Moorish Castle in Sintra, Portugal.
The oldest capital in Western Europe, Lisboa seems to have been neglected on the tourist circuit for quite some time, but is now a hot spot, mainly because of its warmer weather and cheaper prices. We spent one week in this historic city, climbing its steep hills, walking on the slippery and beautiful mosaic sidewalks, riding its trams, checking out its street art, and eating its delicious desserts. You’ll discover that Lisbon is unique, for a European capital, because of its history, size, and lack of exposure to the rest of the world. Here are a few things we learned along the way:
A tasty treat from Pastels de Belem, a pastry shop by Hieronymites monastery. Pastel de nata is a Portuguese egg tart pastry
- Eat Pastel de Nata—As Often As You Can!
Portugal’s hand-sized custard tart is an absolute delight. It’s creamy, flaky, and decadent but not too sweet. We found it to be a great breakfast treat, afternoon pick-me-up, or late night sweet delight before climbing Lisboa’s steep hills. Pasteis de Belem is the place to go according to many tourist guides, but the pastries can be found at pretty much every café and patisserie throughout Portugal, starting at around 1 EU. Our favorite came from a small bakery called A Padaria Beira Tejo bakery in the Principe Real neighborhood, which is one of the hipper areas, with plenty of boutiques and artisanal food.
- Take a Day Trip to Sintra
For under 5 EU round trip, the 40-minute train ride from Lisboa’s Rossio station will get you to this lush, beautiful area rich with history, and dotted with exquisite castles, palaces, and gardens. Places to visit include: the gothic Palacio Nacional, the Moorish Castle ruins, the colorful Pena Palace, the grand Palacio de Monserrate, and the lush gardens of Quinta da Regaleira. The most popular attraction is the Pena Palace, but we decided to check out the Moorish Castle, the oldest of the sites—by far—dating back to the 9th and 10th century. Our second choice was Quinta Da Regaleira, which consists of a palatial mansion, luxurious park, lakes, grottoes, fountains, and mysterious symbols. Unfortunately, we got stuck in the rain on our visit, but we were able to duck into a corner spot in central Sintra called Loja Do Vinho to enjoy some local port and rose.
Sun, sea, sightseeing at Cascais, located about an hour from Lisbon.
- Be Patient with Customer Service and Be Aware of Seemingly Free Extras and Appetizers
Customer service in Portugal is somewhat lacking. For example, we were asked to change tables—even while eating!—at three different places within our weeklong stay in Lisbon. I believe this was to accommodate as many people as possible, but it was a bit off-putting. We also noticed the staff would be changing constantly. In one restaurant, we had five different people we had ordered from—we weren’t quite sure what we would be getting.
Also, never assume that bread, olive oil, or butter are free—most often they are not—even if they serve it to you without you asking for it. The worst situation we came across was in Alfama at a fado restaurant. Right as we were seated, a waiter brought out a lush dish of appetizers including mussels and olives, along with bread. We said we didn’t want these, and saw that 10 extra Euros were crossed out from our bill at the end of the meal. Also, if you share an appetizer, you may be charged per person for it. Always ask the staff if what you are receiving is free, and be sure to carefully look over your bill.
- Visit the Sao Jorge Castle and Wander Around Alfama, But Avoid the Fado Restaurants
Afalma viewpoint from the top of São Jorge Castle in Lisbon.
Alfama is a beautiful neighborhood to get lost in. Its winding streets get you from the riverfront to the Sao Jorge castle. The grand Sao Jorge sits high atop Lisbon and is full of nooks and crannies and beautiful vistas. Note that the castle may close on a rainy day (this is what happened to us!), because it can get slippery and dangerous walking around. And be sure to give yourself plenty of time to wander around (at least 1.5-2 hours), as its hard to see once the sun goes down.
The Alfama neighborhood is also home to fado. This soulful form of music (which literally means “fate”) is built on mournful, passionate lyrics peppered with feelings of resignation and melancholia—sentiments we felt summed up the overall feel of Portugal and its people. The music is beautiful and impactful and we highly recommend catching a show, but choose wisely. Alfama is filled with touristy restaurants that offer a free fado show with a very overpriced, often tasteless dinner. We made this mistake, and only found out after the fact that there are a number of spots and bars throughout the city in districts like Bairro Alto, offering free fado shows.
- Explore Various Neighborhoods, but Be Aware of Drug Dealers.
The city has several neighborhoods and areas to explore, including hot spots Baixa, Chiado, Bairro Alto, Principe Real, Avenida Da Liberdade, and Belem. If you visit Belem go along the waterfront and check out the 25 de Abril Bridge, which has an uncanny resemblance to the Golden Gate Bridge. Our favorite spot was Principe Real because it was a little less touristy, with cute boutiques and modern cafes. The broad, tree-lined Avenida Da Liberdade is exquisite and dotted with outdoor cafes, some that even include a DJ.
A warning, though: when walking through these super touristy areas, especially around Rossio Square, be aware of street peddlers trying to get your attention. Drugs may be brazenly offered to you. We were offered everything from marijuana to hashish to cocaine. One guy even had a coke ball in his hand and showed it to me without hesitation or qualms. Decriminalization of recreational drugs has made it easier for this to happen, and often the dealers are peddling fake drugs.
Graffiti covered walls are art in Lisbon.
Overall, Lisbon feels quite different from its fellow European capitals. Its dark history, which includes an oppressive dictatorship, along with its current economic struggles has clearly had an impact on its people and culture, while Lisbon itself feels stuck in time, from its trams to its small restaurants with written paper menus hanging outside. It’s one of the rawest, humblest, and most unrefined spots of Western Europe.