Lisbon: Beauty abound in the gritty city

Lisbon has my heart like few other cities, and it’s not for everybody. It’s the beauty within the grit of decaying old world power. It is dirty. And artsy. It is sexy. It is real, and authentic, not polished and staged. You see stunning tile work and old world architecture, juxtaposed with uninspiring 1960s apartment sprawl, or broken escalators covered in graffiti. Each building is unique. Notice the detail in the metal railings, keep an eye out for the vintage lanterns. It’s nearly impossible to find a coffee to go, because you are meant to sit. Relax. Enjoy the cafe experience. Notice the trench coats, the active old folks, the street art, the laundry hanging from every balcony. Sit back, sip an espresso and experience LIFE in Lisbon.

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I’ve been visiting Lisbon since I can remember, literally. My German Uncle moved here before I was born and my sister-cousin was born and raised in a little beach village between Lisbon and Cascais. I spent a summer here as a kid, we returned for many family celebrations. Since my cousin’s son was born, 5 yrs ago, we’ve come to Portugal every year. At first for two weeks, now for three months. Over the years I’ve compiled an enormous brain dump email of recommendations that has been shared with dozens of friends. I am finally turning that email into a serious of blog posts. I hope you enjoy them.

This first is focused on the city of Lisbon and what to explore in the diverse set of neighborhoods it contains.

For a unique ‘Intro to Lisbon’ walking tour of the city by day or night, hire my friend Hugo from Lisbon ala Cart. I met him when he headlined at The Spot (see below) and he’s a beautiful musician and human. He hosts tours with his guitar in hand, entertaining along the way. Good times. Tell him I sent you!

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Belém

Jerónimos Monastery – dates back to 1400s, and is one of the most prominent examples of the Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline style of architecture in Lisbon. It is UNESCO protected since 1983. They blessed the explorers outside this monastery before they set off to conquer new worlds. Vasco da Gama and his men spent the night in prayer in the church that stood there before the monastery before departing on their expedition to the Orient in 1497. Wrap your head around that for a second. The monks brought the beloved  Pastel de Natas (see below) to Portugal (bless them).  Pro Tip: Free entry the first Sunday of each month.

Padrão dos Descobrimentos – monument to the Portuguese explorers. Apparently you can climb to the top for great views but I have yet to do that.

The pastry of all pastries, Pastel de Nata. Famously known for at Pastais de Belém. Made from the original recipe of the monks of Moisteiros Jeronimo who had more egg yolk than they knew what to do with. At the time, convents and monasteries used large quantities of egg-whites for starching of clothes, such as nuns’ habits. It was quite common for monasteries and convents to use the leftover egg yolks to make cakes and pastries, resulting in the proliferation of sweet pastry recipes throughout the country. This is the famous bakery, and the line around the corner reflects its popularity. For an even better version, with less of a wait go to Manteigaria across from Largo do Comões. The world needs more nata.

Pasteis de Belém

Pastéis de Nata

For engineering geeks, families with kiddos, or a rainy day, check out the Electricity Museum to learn how all of Lisbon was run of Hydro Power from the Tagus. My 5yr old nephew is a big fan since he can run around and “touch everything”. Freedom!

Chiado

For fancy shopping, stunning architecture, street cafes and Sephora walk the streets of Chiado. Be sure to sneak a peek of the Santa Justa Lift (not worth it to go up in my opinion, more beautiful from afar).

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Alfama – my fav!

This is the only area of Lisbon that wasn’t completely destroyed in the earthquake of 1755. Wander and get lost on purpose in the labyrinth of narrow streets and small squares, below the colorful laundry lines, with the sound of Fado coming from a nearby cafe….

For the best views in the city, climb the hill to the Castelo de São Jorge which dates back to 2nd century B.C. and retrace the footsteps of the  Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Suebics, Visigoths, and Moors before you! Or take an Uber (cheaper than cabs!) up to the castle and walk back through the Alfama.

End with Sundowners at Hotel Memmo – best terrace in Lisbon!

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View from Castelo de São Jorge

 

Bairro Alto

Best by night. Walk up the hill to the cobblestones streets and have drinks (try the black vodka, and giginja). We usually start at Rua Atalaia at The Spot which has great live music on Fridays and follow the vibe. BA Wine Bar do Bairro Alto R. da Rosa is also suppose to be great.

If it gets late enough that the bars close, try Pink Street, LX Factory or Lux (starts getting going at 3am). Check out this review of Lisbon night life for more inspiration.

What to Eat

Dinner at Ramiros– If you like seafood, it’s the best in Lisbon. We celebrate Eric’s birthday here with a big dinner every year. No reservations, so be prepared to wait to get in (an hour or more) but you can drink beers in line and its SO worth it. Be sure to have the Sapateira (crab), Bruxas (mini lobster creatures), percebes (ask if they are fresh), and clams. Pricey for Portugal but a steal by US standards. Nom nom nom.

 

Lunch or dinner at the Mercado da Ribeira near the main Cais do Sodre station where you can choose from a vast array of restaurants and food stalls from top chefs in Lisbon. Super yummy, boisterous, and a great experience. Go with a group, split up & get lots of different things & share. Not cheap but AMAZING. I highly recommend the torched sardine nigiri at SeaMe, the quail egg & sausage stuffed mushrooms at Marlene Vieira, and the bass tartare and suckling pig at Henrique Sa Pessoa. Holy yumfest.

 

Another great option I’ve recently discovered is  Palacio Chiado with a similar concept of multiple restaurants in one, but staged in a gorgeous two story palace, complete with Sushi restaurant and Oyster/Champagne bar. Just lovely.

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Street Art

One of my favorite parts about Lisbon is the street art & graffiti. See the best of the best with a Street Art Tour. My friend Brooke did this and her photos were AMAZING. Lisbon has incredible street art and these guys will take you right to it. My personal favorite is Vhils his walls are incredible. Below is another I try to visit again and again.20141108-dsc_0069

Museums

http://www.golisbon.com/museums/

I haven’t done this yet but hear it’s cheap and great. Ferry across Tagus river to get great views of Lisbon.

Don’t miss out on the best part of Portugal, it’s people. Stop a local and ask for a restaurant recommendation or their favorite cafe. They are friendly, warm and happy to help. Whether you thrive on city life, historical castles, architecture, day tripping to stunning the beaches of Cascais or beautiful landscapes – Lisbon has it all.

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