Something tells me that the secret about Lisbon is out. Almost everywhere you turn in this jaw-dropper of a town you encounter hoards of tourists.
Everyone wants a piece of it.
This is a city that has, apparently, been under the radar for quite some time. Those cobbled streets, the rattling eléctricos (cable cars), those character-filled neighbourhoods and buildings adorned with dazzling old tiles known as azulejos; all keeping a low profile until word got out.
And then there’s the light. What is it about the light in Lisbon?
Rua Augusta Arch
There’s something about Portugal’s capital that captivates you. The energy, the lifestyle, the waterside setting. Everything. We couldn’t get enough if it. Let’s just ignore the tacky human statues and tat-sellers in the heavily touristed areas, but I guess it’s part and parcel.
Basing ourselves for the first few days in the medieval quarter of Mouraria meant we weren’t too far from anything. Rua da Madalena is the road that separates Mouraria from Baixa (downtown), and while it may be mainly residential, it was where we fuelled up on food and caffeine each morning.
We did a lot of slipping and sliding, as well. The combination of hills and highly polished cobbles calls for gripping footwear; something we weren’t wearing.
The busiest café on Madalena is Fábrica Lisboa, a cosy space where everything is baked on the premises. Quiches, breads, cakes, pies and gorgeous flakey croissants.
The walls are filled with vintage bric-a-brac, so as you tuck into your avocado toast with scrambled eggs & walnuts (4.10) and morning coffee or Grandma’s hot chocolate, why not play ‘Where’s Willy‘. Yep, if you look carefully you’ll see a rather sizeable dildo amongst the old wares. Gotta love the humour.
Fábrica Lisboa – Rua da Madalena 121
Há Café No Alfarrabista – Rua da Madalena 80D
A block away is Há Café No Alfarrabista, a bookstore-cum-café where you can chow on breakfast, burgers, baguettes or a simple pastel de nata as you flick through well-thumbed titles that fill floor to ceiling shelves.
Come in the evenings, order something boozy and nibble on local faves like rissóis de camarão (shrimp croquettes), sardines on toast, bruschetta of cuttlefish in its ink or good old bacalhau.
Mouraria’s tangle of streets and traverses of cobbled lanes, along with those in neighbouring Alfama, are fascinating to explore and get lost in. And did you know this is the birthplace of Portugal’s famous Fado music? Plenty of little places to enjoy that, too.
You can discover petite shady plazas strewn with weathered benches, beautiful old churches, numerous small shops and eateries and you may even spot locals hanging about grilling snails over makeshift street grills. It makes you wonder what things must’ve been like in this former Moorish ghetto, back in the day.
Igreja de São Cristóvão – Largo São Cristóvão 4
Tasco do Mitra – Rua da São Cristóvão 32
O Trigueirinho – Largo dos Trigueiros 17
Typical fare is never tricky to find in these parts, and it’s often as simple as following your nose or peering onto people’s plates to see why a particular joint is so popular.
Tasco do Mitra is a cosy tavern worth hitting up for its simple plates of food that’s very well priced, considering the area. Start off with some alheira da caça (grilled game sausage), tuck into some steaming bacalhau or go for the hearty entremeada (grilled pork belly, fries & rice; 6).
Just remember, those plates, bowls and baskets of olives, bread, cheese and anything else you didn’t ask for that lands on the table when you arrive isn’t a generous and free gesture. Eat any of it and you’ll be paying for it.
It’s a widespread and very common custom you see throughout Portugal.
If you can’t speak or read Portuguese, then the handwritten menu at O Trigueirinho may come as a challenge. Nothing a bit of Google translating can’t help with, although often it’s still a guessing game.
Two sisters seem to run the show; one running the floor and the other in the tiny kitchen cooking each dish to order with the help of a friend or two.
The meals are rustic, very tasty and rather large. Get in early otherwise you’ll be one of many that get turned away. I struggled to get through my enormous frango alhinho (chicken roasted in wine with potatoes; 6).
The 12th century Sé Cathedral, Alfama
Backstreet restaurant in Alfama
In the thick of Alfama there’s a tangle of narrow lanes and cobbled walkways that come alive in the evenings. Restaurants spill into courtyards and live music and chatter fills the precinct with the most wonderful atmosphere.
Our restaurant pick was Allfama Too, a contemporary-looking eatery and bar that retains tradition in many of its offerings. Aside from the excellent polvo assado (roasted octopus; 8.5) and very tasty bacalhau (6.5), the service is amazingly friendly and helpful.
Allfama Too – Largo de São Rafael
Baixa is Lisbon’s historic downtown area and along with Chaido, it contains many of the city’s attractions, public squares, restaurants, cafés and cultural venues. They aren’t short on hostel, guesthouse, hotel and Airbnb options, either.
Many of the buildings adopt the neoclassical style, as much of the area had to be rebuilt after a quake devastated the area in 1755, along with a massive tsunami that claimed many lives.
Santa Justa Lift
Just north of Praça Dom Pedro IV is the striking Casa do Alentejo, a sumptuous 17th century palace that houses a restaurant, tavern and function space.
You enter the via stairs that lead into a stunning Arab courtyard where, if you head up more stairs you can see the the gorgeous Salão dos Espelhos, a hall decorated in the style of Louis XVI. This is one of the function spaces.
Two rooms make up the restaurant: one decorated with early 20th century tile panels by Jorge Colaço, and the other with tile panels from a 17th century palace.
The cuisine is a nod to the Alentejo region in Portugal’s south-central and south; an area touted as being the new Tuscany. We swooned over the coelho assado (20), an enormous serving for two of baked rabbit with potatoes. The porco à Alentejana (braised pork with clams) is delicious, as well.
The Salão dos Espelhos hall in Casa do Alentejo
Casa do Alentejo – Rua das Portas de Santo Antão 58
The small district of São Paulo creeps from the waterfront at Cais do Sodré just west of Baixa and up the hill towards Museu da Farmácia. While much of the area is residential, you can find many bars, restaurants and cafés around Praça de São Paulo.
Cool down with something sweet at the very crowded Gelato Davvero or grab a drink at one of the bars along Rua Nova do Carvalho. Also known as Pink Street, this precinct comes into its own late at night with many revellers hitting up the numerous bars.
Rua Nova de Carvalho
Quero-te no Cais – Rua dos Remolares 41
Gelato Davvero – Praça São Paulo 1
Time Out Market – Avenida 24 de Julho 49
Gourmands can head to Time Out Market at Mercado de Ribeira, the city’s oldest and largest food market, and go mad sampling edibles from more than 30 stalls opened by top chefs and local restaurants.
This is the first of several planned food hall ventures for Time Out, and it’s evident the locals have embraced it completely. From budget-friendly offerings from a few of the country’s Michelin star chefs, to pizza, sushi, fine wines and Portugal’s favourite sweets.
Mercado de Ribeira – Avenida 24 de Julho 481
The district of Belém lays west of the centre of town and is an easy half-day excursion of sight-seeing, eating and relaxing in beautiful gardens.
Grab the #728 bus, the train or the “Belem-Jeronimos” tram and head straight to Padrão dos Descobrimentos (the Discoveries Monument), an imposing structure that honours Portugal’s great explorers and promotes patriotism. Pay €5 and you can head up 52m to the observation platform.
Padrão dos Descobrimentos – Avenida de Brasília
Belém Tower – Avenida de Brasília
Five minutes walk away is Torre de Belém, an impressive fortification that once protected the city from sea-bound attack. The tower was built in the 16th century on a small island in the Tagus River, and since the quake on 1755, the river’s banks shifted and the tower is now just meters from shore. For €5 you can enter the tower.
Pastéis de Belém – Avenida Belém 84-92
One of the city’s undisputed culinary icons is Pastéis de Belém, and many people don’t leave town without giving it a go at this hugely popular bakery-cafe.
Depending on your timing, you may get caught behind busloads of package tourists lining up for a taste of this famous treat. We lucked out and waited merely 10 minutes to purchase our custard tarts. Whilst they are tasty, I can’t say they’re the best in town.
Our favourites were from a tiny joint facing Cais do Sodré train station at Mercado de Ribeira. Unfortunately I didn’t take note of the name.
Other sights worth seeing in Belém are the enormous Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, an extravagant 16th century monastery, Museo Nacional dos Coches (National Carriage Museum), Belém Palace, Museu da Marinha (Navy Museum) and Jardim da Praça do Império; a plaza filled with water gardens and fountains.
Full of boutique stores, countless restaurants and bars, stunning viewpoints, the city’s gay district and several museums, Bairro Alto is a must-see in the city of Lisbon.
During the day it’s teeming with Lisboêtas and tourists enjoying it for what it is; a residential area with fabulous extras. You can get your hair cut by a top stylist, sip coffee or vino with the locals, take the yellow funicular up Run da Bica and explore to your heart’s content.
Chiado Caffe – Rua do Loreto 45-47
Hang out in Chiado Caffé for a very decent morning coffee and bolon de Berlin, the most divine custard donuts. They also have a great selection of breads and other pastries, plus sandwiches, baguettes and salads.
As the afternoon slips in to evening, the Bairro Alto transforms into an eating and drinking mecca. Rua da Barroca lays towards the centre of all the action, popular with revellers of all types, especially the gay community.
Cocktails at Bar Cena de Copos, a shot of the city’s ubiquitous ginjinha cherry liqueur and even more drinks at places like Side Bar and Club da Esquina. And that’s just to name a few. Well, that we were seen getting sloshed at, anyway.
Bar Cena de Copos – Rua da Barroca 103-105
Ginjinha cherry liqueur at Ginginha do Carmo – Calçada do Carmo, 37A
Side Bar – Rua da Barroca 33
One of the best day trips you can do from Lisbon is to the small hill town of Sintra. Many agencies offer tours to the area, but if you’re a bit more budget conscious and have a little time up your sleeve, you can do it on public transport.
Cool, lush hills make up the region, which a welcomed relief from the sweaty heat of the city. Regal estates make up much of what the hoards (and I mean hoards) come up here to see. Stunning palaces and fountain-filled gardens that simply take your breath away.
Lots of very scenic hiking trails, too.
Palacio da Pena
The Initiation Well at Quinta da Regaleira
The main attraction would have to be Palacio da Pena, the most impressive summer retreat for Portuguese nobles back in the day. Now it’s open for visitors inside and out, and entry prices depend on what you want to see.
€14 allows access to the state rooms, grounds and terraces, whereas a cheaper €7.50 gives entry to the palace terraces and park around the palace.
Personally we think the latter is the better option as some rooms are often closed for renovations, and the access to terraces and the stunning park offer views you won’t see from the inside.
Another palace worth seeing is Quinta ta da Regaleira, another stunning palace and major site in Sintra. Aside from the palace there’s a lovely chapel, beautiful gardens filled with fountains, lakes and pretty grottoes. Be sure to check out the Initiation Well, a beautiful structure with spiral stairs leading down into a cave that exits to a grotto.
Casa Piriquita – Rua Padarias 1
The small village at the centre of Sintra is a hive of very touristic activity. Multiple souvenir stores, tourist restaurants, cafés, a few boutiques and lovely traditional bakeries.
One can’t miss sampling a traditional pastry, or few, from Casa Piriquita. It’s so popular that they have two outlets in the village.
Whilst the coffee may not be the best you’ll come across, there are some very nice cakes and pastries worth trying. Queijadas de Sintra is a tasty little tart made from sweetened fresh cheese with cinnamon. Other popular ones are the travesseiros, which translates to pillows. These delicate and flakey pillows filled with sweet almond cream are a little addictive!
To get the local bus to Sintra, head to Estoril train station and get the 418 bus on Avenida Marginal. Cost is €4.15 per person and takes about 45 minutes.
Moorish Fountain, Sintra
Almost a week of our time in Lisbon was spent staying with friends in Murtal, a residential area between the centre of town and the elite resort town of Cascais.
Many flock to this beautiful village and choose to stay, but it’s also a very easy day trip from the city.
Visitors can lounge on one of the sandy harbour beaches, walk around the 15th century fort (now a hotel and cultural space), shop for souvenirs along Rua Frederico Arouca and eat at many local restaurants.
Cascais’ old town is quite beautiful, despite being saturated by retail. A maze of cobbled streets, washed and tiled walls, numerous food options and sunny open spaces.
Being a coastal town you’d think that menus were very heavy on the seafood, but once you read past grilled sardines, octopus or fish, there isn’t a great deal more from the ocean.
Our pick was the popular and very family-friendly Chequers restaurant. Sardinhas (7.95) and filetes de pescada (8.9) filled our tummies that day: nothing outstanding, but standard bistro fare.
Chequers Restaurant – Largo Luis de Camões 7
A Caféeira – Tv. Sacadura Cabral 108B
Aside from several wonderful home cooked meals at our friend’s place in Murtal, we only ate out twice in this residential area. Cold beers and the popular Portuguese snack of caracóis (snails) at a tiny joint called A Caféeira in the São Pedro do Estoril village, and a fabulous dinner next door at Boteco da Linha.
The table filled with finely shaved presunto, cheese, olives and deliciously briny percebes (barnacles); all thoroughly enjoyed with much flowing vinho verde. I couldn’t go past the polvo (12), some absolutely divine grilled octopus with potatoes. Amazing!
Boteco da Linha – Tv. Sacadura Cabra 116