It’s January, the time of year when we wistfully think back to our summer vacations! After I got back from Italy, Hugo and I spent a few days in Lisbon at the beginning of July. We had been planning to go for a year, but the summer before he had started a new job and couldn’t take time off (so I went to Spain instead).
Everyone kept raving about Lisbon – it was so beautiful, so cheap, so charming, so friendly, their favorite European city. We had a great time and the weather was beautiful, but I wouldn’t go back in high season. It was quite crowded, and many of the locals didn’t seem thrilled with all the tourists.
The language barrier was frustrating too – I memorized the essential travel phrases before we left, but Portuguese is not a language that comes easily to me despite its Latin roots. It wasn’t hard to navigate the city in the least, but I feel uncomfortable and apologetic when I can’t speak the local language. I do my best not to be an ugly American, but I just don’t speak all the languages. There were several instances where we were treated rudely, I suspect because we didn’t speak much Portuguese, and even though that wasn’t the overall trend, those few bad experiences stuck with me.
I would still like to go back to Portugal and visit more cities; Porto and Comporta (thanks, New York Times) are both on my list.
Today I’ll share a few highlights, some resources (scroll down to the bottom for those), and things I would do differently next time. And gratuitous photos, of course.
My favorite thing in Lisbon was just wandering around the winding streets and admiring the colorful, tiled, sometimes crumbling buildings. But I wish we had researched restaurants better, because all that wandering makes you hungry, and despite the rumors that you can get a cheap and delicious meal anywhere in Lisbon, we ran into quite a few duds. Now, this is partially due to the fact that I’m allergic to seafood, which is the local specialty. But still, we were disappointed on more than one occasion.
For example, I read a lot of raves about the Time Out Market, which is essentially a fancy food court with a lot of choices. Maybe we just picked the wrong place to eat, but I thought it was mediocre and relatively overpriced.
We made up for it by eating our weight in pastel de nata. We did go out to Belem and try the famous Pasteis de Belem – totally worth it. But for the record, I thought that the ones at Manteigaria in the city center were just as good.
Where we went
I think this was my favorite neighborhood in Lisbon. It’s known for the yellow elevador runs up and down the hill, but other than that one photo op, I didn’t think it was too crowded with tourists. (Maybe because you have to go up and down so many stairs?)
There are quite a few little restaurants and lots of bars in this area. The Eurocup was going on at the time, so on a few nights we grabbed a drink and sat outside to watch the match.
One night after the match was over, there was live music playing in the square and people started dancing! We got whirled into one of those dances where you grab hands in a long chain and run through the tunnel of people holding their arms up, and then join the tunnel when you come out the other side (do you know what I’m talking about?)
It was the neighborhood we just kept coming back to, until we knew our way around its steep streets and winding stairs.
This is the old town with the famous #28 tram running through it. (Apparently, riding the tram is something you Have To Do in Lisbon, but we didn’t and I’m not sad about it.) It’s built on a hill, like most of Lisbon, and it’s easy to get lost in the winding cobblestone streets.
I think I expected Alfama to be really touristy, and some of it is, but it is truly lovely with lots of little quirks.
Scenes from Alfama: a ken doll chilling in an orange tree (see him?!), street art, and a photo exhibit honoring the elderly residents of the neighborhood.
There are many miradouros where you can stop and admire the view. Hugo said that one of his favorite moments of our trip was when had a little apéro at Miradouro de Santa Luzia (beer for him and tiny bottle of vinho verde for me). It’s all blue tiles and bougainvillea with an ocean view – gorgeous!
A busy beach town a short train ride from Lisbon. We took the train to the end of the line and then walked back towards Estoril. All the beaches were completely packed – like, we literally couldn’t find a place to set down a towel. I wish we had planned a little better to avoid the crowds. (I also wish we had packed more sunscreen!)
I read so many raves of LX Factory that we had to check it out. It’s a ways from the city center – we walked, but I don’t recommend it! (We took the train back.) I see what everyone is so crazy about – it’s tons of cute cafés and bohemian boutiques. If I were a local, I would probably try every single place. There’s also loads of street art, which only helps the cool vibe.
Sintra Many people recommended that we take a day trip to Sintra, and it was so worth it! This was a favorite day for both of us. We visited Quinta da Regaleira and Palacio de la Pena, and we ate mediocre to bad food and excellent pastries. Sintra really deserves its own post. Remind me to tell you how we walked up the mountain to get to the Palacio when the bus didn’t come!
Belem We went to Belem on the way to the beach, pretty much just to eat the original pasties and see what all the fuss was about. (They were amazing.) Then we wandered around through a park, a flea market, and down by the water to see the impressive Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument, which was next to this:
By the way, the tram to get to Belem is ridiculously crowded and expensive. You can also take the train, or, as someone later pointed out, if there are at least two of you it’s almost the same price to take an Uber.
Where we ate
I’m only including the good here, because the rest isn’t worth mentioning!
Taberna da Rua das Flores Hands down the best food we ate! It’s a tiny restaurant, the menu is written on a giant chalkboard in Portuguese, and people wait for hours on the sidewalk outside with a glass of wine waiting for a table. We got there quite early, and we heard them turn many people away as we were waiting.
Mili Just a little hole-in-the-wall neighborhood restaurant – we ended up here on our first night in Lisbon since it was down the street from our Airbnb. They were so kind and welcoming, and they offered us our first ginjinha on the house!
(Ginjinha is a cherry liqueur that is sold in little shot glasses for under a euro all over the city. It’s pronounced “gin-gya.”)
Cantina Lx is one of those trendy restaurants at the LX Factory that I told you about. They only make a few dishes every day, and the menu changes constantly. We weren’t disappointed.
To.B I know this is so not what you’re supposed to eat in Lisbon, but these burgers were amazing, so sue me. (If if helps, I’m wildly allergic to what you are supposed to eat in Lisbon, which is cod.)
Santini is a local institution – sometimes we saw the line of people waiting for ice cream (I mean, gelado) snaking out into the street. They have several locations; you can recognize their signature red and white strips.
Manteigaria does one thing and does it well – pasteis de nata. We tried these little egg custard desserts all over the city and Manteigaria was the only place that came close to the famous Pasteis de Belem. They’re conveniently located by the Baixa-Chiado metro stop.
Pasteis de Belem needs no introduction. There was an intimidating queue, but they have an efficient system and we only waited about five minutes. (You can also sit at a table and skip the line.)
A Vida Portuguesa Okay, I bought into the hype and went to A Vida Portuguesa, a trendy concept store that sells products made in Portugal. They do have some nice gifts and souvenirs – fancy salts, fish in pretty tins, soaps, decor, and the like. My favorite purchase was a little bottle of ginjinha small enough to take on the plane.
Where we stayed
We stayed in an Airbnb near Rossio. It was close enough to walk most places, but I think I would aim for something around the Baixa-Chiado metro stop next time to be a little more central. Rossio Square is beautiful, and it’s right next to the train station to go to Sintra. we tried a few “famous” pastry shops for breakfast close by and got mediocre, overpriced pastries and really rude service, even though we tried our best to speak Portuguese.
I was actually bummed out that we couldn’t stay in a hostel! People kept telling me about amazing hostels in Lisbon (like, rooftop pools and stuff), but the private rooms were all booked up. It would have been nice to stay in an upscale hostel instead of an Airbnb because a) it’s better for the local housing economy and b) there are more resources for visitors.
Here are the ones that were highly recommended to me:
Good Morning Hostel – I don’t remember where I heard about this one. Probably somewhere really good.
Taking the metro into the city from the airport is a cinch, by the way, and they have quirky artistic metro stops, which I love.
Our favorite restaurant came from this guide by Purple Foodie
The Best of Lisbon from The Overseas Escape
An Alfama neighborhood guide by World of Wanderlust
Lisbon: Proving me wrong with every bite by Restless Fork
Best 5 Things to do in Lisbon from Sateless Suitcase
A Lisbon street art guide by Peeking Duck
Most of my trendy ideas came from this shopping & food guide by Wish Wish Wish
9 Things I Enjoyed More in Belem Than The Torre de Belem by Damon from Shut Up and Go
He also wrote this guide to the best vegetarian restaurants in Lisbon that I wish I had read before we went. (I’m not a vegetarian, they just look really good!)
I also wish we had gone to this fado bar that Jill wrote about.
I discovered this hip Lisbon site while writing this post.
Hostelgeeks has tons of local guides with secret tips – here’s where you get the one for Lisbon.
Most of these and more are saved on my Portugal Pinterest board! (I also have boards just for Italy, Spain, California, and France, of course.)
Thank you for reading! If you’re planning to go to Lisbon in the future, I hope that some of these tips & resources were helpful to you. If you’ve blogged about Portugal, feel free to share a link in the comments. Which cities besides Lisbon do you recommend?