Lisbon, it’s about time. Over the past few years, I’ve heard so much about Portugal’s capital – from its food scene and azulegos to its 2017 title as Ibero-American Capital of Culture, that I finally booked a flight for a long weekend. I had a pretty good idea I would like the city, but I didn’t expect I would fall head-over-heels in love.
The City of the Seven Hills, Lisbon is an easy like. Cascading hills with beautiful architecture, an incredible history thanks to the Age of Discovery history, and its sunshine- Portugal’s capital has the most optimal number of daylight hours in Europe. Lisbon is so easy to like. And then add its uncanny similarities with twin city, San Francisco- west coast, hills, waterfront, suspension bridge, cable cars and an epic earthquake that transformed the city. But to love Lisbon? For me, it was all down to the small details – the expected like the azulejos (color, patterned ceramics) decorating buildings in every neighborhood, the obvious like the vintage trams, and the subtle like the art nouveau leftovers, forgotten 1960s and 70s neon signs and the sweet yellow mustard on the bifana sandwich.
With only 72 hours to get to know Lisbon, we had to have a plan, and over the years, we perfected our version of a great weekender: Choose Your Own Adventure, i.e. pick a monument, neighborhood, food, and see what happens. Lisbon is perfect for that mentality. It’s a puzzle of neighborhoods built into the hills- filled with colors, history and great smells. For the map-curious: we chose the historic Avenida da Liberdade, a long and luscious boulevard spanning 1100 meters across the old city to water, as home base and reference since the Avenida is visible from any high point.
Castelo de São Jorge, an 11th century castle and fort in Alfama, one of the oldest areas of the city. The Castelo is prime lookout over the entire city- the entire city is laid out at Alfama’s feet the east, a cascade of red terracotta roofs leading down to the glassy Tager river.
From here, you can snake your way down through Alfama – camera ready, of course, for its gorgeous Gothic churches, azulejo-tiled buildings and vintage trams (yes, they are part of public transportation) – to Baixa. Redesigned after the 1755 earthquake,
Baixa is an easy grid, a tic-tac-toe of long boulevards leading to Praca de Comercio, the enormous waterfront plaza with even more monumental arc. Pay attention as you may your way to the Praca and you’ll find art deco and art nouveau signage and storefronts decorating new shops as well as some vintage finds. There are sardine shops designed as 1920s boutiques and yesteryear caffes selling pastel de nata,a yes-you-must-eat pastry, as well the gambit of shopping- contemporary stores with early 1920s die cute lettering from boutiques past.
In Baixa center is a 45-meter-high and very elaborate wrought iron elevator, Elevador de Santa Justa, a panoramic from the 19th century. Perfect for people with patience and looking for a Pay-Per-View. If not, skip past and walk up Rua do Carmo, a shopping street, to the Bellalisa elevator for a great short cut to Carmo Convent, the ghostly remains of a 14th century gothic church destroyed in the earthquake.
Monuments come in so many forms. Be on the look out for the Ponte de 25 Abril, a Golden Gate lookalike (and ironically built by the same team behind the Bay Bridge), and Ponte Vasco de Gama, a futuristic cable-stay bridge that sneaks up on you.
So many neighborhood to explore, so once you’ve walked Alfama, your next stop should be Bairro Alto and Principe Reale, two pocket neighborhoods on the western overlooking hills that will eventually lead you down to Chaido, Baixa and the rest of Lisbon. Calm and collected, Principe Real is an easy hike from Avenida, serpentining past small parks and crumbling azulejos-decorated buildings to the park itself, a green square with playground, caffes and weekend street market. The area is a Pandora’s box of local flavor.
Hidden in the park is an underground museum- Museo del Agua– an octagonal reservoir that was the city’s water source, while facing it is Embaixada, a concept store featuring local designers in a neo-classical Arabian palace. The Rua Dom Pedro V is lined with boutiques, eateries and bars. You’ll have your choice for whatever your flavor but be on the look out for Solar, a family-run antiques store with catacombs of authentic azulejos, and Pastelaria Padaria Sao Roque, an art nouveau coffee shop.
Bairro Alto is where you’ll want to make sure you have your back up battery- this is where you’ll find in situ azulejos on decadent, abandoned and recycled buildings and inside churches. Make three wishes when you stop in Sao Pedro de Alcantara, Sao Roque and Santa Catarina– beautifully decorated churches worth stepping into.
Short cut to Baixa with Ascensor da Gloria, a vintage tram whose single route it’s a straight shot up and down a steep incline. Or keep walking, you’ll find yourself in Chaido, where the relaxed pace of Bairro Alto moves into more frenetic rhythm with its shops, cafes and businesses. Meander and you’ll find MAAT, the contemporary art museum and eventually Cais do Sodré, the former red light district close to the water. In the daytime, it’s simply another charming distressed neighborhood with street art, great late 60s/70s signage, and everyone’s favorite canned fish and aperitivo at Sol e Pesca, and at night, it’s a scene- more hot pink, than red light.
If you want to flip the script on traditional, take the metro to Parque das Naçoes, a modern microcosm that requires only a 30 minute metro ride to Lisbon’s northeast. Designed and constructed for 1998 World Fair, Parque das Nacoes is a Portuguese Gattaca of wide streets, slick architecture and rectilinear design.
From the moment you step out of Oriente Station, you get the vibe. An eco-concerned (and friendly) Lisbon Future where organization, intellectual stimulation and perhaps even art are paramount. Large maps line the boulevards detailing public art and architecture. And accenting the grid of museums (science, Oceanarium, et cetera), parks and playgrounds, are environmentally-forward projects including public bike stands and recycled waterfalls. This is where you bring kids like me.
It’s always good to have goals and mine are double the fun- pastel de natas, that delicious egg tart, that if slightly singed makes my heart sing, and bifana, a braised pork sandwich garnished with a sweet mustard. Make it easy by starting in Baixa and follow your nose around Praca Rossio, a large square in Baixa where there are several pastry shops and caffes. Chances are you’ll find pastel de natas and more, and it can’t hurt to try them all. In fact, my rule of thumb is no matter where you are in Lisbon, if there is a pastel de nata, eat it. (For the serious foodie, you can take a 3O metro ride from Rossio to Pasteis de Belem, considered the very best pastry in Lisbon and located near national monument Belem tower).
Bifanas require more foot work and on hand cash. Baixa is also ideal for bifanas since it always has the most concentration of people and these no frills sandwiches are best enjoyed at no frills caffes, aka cheap. East of Pracas Rossio is Casas das Bifanas, aka the home of the pork sandwich, and around the NW corner of Pracas Rossio is Cafe Beira Gare, a stand up bar with table service and barely any elbow room.
Though I enjoyed several a bifana, I was completely captivated by its beef counterpart- the prego, marinated beef strips on bread bun. Bar tab: 4 euro, sandwich and beer. No, we did not just snack. Cataplana, a traditional seafood dish from the Algarve region, should be Unesco recognized. If it’s not, we recognized it, as with the rest of Lisbon’s seafood.
Tips and Tricks
GUIDE: Lisboa Autentica is a grassroots organization of Lisbon academics who organize tours- walking, biking, around the city- themed and bespoke. They love Lisbon and it shows. We spent a few hours walking from Principe Real to Chaido with Davide. Tell him we said hello.
SINTRA: add on a day trip to Sintra, the fairytale town where castles bloom on the hillside is listed as a UNESCO cultural landscape.
GETTING THERE: Easy. National carrier TAP Air Portugal dominates the skies. From Rome FCO, it’s an easy 3-hour direct flight. The planes were modern, the staff young and very friendly. TAP flies non-stop from New York JFK ,and London (along with British Airways. We hired a car but getting from the airport to the city center is as simple as a metro ride, taxi or bus.
SLEEP: We rested our heads at Tivoli Avenida Liberdade– a reboot of what may be an Art Deco palace on the very posh Avenida da Liberdade, a long, tree-lined boulevard with public squares decorated with monuments and caffe chiosks, while shops with the occasional art deco facade flank. Avenida’s lobby set the stage for what we considered the best weekend ever: luminous, lush couches, vintage decor, contemporary art and an incredible floral arrangement. Our rooms were modern minimalist, in other words, sleek and spacious, perfect meditation after a long day walking around. Avenida’s best kept secret is not only the rooftop Skybar and Terrace restaurant (which is pretty amazing with that all encompassing view) but the backyard pool and spa, a seemingly private piscine (totally round!) surrounded by monumental magnolia trees and azulejos tiles.
EAT: You eat well in Lisbon and quality is priced well. Along with Tivoli’s terrace, think about 100 maneiras, Peixaria da Esquina, Tasca da Esquina . And peruse Nelson Carvalheiro‘s Lisbon-centric website.