In January 2016 I spent a week in Lisbon, Portugal on a graduate school trip studying Portugal’s nonprofit and government sectors. It was a great trip to a place I wouldn’t have sought out on my own, but that I was delighted to discover. Portugal is an interesting country with a long history but a young democracy still re-building its institutions after a long dictatorship.
Our base was the Novatel in Campolide, a commercial and residential area above the city center near the zoo Lisbon and NOVA Universities, and the Praca de Espanha metro station. Here are some highlights, favorites, and recommendations.
Food and Drink
Lisbon is a place to eat amazing food at reasonable prices, including abundant seafood. Famous local dishes are bacalhau, salted cod prepared dozens of different ways, and pasteis, a custard pastry. Ginjinha is the cherry-based local liqueur.
Cantinho do Avillez
A more casual and affordable option from Jose Avillez, chef of the Michelin-starred Belcanto. Contemporary Portuguese cuisine in the Chiado neighborhood.
Parreirinha De Alfama
Fado restaurant with the traditional food and live Portuguese folk music. Tucked into the hill in the maze of streets in the Alfama neighborhood. There was a healthy mix of locals and tourists.
One of the many rooftop bars and restaurants with views of the surrounding hills. Near Baixa in the city center.
Mercado de Ribeira
This was a clutch find on the first night in country, and turned out to be the perfect introduction to Lisbon. Our group ended up visiting a second time in the week we were there. The Mercado is a giant urban food court featuring stalls from many of the city’s top notch restaurants and chefs. Take some laps around the perimeter to scope out your plan of attack before assembling a great local meal. Booze and communal tables are in the middle. They also have some shops where you can buy crafts, souvenirs, and more food and booze.
Small, cheap cafe tucked away behind the Mercado de Ribeira.
Cheap pastries and Portuguese in the Campolide area, including the ubiquitous bacalhau salted cod dish.
Sites to See
The traditional Portuguese folk signing is common in the many small, smoky restaurants in the city center, especially the Alfama neighborhood. It’s a dark, haunting melody that is worth hearing in person, usually just a few feet from your table.
Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Museum
One of the Portugal’s most important cultural institutions, the Gulbenkian Foundation essentially served as the country’s Ministry of Culture during Salazar’s Fascist dictatorship. Today it hosts an excellent art museum, orchestra, science institute, educational and cultural activities, all set in a beautiful modernist architecture.
(Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown)
While not a typical tourist destination, Champalimaud is a center for medical research and treatment set in a stunning piece of architecture on the water. Great place to watch a sunset.
Outside the City
Palácio da Pena in Sintra
This fantastical, whimsical, fairytale palace north of the Lisbon is a great half day or full-day trip. There are many rooms, balconies, parapets, a roof-top cafe, and hiking on the grounds and surrounding woods. Sintra is about an hour from Lisbon, accessible via commuter rail, bus, or Uber. We took Uber up to the palace gates, then had an awesome tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw) ride down the hill into Sintra town, where we hoped onto the commuter train back to Lisbon. Like most North Americans we arrived in Portugal in the morning, and Sintra was a great day trip to cure jet lag while waiting for our hotel rooms to be available.
Bacalhôa Wine Estate
A sprawling estate an hour southeast of Lisbon near Set ubal. The main winery complex includes a large museum displaying the owners art collection. It includes Art Nouveau and Art Deco furniture, traditional Portuguese tiles, and art from Portugal’s former African colony of Angola.
The Bacalhôa Palace is nearby. The former royal palace features more art and is set amidst beautiful gardens and vineyards.
North of the city is an unusual peace garden featuring huge Buddhist statues, replica of the Chines terra cotta soldiers, and acres of lakes and gardens. It was inspired by the owner’s reaction to the Taliban destroying sacred Buddha sculptures in Afghanistan.
While you might think Portuguese is close Spanish, there is still big difference, and it’s rude to start speaking to people in your high school Spanish. Like anywhere, be sure to learn a few local words and phrases to start the conversation. English is somewhat common in the tourism and service industries.
Lisbon is compact and easily navigated on foot or by public transport. Taxis and Uber are plentiful and affordable. The Metro is clean and efficient, if a bit threadbare in places. However, many stations feature great architecture and art. Trams, both modern and historic, are common in the city center. There isn’t much bicycling in Lisbon.
The airport is a short metro or taxi ride away from the city center. Commuter trains serve some of the outlying towns. However, Portugal is a rural country and a car is necessary for visiting further afield, especially the wineries.
Lisbon has not caught the smoke-free trend yet, and most bars/restaurants still allow smoking indoors. Grin and bear it.
El Corte Ingles shopping center
Large shopping center and super market in Campolide. Good place to pick up essentials and food.
New York Times: “36 Hours in Lisbon”
New York Times: “Lisbon Is Thriving, but at What Price for those Who Live There?”
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