about the city
Portugal had been on my list for awhile but never on the top enough for me to actively plan a trip there, but I'm extremely thankful for a friend encouraging me to join her and a free ticket using Chase Ultimate Reward points for moving this one straight on up. I now see why people say that Lisbon is one of the most underrated cities in Europe. What a gem!
I think Lisbon and San Francisco must be sister cities with their winding hilly streets lined with sidewalk cafes, old-town cable cars, colorful row homes, and red bridges that glisten off the blue sea beneath it. After living in SF for 6 years, I instantly fell at home in Lisbon.
However, Lisbon has San Francisco completely beat with the history, of course. Y'all- the Visigoths and Moors ruled over this city. The Visigoths and Moors! Rack your brain for all those long-lost World History facts you stored away, and pull them out while exploring alleys and castles to make those stories come to life.
Before you go
Lisbon is the second oldest capital city in Europe! It has seen many rules, which make this city an eclectic mix of ancient and new cultures- both European and North African. Read up on the history because it is essential to understanding what gives this city such a unique feeling.
where to stay
For Lisbon in particular, I suggest AirBnB for finding options in these neighborhoods that make you feel at home. Look for places in these particular areas:
Bairro Alto- If you want to be in the middle of the action, stay in this neighborhood. Bars, cafés, restaurants, walking distance to the historic center, you'll be right there in the thick of it. Because this is the home of the party scene, be prepared for some noisy nights. If you'll be a part of those noisy nights, you might just want to stay right here.
São Mamede- I was told by a local that this neighborhood is where all the locals in their 20s and 30s live, and I can see why. I stayed in this beauty of an AirBnB and highly recommend it. If you want to be close to the action but slightly removed for a quieter night, stay here. We walked everywhere, and the Rato metro station can easily take you anywhere you need to go.
Alfama- This is the oldest part of the city full of illogically winding streets and homes that survive the great 1755 earthquake that destroyed the rest of the city. A mix of families who have lived there for centuries and tourists who are seeking "authenticity," you will be charmed by the sounds of fado music that waft out of the dozens of bars and cafes.
The Lisboans- I recently stumbled upon this gem of a B&B (more like a furnished apartment than a hotel, though). The apartments are immaculately decorated to be clean, sleek, modern, with beautiful pops of Portuguese style (those tiles though!). The couple that runs it is Portuguese and very invested in ensuring their guests have a wonderfully authentic time is Lisbon. I will most definitely be staying here next time!
what to do
Half the fun of Lisbon is just wandering through the streets of the center of the city and Alfama. There is so much character everywhere you turn! However, make sure you definitely do the following:
SANDEMANs free walking tour- With tours all over Europe, this company knows what it's doing. They describe their tours as "infortainment" - mixing history with charismatic storytelling. Meet in the middle of a bustling square for a 3 hour walking tour that takes you through much of the historic center of the city. Because this is a city so rich in history, I really think this is a must-do on your first day to get a strong sense of why the country is the way it is.
Fado music- I'm pretty sure I shed a tear while eating delicious food and listening to the soulful traditional Portuguese-style music/singing called fado. You absolutely must go to a fado bar and feel the tremendous emotion in these songs. You don't have to speak a lick of Portuguese to feel it in your gut. Let the wine flow and dishes keep coming.
Sintra- Uber or take a bus here for a great day trip. Check out the quaint city center that is a nice little respite from the more bustling Lisbon, check out the stunning mansion and gardens of Quinta da Regaleira (and finally understand what it's like to be in the Secret Garden and think, "Wow! Is this real life?!"), and wander around the palace and grounds of Pena Palace. Pro tip: make sure to get to the palace over an hour before it closes. We arrived 2 minutes after the last entrance, which is an hour before closing. HUGE bummer! You can also check out the Moorish castle walking distance from the palace because, yes, Portugal is OLD.
Belém- The southwestern-most area of Lisbon, this neighborhood is perfect to grab the original pastel de nata and watch the picture-perfect sunset over the beautiful Torre de Belém (tower) and be very confused where you are in the world as you stare at the Golden Gate Bridge and Christ the Redeemer statue lookalikes.
Ride the 28 line streetcar- There are several streetcar lines in Lisbon, but this one is the most famous, as it takes you up and down the steep hills and squeezes through the old streets of Alfama. You will wait in line. It will be packed. Decide yourself if it's really worth it. We tried to get on about halfway through the route instead of the start- forget about it. No room at the inn.
where to eat
There is so much good food in Lisbon! I've listed more restaurants here than normal because I truly loved everythig I hate, and they all have different ambiances with tons of character:
O Prego da Peixara- I loved this place so much that I went here for lunch AND dinner on my first day and had to restrain myself not to go back every day. Try a traditional prego, a Portuguese sandwich with very thinly sliced steak and a flavorful garlic sauce on a buttery soft roll, right by the Principe Real park. The ingredients are simple but powerful. You can get pregos at a bunch of places, but I've been told this is the best, and I believe it. Also get the sweet potato fries. Remember, sweet potatoes in Europe are different than the US- slightly sweet yellow our potatoes, not the powerfully sweet orange vegetables.
Restaurante Cervejaria O Pinóquio- Holy cow this was paella that dreams are made of!!!! I cannot more highly recommend the paella here rich with prawns, squid, and a huge serving of lobster. The serving for one was easily shareable between two, but it's so unbelievably delicious that I understand why one person would eat the whole thing. Seriously, you absolutely must go here. Maybe other things are good as well, but you bet I'd be ordering that paella again.
Manteigaria Fábrica de Pastéis de Nata- I was lucky enough to get to meet up with a friend-of-a-friend from Lisbon who took me to this spot and told me it was better than the the original makers turned tourist trap, Pastéis de Belém. I have to agree. Grab a pastel de nata (the traditional Portuguese egg custard tart) and a coffee (which to them is an espresso) at the tiny bar and watch the bakers in action.
Park Bar- A lush little oasis on top of a parking garage, this rooftop bar is bustling with beautiful people and a beautiful view of the sunset. over the city Get here early to get a prime spot and relax with a pitcher of sangria.
Time Out Market- This indoor market is full of pop-up shops by all the best chefs and restaurants in Lisbon. You can grab food from all of the different places and sit at communal tables in the middle of the large warehouse. Try a croquette from Croqueteria. O Prego da Peixara and Manteigaria (both mentioned above) have stands here. Sea Me also comes highly regarded.
Taberna Da Saudade- We wandered into this place one night looking for tapas and wine before a late dinner. Thank God we found this! A truly local Portuguese restaurant, you cannot go wrong with anything you order. This place is small, dark, lit by hanging lights, and makes you feel like you are in a movie. It is truly perfect. The owner is the kindest, wanting everyone to feel at home and leave full and happy. Start with the cheese and sausage platter, and go from there.
Mascote da Atalaia- This is the tiny fado restaurant where I had one of the best nights of my life. Blame the soulful, sappy music, dark ambiance, and overflowing wine, but you can't find anything more perfect. Book ahead of time and get the three course meal. Expect a long, slow dinner, where they will hush you for talking during the music. Everyone in here seemed to know each other and be regulars. Join in on the fun!
Fado na Morgadinha- This is another tiny fado restaurant located in Alfalma, the home of fado music, where there are fado bars on every corner. I did not actually eat here, but I have never seen a sight more perfect with outdoor seating, typical Portuguese tiles on the front, beautiful potted plants, and gorgeous doors. Who knows how the food is, but with a scene like that, I can only imagine how special of a night that would be. Book ahead of time. I'll certainly be going here on my next trip.