Updated: Jan 22, 2020
Interested in a trip to Lisbon, Portugal? Here are some suggestions that go beyond the typical tourist path. #Lisbon #Lisboa #Portugal #travel #backdoortravel #travelrecommendations
Here are some notes from a recent trip to Lisbon in summer 2019. I fell in love with Lisbon and Portugal and would love to return one day. I wanted to highlight some places that are wonderful and may not be referenced in your guidebook. I've also included a list of things I don't recommend. I hope that this helps you plan your trip. Note: I have included links where possible.
Lovely neighborhood featuring a covered market with food stalls:
Campo de Orique is my favorite neighborhood in Lisbon. And it’s barely mentioned in Rick Steves! Why does he send everyone on a well-beaten tourist path (e.g. to Baixa or the Alfama)? Anyway, Campo de Orique is a great local neighborhood with plazas, tile-covered buildings, plenty of great places to eat (bakeries, restaurants, cafes), and the fabulous Mercado de Campo de Orique.
This historic covered market has both foodstuffs for sale (produce, nuts, conservas (“conservas” are tinned fish)), as well as food stalls where you can get a meal. It is much more charming and local than the Time Out Market (see below). Also, once you’re done with this neighborhood, you can stroll downhill to Jardim da Estrela (Estrela Garden) or to the 100+ year-old Prazeres Cemetery. The cemetery has views of the 25th of April Bridge – you need to walk inside the gates and keep walking to the edge.
Campo de Orique neighborhood information is here
Read about the Mercado de Campo de Orique on TripAdvisor or on the market’s website here.
BTW, I loved a pastry and coffee place called Pastelaria Aloma. I especially enjoyed their pastel de nata (a very famous Portuguese pastry) and one that is crescent-shaped with chocolate icing (and is filled with custard – can’t remember the name of this pastry). Remember to put cinnamon on your pastel de nata before eating it. If you want a double shot, ask for “un duplo” and you can try to ask them to make that with a little milk on top. See Rick Steves’ book about how folks in Lisbon have a very set way of doing coffee. (If you want cold brew, almond milk or some other fancy modern thing, go to a specialty coffee place or Starbucks or hold off on this until you return to the U.S.) TripAdvisor listing for Pastelaria Aloma – note that the photos here are older, they must have remodeled the place before we visited. The new décor is lighter.
Information on the Prazeres Cemetery from TripAdvisor is here.
Information on Jardim da Estrela from TripAdvisor is here.
Restaurant: Consensual. Offers an inventive and creative tasting menu. I like tasting menus because you get a lot of variety and they prepare what’s in season. Plus, you don’t have to decide what to order. Instead, put yourself in the chef’s hands. It turns out that a panna cotta dessert made with cumin actually works and tastes good. Seriously! Consensual is a small restaurant that’s got modern charm and the waitress was very sweet and spoke English too. Note: reservations required.
Read about it on TripAdvisor.
Visit the restaurant’s website.
Ebike tour: We went on two e-bike tours with Lisboa Autentica. I had never been on ebikes before this and now I’m a huge fan. They still allow you to get a great workout and enjoy the thrill of being on a bike (scenery, fresh air, etc) while taking the sting out of Portugal’s extremely hilly terrain. Another reason to do a bike tour: you can cover so much more ground and see so many things that only exist outside the city. Remember that Lisbon is only about 10 miles from the ocean and a beautiful coastline! With the 2 tours we did, you bike to a train station in Lisbon, put your bikes on the train, and then take the train about an hour away from the Lisbon city center. This puts you in a great area to explore by bike. Also, I highly recommend senior bike guide Jorge of Lisboa Autentica. He gave us much great information and context about what we were seeing, took us on so many hidden and backroads, and expertly helped us navigate everything from traffic to getting our bikes on the train. Both tours were all-day affairs.
Tour #1 was Sintra and CasCais. Sintra is famous for its ornate palaces and gardens. Cascais is a longtime fancy beach town. We took the train to Sintra. Then we rode past the many palaces and their unique architecture, through forests, past vineyards and wineries, and by the beautiful coastline. Our group chose to not go inside the palaces – while they are probably beautiful inside, they are super busy with lots of tourists and have long lines. Biking past this was a lot more relaxing. We had lunch at the top of a big hill at a restaurant owned by a former pro cyclist. You picked your meat or fish out from the case and they grilled it fresh for you. The coastline we rode by after lunch was beautiful and was perfect for a bike ride. We rode to CasCais and took the train back to Lisbon. --> Tour info and booking on TripAdvisor.
Tour #2 was the Arrabida Nature Park. We loved our first ebike tour so much, that we decided to another one! We took the train across the 25th of April Bridge to south of Lisbon and exited at Palmela. We rode our bikes up to the Castelo de Palmela, which had panoramic views and not many tourists – yay! We had our castle experience here instead of paying 10 euros to see the Castle of St. Jorge in the Alfama district in Lisbon. We rode past horses and donkeys and more pastoral settings with quiet roads. We had lunch in the charming town of Azeitao, which is famous for its cheese. We went to a great restaurant here where we had a pizza with pata negra (the Portuguese answer to the Spanish Iberian Ham), a charcuterie plate with local cheeses and meats, and a glass of muscatel from a winery in the area. I hope to come back to this town to do some wine tasting one day! After lunch we road up and up and then had the most incredible views of the coast and the Arrabida Nature Park. The water was such an amazing shade of blue! I loved both bike tours, but the scenery on this one was just spectacular. Eventually we rode to Setubal where we took the train back to Lisbon. --> Tour info and booking here --> Lisboa Autentica, the tour company
LX Factory: This is a cool neighborhood located in an area formerly occupied by textile factories and in the shadow of the 25th of April Bridge (the bridge that looks just like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bride). LX Factory is simultaneously trendy, hip, and gritty. I especially loved all the murals all over the area and there are some cool art installations too. There are plenty of cafes (and yes, you can find cold brew and other fancy coffee here), restaurants, and shops. If you go on Sunday morning, they have a big flea market with food vendors, art for sale, etc. We had some sort of fry bread from the Madeira Islands and it was tasty. We had one with the grilled veggie topping, and the other with the sautéed meat. Look for the ladies at the food stall with the unusual hats.
Read more about LX Factory here and on TripAdvisor.
Street art blog with a post on some of LX Factory’s art, see here.
Try Portuguese cheeses and ham: Some places like the Figueira Market have lots of food stalls selling expensive meat and cheese plates. Do yourself a favor, instead of getting ripped off here and buying so-so food, buy meats and cheeses of your choosing directly from a shop to make your own picnic. Manteigaria Silva is a wonderful shop selling meats, cheeses, port, and wines – all from Portugal – on one side, and dried cod on the other (the dried cod is distinctly Portuguese and cool to see up close). They have some produce out front if you want some fruit to accompany your charcuterie platter. Note: go to the location close to the Figueira Market. Do *not* go to the one in the Time Out Market as it has a much smaller selection and is much more expensive. Also, do not reference Spanish meats or cheeses when describing your tastes. Portugal and Spain have a long rivalry that extends to this day. Instead, talk about the amount of aging (short, long) and texture (soft and gooey, firm) of cheese you like and ask for a taste before you buy, “paso probar?” (“is it possible to try?) I believe that you can also do a meat and cheese tasting with port on site.
Manteigaria Silva on Yelp
Address for the location I’ve specified: R. Dom Antão de Almada, 1 1100-197 Lisbon. This is very close to the Rossio metro station. See map here.
Food tour: If you have extra time and want to do a food tour, we enjoyed one from Taste of Lisboa. It is kind of pricey, but takes you to some places off the beaten path. And you’ll get plenty of details about the history, the dish, the purveyors, etc. And if you are curious about “conservas” (tinned fish), they include a conservas tasting as one of the stops on the tour.
Taste of Lisboa website is here.
See reviews of Taste of Lisboa on TripAdvisor.
Art museum: The Gulbenkian Museum and Foundation features two museums on its campus, as well as surrounding gardens. You can walk around the gardens for free and they have concerts in the garden in the summer. This is a nice place to spend a morning or afternoon and it’s not too crowded. Mr. Gulbenkian was of Armenian descent and made his fortune in middle eastern oil. He was also a huge fan of art and bought some very fancy stuff. There are 2 museums: the Founder’s Collection (housing the precious works of art that span 5,000 years of history) and the Modern Collection (Portuguese and contemporary modern art). I recommend visiting the Founder’s Collection. What’s great is that while there isn’t a ton of stuff, only the fanciest and best items are featured in a setting that is spacious and has plenty of places to sit. You will see Egyptian antiquities, Greek vases, Chinese ceramics, Turkish ceramics, Rembrandt paintings, a very extensive and unique collection of art nouveau jewelry and furniture by French artist Rene Lalique, and more. The Modern Collection is not really worth the time. However, they did have an exhibit in the basement with photos that chronicled the last 100 years of Portuguese history via photos, text, and cultural artifacts. That exhibit was worthwhile and very informative. Portugal has had a very tumultuous recent history between 40 years of dictatorship, reluctantly letting go of its colonies, a coup, entry into the EU (just 12 years after the dictatorship ended), austerity and economic troubles, etc.
ITEMS NOT ON THE RECOMMENDED LIST (AND WHY):
Fado: a melancholy style of traditional Portuguese singing. From what I could ascertain, it seemed like a lot of these performances were for tourists. And this musical style didn’t appeal to me personally, so we skipped it.
Ribeira Market/Time Out Market: Don’t go when it’s crowded! It can be a zoo since it is often so noisy and crowded! While live music in the evening is great and the breadth of food vendors is neat, I wasn’t super impressed. It was billed as a 5-star meal from top Portuguese chefs for 10 euros. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the experience I had. We ate at one of the places that had its own seating and it was pricey and just ok. The main dining hall requires you to find a table to sit at which is nearly impossible during peak time. Also, many of the chefs of establishments have other locations that are cheaper and better. On the flip side, if you are traveling with a large group and/or have children, this might be a good pick since each person could find what they want and you can find hamburgers and other non-Portuguese offerings – just don’t attempt to go there during peak hours! I can’t emphasize that enough.
UNESCO sights: While Lisbon doesn’t have the world-class museums of a place like Paris, it does have a few UNESCO sights. We were channeling our inner Anthony Bourdain (may he rest in peace), and just didn’t want to fight the crowds to see these places. In my experience, there are some wonderful sights that don’t have UNESCO designation, and there are some great sights that become overrun with tourists once they receive UNESCO designation. I believe that some of the sights like the monastery in Belem do not have a timed entry, which makes seeing the sight more chaotic and requires more waiting in line. (On a side note, the timed ticketed entry system for the Alhambra in Granada, Spain was great!)
We bought a Via Viagem card and used it on both the subway and bus. You buy the card and load money on it (similar to what’s available in other countries). The subway and bus were a great way to get around. I’ve heard that Uber is cheap and plentiful there, but we were able to use public transit or walking for most of our needs. Also, I recommend taking a bus once in a while as being above ground allows you to see the neighborhoods – you don’t see any of this while you’re on the subway. Our AirBnb host did arrange for a taxi to and from the airport and that was helpful. It was nice to find the driver waiting for us on our way out holding a sign with our names.
I hope to return to Portugal soon! I'd love to finally visit Porto too.