TOP 5 FOR LISBON
- Take a short train ride to Belem, to visit Jeronimos Monestary, the Belem Tower, and sample the famed Belem tarts.
- Visit a Fado show – the traditional Portuguese musical genre.
- Navigate the narrow and hopping streets of Bairro Alto for a late bar hop – you will be guaranteed to find some good music, strong drinks, and fun times.
- Check out the Oceanarium – a thoroughly impressive aquarium on the West side of Lisbon.
- Stroll down Placa do Comercio, a pedestrian friendly plaza in central Lisbon.
It is quite common to rent an apartment in Lisbon – they provide you with more space, the opportunity to cook (if desired), and are generally cheaper when staying for a longer period of time. We found a gem, Trevessa II, located on Rua dos Remedios, through Heart & Soul Lisbon.
Lisbon is an interesting city, populated by slightly decrepit but beautifully tiled buildings, terraces displaying overflowing amounts of cheerful flowers, white-cobbled narrow and snaking streets, red tiled roofs, and sparkling sunshine. It also has a history marked by many cultural, religious, and political changes, contributing to its delightful mix of architecture, people, museums, and cuisine. Moorish, Spanish, and modern Portuguese influences all show their face here.
My favorite part of Lisbon is, in fact, 45 minutes outside the city. Belem, a municipality of Lisbon, hosts a high concentration of historical monuments and attractions. Before embarking on your site-seeing tour, sample the famous Belem tarts at Fábrica de Pasteis de Belém. The lines are long but move quickly, and it’s worth it for the miniature egg custard tarts with a rich buttery crust and your choice of a dusting of cinnamon or powdered sugar. Next up – the Jeronimos Monastery, which started construction in 1501 and provides an impressive, intricate, and beautiful example of Manueline (Portuguese late-Gothic) architecture. After a wander through the monastery, the accompanying museum gives one of the most interesting historical timelines I’ve ever seen. It lists the important events of the monastery throughout history, along with parallel important events from world history, such as World Wars, the discovery of penicillin, the invention of the telephone, etc. Cool to see what was happening at the same time!
The Belem tower is also worth a visit, just a short walk down the road from the Monastery, as is the Padrao dos Descobrimentos (The Discoveries Monument). Take a nap on the train ride home, as you will need your rest to visit the bar-heavy Bairro Alto district in the evening. This area, overrun with small bars on even smaller streets, Fado halls, and people, is a somewhat chaotic pleasure to be part of. You will undoubtedly be offered to join several bar crawls, advertising free drinks and free entrance, however most bars offer free entrance regardless and the “free” drinks taste suspiciously of juice. Go it on your own and you will find lots of fun with no need for assistance.
Very close to the Santa Apolonia train station, there is a small tapas bar – a literal hole in the wall, looking like nothing more than a metal door from the outside. Head up Calcada do Forte and it will be on your right, across from the first street intersecting Calcada do Forte on the left. The food here is dirt cheap and amazing. We shared multiple tapas here and agreed they were all fantastic. Another recommended restaurant is Tapas Bar & Esplanada (Rua Costa de Castelo 7). Perched on a hill offering a great view of the city, the menu has a variety of items, including salads, meat & fish dishes, and tapas. Later on, head to one of the many many bars offering Fado performances – the traditional Portuguese music genre. It is described as “Portuguese folk songs, both nostalgic and melancholy”. I can confirm that it is certainly not uplifting music – but very enjoyable and powerful, giving you a sense you are really getting to know the performer on a personal level. Generally you are required to “pay” for the performance via a drink order minimum.
Another worthwhile visit, if you enjoy sea life, is the Oceanarium. This is the largest and aquariums in Europe, housing 16 000 animals and 450 species of plants. The Global Ocean Tank (4 million liters) is also one of the world’s largest tanks. The area around the aquarium, built for the World Expo in 1998 and called the Park of the Nations, is thoroughly strange compared to the rest of Lisbon – no historical buildings, no quaint side streets, but rather HUGE open spaces, sleek modern buildings, futuristic architecture, all in all giving the impression of a moonscape as compared to the rest of the city. While aesthetically interesting it was a little creepy; very deserted, very quiet. . . like The Truman Show gone wrong.
Overall, Lisbon is a city offering a great mix of culture, relaxation, agreeable weather, great food, and friendly people. It’s also a city that has maintained its unique identity and has managed not to be ruined by tourism. . . yet. Still, I’d advise an off-season visit – May or September.
The famous Belem tarts 🙂