossio Square at Rua 1 de Dezembro 123. This iconic, charming hotel dating from 1892 is a short walk to Bairro Alto and the Chiado. Refined rooms come with free WiFi, flat screen TVs and marble bathrooms. Additional amenities include a complimentary breakfast buffet and afternoon tea which is available in a regal lounge with a high glass ceiling. There's also a genteel, English style bar that makes a bloody good martini.
A second option is the Valverde Hotel, located at Avenida da Liberdade 164 in the heart of Lisbon. This upscale, boutique hotel is not far from the closest metro station, the cafes and shops at Praca do Comercio and Castelo de Sao Jorge. Featuring plush decor, the 25 elegant rooms offer free WiFi, flat screen TVs and minibars. They also come with safes, sofas and sitting areas. Complimentary a la carte breakfast is served in the refined restaurant which also has a bar. Cocktails and afternoon tea are available in the courtyard bar and there's live jazz or bossa nova most nights.
Lisbon is loaded with charm, history, culture and great food. It treated me very well and I look forward to returning. Obrigado Lisboa.