Travel

Lisbon: through the eyes of travel writers

It’s got good looks and a great location, but it’s Lisbon’s party spirit and culinary culture that make it the city of the moment. Thursday, 15 August 2019

By Amelia Duggan & Audrey Gillan
Tram 28.

When did Lisbon first really make sense to you?

AD: It certainly wasn’t during my first visit, when I inadvertently caught the city in the throes of its biggest street party, the annual Santo António Festival, held every 12-14 June. It was an overwhelming introduction: bands on street corners, litre cocktails sold for a handful of euros, and locals grilling sardines on smoky barbecues. I didn’t think it was a representative portrait of the city. But when I visited again, over an insignificant weekend, I found that same warmth and irreverent joie de vivre all over the place — from family-run restaurants in Bairro Alto to dive bars in Cais do Sodré.

Audrey Gillan: Eight years ago. A brightness bounced up from the Tagus River across rooftops, over blue-and-white tiles and yellow-fronted buildings, and along streets laid with intricately patterned black-and-white cobblestones.  During the 15th and 16th centuries, Portuguese sailors set out from here across the world, bringing back cloves, cinnamon, black pepper and other spices, and making Lisbon Europe’s richest city in the process. But by the 20th century — following Salazar’s dictatorship and a biting financial crisis — it was the poorest. When I arrived, though, the darkness was beginning to shift and the city was dusting herself down.

What do you love most about this city?

Amelia Duggan: The drama of its historical relics and the soulfulness of its working-class traditions are a winning combination. And it’s good value. In the same day, you can dine out affordably in the palatial ballroom of Casa do Alentejo and later sip cherry liqueur with elderly lisboetas outside A Ginjinha. It’s a city, too, of serendipitous moments and unscripted discoveries. A passing fado band might serenade your restaurant, or you might stumble upon the perfect little bakery selling delicious rabanadas (a Portuguese take on French toast).

If you were there now, what would you do first?

Audrey Gillan: I’d head to Cervejaria Ramiro, a seafood restaurant on the Avenida Almirante Reis, at around 3pm, when the lunch rush is over. I’d order gamba do Algarve (prawns), santola (dressed crab) and amêijoas à bulhão pato (clams steamed with butter, garlic and coriander). Dessert, Portuguese style, is a prego — rare, thin steak served in a crusty roll with sweet mustard.

What’s your top tip for newcomers?

Amelia Duggan: Get your bearings by riding the number 28 tram, which still uses canary-yellow carriages from the 1930s. Hop on near Praça do Comércio, rattle uphill past the cathedral and jump off in the steeper-still hairpin lanes of Graça. Check out the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, and don’t miss the views from the panoramic terrace at Senhora do Monte before riding back down.

Describe an ideal day in Lisbon

Audrey Gillan: After a rummage at the Feira de Ladra flea market (Tuesdays and Saturdays), I’d have coffee and cake at the old kiosk in the park there before meandering down the hill to Chiado for lunch at Prado. I’d then jump on a ferry across the Tagus to watch the sun set from a bar called Ponto Final.

Is there a side to the city we might not know about?

Amelia Duggan: Lisboetas love rooftop bars with epic views over the city or the Tagus estuary. In summer, hip al fresco joints like Park, atop a multistorey car park in Bairro Alto, or Topo, overlooking the lively Praça Martim Moniz, are packed out for sundowners. 

Vinho & vinyl

Viviana Baptista and her husband Will Grant swapped London for Lisbon in 2016   and opened Bar Capitão Leitão, a fantastic bar and vinyl shop in the Marvilla neighbourhood. No bigger than a living room, it’s a great spot for a daytime tête-à-tête or a date-night drink. Fittingly, there’s always something good playing on the turntable.

Lisbon on a plate

Cheap eats
Tascas — small, traditional, and often family-run, restaurants — are the heart and soul of the city. They’re cheap, portions are huge, and there’s always a daily special. Note, though: the bread, fish paste and olives that are automatically brought to your table aren’t free — if you don’t fancy them, don’t eat them and you’ll not be charged. 

Local tipple
Ginjinha is a sweet liqueur made from sour cherries, alcohol, sugar and cinnamon. Served in a shot glass or small plastic cup, ask for it com ela (with a cherry), or sem ela (without). There are two tiny shops near Rossio Square — A Ginjinha and Ginjinha Sem Rival — where locals gather from 11am onwards. 

Custard tarts
Have a nosey at glorious time-honoured spots like Café a Brasileira, Café Versailles, Café Nicola and Pasteleria Suiça, but eat your pastel de nata (custard tart) at Manteigaria – Fábrica de Pastéis de Nata, in Chiado. Here you can watch the cooks pipe the creamy filling in to the flaky pastry cases before baking.  

Go to market
At the Mercado da Ribeira, near the river, you’ll find stalls lined with fish, fruit and vegetables, almonds, honey and homemade piri piri sauce. 

Don’t miss

The Santo António Festival (12-14 June), a carnival of singing and dancing, food and drink. Streets are festooned with garlands and flags and each neighbourhood has its own marching band

Culinary Backstreets offers food-themed walking tours of Lisbon with writer/guide Célia Pedroso. From $130 (£99) per person, including tastings. 

Click to see the full list of our travel writers favourite cities.

Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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