There are often places that catch the ‘buzz’. Places which suddenly, out of nowhere, everyone seems to be talking about. Lisbon, capital of Portugal, can be described in this way at the moment; the internet is currently brimming with advice of what to do and see in this city – and with good reason.
As I found out last weekend, Lisbon is one of Europe’s most vibrant and laid-back cities. It’s walkable, with great food, cheap beer, a mixture of city, seaside and mountains with never-ending view points, cheap shopping and colourful buildings. For sure, there is a reason everyone is talking about Lisbon at the moment, and wherever you are in Europe, chances are there’s a cheap flight to the city waiting for you.
Where to Stay
Casa Amora: The perfect local B&B
It’s late at night when we arrive at the Casa Amora but Juan is waiting for us with the keys to our cozy room, and a bottle of Port sits waiting on the side of the terrace. The guesthouse is located in Rato, a little out of the main tourist haunts of Lisbon but close to the metro station and with a host of restaurants nearby. Outside the terrace, one of Lisbon’s oldest bars sits shaded beneath an overgrown tree, and locals stumble across the cobbles on their way home. We feel truly nestled in the life and soul of Lisbon here, and the service at Casa Amora only reflects that.
Early the next morning, a homemade breakfast is served of cheeses, meats, crusty bread, eggs, cakes, yoghurt and fresh fruit. It’s a feast and only made more perfect by the leafy surroundings of the terrace. Our days staying at the Casa Amora go much too quickly, and the place constantly oozes with a feeling of being at home. Fruit, croissants, coffee and tea are available 24 hours, and our room is light with two balconies and a huge comfy bed.
Rates start at EUR98 for bed and breakfast. For more information, visit their website.
Memmo Principe Real: A little luxury in the city’s coolest quarter
Alfama may have Lisbon’s touristed limelight at the moment, but I have a feeling that in a few years, Principe Real might be stealing its crown. The district is full of cafes, bars, restaurants and perfect viewpoints overlooking the rooftops of the whole city. There’s a definite buzz here, and the new Memmo Principe Real Hotel sits right in the heart of that.
With its sleek modern design, a la carte breakfast and some of the city’s best views, this place is a slice of luxury with a laid back feel. The rooms are elegant and minimal, with unique touches of contemporary design to add that ‘wow factor’. Plus, the view is really something else! Head down to the cafe for breakfast and you’ll be treated to a basket of bread, fresh juices and coffee or tea, preparing you for your choice of a la carte breakfast. Later in the evening, the terrace is the perfect setting to grab a cocktail and watch the sunset over the whole city; or you can take a dip in the pool (although during our stay in October it was a little chilly for that!).
Rates start at EUR208 a night for bed and breakfast. For more information, visit their website.
What to do
Stroll through Alfama
Nothing in Lisbon epitomises such a timeless Portuguese feeling as strolling through Alfama on a sunny autumn afternoon. The area is made up of winding hills, mosaic walls, patisseries and stunning view points. This the Lisbon you’ve been dreaming about, the one which you pin on Pinterest boards and find on inspirational travel sites. It’s shamelessly pretty, and also the city’s most touristy spot. However, it’s easy to get off the beaten track, follow hidden backstreets and seek out local coffee shops and secret view points – best admired with a couple of beers as the sun sets.
You can admire this area without really visiting any sights; walking around is enough to get the vibe of the district. However, the Castelo de Sao Jorge which crowns the hilltop offers some incredible views and history. The Se Cathedral is a beautiful centre point of the area and if you take the famous Tram 28, it’s a great place to stop off and start exploring from.
My favourite attraction in this area is the Feira da Ladra flea market near to the church of Santa Engracia in a slightly more local part of Alfama. The market stalls range from local bric a brac to vintage clothing, vinyl records and local designers. The more ‘official’ market stalls merge out to locals spreading their unwanted home goods on the ground and you can really get some weird and wonderful finds here. Not far up the hill, the Graca neighbourhood has great view points and is considerably cheaper than Alfama for eating and shopping.
Bar Crawl in Bairro Alto
Not far from the centre of town, the Bairro Alto area has become Lisbon’s principal nightlife spot. Here you’ll find countless tiny bars dotting the winding streets, along steep climbs and hidden around corners. It’s the main area for fun and beer for both young locals and travellers alike, and with beer prices averaging around EUR1, it’s also very cheap – going out in Lisbon is one of the cheapest activities you can do.
Eat, shop and enjoy the views in Principe Real
Few places in Lisbon ooze contemporary cool like Principe Real. More than anywhere else, this is where you’ll find the best new restaurants, cafes and bars. It’s also a tremendously pretty part of town, with the same colourful, old atmosphere of Alfama but with far fewer crowds. I’d say this is the city’s best kept secret (for now at least!).
Vegetarians will be happy here too, as this area is home to some of the city’s best vegetarian and vegan cuisine – a great find in meaty, fishy Portugal. Head to the Jardim dos Sentidos for some incredible food and deserts. A little further out nearer to Rato, Os Tibetanos serves delicious vegetarian Tibetan cuisine in an authentic and friendly surrounding. Jardim Das Cerejas is a cheaper choice, and for around EUR9 you can help yourself to a vegan buffet with a range of salads plus Portuguese and Indian dishes.
While in the area, make sure to head to the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara, a small park with plenty of picnic tables from which to watch the sunset over one of the city’s best views.
Visit the LX Factory
Half way between central Lisbon and Belem, the LX Factory is a series of converted warehouses which have now become cafes, alternative shopping, venues and clubs. This is Lisbon’s answer to London’s Brick Lane or Brookyln’s Williamsberg – a destination for young people looking for cheap food, cool bars and street art. While you’re here, make sure you check out the Ler Devagar bookstore – often cited as one of the world’s prettiest bookstores. On Sundays, the LX Market fills the space with vintage clothing, homewares and local artwork.
Belem is a riverside suburb of Lisbon, easily accessible on public trams or buses in around 30 minutes from central Lisbon. It’s known for being the home of the Pasteis de Belem, the patisserie where the original Portuguese Tarts were made. While you might have to scramble to get into the bakery to try one of the famous tarts, the rest of Belem is a blue sky dream- a series of museums, riverside attractions and botanical gardens.
Start your morning in the Jardim Botanico Tropical, a botanical garden which has seen better days; after wandering around you’ll soon realise this is the main charm of the place. Overgrown plants make way to peacock families, abandoned greenhouses and bamboo forests. Find the pink house and admire their collection of Bonsai trees. See if you can seek out the Japanese garden, or grab some tarts and enjoy the peace by the lake.
Get lunch at one of the food outlets along the main street and then stroll towards the river to the Museu Coleccao Berardo. Entry is free, and while the art is great with lots of thought-provoking pieces, it’s the architecture and the view of the river which make it a really lovely surprise in the area. Sunset is best spent at the Torre de Belem, a huge castle floating in the river with views out towards the bay.
A little further afield than Belem, Sintra is a real getaway from the city. A mountain hideaway once occupied during the summer by Lisbon’s wealthiest, it is now a quaint tourist attraction. There are many sites here and in a day you won’t be able to see them all. From palaces like the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, to hillside castles such as the Castle of the Moors, to the pretty town centre filled with cafes, shopping and Sintra’s special pastries – make sure you don’t leave without trying the ‘Sintra Pillow’, an almond puff delicious enough to rival the Portuguese tart.
We chose to spend our day in the Quinta da Regaleira, a 20th century summertime retreat that is now a popular tourist attraction. The house is impressive but it’s the elaborate gardens which will really take your breath away. Follow snaking paths and cave walkways to find giant wells, secret waterfalls and tropical plants. A must see is the Initiation Well – a giant spiralling staircase surrounding a deep drop, all covered in moss.
Tips and Tricks
Lisbon airport is only 8km northeast of the city. The quickest way to reach the centre is by taking the metro or AeroBus. If you arrive late at night you can take a taxi, but be warned that the taxi rank isn’t regulated so ask your accommodation beforehand what the price should be and make sure you don’t get ripped off.
Central Lisbon is easy to navigate on foot, although you will be walking up and down a lot of hills. The metro system is cheap but not particularly extensive, but can help you get around particularly if your accommodation is near to a station. Trams are scenic and the famous Tram 28 covers a lot of tourist sites. Buses are more widespread although be aware that they are often not on time. We waited for quite a few which simply didn’t turn up. I recommend buying a rechargeable card which you can add money to – it will save you buying tickets on each journey.