Lisbon is having a moment.
Poised between the old and the new, the Portuguese capital has all the benefits of a modern city (such as Uber and glamorous new hotels) while still retaining the charm of a relatively undiscovered gem, with incredible food at jaw-droppingly low prices and a rich local culture.
The ancient tile-clad city, perched on edge of the Atlantic ocean, still feels less touristy than you might expect, and remains remarkably authentic for a busy European capital.
Yet Lisbon’s skyline is punctuated with cranes and property prices are creeping up, both signs that major change is on its way, making right now the time to start planning a visit.
Time Out Market (Image: Ali Lalak)
WHERE TO EAT
There is plenty of delicious food to be found in Lisbon, but be warned that not all Portuguese dishes are pleasing to the foreign palate (açorda, the bland bread sauce so popular with the locals, we’re looking at you).
So it pays to do a bit of research and know where you’re going.
If you’re short on time, the Time Out Market in the Mercado da Ribeira is a good option, although it has become a victim of its own popularity. A vast dining hall lined with high quality eateries offering everything from steak to desserts, it’s the place to go if you want to pick and choose your dishes, and the only real downside is that it has a slightly sanitized hipster vibe and gets insanely busy during peak meal times. If you only have time to eat at one stall, make it the excellent Henrique Sá Pessoa.
The city’s most famous seafood restaurant is Cervejaria Ramiro, which has great food but also long queues. Instead, do as the locals do and head next door to Barcabela where you can share a feast of sparklingly fresh seafood for less than 20€ a head.
Order the Casca de Sapateira (an incredible dip made of freshly picked crab meat, mayonnaise, mustard, capers, herbs and a splash of beer, served in a crab shell and best eaten with buttered toast known as Pao Tostado com Manteiga), Ameijoas à Bulhão Pato (clams swimming in a pool of garlic oil) and Arroz de Marisco (a pot of mixed seafood including lobster, cooked with rice in a light tomato broth). The brave should try a plate of perceves, gnarly looking barnacles that need to be torn apart before eating and taste of the sea.
Tucked down a side street near the Natural History Museum, Taberna dos Gordos is the perfect summary of Lisbon’s current old/new vibe as the young chef here prides himself on his modern spin on classic dishes. The tuna dip served with the bread on arrival (along with plump olives and squeaky slices of local cheese) is mild and sweet, morcela (house-made blood sausage) is transformed into tiny croquettes served with a swipe of apple sauce and the garlic prawns are unbelievably succulent.
But a trip to Lisbon isn’t complete without sampling the delicious Pasteis de Nata pastries. Although available everywhere, the best come from the famous Pastéis de Belém bakery on the edge of the city. It’s worth the 15 minute drive in an Uber, because these pastries are pretty much perfect: a light, crisp shell filled with a wobbly spoonful of custard, dusted with cinnamon and sugar.
View from Café de Garagem (Image: Ali Lalak)
WHERE TO DRINK
One of the best (and least known) bars in Lisbon is Café de Garagem, attached to a boutique theatre and perched on the side of the hill near the São Jorge Castle. With retro-cool interiors, a modest menu and a truly spectacular view out across the city, this is a great choice for a sunset tipple.
A little fancier, and better for late night, is the newly-opened rooftop bar Topo overlooking Martim Moniz Square. Offering complicated but tasty cocktails, a relaxed DJ and views up to the spot-lit castle, this is a wonderful spot to head for a couple of drinks after dinner at the nearby Barcabela.
Rua Nova do Carvalho, known locally as Pink St, was formerly the city’s red light district but is now lined with bars on both sides and popular with late night revelers. Buy a drink from whichever bar takes your fancy and then wander around and make new friends. Or head to the square in front of the Pharmacy Museum, which has a breathtaking view of the river, and join the locals who gather here on balmy nights for 1€ beers and a stunning sunset.
Pena Palace, Sintra (Image: Ali Lalak)
WHAT TO DO
A taste of fado, the traditional Portuguese style of folk music that features guitars and voice and is often compared to flamenco music, is a must in Lisbon. The best way to experience it is in one of the tiny local restaurants, such as the adorable hole-in-the-wall Tasca Bela. Nibble on a spread of local delicacies (including the chorizo, which they flame-cook at the table), sip some regional wine and let the melancholy yet beautiful songs about love lost and wild sea adventures wash over you.
Lisbon is also a city obsessed with museums. In addition to the big art galleries, such as the contemporary Museu Colecção Berardo, there are a huge number of museums solely devoted to obscure but fascinating topics including coaches, money, electricity and tiles that are all worth a visit.
For shopping try Embaixada, a concept store located in a beautiful old palace in the fancy Príncipe Real area that features a range of up and coming Portuguese designers across two floors. A Vida Portuguesa is another must-visit, a gorgeous shop filled with retro-inspired, locally made home wears (including cute soaps and crockery).
If time permits (and it’s worth making sure it does) you should head out on a day trip to the nearby town of Sintra, traditionally favoured as a royal sanctuary and consequently filled with magnificent palaces. Start at the top of the hill at the colourful Pena Palace, then wander down to the dramatic Castle of the Moors. If you have the time and energy, the fairytale-like Quinta da Regaleira at the bottom of the hill is also well worth a visit.
Santiago de Alfama hotel, Lisbon (Image: Supplied)
WHERE TO SLEEP
The charming Santiago de Alfama boutique hotel, nestled in a cobble-stoned square across from the church where Christopher Columbus was married in 1479, hits all the right notes. Bright and fresh, with welcoming staff and comfortable beds, it sits in the middle of the happening Alfama neighbourhood and is a stone’s throw from the Miradouro de Santa Luzia observation deck with stunning views of the river.
The Almalusa Baixa/Chiado is another good choice. Located closer to the middle of the city proper, it offers spacious rooms and an excellent breakfast, as well as easy access to many of Lisbon’s main tourist sites including the grand waterside Comércio Square.