Lisbon seems to be the place to be right now. Everyone I know has either been recently or seems to be going soon. Whilst it is now only a shadow of what it must’ve been while the vast Portuguese empire was around, this cute and unassuming city has bundles of charm and lots to offer. To be honest, I have no idea why I haven’t been sooner.
Unlike many other European capital cities, Lisbon has no discernible high rise big city centre, no super modern architecture, no swanky new areas. What it does have though is a lot of old world warmth and a fiercely proud culture that is rich, interesting and full of delicious food and drink.
The Portuguese are not well off but everything here works, the metro system is good and the (if not somewhat over touristy) trams are adorable. The river is gorgeous, as is the promenade next to it, as are all the beautiful medieval sights (Belem, Castello St Jorge etc) all well worth a visit. But we all know what we’re here to discuss and that’s the food. And it’s bloody great.
Kosher/veggie friends maybe stop reading now, this is a pork and seafood party! (But even you guys can find delicious treats in the shape of cod fish, sardines and pastries!)
The first thing to say is that, differently to their Spanish neighbours, the Portuguese have mastered pastry. Testament to this is the infamous pastel de nata (custard tart) and they really are everything that people say. Beautiful flaky pastry and super creamy, almost flowing custard cream centre, slightly seared on top. Delish. And you don’t have to go to the ridiculously touristy Pasteis de Belém to get one, don’t bother (the queue is always massive). Here were our top pastel de nata/ spots in Lisbon:
1. Pastelaria Versailles: Slightly further outside the city, next to Saldanha metro station, well worth the trip or better even, stay near here it’s a beautiful and more relaxed area than the touristy centre. Best pastel de nata we had, lovely terrace and the interior is like an old apothecary but for pastry.
2. Pastelaria Santo António: This is on the walk up to the Castelo St Jorge, and a perfect pit stop. This had the freshest pastel de nata, you can watch the pastry chef making them which is cool, and there’s a nice view from the tables upstairs. Don’t be tempted to try the ‘egg pudding’ though, it tastes exactly as you’d think, like a strangely sweet hard boiled egg 😱
3. Padaria do Bairro: A chain you can find in a few places but perfectly delicious pastry and super cheap. The Pao de Deus here was also delicious, try it (brioche bun with a kind of coconut almond frangipane topping).
Pastry aside, Lisbon has a lot more to offer for savoury lovers. Let’s start with the markets. Lisboans do markets incredibly well and it’s a ridiculously civilised experience in some cases with much better fare than you can find in the restaurants.
1. The Time Out market – A must visit, head to the Cais do Sodre station, it’s a lovely area too but the food is something else. The seafood is fantastic (try the vinho verde, green wine with it) but make sure you check out the 4 stands on the back far wall which are curated by Lisbon’s best chefs, some Michelin starred, it’s a super cost effective way to some of the best food in the city. Also worth a try are the ham and cheese boards, and whatever you do find and try some leitão (suckling pig) it’s out of this world. Why is it so civilised? Each stall will give you a beeper so you can wait calmly at a table, there’s cool lounge music playing and the bar is always flowing whatever you’re eating. Do not leave Lisbon without coming here!
2. Campo de Ourique market: This is more of a produce market but still offers some stands with excellent quality food. The best by far was the meat stall offering many cuts of meat cooked to your order, served as you fancy. Opt for the picanha (cap of rump) for the best steak you’ll have had in a while. The seafood here also good.
3. Temporary markets: Praça da Figueira market: Around Lisbon if you happen to be there on the right day you can find a plethora of markets. On the way to Belem were tempted by a market in Figueira square (Restauradores metro) that runs the last day of each month. Beautiful craft stalls were here as well as some delicious food. Our find was the sausage, sold from a stand with the largest selection of sausages I’ve ever seen, from chouriço (Portugal’s chorizo) to morcela (blood sausage). We tried a small dish of taster pieces on the grill served with bread. A taste of traditional Portugal.
And then we come to restaurants, we were having too good a time to make it to many good ones but we found Estrela da bica in the cool Bairro Alto a great place to spend an evening and their fabulous sardines on toast (sardines being one of the icons of Portugal) were delicious and a little slice of iconic Lisbon.
Here are our final foodie Lisbon tips:
1. Try ginja – the local Portuguese liqueur, strong cherry flavour. You can find it everywhere in the old area the Alfama, try it its sickly sweet and fun for one or 2 glasses.
2. Vinho verde – basically a super drinkable white wine that’s also super cheap. It’s great have loads.
3. Don’t leave Lisbon without trying a bifana – these are super soft bread rolls filled with freshly cooked pork. We had incredible ones from Bifanas do Afonso, don’t be put off by all the locals queueing up, it’s well worth it.
And some Lisbon travel tips:
1. If flying with a low cost carrier eat before the airport, terminal 2 only has a McDonald’s and a bar with fly infested sandwiches, not ideal.
2. Take the metro to and from the airport it’s quick and cheap.
3. Ubers in Lisbon are super cheap, and the city is hilly, save your feet and get an uber or one of the many tuk tuks (yes they have these in Lisbon) to take you up the hills.
4. The centre can be disturbingly touristy and expensive, skip it and stay a bit further out of town, then hop on the metro back. We stayed in White Hotel Lisbon which was great, had a cute roof terrace and was generally pretty cheap (just don’t eat breakfast there! It’s 15 Euros and low quality).
5. Do go to the Castelo St Jorge. The views alone are wonderful, and try and get a guided tour around the archaeological area. Also the Torre de Belem is quite a sight even if you can’t be bothered to queue up to go inside, you can have a lovely long walk down the river back to the city, there are lots of snack and cocktail vendors along the way.
6. Other nice areas to check out we found were: the square in Martim Moniz, lots of cute outdoor bars. Bairro Alto, lots of cool restaurants and bars.