Lisbon has slipped under the travel radar of many for decades, but these days the secret is well and truly out. Perched on the River Tagus, the city is full of steep cobbled streets with houses decorated in titles of pinks, mints and indigos. The rumbling trams are the soundtrack of the city, and you’ll be enticed with the smell of char-grilled seafood which fills the lanes.
I had originally booked this trip for myself and my ex-boyfriend… but sometimes life has a different plan, and the next thing you know, I’m heading to Lisbon solo. Armed with only my Lonely Planet pocket guide and a new-found sense of adventure and independence. I couldn’t wait to start exploring the city which has been hailed as one of Europe’s coolest hidden gems.
Lisbon is Western Europe’s oldest city and it’s Portugal’s capital. It’s got a welcoming vibe and one of the sunniest skies in Europe, so it’s no surprise that the city has attracted hordes of enterprising young startups. But amid the gentrification of formerly-shabby docklands and the neighbourhood of Bairro Alto, Lisbon still retains a sense of history.
Where to stay
Bairro Alto is a tangle of lanes which plays host to shabby-chic shops and hole-in-the-wall bars. It’s spread out on a hill above the old town as it has long been the city’s bohemian quarter. It’s not the place to come for a quiet night in, so stay on the fringes of the area.
As I was travelling solo, I booked myself a bunk in a 4-bed dorm at The Loft, which describes itself as a boutique hostel. At around €20 a night during peak times, it’s pricier than other hostels in the area, but it has a beautiful outdoor terrace where I could have my breakfast and read in peace.
What to do whilst you’re there
I had four days in Lisbon, so I explored the city at leisure. I started my sightseeing trip by exploring the Castelo de Sao Jorge. It towers above Lisbon (so it sneaks into almost every snapshot). Get here early to avoid the crowds and gaze over the city as peacocks strut their stuff in the gardens.
Wander down the backstreets of Alfama (or jump on the tram 28), a jumble of cobbled alleys where you can peer down across a mosaics of red rooftops complete with cafes and galleries to mooch in.
Another favourite site of mine was the Convento do Carmo, which was almost devoured by the earthquake of 1755. It’s got wishbone-like arches which are completely exposed to the elements.
Put a whole day aside to explore the neighbourhood of Belém. Rise early and explore the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos before the crowds descend. Hide from the midday heat in the contemporary and modern art museum and watch the sunset from the top of the Torre de Belém.
Where to eat and drink
Portuguese cuisine is simple & seafood heavy. But whether you’ve got a sweet tooth or prefer something savoury, Lisbon is a foodie heaven.
For fresh, cheap fish, head to Pateo 13 in Alfama (near the castle), it’s full of locals and is tucked away in a small plaza. It’s loved for its outdoor cooking where you can see the chefs preparing all the food out on the street.
The Time Out Market opened a few years ago as it’s the first permanent foodie venture for Time Out. The market itself hosts 35 kiosks selling street food, from regional specialists as well global cuisines. It’s easy to lose a few hours here eating your way around the market.
It’s impossible to visit Lisbon and not have a custard tart, and while they’re a dime a dozen, the best ones can be found at Pasteis de Belem. Join the hoards of people queuing and get your mitts of one of the best custard tarts in the city. They’re best served a little warm so when you bite into it a little custard oozes out.
Another place foodie place in Belem to visit is Entoca de Belem. It’s tucked down a quiet lane and it’s a wine bar with serves modern Portuguese fair (and you just have to get the octopus). It’s small and has only 10 covers, so get here early if you don’t want to be disappointed.
Whilst Lisbon is characterised by its seafood, pasteis de natas and jugs of sangria, so most people overlook Lisbon’s beer scene. Most bars and restaurants are stocked with either Sagres or Super Bock, but I had been told about Duques before my visit and I was so glad I made the trip. It’s an unassuming venue located on a cobblestone street that requires a laborious session up a series of steps. It boasts 12 taps (and more bottles or cans in the fridge) and only Portuguese breweries are represented.
Best time to visit
Lisbon has long hot summers, so if you can’t hack the heat – it’s best to avoid July and August. Plus the beaches are packed with of tourists and the midday heat makes wandering around the city almost impossible. Although ‘the heat’ makes a good excuse to wander from bar to bar…
How much does it cost?
A pint or a glass of wine will set you back €4. Being the capital of Portugal, you can either splash the cash or live like a backpacker.