What’s Lisbon like? It’s hilly. Windy. Probably the most confusing place in the world to be a postman…?
But also arty, young, buzzing – and delicious.
I’ve just got back from five days in the Portuguese capital, a place that’s been on my list for a couple of years – even more so since a Portugese bakery opened at the end of our road.
I love going somewhere new and finding out it’s different. I thought Portugal would just feel broadly Mediterranean, a bit like Spain, a bit like Italy. And on paper it is – sun, seafood, super-cheap Sangria. But it’s different too.
Visually, it’s a city of two halves. An enormous earthquake pretty much flattened half of the place in the 1700s, reducing a huge number of beautiful azulejo-tiled buildings to dust. It was rebuilt, of course, but in sensible straight lines, compared to the rambling, warren-like old district, Alfama (where we stayed). Much less confusing to navigate, but you’ll quickly resign yourself to the fact that you’re just going to get a bit lost.
It’s old, but it’s new, and not just the bit that was rebuilt. Creaky yellow trams rattle up and down the streets, regularly facing-off to cars and vans that are simply too big for the roads these days. We had a few near misses ourselves thanks to the dangerously skinny pavements. None of this health and safety nonsense! The world’s grown up, grown bigger around it. You hear traditional fado music wafting out of houses and restuarants in the early evening, and feel like you’ve gone back in time a bit.
But then those same streets are scribbled and scrawled with all kinds of street art, which I’d love to know more about. It felt like a young person’s city, and not just because of the 1 Euro beers! We went to one of the coolest bars I have ever been to (so good we went back again the next day) on top of a multistorey car park, with an incredible view. Instagram central. When the funicular closes, the Elevador da Bica turns into the steepest pub crawl of all time. We sat on the pavement right next to the tracks (with those 1 Euro beers) and talked about moving to Australia. Alfama was decked out in coloured tinsel and fairy lights and booming music almost every evening as part of Festas de Lisboa (another reason to go in June). And Bairro Alto was still waiting to get going at midnight – it’s a good night out, but not for the faint hearted!
I liked the city’s spirit. Lisbon is the home of the explorer. We cycled from Lisbon to Belem to see the tower, where people waved off the great voyagers on their great voyages. The next day, we caught the train to Cascais and cycled up the coast (I liked the idea that we were cycling up the edge of a map) and saw the Cabo da Roca, the lighthouse marking the most Westerly point in Europe. The edge of the world!
Also in Belem, we saw the Monument to the Discoveries, a truly enormous (I was not expecting it to be as massive as it was) tower with statues of navigators, explorers and kings lining the crest of a wave. You can go up to the top and look down on a similarly massive mosaic of the world, which when you look closer, shows you some of Portugal’s discoveries. Brazil, Cape Verde, Melaka, India… I liked being somewhere that was the starting point for so many great journies. These are my people, I thought!
The other reason we cycled to Belem (let’s face it, it was the only reason…) was to visit Pasteis de Belem, a café serving the original recipe Pasteis de Nata. Ok, I’ll be honest, it was the only reason we went to Belem. And maybe the driving force in going to Lisbon. I mentioned the bakery on our street, right?
We had at least one of these gorgeous, silky, gooey, custard tarts a day, in the name of research of course. I can confirm that the Belem ones were, of course, the best. The monks at the Monastery of St Jeronimo came up with the recipe, which is still a closely-guarded secret – I overheard a tour guide saying that only a couple of people know the whole recipe today, and that they never travel together. There’s a film in that, surely?…
We ordered three. We were fools. We quickly ordered two more. And would have happily kept on going, if calories didn’t count (oh, if only)…! You dust them with icing sugar and cinnamon (I like more cinnamon than sugar, Rob is the other way round), then they’re gone in two bites, three if you can restrain yourself. Yum yum. I think it was the fact these were warm and fresh (you can watch them being made through the glass, like some weird custardy maternity ward…) that made them the winners… Oh, and a tip from the guy at the bike shop. Ignore the queue. Just go in and sit down. They’re queueing for takeaway (and let’s face it, for the carrier bag).
I’d like to say we sampled more of the Portugeuse baking tradition (it’s clearly extensive – there were some amazing looking things on offer!) but I’ll be real with you – you’ve got your whole life to eat croissants. In Lisbon, it’s all about those tarts.
So what else was good? Or unexpected? Weirdly, it’s full of tuk tuks (a much better size to navigate those roads); we’ve been to Melaka, and I never expected somewhere so (ostensibly) Western to remind me of South East Asia. I love a culture clash!
On our first night, despite being a bit tired and travel-weary we decided to dive head first into Alfama and stumbled upon some of the best seafood I’ve ever had. It makes sense that the seafood is so good, being right on the coast, but it was even better than we thought. I was going to go for the seafood spaghetti but… I’d seen bowl after bowl of the “seafood rice” waft past, and knew it was the one for me. Well, for us (it said it served two, and we’re greedy – you could definitely have fed 3!). Enormous, buttery prawns, a multitude of mussels, sweet and meaty clams…. Why is it that in the UK when you order seafood, you might get a handful of prawns, if you’re lucky? It was spilling over with the good stuff, and I could have licked the bowl clean.
See also: the fruit. WHY can’t we get this in the UK? Fresh, juicy, TASTY. Not messed with. This is just the norm. *sigh* Needless to say, when on the continent I go a bit nuts for the fruit markets. In Lisbon, cherries, apricots, figs and peaches were on the menu for breakfast every day!
We like to make sure we tick off the foodie list when we go somewhere knew, and thankfully the Time Out Market was there to help on day 2. It’s Time Out’s first permanent foodie venture (as in, not a pop-up) and basically, everything is delicious. About two-thirds of the stalls are Portugeuse or local specialities, but they also have plenty of international options – the pad thai looked pretty good, but I knew it wouldn’t beat the ones I lived on in actual Thailand, so sardines on toast it was. Yum and yum. It gets busy, but running around trying to find a table before our stash of buzzers went off was actually pretty fun. You’ve just got to time it right. The first time we went it was definitely lunchtime, and packed for it. When we went back we went later, but it just meant the stalls were in the lull between lunch and dinner service. A lot was sold out (boooo) and service took a lot longer as a result – not good when you did not realise how STARVING you were til you sat down….
We also loved the guacamole with crab, and whenever he spotted it on a menu Rob ordered the flaming chorizo sausage (literally brought over to you aflame – hold on to your eyebrows). Another one to check off the list was the pasteis de bacalhau – as well as sardines, Lisbon has a cod obsession. Glad I tried one (and there’s a hugely overblown shop in Baixa which tries to be to the cod cake what Belem is to the custard tart – hilarious), but a bit too potato-ey for me.
The best thing about the whole trip was our truly INCREDIBLE Airbnb. We easily got the metro into the city, and after conquering our first hill we eventually found the right door. It very unassuming sight, from the outside at least. A faded wooden door in a wall opposite a church, the green paint peeling, opened into a dark hallway with steps careering pretty steeply down. Luckily our place was straight ahead – and door number two opened to reveal the most beautiful apartment I think we’ve ever stayed in. And we’ve stayed in a lot!
Bright, modern, really nicely decorated – I’d go as far as saying it was fancy. That doesn’t usually bother us (as long as it’s clean and comfy, we’re good; we’re not there to spend time in the apartment, after all), but it had definite wow factor. And the balcony… we’ve learnt from experience that one thing we need is a place to chillax when we’re away. We aren’t very good at chilling out – if there’s stuff to do, we’ll go and do it – so we’ve started to build in some time (and space) to recover from the heat and the hills and just sit and read our books, or to have a breezy breakfast in the mornings. That balcony was the best thing about the apartment, with a view out over Alfama’s rooftops that I’ll never forget. We had to leave super early on the last morning, and seeing it in that funny blue light just before dawn was a real treat.
I think if I had to rate them, Dubrovnik just edges Lisbon for me… But we both have a soft spot for Croatia, and the wind-bashed beaches we went to couldn’t quite compete with our day in Mljet. But I’d definitely go back to Portugal, and not just for those custard tarts. Maybe Porto next time?