Around this time last year, I was in Lisbon with my family. Our stops included Lisbon, Spain (Sevilla, Cordoba & Grendada), the Algarve Coast and finally Dubai. We were gone for 5 weeks and it was an awesome family trip 🙂
Lisbon is undoubtedly a beautiful and happening city. There are plenty of things to do, sights to see and people to watch. Each nook and corner of the city is steeped in history. You will see a mix of influences from the Moors all the way to the Catholic kings, queens and the subsequent explorers. In the summer the city is hot and humid, but there is the constant ebb and flow of people and traffic. Tourists collide with locals, buskers coax you into dropping a few euros and drug dealers attempt to convince you to purchase a few grams of “hasheesh.” If you are looking for a tranquil retreat, Lisbon is not the place for you. Instead, Lisbon is a bustling metropolis where the old and new meld together to create a vibrant city.
However, Lisbon is not without its faults. Unfortunately, there are two incidents that mark my trip to Lisbon. The first being the food and the second being interactions with some of the locals. My friend’s boyfriend went to Lisbon the year before me. When I told him about my upcoming trip, I inquired about the food. In my mind Portugal would be exactly like Greece – thus I would be in food heaven. Much to my surprise, he responded that the food is quite bland -“…all you really get is some meat and potatoes.” I figured perhaps he just went to the wrong places.
To the contrary, he is right. Based on my experiences the food in Lisbon leaves much to be desired. The majority of the offerings (in the Chiado/Barrio Alto area) are an amalgamation of seafood (especially bacalhau) meat (mainly pork) and some starch (potatoes or rice). We were in the touristy part of Lisbon so prices are relatively steep (especially for a family of 5) and I believe a lot of the items wanted to gear towards the tourist taste palette. Unfortunately, we did not eat a lot in Lisbon. Instead, a lot of our main meals were at McDonalds LOL. Yes, we were that tourist family.
Finally, I found the people in Lisbon to be brusque and somewhat stand offish. I chalk this up to being part of the “big city mentality.” Much like New York, Toronto, and even Athens, people in big cities are busy. Therefore their attitudes do come across as being brisk and cold – and you shouldn’t take it personally. That’s not to say everyone in Lisbon is like this. It’s just that I had a very romantic vision of Europe, based on my experiences in the Greek islands and Lisbon snapped me out of that reverie.
Nevertheless, these two incidents did not detract from my overall trip in Lisbon. My time in this vibrant city is an experience and one that I learned a lot from. It was an adventure that needed to happen. Traveling should be about experiences and at times not all of them are going to be romantic and ideal.
Lisbon is a must-see for anyone going to Portugal. My Lisbon travel guide lets you know about all the places to see and things to do so that you have as enjoyable a time in this city as I did.
Because we are a family of 5 adults, booking two hotel rooms is quite expensive and out of the budget. Instead, we decided to opt for an Airbnb and live as the locals do. The Airbnb we chose is located in the historic district of Alfama, a neighborhood formerly filled with Moorish locals
However, the apartment is incredibly small. It is so small you can easily reach for anything across the bathroom sink because the shower stall is so near. The type of small where your laundry touches the laundry of the neighbors as it hangs in the wind to dry. Although crammed, it was the perfect type of small.
The apartment is actually one of the highlights of my trip to Lisbon. The apartment and neighborhood is so quaint! Unfortunately, the real downside is the heat at night. It appeared that the AC unit did not work – or did not work very well. Which means that the heat of 5 bodies, combined with the heat and humidity outside made for some uncomfortable nights. I also suffered from major major jet lag. It was awful. I do not think I slept at all for the 4 days we were in Lisbon. On the flip side, I got to watch a lot of cool Portuguese/Brazilian movies on the Netflix, while everyone else slept soundly.
Another advantage to choosing an Airbnb is the ability to live in more local or historic neighborhoods. Furthermore, it is considerably cheaper, than a hotel! If you’re a solo traveler or you’re with a group of friends and you don’t mind sharing, then I highly recommend choosing a hostel. There are plenty of cheap, affordable and comfortable hostels all over Lisbon to stay at. A quick google search will let you know which places are available.
As I mentioned earlier, my family and I struggled to find quality food in Lisbon. We found that the prices are quite steep for the portions and a lot of the time the food did not appeal at all to our tastes. To be fair, my father and brother are the biggest mansplainers ever. When they get hungry they get hangry! immediately. That added pressure made us choose places that were downright awful (like the Bengali food stalls/restaurants we tried). We broke our number one rule – do not try Indian food in obscure neighborhoods in Europe. With that being said, I am sure there are great Bengali restaurants in Lisbon – just not the ones we went too.
However, not all is lost. While it is true, we were the number one customers at McDonald’s (and for that, I never want to see a Big Mac in my life ever again), we did manage to indulge in a few good culinary experiences that I have outlined below.
Translated as “God’s Bread” pão de Deus is the first Portuguese pastry (and food) I ever tried and it is absolutely delicious. Pão de Deus is a sweet buttery brioche dough mixed with shredded coconut and topped with icing sugar. This pastry lives up to its name as it truly a gift from God (he know’s what’s up when it comes to awesome sweet treats). I indulged in pão de Deus at a few other bakeries but none were as good as the very first one I had at Chiado Cafe.
I also recommend buying a loaf of fresh bread to eat in the morning for breakfast. Bread in Lisbon is delicious (they know how to make good bread). It is such a simple meal for breakfast along with a cup of coffee. Did I mention both the bread and the pão de Deus is only 1 Euro? That’s basically a sign from God right there letting you know that you must eat it at least once. Although twice never killed anybody.
Continuing on that trend of eating delicious pastries, Lisbon also has pasteis de Belem or pasteis de Nata. Pasteis de Belem is the famous bakery where the famed recipe was apparently developed.
Now, what exactly is pasteis de Belem? It is an egg tart pastry that is eaten with cinnamon and icing sugar sprinkled on top. Story has it that the recipe was developed by Catholic monks back before the 18th century due to an abundance of egg yolks. The egg whites were used to starch their clothing (thus maintaining their whiteness) but they were left with all these egg yolks. Now a normal person (i.e. me) would see this as a wonderful opportunity to make ice cream, but these Catholic monks are on a whole new level and figured making custard tarts with cinnamon and icing sugar was the better choice.
As for Pasteis de Belem bakery, they have a unique history of their own that is tied to the Monasterio de Jeronimos.
“At that period the area of Belém was considered far from the city of Lisbon and mainly accessed by steam-boats. The grandeur of the monastery and the Torre de Belém attracted visitors who became accustomed to savouring the delicious pastries. These pastries followed an ancient ‘secret recipe` from the monastery. Passed on exclusively from one master confectioner to another, these hand-crafted pastries were made in a ‘secret room’, and to this day the recipe remains unchanged.”
The national dish – or rather fish of Portugal, is bacalhau (codfish) that is primarily served salted or dried. I ate a bacalhau croquette filled with cheese. That was a big mistake! I do not recommend mixing cheese with fish, it does not taste good. Conversely, I think a plain old bacalhau croquette would be more appetizing.
However, a national dish we did enjoy is chicken Piri Piri. We ate at Bon Jardim – an outdoor no frills restaurant that serves the best piri piri in Lisbon. The chicken is tender and juicy and is served with a piri piri sauce and fries. Tasty and very affordable.
Wine is ridiculously cheap in Europe and even more so in Portugal. Vinho Verde is a type of Portuguese wine that originated in the Minho region of the country. It isn’t a type of grape but rather a name for the types of wine grown in this area. The wine is made from young grapes and typically should be consumed within one year of bottling it. A bottle goes for around 8 – 1o euros.
On the other hand, I highly recommend splurging on a bottle of good Porto from Portugal. The port selection we have in Canada is limited and expensive. We purchased a 15-year old port for 15 euros versus the $60.00 or so dollars it costs here in Calgary.
Want to know more about the wines? Check this link out!
It goes without saying that wherever you are in the world, you must indulge in some ice cream. At least. that is the mantra I live by 😉 . Lisbon has plenty of boutique and retail gelato shops all over the place, so you have lots of choices. Nothing cools you off better than a scoop of ice cream!
There are countless cafes all over Lisbon that are each unique in their own way. Libson has a fantastic coffee culture and these cafes reflect the quirky nature and vibe of the areas they are located in. For example, one cafe along the Tagus river close to Time Out Market is a hip hop comic book themed cafe. I know that might sound tacky but take my word for it, it wasn’t!
You have to pay to go inside the actual monastery (the church of Santa Maria), but there is one portion that is open to the public for free. This is the area where you will find the tomb of Vasco de Gama. Furthermore, this area of the monastery gives you a great look at the Manueline style of architecture, featuring nautical late gothic motifs.
Alfama’s rich Moorish history shows in the deeply etched creases of the buildings, architectural styles, and even street names. Stemming from the Arabic word al-Hamma (baths) Alfama is a compilation of narrow alleys, cobblestone pathways, and old fado bars. You can certainly spend hours exploring every nook and cranny. What is also great is that from Alfama you can walk all the way to Chiado, if you are up for the challenge 😉
As you explore the cobbelestone paths of Alfama or walk about Chiado, you will undoubtedly catch the sounds of a mournful and soulful tune. Fado, is a music genre of Portugal stemming from the early 1800s. The songs can be about anything, but are usually about the hardships of life, love, and melancholy. Fado songs follow a lyrical structure that is characteristic of “longing for something.” When you watch the show, you will be enraptured by the emotions being sung and felt.
I don’t even need to explain this in great detail! Chiado is the place to go for all your shopping needs! As a Canadian, we don’t have access to many European brands aside from Zara. But in Portugal, you have everything from Pull&Bear to Stradavarius and even Bershka. In addition to major brands, there are plenty of local Portuguese boutiques you’ll want ot check out as well. You will be in retail heaven!
This area is known as (one of the) nightlife districts of Lisbon. There are plenty of bars, clubs, and pubs to check out! If partying isn’t your scene that is okay. However, I urge you to just check out this area during the day. It’s pretty fun to see this area in general since it is very quirky and eclectic.
Time Out Market is a massive market dedicated to food vendors. Inside there are various food stalls that range from traditional Portuguese food, Angolan food, Chinese food and various other international cuisines. There are farmer style tables in the center of the market and giant television screens playing the latest football match. The food here is tasty but pricey for the portions you get. On average it was about 12 – 15 euros for one person.
At Time Out Market you can also purchase wine, fresh produce, and other eclectic items. It’s easily accessible via tram or you can opt to walk there instead like we did!
You’ll confuse your friends with this photo and maybe yourself. You’re definitely in Lisbon don’t worry. The 25 de Abril Bridge is a suspended bridge connecting Lisbon to Alamada over the Tagus River. And although it bears a physical similarity, it is not the same bridge that you see in San Francisco although it is fun to fool your friends!
Like much of Europe, you can walk pretty much everywhere in Lisbon – and trust me you will want to. Majority of the different districts and neighborhoods are easily connected to one another through pedestrian walkways and pathways.
Alternatively, you can take the tram or bus to get from one area to another. They are cheap and fast to get around the city. However, when taking public transportation be aware of your surroundings and your belongings. There are plenty of pickpockets in Lisbon, especially on the trains.
I recommend taking Ubers versus taxis. We learned the hard way when we landed in Lisbon and spent 40 euros on a cab ride. The driver was incredibly rude and obnoxious and ripped us off (he did not even drop us off at the right place). When we were leaving we decided to take an Uber. It was way cheaper and the drivers are friendlier and more personable. Take Uber – taxis will rip you off.
Lisbon is beautiful and has plenty of different attractions and activities for everyone. The weather is hot during the summer but that should not deter you from going out and exploring every square inch of the city. Lisbon continues to be a vibrant place and is a perfect destination for younger people but also has the charm and history for older crowds. Although I did not enjoy the food very much and found some people to be brisk, it did not detract from my overall experience.
If you are looking for an adventure and an opportunity to discover a unique city, take a trip over to Lisbon. This city is a bustling metropolis set against the backdrop of a rich history.
Until next time!