FESTIVALS, SEAFOOD GALORE, FADO, PEACOCKS, HIKING, MUSEUMS, FARMER’S MARKETS, BIKE RIDING, ICE CREAM, BEACHES, GRAFFITI, PASTEIS DE BELEM, TROLLEY CARS, CAFES, WINDY STREETS
Three Days in Lisbon
The plan for this trip was to meet our closest friends in Portugal, rent a fabulous house, and spend our days sight-seeing, hiking, and wandering small coastal towns, and our nights cooking together and lazing by the pool. So when our friends suggested spend three days in Lisbon before heading to the Portuguese countryside, I was dubious.
When Jim and I were first together, we joined the hordes of 20-somethings backpacking around Europe for the summer. Before we left, we had made plans with a couple we knew in the states to meet up in Lisbon toward the end of our trip. It sounded like as good a place as any to end our adventure, and the other couple (who had never been farther afield than Mexico) thought it sounded “nice.” But as luck (and dwindling backpacker finances) would have it, we didn’t make it to Lisbon, but the other couple did – and they told us they that Lisbon was “dirty” and “didn’t have a lot to offer.”
Believe me, we shouldn’t have listened to them!
Granted, Lisbon is a bit grittier than a lot of other European capitals, and may lack their artistic and culinary sophistication or familiar, storied history. But it has a ton to offer – you just need to know where to look. . . .
We were in Lisbon with our best friends, their son, and, of course, Yao Yao for a four-day stint in the capital before moving on to northern Portugal, near Barcelos, where we had rented a villa for a couple of weeks.
Our Lisbon headquarters was Hotel Santiago de Alfama, tucked off on a side street below the Castelo de São Jorge, the reconstructed castle that overlooks the Alfama district, visible from all parts of the city. It’s also just a short walk to the Sé, Lisbon’s 12th-century cathedral.
The most enticing area in Lisbon, the Alfama district is all red tile roofs and multicolored tiled edifices, a warren of steep, narrow cobbled streets with striking views of the city and Tagus River around nearly every corner. And there’s a plethora of authentic Portuguese restaurants in the area, which makes it a great place to stay.
Santiago de Alfama was the perfect choice for us: small enough to give a feeling of intimacy and exclusivity, but with all the modern conveniences of a larger hotel (and believe me, Yao Yao likes things modern!).
Photos above by Santiago, de Alfama and Trip Advisor
In June, when we visited, the neighborhood was the scene of the several festivals dedicated to popular saints. During these festa days, the neighborhood fills with locals celebrating with food, drink, and music. Speaking of music, the Alfama is also the birthplace of Lisbon’s most famous indigenous musical genre – fado. Once the music of the city’s lower classes, fado’s mournful lyrics speak of loneliness, resignation, and lost love – the perfect musical accompaniment to a night on the town with friends and family!
Anyway, after a couple of days here, it’s hard not to feel part of the area. There are festivals in every season, and depending on your interests and eating proclivities, you could party nonstop year round – especially if you’re a fan of bacalao, Portugal’s gift to the world’s salt cod lovers. It’s said that there are more than 365 popular recipes for bacalao, so if you’re so inclined, you could eat it every day for a year and never repeat a recipe. (That’s a theory I have no inclination to test, BTW.)
As a matter of fact, with the amount of good, fresh seafood in Lisbon, it’s a shame they feel the need to dry it out and reconstitute it at all. I asked a cab driver for recommendations for good seafood restaurants, and he had one, and one only: Cervejaria Ramiro, on Avenida Almirante Reis No. 1-H, in the Baixa area (the lower town). It’s definitely a single-minded eatery dedicated – and I mean dedicated – to seafood in all its glory. The only meat on the menu is a steak sandwich – a damn good steak sandwich, from everything Jim and the others tell me. But in Portugal, these steak sandwiches are eaten as dessert, after the meal, to tuck into those places in your stomach not taken up by pristine spot prawns or clams in garlic sauce. Oh, and you’ve never tasted garlic toast like that served at Ramiro – big mountains of the buttery, garlicky stuff – delicious. We ate there several of the five nights we were there, and then returned for a third time on the way to the airport after the trip north!
In between, we feasted on other local specialties as well: delicious pork and clams in one local place, grilled sardines in another, always interesting, always memorable – and these were in local places we just wandered into in our little Alfama area. There is even plenty for vegetarians and pickier eaters, though candidly, being a picky eater in Portugal is huge waste. You don’ t want to miss out on all the variety.
And don’t forget to try the local wine. It’s quite inexpensive and very good. It’s not just Mateus and Lancers anymore!
You could easily spent weeks in Lisbon’s maze of cobblestone streets and not see all there is to see — we had a few scant days, so we narrowed down our sights to some key highlights and the essentials, wandering about and lounging in cafes.
So here are some sights you can easily digest in a few days and still have time to meander and soak in the sweet urban life of Lisbon.
As we were in the Alfama area, we spent the morning lounging over breakfast in hotel’s café, which is set up right on the street — and then headed directly up to the Castelo de São Jorge.
- Climb up to the Castelo de São Jorge (St. George’s Castle). There are stunning views and a beautiful park to stroll through. The day we visited there were peacocks roaming the park and a few cool food trucks, including a wine truck. It was a bit early for us so we eschewed the wine and opted for a coffee instead.
- Visit the Se, built in the 12th century.
- Wander the streets of the Alfama (the oldest area in Lisbon) and take a coffee (and perhaps a pastry) at one of the many cafes that line the streets.
- Take the 28 Tram around Lisbon to explore the city sights – it’s inexpensive and a great way to get an overview.
- If you are lucky to be in Lisbon on a Tuesday or Saturday, spend an hour perusing the Feira da Ladra, an antique market (read “big flea market”) that spills out onto streets.
- A libation is next on the agenda and then a nap (essential for the spouse!) to get ready for an evening out in Lisbon.
- Head to the Comercio Square and take the tram #15 to Belem, a 30-minute ride from the city center.
- You must, and I mean must, go to the Antiga Confeitaria de Belemto have one of its world famous custard tarts. (Okay, anyone who knows me knows I don’t usually like anything with a viscous texture —that means no flan, no pudding, no tapico and no custard. But these little custard tarts were pretty darn good. I was able to consume two — but in my defense, I had a small lunch . . . )
- Head to the cloisters of Jerónimos Monastery. History says Vasco da Gama spent his last night here before departing for the Orient in 1497.
- Visit the Coach Museum, which is a favorite for kids of any age.
- The Maritime Museum is definitely worth a visit and it’s a good find for kids and adults alike.
- Visit the Museu Coleção Berardo, which houses work by everyone from Dali to Pollock. It was closed, so we missed it. Yao Yao was not happy, as she is a modern art enthusiast.
- Head to the Belem Tower — and even if you don’t want to go in, it’s worth seeing the exterior.
- Next is the Discoveries Monument, which is striking. Jim opted for a snooze in the sun. (I wasn’t allowed to include any photos, but trust me, they were doozies.)
- Dinner at the Clube de Fado turned out to be an adventure. The performers were fantastic and all of us walked away fado fans. It’s probably too long for really young kids, but those 12 and older should enjoy the evening.
- As we had a bit of a late start, we strolled through the festa going on in Alfama. Though still morning, people were out in makeshift stands grilling meats and pouring beers, music blaring. And it only got more festive as the day wore on. I had to stop Jim from having one of the roast pork sandwiches, but we had just finished breakfast.
- Fado Museum: Jim is an indigenous music fanatic, so we had to spend the morning here. What an absolute treat. I recommend hearing some live fado in one of the many clubs in Lisbon — it makes the visit more meaningful. BTW, the shop is fully stocked with fado CDS — I now own four of them.
- The National Tile Museum of Lisbon is sheltered in the Convent of Madre de Deus. Its highlight is a 1300-tile work that depicts the city of Lisbon. For a casual lunch, eat at the little cafe in the courtyard.
- Dine at Cervejaria Ramiro – Enough said.
Santiago de Alfama (Our hotel of choice in the Alfama area)
Hotel Santiago de Alfama
Four Seasons Lisbon
Lisbon Four Seasons
- Cervejaria Ramiro (Best Seafood Meal Ever)-One of the stand out meals was at Cervejaria Ramiro. Be prepared to wait in line but it’s well worth it. Though seafood is their speciality, the are also well know for their steak sandwiches, which we were told are always ordered as the last dish.
- Avenida Almirante Reis, 1-H
Tel: +351 218 861 647
- Frei Papinhas (A simple local eatery) It’s had mixed reviews but we had a fine meal. A grilled branzino, some appetizers, it was basic and fine. I of course eschewed the cod!
- Nunes Marisqueira
Belém, Rua Bartolomeu Dias 120, 1400-031 Lisboa,
- Merendinha do Arco Good local fare near the Rossio Arch
- More Great Restaurants
Nelson Carvalheiro -Where to eat out in Lisbon
Additional Resources for Restaurants in LisbonThe Culture Trip
The Culture Trip
The Culture Trip Ten Best Resturants
- The Museum of Fado Music (Or my husbands dream spot in Lisbon)
Fado Museum – The story of the national music.
- Fado Club – This is a Fado dinner club and though the food was nothing amazing, the music was incredible. I was worried I was in for a “Fado Show” and we would be sitting through a diluted version of fado. Au contraire, once the lights dimmed it was the singer and a guitar player and nothing else. No light shows, dancers in local costumes, just amazing music with one singer.
Clube de Fado
- National Tile Museum – Housed in the Madre de Deus Convent, it has an impressive tile collection and lovely courtyard restaurant.
- Museo do Azulejo
- Jeronimos Monastery – A World Heritage monument; Vasco da Gama’s resting place.
Belem Tower – The city’s icon; a symbol of the Age of Discovery.
Berardo Museum – World-class collection of modern art.
Discoveries Monument – The world’s explorers in stone.
Coaches Museum – The world’s largest collection of magnificent royal coaches.
Maritime Museum – The story of Portugal’s pioneering role in world exploration at the sea.
Archaeology Museum – Archaeological finds from over the centuries.
Belem Cultural Center – Modern cultural center with regular exhibitions and events.
Tropical Garden – Beautiful garden with rare plants from around the world.
Belem Palace – The home of Portugal’s President.
Memoria Church – Elegant neoclassical church.
Ajuda Palace – An extravagant royal palace.
Ajuda Botanical Garden – Lovely gardens overlooking the river.
25 de Abril Bridge – Golden Gate’s twin sister.
Docas – Attractive dock area with cosmopolitan bars and restaurants.
Monument to Christ – Christ opens His arms to the city. (as we saw the monument in Rio de Janeiro, we decided to skip it in favor of an ice cream break.
When we asked about Yao Yao what make Portugal so special and here is what Yao Yao’s said: