In October 2016, I had my first opportunity to travel to Lisbon. What a beautiful city and an incredible value. I would liken Portugal to Thailand: good weather, friendly people, tasty food and inexpensive places to stay. If you include surrounding sights, four to five nights should be sufficient to see Lisbon.
I hope to build out information on Portugal in future entries, but for now here are my recommendations of what to do, see and eat in and around Lisbon. All of this is also available on my Google map.
Orientation to the city
I would suggest a walking tour when you first arrive. This helps orient you to the city and makes it easier to get your bearings. We had an excellent food tour with Inside Lisbon
In particular, we took their Food and Wine Walk. With a small group (eight on our walk) we had lots of time to speak with the guide, a local who really loves his city and had a lot of insights to share. We stopped at about six places and had a lot of food and a lot of wine – all for only 38 Euros. Best of all, we ended up having a good understanding of the central area of the city and were able to more easily navigate it in the coming days.
There is a lot of good dining in Lisbon, particularly the seafood. Salted cod (imported) is a staple, which wasn’t necessarily the highlight but should be tried. The fresh seafood is spectacular, though. Cheeses, wines, breads and cured meats are all high-quality and inexpensive. Here are a few of my favorites – be sure to check out my Google map for more.
Carmo Restaurant and Bar – this charming restaurant is at the top of the hill in Chiado. Good especially for lunch. In nice weather, sit at the tables in the plaza across the from the restaurant and dine al fresco.
Restaurante Santo Antonio de Alfama – Rick Steves described this restaurant as “buried scenically in the Alfama” and he was right. Basically, stroll down from the Castelo de S. Jorge and you will find it facing Largo de Sao Miguel, a square in the Alfama. Closed between 4:30 and 7:30 so come for lunch before or dinner after.
Gelados Santini – Every bit as good as in Italy and perfect when you need a refreshing treat in the evening. Or the afternoon. Or whenever. Pay first for the size and number of scoops, then take your receipt to the counter to place your order.
Pastéis de Belém – Original home of Portuguese egg tarts. I would argue that the ones in Macao and Hong Kong are more to my liking, but why not enjoy them where they originated. They serve thousands a day so you are guaranteed to get one still warm from the oven.
Belcanto – Chef Jose Avillez’s two Michelin-star winning restaurant is a tough reservation to get. We were fortunate and snagged a cancellation, subsequently enjoying an elegant, playful and witty lunch that was memorable and tasty.
Time Our Mercado – The first “Time Out” branded market, this is a huge market hall with dozens of vendors preparing some of the finest food in Lisbon. There are long communal tables and a convivial buzz fills the air.
Maria da Mouraria – Fado is a style of music native to Lisbon, a soulful singing and guitar playing whose roots seem to be in the lives of the sailors’ wives who mourned for their husbands away (and perhaps lost?) at sea. This hole-in-the-wall gem was recommended by a friend who lives part of the year in Lisbon and we were rewarded with an amazing – and amazingly affordable – experience. A visit – and reservations – are a must.
Sites to see
Most of the important sites are in a fairly concentrated section of the city near the waterfront. You can ride the trams to get up the hills (beware pick-pockets on crowded trams!), walk, taxi or uber.
São Jorge Castle and then wander downhill through the Alfama district. Be sure to stop at the small ceramics shop run by two women at 25 Calçadinha da Figueira and you can incorporate lunch at Restaurante Santo Antonio de Alfama into this stroll. The streets twist and turn – don’t worry about getting lost: if you keep going downhill you will end up at the waterfront.
Stroll through Baixa, Lisbon’s historic downtown, making sure to visit the Lisboa Story Center for an informative history on Lisbon. Then continue to Bairro Alto and Chiado, the hills immediately to the west.
North of downtown, be sure to spend a morning at the Gulbenkian Museum – definitely worth your time to see a wide-ranging collection spanning from ancient Egypt to Islamic art to Impressionism to Art Nouveau.
A short tram ride west of the city is Belem, home not only of the Portuguese egg tart but also the Monastery of Jerónimos, a white limestone church and monastery that contains Vasco da Gama’s crypt as well as the National Coach Museum, a superb collection of coaches from different eras, many restored.
Finally, take a day trip north of the city to Sintra to see the charming sites of the National Palace of Sintra, the technicolor Pena Palace and the Moorish castle ruins. The town itself if walkable and charming and transportation to the sites is easy to navigate.