Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world, a charming mix of Paris and San Francisco—at a fraction of the price. The Portuguese capital has everything a traveler could want: great local cuisine, fabulous art, robust history, sensational wine, and a bustling contemporary culture. Seven exalted hillsides overlooking the Rio Tejo cradle Lisbon’s cobbled alleyways, ancient ruins and white-domed cathedrals – a postcard-worthy panorama sculpted over centuries. Its central areas are best navigated by foot, allowing easy enjoyment of the grand architecture and pleasant climate. A short flight from Geneva, three friends and I decided to see if it could possibly be as good as its reputation.
Our BnB, Casinha Das Flores, perfectly embodied Lisbon’s spirit with its high ceilings,and crown molding, wide wooden stairs, and tiled kitchen, with views of the ocean out the front window and a charming courtyard full of colorful houses and blowing laundry out the back window. Located next to Camoes square, it also offered easy access to all of Lisbon’s central attractions. We had arrived just in time for dinner, and after wandering through the bustling gourmet food stalls of Mercado da Ribeira, we opted for an outdoor setting in the warm night air, settling down on an innovative staircase-turned-wine bar. Soon we were clinking glasses of Douro red and passing plates of fresh tapas, already in love with Lisbon.
In the morning, we gathered in the kitchen for freshly baked cakes, fruit, and coffee steaming from a large tin pitcher on the stove, then walked to the Camões Monument around the corner for a free 3-hour walking tour of the city by Sandeman’s. We were not alone – it seemed hundreds of other tourists, predominantly American, had also signed up to walk the city that morning. While the guides organized the masses, we ducked into a local bakery to indulge in the famous Pastel de Nata, Lisbon’s signature pastry: a warm, creamy egg custard tart with a flaky crust and dusting of cinnamon and sugar. I was unprepared for the amount of flavor packed into such a small and plain-looking package, but was instantly hooked as I felt my taste buds nearly explode.
We set out from the Camões Monument on a mission to cover many of the top Lisbon attractions, including the Bairro Alto, Rossio Square, and the Praça de Comércio. Our guide was talented and enthusiastic, dishing out doses of interesting tidbits to help put the city in context as we went along. He began by telling us about the statue we were gathered under. Luís Vaz de Camões is considered Portugal’s, and the Portuguese language’s, greatest poet, compared to the likes of Shakespeare and Dante. He is best remembered for his epic work Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads), which has so profoundly influenced the country that Portuguese is sometimes called the “language of Camões”. Camões died in Lisbon on June 10th 1580, and is now dedicated as Portugal’s national day.
Along our walk we passed a statue of Fernando Pesso, one of the greatest Portuguese writers and poets of all time, sitting outside the famous Café A Brasileira in the Chiado neighborhood. We learned that his most famous book, the Book of Disquiet – a dark biography that questions everything, including life, other people and even our subconscious selves – was discovered and published only after his death, and is now referred to as the “best book in the world” by locals.
Throughout the tour, our guide dropped a trail of crumbs about Lisbon’s pivotal role in World War II, eventually piecing together a more complete picture. Although there was no fighting, Lisbon was the only European city where both the Allies and the Axis power operated openly, and was temporarily home to much of Europe’s exiled royalty, over a million refugees seeking passage to the U.S., and a host of spies, secret police, captains of industry, bankers, prominent Jews, writers and artists, escaped POWs, and black marketeers. A book on Lisbon’s history, Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light , described the daily scene at Lisbon’s airport as being “like the movie ‘Casablanca,’ times twenty”.
We finally took a seat at the top of a long flight of stairs, the narrow alleyways and tiled buildings ahead of us perfectly framing the Alfama neighborhood, siting on a hillside across the city. This hillside now contains the oldest buildings in Lisbon, as the only part of the city to escape the devastating earthquake of 1755. That year, just before 10am on November 1, a massive eight minute quake violently shook the town. November 1 happened to be All Saints Day, which meant that most of the town’s Christians were at church. Unfortunately, the churches were built in the town center, which was made of a loose soil that crumbled easily, so when the earthquake hit, the churches fell, and many of the parishioners were killed immediately. Of those who survived, most were washed away 40 minutes later by a 12-meter high, city-engulfing tsunami. The few poor souls that remained were then ravaged by a week-long firestorm that incinerated what little was initially spared. Lisbon was decimated, except for the sturdy hillside outside the town walls, where the “hooligans, Jews and Muslims” had been banished. This ended up having a large effect on Lisbon’s culture, which today is much more diverse and accepting. The modern city has since been reconstructed with some of the first seismically protected constructions in Europe.
Culminating our tour in the heart of the city at the vast Praça do Comércio, we zig-zagged our way to the Alfama neighborhood for lunch. Lisbon’s culinary scene goes far beyond navigating the countless preparations of Portugal’s beloved bacalhau (dried and salted cod fish). While there is plenty bacalhau à Brás (shredded cod with onions, eggs and potatoes) to go around, Lisbon’s seaside location ranks it among the world’s best cities for uber-fresh seafood, such as octopus, tuna, monkfish, shrimp, sardines, clams, oysters and sardines. Its multi-cultural heritage has added such influences as almonds, figs, and olives, making it a reguarl culinary cornucopia. We soon found ourselves seated on the terrace of a small cafe, sipping wine and enjoying plates of octopus and seasonal salads while watching the adorable trams and less adorable tourists scurry up and down the steep stone streets.
After lunch we ambled around the neighborhood, admiring the architecture and ducking into boutiques full of ceramic tiles, before making our way down to the seaside for a stroll along the promenade. We dipped our feet in the water, then moved on to the educational portion of the day, a lesson in Portuguese wines at the BA wine bar. Run by Rui Rossa in Bairro Alto, BA wine bar is a tiny hole in the wall with only four tables, yet the owners manage to pack in an incredible selection of over 500 small-batch wines, all available by the glass. And based on their extensive knowledge, I would guess they’ve tried every one. Dressed casually in jeans and T-shirts, the owners diligently made their way around to each table, going to painstaking lengths to describe the wines and offer us tastes before making a selection. Soon we were each holding a glass – mine a red from 1980 – which we paired with the house tábuas (charcuterie and cheese boards), packed with artisanal sheep and goat cheeses from the Beira and oak acorn-fed porco preto (Iberian black pork). We followed this with a glass of sticky, delicious Port before calling it a night.
Sunday was dedicated to exploring Sintra, the palace-studded city just 30 minutes outside of Lisbon. It might as well have been a different world. The former summer playground of Portuguese royals, Sintra looks like an oversized children’s fairytale book, with twenty castles set among the lush green hills above its quaint city center full of winding cobbled streets. It would be easy to spend days getting lost among the majestic structures, but with limited time, we chose two of the most impressive: the Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle.
We arrived early, but not early enough to beat the crowds. After an hour in the ticket line, we finally entered the Palace gates. Surrounded by a forest and luxuriant gardens with over five hundred species of trees from the four corners of the earth, Pena Palace was built in such a way as to be visible from any point in the park. And what a sight it was! A masterpiece of Romanticism, it was built for Dom Fernando of Saxe Coburg-Gotha by a German architect in the nineteenth century as a summer palace for the royal family. Its brilliant pink, blue, and yellow walls with white trimmings give it the appearance of a giant iced cake, and make it impossible to turn away.
The Moorish castle was just 10-minute walk down the hill from Pena. Dating back to the 10th century, it was built to defend the town of Sintra before being acquired and reconstructed by King Ferdinand II in the 19th century. The long hike along the snaking castle walls was reminiscent of a Game of Thrones episode, and eventually led to an incredible 360-degree view over the modern outskirts of Sintra and the Atlantic Ocean, with Pena flashing its colors from the neighboring hill.
We finally wound our way back down through the tiny streets of Sintra for a late lunch at a cozy, no-frills restaurant recommended as a favorite by our Uber driver. It was like sitting in grandmother’s house, with knit sweaters and old pictures on the walls, buckets of wool socks holding the doors open. The seafood, including a plate of roasted sardines and, at last, a plate of the famed bacalhau à Brás, was fresh and delicious, and the prices unbeatable, adding up to eight euros each for wine, appetizers, entrées, coffee and dessert.
Later that evening, as we marveled about our weekend while slurping a plate of briny oysters, we unanimously agreed that Lisbon really is all that its cracked up to be. Now on to Porto.