A holiday guide to eating, drinking and chilling out in Lisbon, one of the best cities in Europe
Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, isn’t the first place that comes to mind when most people plan a trip to Europe. But take it from me, this seaside city has lots to offer to intrepid travellers willing to wind their way through its back lanes and alleyways. If it’s sun, sand and a little seaside charm you’re after, it’s time to add Lisbon to your bucket list. Need a little more persuasion? Here’s a first-hand guide to just some of the things to do in Lisbon.
Indulge in the freshest seafood in Europe
Portugal is very much a culinary capital, and Lisbon’s seaside location makes it the European destination for fresh seafood. For my first meal in Lisbon, I made my way to an unassuming hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the edge of the Bairro Alto district. Restaurante Zapata, recommended by my Airbnb host, was packed with locals (a promising sign!). The shop front proudly displayed all manner of piscine bounties like fresh cod, sea bass and even a massive purple octopus. I opted for half a grilled octopus drizzled with olive oil, fresh herbs and a side of boiled potatoes. It was a simple meal, but one prepared exquisitely.
Another dish you can’t miss is the Portuguese speciality, Porco alentjano, a satisfying dish of pork with clams. It’s an odd combination, certainly, but the salty, spicy mix of meat and seafood is by far my favourite way to fuel up for a night of partying in Lisbon.
Party ’til the sun comes up
Belly filled, I made my way to the heart of the Bairro Alto district. In addition to being a popular nightlife destination, the district is filled with hipster hideouts and the occasional offbeat clothing store. If you fancy a bit of bar-hopping, here’s a hint: opt for the small 250ml draft beers (€1!), so you’ll have time to explore the area’s many distinct bars without getting too full. Those who prefer cocktails to cold brews should definitely make their way to A Capela. Pick from house specialty cocktails or stick to the IBA classics; either way, you’re guaranteed a stiff, well-mixed tipple served ice cold. Bonus points here for the vinyl spinning resident DJ and bar owner Pedro, who regularly plays an eclectic mix of electropop, dub, techno and even pop classics like Madonna.
Embrace a sobering view at Castelo dos Mouros
A first night in Bairro Alto is almost guaranteed to be followed by a raging hangover, but I was determined to push through and not waste my morning! And what better way to beat a hangover than a brisk hike up the Sintra Mountains. Grab a quick brekkie beforehand, and prep yourself for a 30-45 minute hike up the mountain. Upon reaching the summit, you’ll discover Castelo dos Mouros, or the Castle of The Moors. I’ll leave the history lesson to the €15 guided tour, but after hiking through lush foliage of an hour, you’ll be blown away by the view here. Definitely worth the hike!
Explore the suburbs of Alfama
After my very brief bout of mountaineering, I opted for more pedestrian adventures through the old town of Alfama. It’s an area considerably more rustic than central Lisbon, and it’s here where you’ll get your picture-perfect capture of pastel coloured houses on the hills. If you’re starting to get a little hungry, pull up Google Maps and navigate your way to Parreirinha de Alfama for dinner. This joint serves up a mean salt-baked fish that you shouldn’t miss.
Visit the Thieves Market
Any attempts to remain on flat ground in Lisbon are exercises in futility, and I soon found myself scaling another hill to get to the Feira da ladra, loosely translated to “gypsy market”. Now, trust me when I say you can find anything here – from rare Russian watches and surplus military gear, to handcrafted silver jewellery and vintage vinyl. I found myself drawn to the record store and picked up a limited edition Portuguese pressing of Joy Division’s Ceremony. Sorry, I just had to brag.
Try the world’s oldest egg tarts at Fábrica de Pasteis de Belém
Of course, there’s no way I would travel all the way to Lisbon and miss out on trying an authentic Portuguese egg tart. You’ll be hard pressed to find a single café in Lisbon that doesn’t sell these flaky, eggy delights, but I made sure that the first egg tart I tried was the absolute best. So I hopped on a tram to the sleepy town of Belem, home to the famous pastry shop, Fábrica de Pasteis de Belém. The shop has been in business since 1837, making it one of the oldest bakeries around. Getting to the front of the snaking queue took about 10 minutes, but scarfing down that first egg tart took about 30 seconds and boy, was it worth it – piping hot, drizzled with icing sugar and filled with soft egg custard. Not surprising, considering they had more than a century to get it right!