Greetings from Lisbon, capital of Portugal, famed for its long history, lively neighbourhoods, dazzling light and good food.
Though local women in stiletto heels seem to have no problem managing the cobblestoned streets and steep hills, I only lasted half an hour in my sensible sandals before switching to running shoes.
Walking is the best way to get around this sumptuous city, past row upon row of colourful houses several stories high, some faced with Portugal’s famous mosaic tiles. When you get tired, there’s usually a park nearby with a few benches, trees providing blissful shade on searing hot days.
After a recent three-day visit, here are some highlights and pointers.
FORGET THE MAP
The best way to navigate Lisbon is by city square (praça) or church steeple. The bridge across the Tagus River, which looks remarkably like San Francisco’s Golden Gate, is another reliable landmark. Maps are little help, since streets change their name every block and rarely run straight. When you can find a sign, the names are invariably long, like Rua Joao de Oliviera Migueis, abbreviated to R.J.O. Migueis on the map. Avenidas are safe, wide enough to give you the feeling you’re making progress, and calcadas and ruas are twisty but reliable. Beware travessas, however, which may end abruptly in a centuries-old stone wall or among sketchy highrises. With luck you’ll find a hidden stairway to the street below so you won’t have to retrace your steps.
Lisbon’s neighbourhoods are well marked, and each has its own character, cafes, shops and festivals. My “hood” of Alcantara was celebrating patron St. Anthony, which meant nightly concerts and carnival rides, along with candy floss, deep-fried churros (Spanish doughnut sticks) and grilled sardines washed down with local beer.
STAY IN A PALACE
Pestana Palace is an ornate 19th century palace lovingly transformed over 10 years into a luxury hotel. The rooms and sitting areas are so beautiful and peaceful, you may not want to leave and explore the city.
EAT CUSTARD TARTS
It’s the ultimate tourist trap but Pasteis de Belem is the place to visit to taste Portugal’s famous custard tarts. There are two lines, one for takeout and one for eat-in, a warren of noisy rooms that feel like a train station. You’ll need at least two per person, they’re so good, with a crisper pastry and lighter and sweeter filling than the Toronto version. I suggest taking your prize to enjoy in a nearby park. But don’t be tempted to buy a box of six to take home. I bought one as a present for my inlaws, but by the time I reached Milan the next morning they were a soggy mess.
GAWK AT MONUMENTS
There’s a breathtaking monument around every corner, from the tribute to explorer Vasco de Gama and Co. to the Tower of Belem and nearby Jeronimos Monastery. For a new view of downtown, climb the narrow circular steps to the top of the Arco da Rua Augusta in the Terreiro do Paco area of downtown Baixa.
LISBOA STORY CENTRE
Experience Lisbon’s history in this impressive multi-media exhibit, well worth an hour of your time. The commentary is delightful, though the recreation of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the city in 1755 will leave you shaken. Buy a Story Centre + Arch ticket and save a few euros.
SHOP LISBON SHOP
Of course you should visit small local shops for souvenirs as you wander city streets, but if you run out of time or want a taste of what’s on offer, the Lisbon Shop attached to the tourist office in Terreiro do Paco is a goldmine. Best bets: items made from cork, t-shirts and souvenirs featuring the famous #28 tram and all things sardine, from porcelain paperweights to the edible variety in cans with cool graphics.
The castle of Sao Jorge, yet another city landmark, costs money to visit, but if you’re dining at the Casa do Leao restaurant, come on in. For lunch, snag a seat at an outdoor table overlooking the city and order a plate of the most delicious, and prettiest, clams ever. Ask for Ameijoa a bulhâo pato, though the servers all speak English. Then share a cataplana, a seafood stew cooked in a covered stainless steel vessel of the same name. Enjoy with a glass of local white wine, perhaps an arinto from the Azores Islands. Or come at sunset and sip a caipirinha cocktail served in a bamboo glass.
TRY WEIRD SEAFOOD
Percebes, or gooseneck barnacles, look like claws ripped from a prehistoric lizard. In fact, this Portuguese delicacy is a harmless sea creature that clings en masse to rocks and is difficult to dislodge, which is why a kilo can easily cost 80 euros. To eat the critters, wrap your teeth around the thin black wrinkled skin and bite and suck until the juicy pink innards pop out in a tender log about 2 inches long. Vaguely pornographic, yes, but worth it for the rush of mild, sweet salty flavours – the ocean in your mouth. And be sure to try limpets and regular barnacles!
Half of Lisbon’s central market, Mercado da Ribeira, near Sodre train station, has been transformed into the classiest food court ever. It’s the perfect place for singles, couples and families to dine well in a casual, comfortable atmosphere. Choose a daily special from one of five kiosks run by top local chefs, or wander by one of the many specialty stalls selling burgers, tartare, freshly-prepared fish, pizza, fruit and veg … whatever you feel like! Sit at a long communal table and chat with visitors from all over the world. The food is served on real china with proper cutlery and elegant wine glasses – a cleaning crew roams the seating area picking up empty plates and glasses. Beverage kiosks in the centre of the hall sell Portuguese wine, coffee and fresh juices.
Lisbon restaurants recommended for seafood include Nunes Real Marisqueira near the tower of Belem, Cervejaria Ramiro, Ibo Restaurante, Café In, Doca Peixe and 5 Oceanos.
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES
The Portuguese are very polite, so you’d better learn to say thanks. Women say Obrigada, while men say Obrigado.