Lisbon is one of those places I enjoyed visiting so much, I’ve been telling all my friends to book their flights. You can immerse yourself in the city’s rich history, checking out the many palaces and castles. And there are 57 museums to explore too.
I asked Vítor Carriço from Lisbon’s Tourism Department what he would advise visitors to do. “Get lost,” was his reply. I think he enjoys saying that. Vítor quickly added that Lisboners are friendly. “If you ask for assistance, even if they don’t understand you, they will try to help.” That proved true. I put their kindness to the test when I followed his advice and desperately needed directions.
Wandering around Lisbon’s old mediaeval streets is interesting. You don’t know what you’ll find around the next twist or turn of the narrow lane ahead. Will it open out into a fountain-filled piazza, a street lined with cafe tables or will you reach a church and dead end where residents’ washing is strung high above the ancient alleyway?
What makes Lisbon special is that it feels real. People live in the city centre and you’ll find an empty house next to a motorbike repair shop next to a high-end clothing store. The skyline is impressive too. You look out across red tile roofs and churches without skyscrapers or 1960s monstrosities.
Lisbon’s not all medieval. An earthquake destroyed much of the city centre in 1755 and parts were rebuilt with the style and optimism of the era. You’ll find a Georgian-era city with the sort of grand crescents and wide avenues you’d see in parts of Paris, Bath or Edinburgh. The main square, the huge expanse of Praça do Comércio, is framed on one side by the river and on the other by the 100ft high Arco da Rua Augusta, Lisbon’s equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe.
In the evening, I took my ‘getting lost’ to a higher level and invented a new game – ‘find the fado.’ As you walk around the narrow streets of the inner city areas of Almada or Barrio Alto you can hear the strains of this haunting folk music. I couldn’t quite place the source of the sad singing, so I decided to resume my hunt after a drink and some food.
I was sitting outside a small restaurant on a narrow, cobbled back street and tucking into my fish when a guitarist stepped from outside and started strumming. Next a woman wearing a crossover pinafore, whom I assumed had just come out of the kitchen, started singing. She had an amazingly powerful voice as she belted out the melancholic and mournful music.
Many bars and restaurants host free performances of fado and you can learn more about this genuinely local music at the Fado Museum. Rita Oliviera took me around the impressive new facility housing a cinema in which you can watch a film documenting the development of the music. There are also listening areas where you put on headphones to hear different recordings. Rita says the museum tells the story of fado since the 19th-century. “It was sung by sailors, prostitutes and the lower classes back then.” I can’t speak Portuguese and I was keen to find out what the lyrics meant.
“It seems really sad,” I told her. “Not just pop song-sad, but like all of the singer’s family has just died or their house has burned down”. This seemed to amuse Rita. “It is not all sad,” she laughed. “We have many songs which tell stories of feelings about life. The themes include love, jealousy and betrayal.”
Perhaps it’s misleading to call this the Fado Museum because this music is a living thing. The local radio plays new releases and youngsters will download the tracks as readily as they listen to Rita Ora or Rihanna. Interestingly, new songs are released using existing melodies. It makes life easier if you’re the guitarist accompanying the singing outside cafes!
The Fado Museum is near the medieval area of Alfama. You’ll find many small, low-ceiling bars, restaurants and fado singers there. But let’s hop back to my serenaded supper across the other side of the city centre in Barrio Alto. I first fell in love with this district on a visit ten years ago. I loved the way that people spilled out onto the stone streets to drink and socialise outside the tiny restaurants and bars. Some are as small as your front room, seating under ten people. It’s still a residential area. You get the impression that life has been like this for decades although some of the café’s have become trendy. There’s a fancy wine bar where the wall is illuminated by lights that change through a sequence of blues and greens. That’s new, but I was pleased to see there were still tiny bars still lit by candles on tables.
Locals say it is a bit touristy. I didn’t really feel that but if you want to discover some special places, book a food tour with Filipa Valente of Taste of Lisboa. That’s what I did. With so many restaurants in the city and so many small alleys and seemingly secret streets, making a food decision can be overwhelming. Filipa can help. I would never have found the café where we enjoyed lunch if it wasn’t for her recommendation. In fact, I almost didn’t.
I found a restaurant with a similar name a few seconds walk from where I was meant to be. You know when you have that feeling that something’s not right? I left my seat after waiting for ten minutes and stood outside to see Filipa frantically waving at me from the top of huge flight of steps. I climbed the stone stairs and followed a twist in the narrow passageway to discover a small square shaded by the spreading branches of a single tree. Colourful houses decorated in blue and white tiles, or with their stucco painted pastel blues and pinks, penned the outdoor space in.
Filipa had brought me to the excellent O Corvo cafe in Largo dos Trigueiros. I found it hard to believe that such a secluded space could exist, hidden away from the hustle and bustle of Lisbon’s equivalent of Trafalgar Square, just five minutes walk away. I was given a glass of ‘vinho verde’ or green wine, something you only seen in Portugal. It bears the name of a wine growing area in the north but is usually associated with younger wines. Traditional production methods give it a subtle fizz although some add it artificially now. It’s still very much for the domestic market. “It’s not too alcoholic, around 9%,” she told me. It was light and perfect for a summer afternoon.
Filipa told me that you can find red ‘green wine’ too. That’s confusing. “I don’t recommend you try that in Lisbon – it will be made by someone’s cousin,” Filipa warned me. Later on Filipa’s food tour we’d sample some of the area’s best reds, too.
Lisbon is a very arty city. I was impressed by the fantastic graffiti on every old hoarding or wall of a dilapidated building. Someone had created a four-storey crocodile across the front of a building near my hotel. I had stumbled across some people rattling their spray cans as they gave a wall a makeover on the way back from Barrio Alto. They told me that the city had effectively legalised this art form. It really brightened the place up. Some of the graffiti artists appeared to be in their 30s and 40s and they were tucking into a tapas selection and drinking wine laid out on a trestle table. How very civilised!
Art and food go well together in Lisbon. As I sat with Filipa I looked around the square, spotting the art. Squinting in the sunshine, I could see that someone had knitted a wraparound for the tree branches and the walls of houses featured beautiful portrait photographs of residents. “They were created by an English photographer, Camilla Watson,” said Filipa as she pointed out Camilla’s gallery. I thought it was a nice touch.
Then, lunch arrived – a ciabatta dripping in olive oil from the delicious sardines inside. It was good. The Portuguese love fish. You’ll see shops selling dozens of brightly coloured cans of sardines. The different tin colours represent the oils and sauces they are packed in. The interesting varieties used to be mainly exported but locals are really into the canned catch now.
Filipa told me that there are venues that only serve tinned fish. One is called ‘Can the Can’ which I thought was quite witty! But is that really a restaurant concept? “That’s not really great for eating out, is it?” I asked her. “Even I can open a tin and tip its contents onto a plate.” Apparently it’s all in the side dishes and the sauces. They serve the tinned fish with sweet potatoes or chickpeas. The Portuguese eat later than Brits and Filipa says she sometimes goes for a tinned fish snack in the early evening to keep her going until dinner. Mackerel with mustard sauce is her favourite.
We ate up because Filipa was meeting twelve visitors from Canada and Germany for a guided food tour. I tagged along for part of the three-and-a-half hour, ten-stop meander around the city centre and through authentic neighbourhoods, such as the historic Moorish area of Mouraria. It wasn’t all about food. At times, we stopped to hear about Lisbon’s history or pop into a church before we continued snacking and slurping our way around the city. The group moved from specialist shop to store, our eyes gorging on the vast selection of cheeses, meats and olive oils.
Outside a delicatessen the party formed a semi circle in the doorway as Filipa stopped to point out a huge, dried cod that was hung up for sale. The Portuguese love cod but it’s not caught in local waters so people buy it dried and rehydrate it. I was surprised when one of the tourists pulled a chunk off the fish and started chewing her free mouthful. She said it was delicious.
Filipa operates a number of tours each week and it’s best to book ahead at TasteofLisboa.com. You’ll see places you’d never uncover on your own and learn a lot about Portugal and its people. “Food tells you so much about a culture,” says Filipa.
I’d tasted some excellent wines on the tour, but I was aware than Portugal also loves its beer. You’ll see the name of the big brands, Superbock and Sagres, on café umbrellas and bar signs all over the city. The two breweries have carved up 90% of the market between them. So I was interested to see what the Beer Museum offers visitors. It’s easy to find alongside the Praça do Comércio, one of the areas most popular with tourists.
“We are the smallest beer museum and one of the proudest,” Carla Larangeina told me as she whisked me upstairs to begin my tour. Carla said the museum showcases the best in beers from Portuguese speaking territories including Angola and Brazil. It’s independent and is not backed by a major brewer.
The lights were low as we walked through a representation of an old brewery – a monastic cellar made to look like ancient vaults. “The monks’ vow meant that they could not eat after 6pm but they realised they could drink,” Carla told me. “That’s how they became master brewers.”
Carla’s comments made me realise the significant role that monasteries have played in developing today’s Portuguese tastes. Everywhere you go in Lisbon you will find delicious, creamy custard tarts. Nuns apparently used egg whites to stiffen their hats or wimples and the pastéis de nata pastries were created to use up the leftover yolks. It’s not unusual for Lisbon residents to eat one each day. They’re addictive.
We’d finished our tour around the beer merchandise and marketing material. Downstairs was a large, light and airy, high-ceilinged bar. Carla told me that the kitchen offered the perfect accompaniment to a pint – the Portuguese cod cake. The museum has tweaked the traditional recipe and added Sierra sheep’s cheese. It is sweet, from the grass eaten at high altitude, Carla said. It melts when the cakes are fried in olive oil. You can see them being produced by a big, copper Heath-Robinson-style machine at the museum. “We’re a small country but we have everything,” Carla told me as I shook hands and left. You can learn more about this interesting museum at www.museudacerveja.pt.
My next taste of Lisbon used to be an old man’s tipple but is now becoming quite trendy. Ginginha is a sour Morello cherry liqueur. And guess what? Monks also invented it! Jorge Rosmaninho returned from a retail management job in Spain to set up a chain of three stalls under the name Ginginha do Carmo.
Jorge poured me a small shot glass of the red liquid. It had a really strong cherry taste but there was none of that artificial tang that you sometimes get with cherry drinks. I told Jorge it tasted “of Christmas.” “Only British people say that,” he replied. Luckily, just before I took a sip I was advised that the cherry in the glass had a stone in it. I don’t know the Portuguese for “find me a dentist” so I was glad of the tipoff. As I stood next to the stall, some friends turned up, sipped from their shot glasses and then got on with their day. Jorge told me that Ginginha is a social drink but he didn’t recommend more than six in a row! Instead, he said you should take the small glass with you and sip it slowly as you wander around the city’s squares or the riverside. Careful if you’re heading towards the River Tagus though. The drink is 23% proof!
Getting to Lisbon
Many people visit Lisbon for a short, weekend break but I think you need a bit longer to really take in everything this fascinating and beautiful city has to offer. And it’s not just about the city – the Atlantic beaches and surfing nearby is highly rated, so you might want to spend a few days in town before sun seeking on the coast.
Lisbon is cheaper than other European capitals and affordable to visit. Both Ryanair and EasyJet are among the low-cost carriers that serve the city from the UK, from around £50 return. The airport is only 6km from the city centre and a taxi costs just €10.The cab queues can be long so you might want to follow my naughty travel hack – go around the corner to departures and pick up a cab that has just dropped somebody off. It worked for me.