Lisbon has been at the top of my must-visit destinations list for a while now. The city itself is a mass of colourful tiled buildings and leg-toning hills yet you’re always a short train ride away from one of its many beaches. And let’s not forget its mighty history. Sitting on top of two tectonic plates, Lisbon suffered a major earthquake in the early 18th century which destroyed a large proportion of the city. In 20 years, a huge percentage of its infrastructure was rebuilt under the reign of the Marquis of Pombal in order to withstand any future natural disasters.
While most of the city has undergone a bout of fairly recent development, it still retains a sense of distressed glamour. This is the Lisbon that thousands of tourists flock to see and I can see why they do.
Where to stay
We stayed at the gorgeous and well-located AlmaLusa Baixa/Chiado. It’s small and luxurious but stays in keeping with the authenticity of the city; original stone floors and a cosy interior create a feeling of homeliness. The hotel offers all the grandness of a five-star hotel without losing those special touches that make small-scale hotels so charming. Guests are gifted with complimentary Castelbel soap on arrival, for example, as well as a ‘departure gift’ when you check out.
There’s also a restaurant downstairs which offers up traditional Portuguese plates (salted cod and the best chocolate mousse you’ve ever tasted), so you don’t have to venture far to try some of the region’s classic dishes.
In the mood for seafood
There are many things you learn fairly quickly when visiting Lisbon: the pace is slow, the meal times long, nothing happens on time and, so I’m told, if you see an open door, go through it. I discovered just a couple of these unspoken rules during a lunch at Cervejaria Ramiro; it’s a haven for seafood lovers and you’ll often find queues of hungry people out the door.
We feasted on clams (cooked in garlic, wine and butter), razor clams, snails and prawns of every type, including a giant red variety (carabineros) that tasted like nothing I’d tried before – sweet, succulent and swimming in melted butter. The plates kept coming for three delicious hours: whole crabs equipped with mallets in order to break into their meat-filled legs, sea snails, more prawns and a very drinkable Alvarinho (a light and dry white wine) to wash it down with.
The meal comes served with piles of doughy, buttered bread rolls to soak up the fantastic sauces and, as customary in Portugal, is finished off with a Prego, or steak sandwich. If you’re feeling brave, make sure to try percebes – a local speciality – which look like unedible tentacles but don’t taste as bad as they look!
You’ll find salted cod (bacalhau) everywhere you go in Lisbon. There are so many ways to serve the meaty fish but my favourite by far was ‘bacalhau a bras’; a combination of gooey scrambled eggs, potatoes and salted cod. Bairro do Avillez do a fiendishly indulgent version enriched with egg yolks, butter and – I’m assuming – cream. It’s a velvety mix of well-seasoned ingredients, the sort of food you scoff down in seconds and that requires a lot of wine to cut through it’s glossy richness.
Other must-try dishes while you’re there include pica pau: well-seasoned beef cooked in an umami-rich sauce. It’s simple but tasty and deserving of some good bread to soak up the juices. Don’t leave without ordering the hazelnut dessert, an unfussy and generous portion of ice cream, mousse and sea salt. You’ll find it listed on the menu simply as ‘hazelnut’, so you can’t miss it.
Take a day trip
If you’re in need of a break from the bustling streets of the city, make the 40 minute drive down the coast to Guincho. It’s a popular hotspot for its vast sandy beaches, impressive waves and beautiful backdrop. A great way to experience the scenery (and the wind) is by bike (Cycling Lisbon) so we joined in with the locals and tourists by cycling along the shore-front, before arriving at Panorama for lunch.
Here, you can enjoy open sea views while gorging on the freshest fish and seafood (it doesn’t exactly have far to travel). By far the most impressive dish was one I’d never seen before: whole sea bass cooked in a bread crust. We watched our waiters carve through the crunchy exterior to reveal soft, juicy flakes of white fish beneath, adding a touch of theatre to an otherwise simple but satisfying meal. For such a special lunch (service and setting included) the menu is very reasonable, as is most of Lisbon’s restaurant scene.
Nata or not, here I come
I couldn’t write a guide on Lisbon without mentioning their famous pasteis de natas. They’re sold everywhere and you’re never really going to get a bad one, but if you’re looking for custard tarts of the highest ranking, head to Pasteis de Belem. Situated in the district of Belem, a short tram or train ride from Lisbon city centre, this landmark bakery is the place to sample natas (they were the first shop to ever sell the sweet tarts, in 1837).
Supremely crunchy, flaky pastry with an almost-chewy crust is filled with the silkiest vanilla-spiked custard – and they’re served warm too. There’s so much to get right about these seemingly simple tarts: the custard must not be overly set. In fact, dangerously close to liquid-form is preferable so that it slips almost unnoticeably down ones throat. They’re typically enjoyed with a dusting of cinnamon and icing sugar, although I personally prefer them without.
Many locals however, prefer the tarts sold at Manteigaria (in the city centre) and it’s a long-standing debate as to who make the best ones. Manteigaria’s are softer and less crunchy than Belem’s counterparts and I think slightly sweeter but (of course) just as moreish. I personally prefer Belem’s but taste is subjective and I suggest you try them both yourself to make up your own mind.
Another great nata option is Pastelaria Santo Antonio on the climb up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge. I was seduced by the heady aroma of mildly scorched caramel as I walked past, the sort of thing you’d expect to smell if you set a torch on a creme brulée. You can watch them being made by the experts in the kitchen while you munch on one of their still-warm tarts – excellent fuel for hiking up all those hills!
Eat like a local
Even if you manage to plough your way through a school of seafood, a mountain of meat sandwiches and perhaps one too many natas, you’ve really only touched surface when it comes to Lisbon’s extensive food scene.
While natas remain the sweet treat of choice, Lisbon is home to numerous pastelarias (bakeries) offering all manner of teatime options. Sulphur yellow pastries enriched with egg yolks and butter (if you hadn’t realised by now, the Portuguese love eggs) line the windows of bakeries. And I certainly tried my fair share of chocolate mousse while I was there, which is sweeter and runnier than the butter-like French version, but still utterly decadent and delicious.
If you’re in search of an evening tipple, port is the drink of choice for locals as is the two-ingredient cocktail: port and tonic. I discovered my love for it during a meal at Delfina restaurant, where it came served with a punchy peel of lemon rind and tasted like grown-up lemonade. Try a shot of the city’s famous cherry liqueur (A Ginjinha) too – it’s painfully sweet and contains a sour cherry at the bottom of the glass. Chin chin!
Time Out Market
If laid-back dining is more your style, choose from one of the many restaurant options at Time Out Market. It’s a brilliant blend of high-quality dishes being served up under one industrial iron-clad rooftop. Loud, buzzing, chaotic and fun, it’s a great way to experience the best of the city’s food in one place. Tip: Manteigaria have a bakery here so make sure to tick it off your list when you visit! Right next door, you’ll also find Mercado da Ribeira which is the market to head to for all your fresh produce: fruits and vegetables, fish and seafood and maybe a bifana (meat sandwich) to keep you going.
Finally, although it might sound a little odd, don’t forget to nip into one of Lisbon’s many tinned fish shops before you leave. You’ll find shelves awash with colourful, retro-style cans filled with sardines, tuna, mackerel, anchovies and seafood. They make a great souvenir and you can guarantee that they’ll make the journey home!
Whether you travel to Lisbon for beautiful scenery, some chill time on the beach or a gastronomic getaway, the city delivers in every way. You’ll feel unreasonably full for most of the trip but embrace it; You’ll never regret eating too many natas.
TAP Air Portugal has up to 12 daily departures from London City, Heathrow, Gatwick & Manchester to Lisbon. Prices start at £92 return including all taxes. For further information visit TAP Air Portugal or call 0345 601 0932.
From Ireland: TAP Air Portugal has 2 daily departures from Dublin to Lisbon. Prices start at €96 return including all taxes. For further information visit TAP Air Portugal or call (01) 656 9162.