An ode to Portugal’s capital city
No matter where you come from, Portugal’s capital is an entirely different world. Even as a Portuguese myself, I can sense it. In Lisbon, the rich Portuguese heritage blends with cosmopolitan vibes and diverse international influences. Yet Lisbon is always down-to-earth, and that is what makes it truly soulful and inviting.
The land that now encompasses Portugal was once the home of Romans and later Muslims. The first King, D. Afonso Henriques, founded the country that would later be known for its pioneering explorations of the wider world in the 12th century. It was 300 years later that Portuguese ships sailed to the Americas and Asia, to create links that would remain until today.
Resting on the banks of a river that almost looks like a sea, Lisbon is sun-kissed most of the year. You’re meant to take it easy around here. During the warmer months, its proximity to Atlantic beaches makes it appealing for those seeking to sunbathe, surf or simply relax with a seafood lunch, a chilled glass of wine and a pleasant view.
But the true essence of Lisbon is to be found in its historical quarters. The best way to discover Lisbon is by getting lost in its small cobblestone alleys – they will take you not only to interesting places, but also back in time. After you’ve taken your time downtown in Baixa, head to Alfama – often considered one of Lisbon’s most picturesque neighborhoods. Then walk up to Castle of Sao Jorge. Take your time to observe how people go about their daily lives. Learn what the images on the cobblestone streets beneath you mean. Photograph the tile-fronted buildings that display a peculiar Portuguese style. Catch your breath in the many viewpoints you’ll come across on the way and finally reach the castle atop the hill. Here, with panoramic views across the city and river, is where you’ll fall in love with Lisbon.
When your legs demand a rest after walking up and down the “City of the 7 Hills,” hop on one of the vintage looking trams. Tram 28, locally known as “Electrico 28” is the star tram of Lisbon and for a modest fee will take you on a voyage around some of the most recognizable landmarks and historic neighborhoods of the capital.
In Belem, another parish dominated by curious tourists, gaze at landmarks such as the Monument of the Discoveries or Belem Tower. These monuments mark the geographical spot where Portuguese ships departed from during the Age of Exploration, more than 500 years ago, on the way to India and the Orient. Here you’ll be able to look back and imagine the courage travelers had before our time. Those explorers left behind all they knew in this world to go out to the open sea and travel beyond anything their imagination can conjure up.
You will understand what makes Portuguese cuisine unique when you start smelling the charcoal warming up in the restaurants dotted around the city. It’s almost impossible to leave the city without trying at least one bacalhau dish. Salted codfish is the local specialty and – through the hundreds of recipes developed to enjoy it – is almost omnipresent. Traditional Portuguese meals invite you to lounge around the table, helping yourself to another glass of local wine, indulging in hours of cheerful conversation and then eating some more. By all means, dessert shouldn’t be forgotten and waiters will make it a point to tell you so. Sugary and with lots of eggs, most Portuguese desserts are not only a complement to a great meal but something to be enjoyed on their own at any time of the day. Indulgence is the key word when it comes to food experiences in Portugal.
With pastry shops dominating the urban landscape, it’s easy to satisfy a sweet tooth on the go as well. Amongst the many delectable treats, Pasteis de Belem takes the prize as most iconic. Originally from the area of Belem, they can also be enjoyed under the name “pastel de nata” (custard tart) at any cafe of the city or even across the rest of Portugal. To feel like a local, order a pastry with local coffee, that is, a bica.
When the sun goes down, feel the nostalgia while listening to the sounds of Fado, traditional local music. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the lyrics because Fado’s simple raw singing accompanied by one or two Portuguese guitars will reach deep inside you – that’s something you have to experience for yourself to understand.
Lisbon was on the cover of the latest issue of National Geographic Magazine, and it is easy to see why international tourists have increasingly included the capital of Portugal on their bucket lists. Not being spoilt by massive tourism, Lisbon is quaint. It will excite you but it will still allow you to spend some intimate time with her.
Solar do Castelo
Romantic boutique hotel in the heart of Alfama neighborhood. Great base to explore the historic districts and splendid views over Lisbon.
Rua das Cozinhas, 2 (ao Castelo)
Cantinho do Avillez
Run by the country’s most internationally recognized chef, Jose Avillez, the restaurant offers Portuguese cuisine with a sophisticated and contemporary touch.
Rua dos Duques de Braganca, 7
Traditional Portuguese seafood restaurant with a laid back atmosphere.
Avenida Almirante Reis N1, H
Portuguese cuisine centered on seafood and meat.
Rua da Palmeira 15, Principe Real
BA Wine Bar do Bairro Alto
A great place for Portuguese wine tastings with over 150 wines by the glass. Best enjoyed alongside a selection of Portuguese cheeses and fine charcuterie.
Rua da Rosa, 107
Chapito a Mesa
Nestled inside an arts and circus school, this bar and restaurant serves food and drinks with some of the best views over Lisbon and the Tagus river. Recommended for sunset.
Rua Costa do Castelo, 7
Tasca do Chico
Informal setting for drinks and snacks; live Fado performances at night.
Rua do Diario de Noticias, 39
Pasteis de Belem
Original home of the famous pasteis de Belem. This is where almost 200 years ago the recipe for globally famous Portuguese pastries that inspired the popular egg tarts in Asia was created.
Rua de Belem, 84
Historic pastry shop satisfying sweet cravings in downtown Lisbon since the 19th century. Choosing a sweet treat may prove difficult, as you’ll be spoilt with choice.
Praca da Figueira, 18B
A tour of Lisbon packed with culture and history led by an English speaking guide.
Taste of Lisboa Food Tours
Foodie tours and cooking classes showcasing highlights of Portuguese cuisine.
Bio: Zara is a Portuguese travel writer who quit her job in Dubai in 2011 to travel around the world with her now husband Ashray, from India. They’re the team behind Backpack ME (www.bkpk.me), a travel site that aims to share tips and ideas with people globally, inspiring them to travel, no matter where they come from. While A&Z combines Eastern and Western cultures, Backpack ME is all about a multicultural perspective on travel.
Bio: Nelson (www.nelsoncarvalheiro.com) is a Portuguese travel blogger and hotel manager. He has a passion for people, travel and food and as a storyteller dedicates his writing and photography to the soul of the places he visits, the people he meets and the food he tastes.
Images by Nelson Carvalheiro