Sunny, fantastically pleasant with wonderful food, Lisbon perhaps isn’t as showy, trendy or has the level of culture of its closest European counterparts. However, don’t lets it’s unassuming personality keep you away. It really is a bit of a gem.
I was looking for somewhere to take my boyfriend as a surprise for his birthday. I quickly out ruled Paris (too obvious and possibly a bit weird), Rome (you really need more than three days) and Berlin (we ran the marathon there last year and I very much doubted he’d appreciate returning to the scene of the crime so quickly). I wanted somewhere a bit more low key. Then I saw it. Lisbon. Sunny. 16 degrees in February. I’d never visited Lisbon. Neither had he. The tickets together were less than a single rail ticket to my home town (utter madness). I was sold. Higgle-piggledy, deceptively sprawling, with nook after cranny to explore and sun in February. Lisbon, you were top of the list.
I don’t profess to know everything there is to do in Lisbon and I certainly didn’t do them all. What I did do, and enjoyed, and what I did do, and didn’t, is detailed below and I hope that if you ever go to Lisbon, which I heartily suggest you do, they might be helpful in giving you a little steer.
I knew nothing at all about Lisbon but from researching it I was torn between Alfama (Old Town) and Bairro Alto (Party Town). In the end I plumped for the former and found a fantastic studio flat on Rua Adica through AirBnB.
I will admit I have scoffed at bus tours as a way of seeing a city. As an avid walker I thought it was a bit of a cop out (and the buses are so garish) but, having been roped into a few of them, I have to admit that they are a very good way to initially get your bearings. As an aside, if you are ever in Berlin do the Famous Insider Walking Tour very early on. It lasts for about five hours, costs twelve euros and is both informative and interesting giving you a brilliant insight into the city. The value to money ratio is frankly second to none. Back to Lisbon though, take the tourist tram (the old red one and your ticket is valid on nearly all of Lisbon’s public transport for 24 hours) around the city for an hour an a half. You can hop on at the Praça do Comércio next to the waterfront. I’d recommend sitting on one of the quaint red velvet benches on the left as you’re facing the front and you’ll get a much better view. The yellow trams with numbers 28 and 25 are the best normal trams for seeing the city. Do note they aren’t on a loop and are very crowded especially at the weekend. People hang off them clutching tightly on with just one hand and precariously balancing on frankly surprisingly few toes.
PLACES OF INTEREST
Castelo de São George, a hill top castle, is the number one tourist attraction in Lisbon. There are beautiful views out over the city. However, there are so many viewing platforms dotted around that I was actually just as taken with the others particularly as you have the added bonus of being able to see the castle from them. Try the viewing platform just on the right at the top of Elevador da Gloria (one of the city’s funiculaires). After walking around the battlements pop into the very small, well presented museum which displays artefacts discovered at the site with my favourites being the tiles.
Cathedral Sé is the number two on most tourist to do lists. It’s very pretty, in Alfama and has some very ornate stained glass. It’s also very close to the castle.
Climb to to the top of the Arco da Rua Augusta (next to Praco do Comercio) for a great view out over the city.
EAT, DRINK & BE MERRY
Caso Sério is an almost underground restaurant which feels like it could just as easily be someone’s dining room. It is everything I imagined a Portuguese restaurant would be; jovial, intimate, a little rustic with hearty food that kept you there all evening. Pick the Serra cheese (made from ewe’s milk) and the goats cheese baked in honey that sings and sizzles for minutes after it has been brought to the the table. The sausages (linguica) cooked in black beer are also a must. Our waiter was attentive, friendly and his moustache, which may have rivalled that of Hercule Poirot, wouldn’t have been out of place it Shoreditch. Caso Sério has charm in spades.
Casanova is Lisbon’s most famous pizzeria and with good reason. The pizzas have the thinnest, crispiest bases topped with the tastiest ingredients. Sit outside (there are heaters depending on the time of year) and be surrounded by herbs densely planted sprouting from wooden boxes and lively chatter. The atmosphere is buzzing even at 11 pm on a Sunday. Sadly, as is infuriatingly becoming the norm, you can’t book. Get there early or very late. I ordered a margarita with the pomodoro e basilico salad – hunks of large, un-uniform, juicy tomatoes lightly dressed in vinegar and salt and paired with mounds of basil. Simplicity at its best. We followed it up with a deliciously sticky foccaca (but actually a pizza) half topped with mascarpone & honey and half topped with Nutella.
There are various nice drinking spots on the water under the bridge (that looks not dissimilar to the Golden Gate Bridge) next to Doca de Santo Amaro (below). Perfect for a crisp glass of white in the sun and playing “if I had loads of money which boat would I have?”
One word. Portonic. Cousin to the Gin & Tonic, or Gin Tonic, as it’s known on the continent, this drink is simply divine. Dry, crisp and refreshing and so moreish, it’s impossible to limit yourself to just one. So I didn’t. I didn’t even try. A happy addition to our drinks cabinet and my cocktail repertoire.
Sweet and tangy, freshly squeezed naranja is a world away from the orange juice you get out of a carton in England. Sold in little cafes, it’s great with a morning pastry and coffee. I can only think that they just pull them off the trees that line every street before squishing them through the juicer. And quite right. Another league.
On the Sunday we walked along the front to Belém (a western suburb with a famed monastery). The first part of the walk isn’t up to much (a tad reminiscent of Series Two of The Wire) but as soon as you get past Cais de Sodre or thereabouts the path turns into a lovely wide walking route and cycle path. All in all it takes a good hour and a half to potter along the water’s edge. No hardship in the sunshine watching the sailboats glide easily across the glistening water. It was the favourite part of the trip for the two of us. Go as far as the Torre de Belém (an ornate, boot shaped defensive tower) and then head to Pasteis de Belém to stuff yourself silly with its infamous custard tarts known as pasteis de nata. If there’s a queue, and there will be, don’t be faint of heart. It’s worth the wait. And for that effort I recommend a pack of six between two. At least. You mark my words, each one will go in about three bites and won’t touch the sides.
DON’T BOTHER WITH
Visiting the Tropical Botanical Gardens in Belém. Sadly, it was very run down, poorly maintained and simply not worth the two Euros you spend getting in. Use the money on a couple of custard tarts. You’ll thank me.
IF I’D HAD MORE TIME
After I somewhat spontaneously booked the trip I was lucky enough to have had recommendations from a couple of people whom it turned out know Lisbon inside out. If I’d have had one more day I would have:
- taken the forty minute train ride to Sintra a World Heritage Site and the former royal summer residence up in the hills. By all accounts it is truly picturesque and I was sorry to have missed it. In Portugal there is a famous saying which loosely translated reads: “To have travelled the world and not to have seen Sintra is not truly to have seen.” Next time.
- grabbed a drink (read portonic) on the terrace bar at Silk whilst the sun was going down.
- if there had been seats available, had a glass of wine and charcuterie plate at Enoteca de Belem which, from the outside looking in, looked brilliant.
- Museu Calouste Gulbenkian because I do love visiting museums and this one by all accounts is really rather good.
OBSERVATIONS & TIPS
Lisbon’s full name, I suggest, ought to read; “Lisbon; entrance with thick rubber soles only.” A pair of trainers or similarly practical shoes is a must. I love heels but they are simply utterly impractical and not worth it. You’d be crazy to sport even a small wedge. Don’t do it unless you want to sprain your ankle and/or break a leg. Or both legs come to that. The cobbled, marbled pavements, although incredibly beautiful, are notoriously uneven, missing in large parts and slippery when wet. There’s also, particularly in the Alfama and Chiado districts, a phenomenal number of stairs. Be warned. Whilst thinking about it, I would even go as far to suggest that mild cardio training would not go amiss in preparation for a trip to Portugal’s capital city.
There is graffiti absolutely everywhere and by and large not the good stuff. It’s really a bit of a shame.
Small Children in Fancy Dress
Small children appear to be in fancy dress all the time. ALL the time. Pirates, bumble bees, princesses, you name it. I thought it was a weekend thing but was made to think again upon having lunch on a Monday seated at a table next to a five year old Flamenco dancer and a three year old Little Red Riding Hood. Quite baffling but not quite as baffling as the young dad we saw pushing his daughter on a bicycle wearing a crocodile onesie (the father, not the daughter, and the outfit included headgear).