Spread across seven steep hills, the Portuguese capital Lisbon brims with colour and culture. I remember the exact moment I fell in love with this striking city, standing at the Portas do Sol viewpoint with the city’s postcard-perfect panorama laid in front of me, seeing whitewashed houses with terracotta-tiled roofs, white-domed cathedrals, narrow cobbled alleyways and the Tagus River glistening under a cloudless blue sky. I also found the city’s grittier side made it even more interesting.
Often overshadowed by neighbouring Spain, Portugal hasn’t always been at the top of people’s travel wish lists. But that’s about to change, as travellers are discovering the beauty of this incredible country – go on, take a look at some of your favourite travel Instagrammers’ feeds, and you’ll soon feel inspired!
Miradouros, Azulejos and More
When it comes to typical “sightseeing spots”, most people head straight to Belém’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Torre de Belém (the fortified tower of St. Vincent) and Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, the former monastery of the Order of Saint Jerome. But to experience an authentic slice of Portuguese life, you’ll need to head beyond the tour buses.
One way to do this is to lace up your sneakers and just get lost in the city’s undulating hills. You can opt to take the famous Tram 28, which packs in a number of the city’s attractions for the price of your ticket. Otherwise, simply navigate the narrow laneways in the central district of Bairro Alto and the historic Alfama on foot, admiring the beautiful azulejos (painted tile works) adorning some of the worn-down buildings along the way. Trust me, with food as delicious as Lisbon’s at every turn, you’ll appreciate the chance to walk off some calories! Listen carefully and you may be lucky enough to hear traditional fado music as you stroll.
Hilly Lisbon is capped with numerous viewpoints, or miradouros, offering stunning panoramic views across the city, while towering majestically above the streets is the mid-11th century Castelo de São Jorge. With a commanding 180-degree view of the city, this hilltop fortification is a great spot to get your bearings, while both the Portas do Sol and nearby Miradouro de Santa Luzia viewpoints get you up-close and personal with Alfama.
Lisbon is currently experiencing a major revitalisation, thanks in no small part to the city’s creative community. You’ll find plenty of street art adorning the walls as you wander, and a visit to LX Factory is a must. This ultra-hip creative complex contains a fantastic collection of boutique stores, art, cafés, restaurants, and above all, people! The best time to visit is on Sunday, when local vendors set up street stalls selling a wide array of cool artworks, crafts and other products.
From Michelin-starred restaurants to local farmer’s markets, Lisbon is the ideal destination for committed foodies. No visit to Portugal is complete without sampling at least one bacalhau (salted cod) dish... But why limit yourself to just one type of seafood?
Thanks to its coastal position, Lisbon offers some of the freshest fish in Europe, dished up in unpretentious restaurants, such as the ever-popular Cervejaria Ramiro. This informal joint was established in the 1950s as the place to gather over delicious food and a few local beers; with its no reservation policy, make sure you arrive early to avoid long queues. If ceviche is more your jam, hotspot A Cevicheria, in the trendy Príncipe Real district, will satisfy your raw bar cravings (make sure to also order their Pisco Sour). The ultimate gastronomic journeys are on offer at Belcanto and Mini Bar, renowned chef Jose Avillez’s restaurants, while if you can think of nothing better than spit-roasted chicken, head to Bonjardim in the city centre.
For dessert, look no further than Portugal’s world famous pastel de nata (egg tart) to hit your sweet spot. While guidebooks would point you to Pasteis de Belém just a few steps from Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, I personally prefer the egg tarts in Manteigaria – you can find a stall in Time Out Mercado da Ribeira.
Caffeine lovers will rejoice in the fact that good coffee doesn’t cost an arm and a leg in Lisbon either, with a strong shot of espresso typically clocking in at under a euro! Hip coffee shops in which to enjoy a well-earned rest include Hello Kristof and Copenhagen Coffee Lab.
Sunset and Rooftop Bars
After a hard day’s sightseeing, what could be better than soaking up the inspiring and spectacular view of Lisbon with a cocktail in hand? Park Bar and Memmo Alfama Rooftop Bar offer drinks with a view – head over for a tipple while the sun casts its pinky-orange hue across the entire city as it sets.
A 40-minute train ride away from Lisbon lies the fairytale-esque town of Sintra – and I’d advise carb-loading at Piriquita as your first stop, as there are so many sights to take in! Sample the local pastries, queijadas (a type of Portuguese cupcake) and travasseria, and you’ll be set for a whole day of walking. Cross the street to the National Palace, which was once Portugal’s royal residence; from there a short detour takes you to the kitschy Quinta da Regaleira, a romantic palace with vast manicured gardens, towers and wells.
Towering dramatically over Sintra is the medieval Castelo dos Mouros, a castle built by the Moors during the 9th century to protect the town. Not too far from the castle is the most popular site in Sintra – the colourful Pena Palace and its luxuriant gardens. The palace is considered the greatest expression of 19th century romanticism in the country.
Attractions ticked off and bellies full, you can bid farewell to Lisbon. Although perhaps there’s time for just one more pastel de nata…