Those who know me know how much I am obsessed with Portuguese culture. It all started on a trip with friends to the Algarve back in 2013 – was it the serenity of the pristine beaches, the azulejos and winding rustic streets or the pasteis de natas? I’m not sure, but I’ve loved Portugal ever since. So, for my 29th birthday, my wonderful wife planned a trip to to Lisbon for four amazing days. We originally planned to make a blog about the best pastel de nata in the city, though we lost track of how many were consumed along the way, so instead, here is a quick guide to unmissable Lisboa – the city of seven hills (leave the heels at home, because you are gonna do some mega walking!)
If you are flying from the UK, Manchester Airport’s Ryanair service to Lisbon is inexpensive if you book in advance (I think Kristi got flights for about £40-50 return for the two of us – though, they get you with choosing seats together and baggage – make sure your bag will fit in the hold!), and the flight as around three hours.
We visited in mid-November, so we were a little unsure on what to pack – but the weather was actually decent considering the time of year and only a little rainy at times.
GETTING AROUND LISBON
The easiest and probably cheapest way to get from the airport to the heart of Lisbon is the train. The station is just across from the airport’s exit and can get you into town pretty quickly (around half an hour). Purchase a Viva Viagem card from the station before you board – the ticket can be reloaded your entire stay and isn’t very expensive by capital city standards.
Whenever Kristi and I travel we tend to stay in hostels and Airbnb’s rather than hotels – mainly because it’s cheaper! The hostel we stayed in was one of our favourites (second only to King Kong Hostel in Rotterdam). It’s situated on one of the Alfama district’s many winding streets (and on the famous Tram 28 line) – Brickoven Palace (now known as Sant Jordi Hostel). For sharing an 8 bed female only dorm, this place was surprisingly spacious and our space didn’t feel invaded. We really enjoyed the rustic charm of this place, the bathrooms and dorms were clean, plus the amenities were good (full use of the kitchen, bar, very cheap food some evenings and walking tours!) and it was pretty cheap, you can find the booking page here.
After settling into home for the next three nights, we ditched our bags and headed for a walk around the Alfama. The district is covered in beautiful graffiti art – cafes and bars line the narrow streets waiting for the next funicular to rally around the corner. One of our favourite things here was a small makers market in the shadow of Saint Vincent and the Castle of Saint Jorge, above a rooftop bar overlooking the Rio Tejo (or River Tagus).
It was a great starting point for a walk deeper into the Alfama where we found a fantastic pastelaria (pastry shop) which also sold a large Vinho Verde for a very reasonable 2 euros a glass, though the wine and free shot of Ginjinha went to my head and I never took note of the little shop… there are quite a few like this dotted around the Alfama: it’s always good to support a local business.
If you want authentic, this is the place to find it. It is beautiful, quaint and quintessentially Portuguese and for many of Lisbon’s families, home. It’s also the home of Fado – a type of sad and beautiful Portuguese folk music. If you want to experience the famous saudade that all the fishwives of Lisboa are singing about, an evening here is definitely on the cards.
This is the main entertainment and shopping district in the city, a vibrant mixture of historical landmarks and modernity – as well as world-class shopping and dining options on Rua Augusta, you can find some real one-of-a-kind gems. If you aren’t fond of sleep anyway, visit the ever-creepy Doll Hospital. If you’re looking to have a poo with a view, visit the The Sexiest WC on Earth – a necessary experience, trust me. If you need a pick-me-up from the thousands of miles and hills you will have walked so far, call into A Ginjinha where you can walk into the smallest and probably oldest bar in Lisbon and buy a shot of delicious and warming cherry brandy, have two if you aren’t driving. It is fantastic.
Genuinely the best cherry-flavoured anything.
We also really enjoyed a very reasonably priced breakfast of a pastel de nata and a latte here at Fabrica de Nata. Though, the place that we visited most often for breakfast on our trip was A Padaria Portuguesa near Martim Moniz tram stop. We got an espresso each, two breakfast pastries each (my hips don’t lie) and an orange juice for around six euros and it was bloody delish! I’m a true nata enthusiast, so you can trust my opinion. Sainsbury’s do the best ones in the UK 😉
If it is a traditional snack you’re after though, you should definitely try a pastel de bacalhau or to you and I, a cod fishcake with a cheesy surprise in the middle. It is Portugal’s answer to Gregg’s sausage roll – fast, comfort food and they are pretty delicious.
One of the most beautiful places that we have ever visited! Belem is an absolute must for a number of reasons:
1) The ancestral home of the nata (or Pasteis de Belem as the shop is also named)
2) The landmarks and tourist attractions: you have the Jeronimos Monastery, Monument to the Discoveries and Museu Coleção Berardo (a massive and free to visit collection of contemporary art)
3) The waterfront is lush and home to the Belem Tower (one of Lisbon’s oldest standing buildings – it actually survived the famous earthquake!)
Best way to see these things? Walk down to the Harbour next to Praca do Comercio in the Baixa district and hop on a boat. We used Yellowbus tours to see some of the best sites and got the card that allowed us on any bus tour, boat and the airport bus, as well as the red trams and entry to the Santa Justa lift in Baixa. A little pricey but we got our money’s worth and used it even just to get around the city. From here, you get amazing views of the Cristo Rei from the water and the 25 de Abril Bridge!
The queue when we got to Pasteis de Belem was insane in the autumn time, so I can’t imagine how it would be peak tourist season but WELL worth the wait. Do yourself a favour and buy more than one each because they are magical and you will want to eat a thousand. If you don’t you’ll just have to wait in the queue all over again – trust me.
“There is no limit to the amount of nata’s one can eat in a day” – Ronaldo, probably.
Whilst visiting Lisbon, you won’t be able to get away from pasteis de nata and sardinhas, or tinned sardines, which are readily available in pretty tins and make great souvenirs for those back home. Obviously, fish is not only a major part of the Portuguese diet but a massive industry for them too. You can get fresh fish in almost any restaurant as well as polpo = octopus! Whilst understandably not for everyone, it is definitely worth trying some of the local cuisine, but places that offer a range of world foods are a-plenty famously the Time Out Market in Bairro Alto, offering only the best cuisine in a street food environment. However, if you’re a bit of a sucker for good old American junk food, you can always visit the Hard Rock Cafe offering a comfortable atmosphere and as usual, it is kitted out with some awesome memorabilia.
Getting around Lisbon is pretty easy via public transport – a decent bus and train system but walking can take a toll on you after a while. There are tourist trams on the Tram 28 line – a good option as the famous yellow Tram 28 is overcrowded for the locals who use it to commute to work. You get to take in some stunning views and watch as the trams navigate their way through the tight bends of Lisbon’s old streets and narrowly missing the cars parked on them!
I would recommend using an Uber late at night, especially if you are a lone traveller or feel conscious of walking a new city at night. They are tracked, super-cheap and will save you walking up and down hills. As will the Santa Justa lift, the idea of it being to get to the top of Bairro Alto. You also can get some amazing panoramic views of your new favourite city, especially if you climb to the top deck!
There were of course some other amazing parts of Lisbon that we just didn’t have time to explore. We did also visit the Oceanarium near the Parc de Nacoes which was fantastic but hopefully, some of our recommendations will make your list when you visit Lisboa.