For a holiday destination to be perfect it needs to meet several criteria: First, it must not be overly touristy. One of the primary reasons we travel is to experience other cultures. When a city becomes over populated with tourists, I find that the real culture of the place becomes lost and instead you’re faced with a commercialised version of the destination that is over run with cheap souvenirs and dodgy restaurants – I guess there are parts of most major cities that suffer from this in some shape or form, however, I personally prefer it when this is as limited as possible. Secondly, as most of the lovely followers of this blog have probably realised, I’m completely food obsessed. Alas, interesting and delicious cuisine is a must. Finally, to be crowned ‘The Perfect Holiday Destination’, the place must not be overly expensive. It doesn’t have to be Bali cheap but it also shouldn’t Geneva expensive.
Lisbon just so happens to meet these three criteria and additionally, is stunningly beautiful. Brightly coloured and flamboyantly patterned Pombaline style buildings are complimented by white domed cathedrals and grungy street art covered facades. Small cobble stone paths wind up through higher parts of the city giving views of pastel coloured buildings and sun drenched terraces that fade out towards specular sea views. A train ride out from the city and you will find some of Europe’s most spectacular beaches or fairy-tale like villages. It truly is an amazing city to visit.
What better way to get to know a city than by spending the day leisurely roaming through the wide ornate boulevards and sun soaked cobble stone paths. Start in Avenida da Liberdade, the main Champs-Elysees style avenue, decorated with abstract pavement, palm trees and fountains. Do a spot of shopping in one of many luxury stores or sit and people watch over a coffee and Pastis de Nada (Portuguese tart) in one of the many open-air cafes. Continue along the avenue towards Rossio. Once there, allow yourself to be captivated by Rossio Staion which closely resemble a grand palace, not a train station, and have a walk around the city’s main square. Just a little further along, you’ll come to Elevador de Santa Justa, a famous tower that overlooks Lisbon. If you’re feeling energetic, you can buy a ticket for €1.50 and take the stairs to the top and enjoy the rooftop views.
At this point you may be ready for lunch. If you’re in the mood for traditional Portuguese flavours, head to Faca & Garfo. This no-nonsense restaurant serves the classics, such as bif à casa (beef in creamy port sauce) as well as plenty of fresh chargrilled seafood drizzled with flavoursome olive oil, garlic and herbs. The prices are incredibly reasonable – I had the chargrilled tuna steak, which cost roughly €10. If tapas and wine is more your style, why not try Grapes & Bites. Their cellar is stocked with almost 1000 different wines, most of them Portuguese, and their well priced tapas are inspired by Portuguese and Mediterranean flavours. If this is not enough to entice you, there’s also live music to serenade you as you dine.
Lunch aside, it’s a good idea to continue towards Terreiro do Paço, Lisbon’s beautiful water-front square. From Rossio square, you can either take the main street, Rua de Aurea, or ideally take Rua do Carmo where you can check out a mixture of international, modern Portuguese and ancient Portuguese shops. If you want to avoid shopping, take the main street and stop at Nucleo Arqeologico, an archaeological site situated under a bank, with well-preserved artefacts from Roman, Islamic and medieval occupation. Otherwise, continue to get lost along the cobblestone streets as you venture further south – you’re bound to find stunning views, beautiful buildings and small cafés serving icy-cold handmade lemonade. As you reach the waterfront, you will likely be exhausted, you have, after all, just walked a really long way. My suggestion is to find yourself a sun-soaked terrace (Lisbonlux has an excellent guide for the best in town) and sit back with a cocktail or glass of wine and simply relax.
Start your morning with an amazing iced latte and Portuguese tart at Fabrica Coffee Roasters. This became my regular café. The coffee is, in my opinion, the best in Lisbon and the service is amazing – even for those who don’t speak a word of Portuguese. The café is located slightly off the beaten track, giving you the opportunity check out some of the less visited, colourful side streets.
Now that you’re pepped up on caffeine and ready to start the day, you’ll need to find the red subway line. This will take you to L’Oceanario, one of the largest indoor aquariums in Europe. Take the subway to Oriente and walk from there. Tickets are available for purchase as you enter (€16 for adults and €11 for children). Spend the early afternoon mesmerised by sharks, stingrays as well as otters, penguins and tropical species. If aquariums aren’t for you, you could instead stay in the heart of Lisbon and visit Le Castelo De Sao Jorge, a large castle located on the top of the highest hill in Lisbon. To get there, you can either walk up the hill from Rossio or take the famous tram n°28. Once in the castle you will have breath taking panoramic views of the city and surrounding countryside.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve chosen to see the aquarium or the castle, at some point today you’ll have to make sure you have lunch or dinner at Time Out Mercado da Ribeira. Originally a fish market in the 13th century, Time Out has transformed Lisbon’s main market hall into the ultimate foodie hangout. The market brings together the best the city has to offer including meals from high-profile chefs, the cities best small goods, as well as desserts and incredible ice-cream. It’s a great way of discovering the best of Lisbon. Make sure you arrive early because it becomes incredibly busy. I arrived at around 6pm, secured myself a seat and spent a couple of hours sampling some of the best wine in Portugal with my husband until the restaurants opened at around 7:30.
If you’re not in a complete food coma, you may want to check out the Lisbon night life. Just a few steps from the market, along Rua Nova do Carvalho, you’ll find several great bars and clubs including, Sol e Pesca, Pensao Amor and Povo. Here you can have a few quiet drinks or party into the early hours of the morning.
Now that you’ve had a couple of days to familiarise yourself with central Lisbon, it’s a good idea to take a little day trip either to the nearest beach or somewhere in the countryside. I decided to go to Sintra as the weather wasn’t really warm enough for the beach. Looking back now, I’m so glad I visited this beautiful fairy-tale like village as it’s absolutely spectacular – it was actually the highlight of my trip.
The small, UNESCO World Heritage- Listed town is nestled high in the dewy, forest covered mountains of the Serra de Sintra, approximately 50 minutes by train from Lisbon. For centuries, the nobility of Portugal escaped the heat of the city and settled in the much cooler, Sintra, where they built themselves magnificent palaces and grand gardens. Today, these well preserved castles can be seen dotted throughout the lush, humid mountains. The most popular of these palaces include, Penna Palace, The Moors castle and the National Palace. If you are planning on visiting by foot, you may only have time to visit one as it’s quite a hike to get to them. If you do want to see them all you can, however, take one of the many tourist buses or cars.
To get to Sintra, take the train from Rossio or Oriente to the last stop, Portela de Sintra. A ticket will set you back approximately €2.50. From there, you’ll have a pleasant 1km walk to the village centre. In the village there are many cute cafés where you can stop for lunch or a coffee. If you plan on hiking to the castles make sure you pack some water and a snack as there isn’t anywhere to stop once you’re in the mountains.
If you need more advice on things to do or see in Lisbon feel free to leave a message and I’ll try to help you the best I can!