Portugal’s coastal capital, Lisbon, is a sun-drenched Mediterranean city that still retains the charm of being a little off the beaten path. Sharing the Iberian Peninsula with Spain to its east, Portugal, the westernmost country on the old continent, has the same excellent wine country and beautiful beaches without the crowds. TAP, Portugal’s leading airline, is doing a major push to get new customers and has added a lot of inexpensive routes to many major cities in the U.S. and throughout Europe, so now is definitely the time to head to Lisbon. Here’s a guide to all Lisbon has to offer:
Where to sleep
One of the best things about a city being slightly off of the beaten path is the range of affordable accommodations. Like the restaurant scene, the hospitality scene in Lisbon is growing. While there are big chain hotels, guesthouses are also a great option—think hotel service but with the full cultural immersion that comes with renting a little apartment.
Here are two of my favorites:
Mercador Luxury Apartments, R. São José 164
Mercador Luxury Apartments is one of my favorite places to stay in downtown Lisbon. It’s set in a restored ducal palace, Palácio do Mercador, and dates back to 1565. Refined but cozy, the suites, with restored original fixtures, can quickly start to feel like your home away from home. At around $125 per night, noble luxury has never felt so good.
Palácio Belmonte, Pátio de Dom Fradique 14
There are times when I have to take it a step further with regal luxury with a stay at Palácio Belmonte. The ecologist and artist owners, Frederic Coustols and Maria Mendonca, have perfected every detail in this palace, built into the ancient Roman and Moorish walls (dating back to 198 BC!), directly across from the castle completed in 1449. With people like Christian Louboutin—who says Belmonte is his favorite place to stay in the world—and Jeremy Irons to European aristocrats staying here, one would assume Palácio Belmonte to have an atmosphere of pristine, white-glove service. Luxurious it is; stuffy it is not. Like a princess in her castle, I was free to explore the many rooms of the palace, often running into the owners who would tell me the history of the property. From the art on the walls (some of it Maria’s own) to the beautifully restored azulejos and the charm and luxury of every room, there really is no place in the world like Palácio Belmonte. With rooms starting at $550 per night, Palácio Belmonte is a splurge that is well worth it.
What to eat
Did you know that the sweet red dessert wine, port, is from Portugal? Well, it’s having a major renaissance and is not just your grandpa’s after-dinner drink anymore. While in Lisbon, fill up on port. This is the wine that is originally from neighboring city, Porto, and the wine country between the two cities produces some of the best port in the world, so indulge!
Lisbon is a port city where you’ll find plenty of that fresh seafood-based, hearty Mediterranean food. There is a growing foodie scene in Lisbon, but your best bets when exploring this city are the restaurants serving home-style Portuguese fare. It would be almost sacrilege to come to Portugal and not try the grilled sardines. This simple appetizer of a few whole sardines with sautéed onions and potatoes is bursting with flavor and the perfect start to any Portuguese meal. Some other authentic Portuguese dishes that you should try: francesinha (a meat-filled sandwich covered with cheese and tomato sauce), bacalhau (a cod dish that is also popular in the Veneto region of Italy), polvo assado (grilled octopus), and alheira de caça (game sausage).
I found this local gem of a restaurant, Taberna Anti-Dantas (R. São José 196), doing one of my favorite things to do in any city: wandering without a destination. It was down a side street, around the corner, and then down some stairs. With newspaper clippings covering the tables and quirky vintage place settings, it’s a restaurant that delightfully indulges in traditional, family-style recipes and flavors. Definitely try the fish stew baked in bread; it’s out of this world.
What to do
It’s easy to get wrapped up in rushing from one landmark and tourist spot to another, but after a long day of sightseeing, make sure you end up on the walls of the old city. The old castle walls are still standing, and they are the most beautiful place to take in the sunset over the Tagus River.
While you’re out exploring Lisbon’s oldest neighborhoods, including the castles and the original foundations of the city in the Alfama district, plan to make an evening of it as well. Listen to the beautiful melodies of fado music as you explore the Alfama district after dusk. Fado is a Portuguese music genre that is soulful and emotional. You might not understand the words, but trust me, you’ll feel all of the feels. In the beautiful Alfama district of the old city, you’ll hear it spilling out of bars, halls, and restaurants.