Lisbon Travel Guide

Lisbon Travel Guide

Jessica Benavides Canepa

Overlooking the seemingly endless Tagus River and framed by a string of panoramic hills, Lisbon’s urban beauty celebrates her contrasting virtues; cobblestone streets, grand architecture, ancient ruins and majestic squares neighbour gritty, graffiti-ed streets and the haunting, serenading sounds of authentic Fado performers.

Iconic canary-coloured trams putter up and down the narrow streets as lisboetas leisurely wine and dine in varied environments ranging from the tree-lined sophistication of the Avenida da Liberdade to the bohemian cool of Bairro Alto to the panoramic pleasures of the Alfama district. And just outside the city limits, an equally eye-catching experience awaits; storybook castles, seaside towns, surf-happy beaches and miles of nature’s splendour. Wondering what to do in Lisbon? Whatever your wants and tastes, this ancient city knows how to please.

The best hotels in Lisbon

Housed in the former Ministry of Affairs building, the newly minted Pousada de Lisboa overlooks the Praça do Comércio, arguably the most beautiful square in Lisbon, and the Tagus River. Perfect for classic art lovers, the columned, custard-yellow 18th-century marvel is stocked with certified museum artwork from around the country. Rooms are decidedly modern with stunning views of the celebrated square or the Sao Jorge Castle in the distance. The fashionable adjoining restaurant, Lisboeta and the sunny atrium breakfast room are run by Chef Tiago Bonito, the first culinary whiz kid to win the coveted National Chef of the Year award while representing the Algarve.

Located on the elegant Avenida da Liberdade, the Valverde Hotel is a perfectly preserved 19th-century edifice that is now a tony six-level boutique stay featuring 25 rooms and two ample suites. Each room is individually styled with vintage 50’s style furnishings, parquet flooring, patterned rugs and a touch of Moorish influence. The bathroom boasts dramatic cast iron tubs matched with a black marble basin. The public sitting room is fetching but equally eclectic with its striped purple walls, marble slab tables and comfy veneered sofas – the perfect choice for 5’oclock tea or a late afternoon cocktail.

Overlooking the scattered pastel-hued traditional homes beneath it, Santiago de Alfama is ironically modern for a 15th-century former palace turned 5-star boutique hotel. Suites are minimalist white with natural wood flooring, sensational garden or panoramic views and, in some rooms, stylish freestanding tubs. The cuisine is traditional Portuguese available in a number of dapper spaces including the teal-enhanced Manny’s Bar, the artsy A Fabrica restaurant and the charming Café Audrey adorned with dark woods and chintzy teapot wallpaper.

Valverde Hotel

Valverde Hotel

Where to eat in Lisbon

Lisbon’s seductive seaside location combined with plenty of hilly green spaces means plenty of fresh fish, crisp produce and healthy livestock. And although particular dishes vary between regions, the most popular ingredient in any Portuguese kitchen is bacalau (cod fish), said to be prepared in over 100 different ways! To quench your thirst, tangy whites from the Alentejo region are favoured along with tawny port wines from the North. Lunch is a big affair; often lasting, at least, two hours a sitting, a custom shared with neighbouring Spain. Indeed, since the 15th century, Portugal has been importing culinary influences from around the world yet, somehow, the cuisine remains traditional and undeniably unique.

The reining star chef on the scene is the charismatic José Avillez, who runs no less than five restaurants in town including the quaint, wood-panelled Michelin-starred Belcanto and his latest venture, Mini Bar, the first local restaurant to feature bite-sized slider morsels combined with cocktails as the main course. Another quirky experience, tucked away in an old town backstreet, can be had at Clube de Journalistas, an 18th-century villa that has retained its vintage look. Guests dine on inventive cuisine in a variety of environments including a snooker room, an ornately tiled kitchen and an exposed stone-walled “cellar”.

Photo: Emanuele Siracuse

Photo: Emanuele Siracuse

For serious wine connoisseurs, Sommelier Lisbon offers an excellent wine list, tasty cuisine and a smattering of mod drama; oversized taupe seating mismatched with purple chairs and floor to ceiling walls of wine. A memorable cocktail stop, a must for first timers in the city, is Pavilhão Chinês a wacky former general store featuring the owners inspired oddball collectables from around the world. For flamboyant cocktails with offbeat names like I Wasn’t Here and Foam Party, stop for a spell at Cinco Lounge, a cushy, gold-flavoured venue with a snazzy back-lit bar and super-chill vibe.

Once considered the largest farmers market in town, the cavernous Mercado da Ribeira was converted into a massive food pavilion by Time Out magazine in 2014. Over thirty eateries owned by top chefs and quality food producers, line opposite sides of the building, offering a wide variety of iconic Portuguese eats. Standouts include the ice cream parlour Santini, Casa de Ginja (cherry-infused liquor) and Henrique Sá Pessoa, one of the country’s leading chefs.

In Lisbon, coffee is inevitably savoured with scrumptious pastries, and although the coffeehouse concept has existed here since the turn-of-the-century, this tasty tradition has never wavered. Kaffeehaus resembles the quintessential Viennese coffee shop, complete with leather banquettes, dark wood furnishings and a wall of artsy memorabilia. Located in the trendy Chiado district, Royale Café serves coffee, cakes and light meals to a hipster crowd appreciative of a homey setting with a cosy outdoor terrace. Shabby-chic and spacious, Pois Café features a generous organic brunch menu or lazy lounging surrounded by rotating artwork.

Mouraria Graffiti | Photo: Emanuele Siracuse

Mouraria Graffiti | Photo: Emanuele Siracuse

Things to do in Lisbon

One of the most beautiful Lisbon points of interest, and a photographer’s paradise, the ancient district of Belém is a veritable fairy-tale come to life. Notables include the 16th century Belém Tower, which incorporates both Moorish and Venetian influences to dramatic affect and Jeronimo’s Monastery, with its mesmerizing cloisters and a gargantuan Gothic interior. Don’t forget to sample (and snap a shot of) a signature pastel de nata (custard tart) at the charming, azulejo-tiled Pastéis de Belém bakery, in business since 1837.

Too touristy? A more under-explored delight is a visit to the Museu do Azulejo (Tile Museum) representing five centuries of the stunning decorative ceramic tiles Portugal is famous for. Another noteworthy option is the Museu Medeiros e Almeida; a stately private residence turned public gallery that showcases a priceless collection of artwork, furnishings, jewellery and porcelain dating back to the 16th-century.

Shopping in Lisbon

Much as environments change between districts in Lisbon, so does the fashion flavour. Slightly out of step in the boho Bairro Alto, Rosa e Teixeira features tailored collections and accessories for every lifestyle situation. The über-hip Principe Real district is home to avant-garde designer Nuno Gama, whose flashy fashions are housed in a store that doubles as a barbershop. Another glam option is checking out the merchandise at Embaixada; a former Arabian Palace turned multi-level department store for artisanal fashions.

Chiado is a great hood for creative inspiration. Pop into the kooky Chiado Factory for offbeat furnishings and other household knick-knacks. And in a loving wink towards Portugal’s most enduring industry, Cork & Co features home design, accessories and jewellery made entirely of cork. And if you can’t get enough of nostalgia-inducing items, visit Catarina Portas’s retro shops A Vida Portuguesa where you’ll find ornate soaps, toiletries, sardine cans, posters and other trinkets from iconic local brands that were once household names. For modern design inspiration, venture to LX Factory, Lisbon’s premiere concept venue displaying exhibitions of inspired work by top interior designers, artists and communication specialists.

Solar do Vinho do Porto | Photo: Pedro Moura

Solar do Vinho do Porto | Photo: Pedro Moura

Paint the town

Before heading out to a night of mirth and mischief, locals prefer to laugh and linger over a drink at one of many outdoor meeting points strewn throughout the city. One particularly scenic spot is the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, a belvedere featuring an outdoor café surrounded by fragrant gardens and fabulous views. Port lovers will adore the posh Solar do Vinho do Porto, an 18th-century mansion re-conceptualised as a port wine institute boasting over 300 vintages. For late-night socialising without the need to shout over the entertainment, find your way to the Red Frog Speakeasy for amazing cocktails in an intimate setting. For a livelier scene, head to the Art Nouveau Foxtrot for live jazz and heady drinks. And if a unique setting is more your speed, sample the wildly original cocktails at Pharmacia, a wacky and wonderful, whitewashed bar/eatery inspired by an old-timey general store pharmacy.

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