I take it back Lyon…. Lisbon is the city of stairs! Upon arriving via high speed train from Algarve, it was time to make our way to our apartment in the oldest part of town – Alfama. While I knew about the infamous trollies (one ran outside our front door), touting tourists up the “hill” of Lisbon, I did not realize just how extreme that hill was. About half way up our immensely steep route we were regretting our decision to walk, but at that point we had come this far so there was no option but to continue on. Welcome to LISBON!
The city has a very unique history. It was originally settled by the Romans in 205 B.C. making it the second oldest city (outside of Rome) in all of Europe. Centuries of battles later, Christians recaptured the city from the Moors and by the 15th century it became the point of departure for all of the Portuguese Explorations. Due to this Lisbon became the world’s most prosperous trading center until an earthquake in 1755 destroyed nearly the entire city (except for Alfama where all the “riff raff” happen to live), killing thousands of its residents. The city was then rebuilt on top of the rubble forming the Baixa neighborhood, which still remains today as the main commercial center of town.
After a free walking tour the first day, we spent the next five wandering around the city, celebrating a birthday, and eating at some very typical Portuguese restaurants which have been around for ages. Below are some of our favorite highlights during our time in this Portuguese Capital.
Interesting Discoveries –
Belem – The area of the city which lies 5km to the west, where all of the voyages of discovery originated. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, this area is full of grassy parks, museums, and plenty of monuments dedicated to the famous explorers. Despite the long line, a visit to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is worth it. This extravagant monastery was funded by the wealth and trade that flowed from the Portugal’s colonies during the 16th century. It is one of the most decorative churches of Portugal and simply breathtaking. Continuing along the water’s edge you cannot miss the Padrão aos Descobrimentos (Discoveries Monument), an imposing concrete monument celebrating Portugal’s explorers and the era of discovery, before reaching the Torre de Belem (Belem Tower) or old guard tower. On the way back towards the tram stop you will pass the Pastéis de Belem, with its line of tourists out the door waiting to try the famous Pastel de Nata. This bakery is the traditional home of the delicious Portuguese cake, and no trip to Belem is complete without trying one (however we preferred the ones from Café Versailles).
Nucleo Arqueologico da Rua dos Correeiros– This free tour of the Roman Ruins situated underneath a modern bank building in the Baixa neighborhood was very interesting. Originally discovered when the bank wanted to build an underground parking lot, these ruins show examples of life (including a fish processing factory) spanning multiple time periods in Lisbon before the earthquake destroyed everything. You can only see the ruins during a small guided tour, which lasts about 45 minutes. Add your name to the list next door ahead of time and enjoy this unique piece of history!
Fado – Everywhere you go in Lisbon (especially Alfama) guys standing outside restaurants will trying to lure you into their place for Fado, the traditional music from this region. This “folk” music includes instruments like guitars and mandolins with one Fadista singing poetic lyrics related to darker elements of love, death and sadness – traditionally sung about their loved ones going away during on voyages during the time of exploration. Best to enjoy during dinner, all service and chatter will stop while the woman pours her heart out through song. A very interesting and unique experience. Popular spots for a good performance include – Clube do Fado, The Fado Museum, and Sr. Fado de Alfama.
Because of the hills which flank the city on either side, there are some absolutely amazing viewpoints which must not be missed. Each one was very different both from the views as well as the people enjoying it.
At the top of Alfama lies Miradouro da Graca. The Igreja e Convento da Graca with its terrace, overlooks the Castelo de São Jorge, the water, and city below. A wonderful spot to grab a glass of wine from the small bar (or better – bring your own) and soak in the view. It’s especially beautiful in the evening.
One evening as we were making our way from Barrio Alto back to Alfama, we stumbled upon Miradouro de Santa Catarina, a small hill behind Museu da Famacia where over a hundred locals were gathered with their liters of beer or bottles of wine, just waiting for the sunset. Despite the clear day prohibiting a spectacular sunset, this spot had a perfect view of the bridge and river below. (Tip– Avoid the high prices of the hill kiosk and walk down R. Mal. Saldanha to #19, a small market on the left with a sign reading “Produtos Nacionais e Brasileire”. There you can buy a liter of local beer for 1.85€, among other options. They’ll even give you plastic cups for sharing!)
Likely the most visited viewpoint in all of Lisbon, the upper platform of the Elevador de Santa Justa high above Barrio Alto gives visitors a view of Alfama and the Castelo de São Jorge. (Tip – Save money and avoid the charge for the elevator from Baixa. A little way up the hill to the back, near Convento do Carmo, you can walk right on the platform. There is an extra 1.50€ charge to go a little higher, however the view is practically the same)
To the north of the city lies probably the second most visited viewpoint, Miradouro do Parque Eduardo VII. Due to its location, the famous Lisbon hills frame the city perfectly with the river in the distance. The long park below is also a great place to relax on a beautiful day.
Another lookout point in Alfama and popular with the Tuk Tuk tours, the Portas Do Sol overlooks the river to the west. Some local restaurants surround the square offering a place to eat while enjoying the views.
Portugal is famous for their sardines, which can found in every tourist shop or represented on virtually all souvenirs. Unfortunately, our visit did not coincide with the season so we were unable to indulge in that local specialty. In search for other authentic dishes we did come across a couple of other great options.
Tasca Bela – This small and cozy place in the heart of Alfama was by far the best food we ate our entire time in Portugal. Even though 90% of the food was prepared cold “salads”, each plate was so flavorful they did not make you miss a warm dish. The mixed salad plate is certainly the way to go (along with a bottle of house wine) to ensure that you get a taste of everything.
Restaurante Zapata – A bit outside of the main town, this local restaurant was authentic as they come. With the specials written on a table cover and taped to the wall (a tell tail sign it’s the type of place you want to be at) we opted for a “stew” with pasta and Bacala (salted cod that has been rehydrated – another very important ingredient in Portuguese cuisine) and the suckling pig. We had herd rave reviews about the octopus, but since it was late afternoon they had already run out. Each dish was incredibly flavorful, the beers huge and extremely well priced. If we were staying on that side of town, I am sure we would have been back a second time.
Pastelaria Marques Pombal – In the north part of town on Av. da Liberdade, this local lunch spot was bustling with business people from all of the nearby offices. We opted for the daily special, a duck rice, and a traditional Portuguese sausage which seemed almost like it was made of scrapple. Surprising but absolutely delicious.
Ze da Mourirara – Now with 2 locations, one closing up in the late afternoon, this traditional eatery was a recommendation from the owner at Bela. HUGE portions (for 2) of all the dishes you would imagine at a huge Portuguese family gathering. We agreed to give Bacala one last try (we had now had it so much over the pat 2 months) accompanied by all the sides – greens, chickpeas, and potatoes. It was incredibly tasty, just as we imagined it should be. Reservations are recommended or get there early! And be sure to come with an empty stomach.
Restaurante Tolan – Our last meal in Alfama before we left, this tiny little eatery is exactly what you would imagine when the matriarch of the family decides to open up a restaurant. With only her son to help, this duo produced a solid meal of seafood stew and mussels.
Café Versailles – An upscale café with a couple locations taking pride in the “art of coffee”. HUGE display cases of pasties and sweet line the wall. It was here where we had our favorite Pasties de Nata of the trip (Despite Belem’s being served warm – the flavor at Versailles was far superior).
Cais do VInho Wine Bar – This great little wine bar on the main street just outside Barrio Alto specializes in Portuguese wines. We had an amazing time tasting both reds and whites from around the region. Initially we thought the price of 20E for four tastings was a little high (it was my birthday after all) but our 8 hand selected tastes quickly turned into 16, as our “guide” poured more and more based on our preferences. If you’re interested in sampling the wines from around the country, this place is a must stop! Ask for Luciana (They also do port and madeira tastings for something a little more unique to Portugal)
**We stumbled across the new Time Out Market Lisboa on our way back from Belem. While we did not get a chance to eat anything at one of the many food vendors inside, it looks like a great concept similar to the tapas markets we experienced in Spain!**
Our Stark Perspective (Tips)
- Bring Cash – many of the small local places do not take credit cards
- Portuguese Banks do not charge ATM fee; however they may have a limit on withdrawals.
- Unlike every other major city- each person must have their own public transit card. We found this out the hard way on the way to the airport.
- Surprisingly there are no real supermarkets in town but only expensive neighborhood mini marts
- Going out to eat is relatively inexpensive and Lisbon locals do it often!
- The most authentic restaurants will have the daily dishes written on a paper table cover taped to the wall.
- Bring sturdy walking shoes (and prepare for sore legs!). The ground is extremely uneven and the hills very steep.
Link to all the great viewpoints – http://www.golisbon.com/sight-seeing/viewpoints.html