I was struck by three observations when I took my first steps in Lisbon last September – the actual summer heat which I had forgotten existed while living in San Francisco, the gorgeous tiles covering the exteriors of homes as if the houses had been turned inside-out, and the sidewalks made of stones making it almost impossible to roll my suitcase on the sloping streets between the metro stop and my hotel.
I spent my first night at Casa C’Alma, a lovely guesthouse situated in the quiet, shady square of Praca das Flores. The space is beautifully designed as is the accompanying breakfast spread which made for an indulgent last bit of luxury before moving into an apartment the following day. It is located just north of the hustle and bustle of the center. Nearby is the park Jardim do Principe Real which hosts a farmers market every Saturday and borders Principe Real, a main street with boutiques and restaurants worth visiting. If that doesn’t sound wonderful enough, it’s also steps from the best coffee in the city – Copenhagen Coffee Lab. In short, I really loved Casa C’Alma and highly recommend staying there.
During my first day wandering, I discovered a guide written by a local restaurateur called 500 Hidden Secrets of Lisbon. I was drawn to its style and the non-traditional format for recommendations like “5 Best Bars From Another Time,” offering thematic lists of things to see, taste and do. I used the guide religiously during my month in Lisbon and absolutely recommend it if you’re in the market for a guide book. In the meantime, here’s a few tips from my experience living like a Lisbon local.
For the remainder of the month I stayed just south of Barrio Alto in Bica, in the top unit of a 5-story apartment building. The pro was the gorgeous uninterrupted view of the water in the distance, but the con – there was no elevator – something to look out for in the older parts of the city. However, despite the almost 300 steps I climbed and descended daily, the flat was perfectly located. Bica is less than a 10 minute walk to Time Out Market (a gourmet food hall), the train station and the night life of Barrio Alto. Oh, and it’s also steps from my favorite dessert in the city, but I’ll get to that later.
While the center of the city isn’t huge, the hills can make it tiring to explore. Each neighborhood is easily walkable but I found that getting to a distant neighborhood justified a ride. Despite all the hoo-ha about Uber, it is very handy, cheap and what I think is a great way to interact with locals. The bus system works pretty well although they aren’t always on time and you’ll need to buy your bus ticket in advance from a nearby bodega. Additionally there is a subway system and the ability to simply hail a taxi or a tuk tuk on the street.
There are several vintage trolleys that run throughout the city. I rode the historic wooden tram 28 on a scenic route towards the Mercado de Campo de Ourique, a food market in a lovely tree-filled neighborhood with the same name. Besides all that’s offered within the market, you can find a traditional meal a few blocks away at Stop do Bairro. It’s an approachable neighborhood restaurant with plentiful portions of classic Portugese fare like grilled cod and croquettes.
If you’re craving something sweet, on the way back to the center from Campo de Ourique is a bakery called Casa dos Ovos Moles. They sell a popular Portugese treat made entirely of egg yolks and sugar. The story goes that ovos moles were invented by nuns who used egg whites to starch the linens in their convents and were looking for something to do with all the leftover yolks. I’ve never tasted anything quite like it. Give it a try if you are able!
But save room for my favorite dessert in the city, and hands down my favorite thing in all of Lisbon – pastel de nata, particularly from Manteigaria. If you have just any old pastel de nata, you may think it’s a standard pastry, but if you have a good one, and obviously better – the best one, hopefully you will fall in love at first bite like I did. Go here at least once, ideally often.
I found most of the city sights simply by walking around and even passed plenty of notable places without realizing their significance until later. It’s easy to spend hours wandering the streets admiring all of the tile-work which adorns exteriors, interiors, floors, ceilings and even what seems like random patches of wall.
A few places to note are all pretty close to one another. Barrio Alto is amongst the most central neighborhoods where you can get a good taste for the historic look of the city. Go during the day to walk through the narrow streets and return later for dinner or drinks. Alongside Barrio Alto is the newer commercial neighborhood of Chiado where you can find lots of shopping including all of the European chain stores like Zara and H&M. Mixed within the shopping streets is an urban elevator called Elevador de Santa Justa, which gives an elevated view of the area and is a structure that is a detailed work of art itself. Rossio Square is another spot worth viewing just blocks away. Don’t forget to look down as the pavement is adorned with a beautiful pattern of tiles.
Of course most of my free time was spent eating and many of those meals took place at Time Out Market. It’s a new concept food hall where each stall is representative of a top restaurant or chef in town. Rather than seeking out their restaurants all over the city, all you need to do is show up at the market and take a spin around to see what catches your fancy. And luckily because of this format it’s also very casual and affordable.
I had a few stand out meals at restaurants run by superb chefs including Taberna Sal Grasso, Bairro do Avillez and Taberna da Rua das Flores. Each of these restaurants served beautiful, well-made food with an ambiance representative of their character. I recommend trying them all!
Eventually, after a few weeks of eating all the cod fish I could handle, I craved a simple, healthy meal. I visited a treasure of a place called Jardim dos Sentidos, recommended by a yogi I met in the gelato line at Santini – also yum! The vegetarian restaurant offered the soothing environment I was looking for to enjoy a guilt-free meal, complete with gluten-free, sugar-free and vegan options as well.
I spent both days and nights exploring what may be the most charming old neighborhood in Lisbon – Alfama. The streets and alleyways twist and turn all the way to the top of the hill where there are incredible views awaiting. Be sure to return in the evening to hear Fado which is a style of soulful folk music performed in small bars and restaurants.
While I did check out the Barrio Alto nightlife, and even indulged in a 1 euro jello shot, I tend to prefer lower key drinking holes. Castro Beer is a laid back neighborhood bar that offers craft beer and a vintage foosball table. It’s also close to Time Out Market where you can have dinner before or after. Park Bar is a beautiful gem in an unlikely location – the top of a parking garage. It takes a bit of work to find this location but worth the effort when you see the view from the top. For something even more mysterious, Boutique Taberna is situated in a graffiti-filled alleyway where you can lounge on the steps while drinking a goblet of sangria and listening to live Fado. Finally, Pavilhao Chines is an eclectic lounge full of antiques and a somber atmosphere that will leave you wondering whether you just drank a cocktail in a museum or a bar. It’s a good spot for conversation.
A fun place to explore off the beaten path is the LX Factory. Take an Uber and arrive hungry. It’s a revived warehouse full of shops, cafes and an incredible array of street art. Of all the places to explore, Landeau Chocolate is one of them, conveniently located on the main strip. They are known for having the best chocolate cake in the city, but since I was saving myself for my daily pastel de nata intake, I opted for the hot chocolate instead. It turned out to be equally as decadent.
Lastly, plan to spend one of your nights in Lisbon at Cais Ribeira das Naus, the city beach without sand. The angled sidewalk allows the water to wash up onto the artificial shore so watch your toes as you watch the sunset.
Lisbon is one of those cities that feels familiar in no time. With delicious food, colorful architecture, good weather and beautiful views, surely you’ll find it to be an easy place to explore. Enjoy!
THE LISBON LIST
Placa des Flores
Jardim Principe Real
Copenhagen Coffee Lab
Taberna Sol Grasso
Taberna da Rua das Flores
Stop do Bairro
Jardim dos Sentidos
Time Out Market
Mercado de Campo de Ourique
Casa dos Ovos Moles