As soon as our taxi left the highway leading from the airport and started navigating the narrow cobblestone streets lined with colorful tiled buildings, we were smitten with beautiful Lisbon. The hilly topography, which we would spend hours walking up and down over the next week, only added to the charm, especially as it provided frequent miradouros (views) of the city and the coast. After a year of traveling mainly in Asia, we were excited to explore a European city, one that neither of us had visited before, along with my sister, who joined us for this trip.
Lisbon is a walkable city, if you can handle the hills, with beauty and history around every corner. The three of us rented an Airbnb in Bairro Alto, which, although an adorable neighborhood during the day and centrally located, turns into a loud party scene each night, so we’ll probably stay somewhere else next time.
In addition to its beauty, the city is full of inexpensive but delicious food and wine. This came in handy when fueling up for, and taking breaks from, all of the hills.
Normally not big fans of tours, we thought a history tour might be a worthy exception in this new-to-us city. When We Hate Tourism Tours invited us on their dinner and night driving tour, it sounded perfect. Their laid back, no-fuss attitude mashed with a wealth of knowledge and intimate group sizes made our night with our energetic tour guide Marcos one of the most memorable experiences of our trip. There was no shortage of food and wine, interspersed with stops at historic sites, some of which you’ll read about below. Marcos and Prem connected over their shared interest in philosophy and mutual admiration for Lisbon’s Fernando Pessoa, who you will hear about in future blog posts.
A wine-growing country, with wine regions spanning the entire length, breadth, and its islands, Portugal is also blessed with a fantastic climate for growing fruits and vegetables, which means eating well and drinking wine in Portugal is a relatively inexpensive affair. €4, or just over $4, was on the high side for a good glass of wine at a standard restaurant. Plus, Portuguese wine is good!
Portugal was introduced to wine as early as the Phoenicians and influenced most recently by the Romans. Douro, the region that brings you Port wine, and more recently known for its table wines, is a UNESCO world heritage site. Just as in most Old World countries, wine here is classified by region, with each region using native varietals from the region in the wines. Touriga Nacional, for example, is a varietal you’ll often find in wines from Douro and Dão.
Unlike French wines, Portuguese table wines are typically not cellared for very long, so it’s unlikely you will find vintage reds. These wines are meant to be had young.
The Old Pharmacy
We drank a lot of wine during our week in Lisbon, but there are some experiences that stand out. On our first night we wandered around our neighborhood, packed with other diners and drinkers, even on a Sunday evening, and ended up at The Old Pharmacy, a pharmacy converted into a wine bar on one of the narrow cobblestone streets that make up Bairro Alto. We sat at a wine barrel turned table and snacked on meats, cheeses, olives, and breads over the next couple hours as we tried different Portuguese red wines.
Wine With a View at São Jorge Castle
One day we walked up to São Jorge Castle to explore the remains of the medieval period castle and to take in the view it offers of the city and coast. We had hoped to catch the sunset but were a little early. That’s when we noticed the “Wine With a View” cart. This company ingeniously sets up wine carts at tourist spots, selling Portuguese wine by the glass or bottle in reusable plastic wine glasses that are yours for the keeping. Their wine was really pricey, at €8 a glass, but, hey, you can’t beat sipping wine at a castle while watching the sunset over Lisbon.
For many people, vinho verde is what comes to mind when they think of Portuguese wine. During the meal part of our dinner and night driving tour with We Hate Tourism Tours, we were served endless carafes of it, which literally translates to “green wine”, but really is meant to mean “young wine”. Indeed, vinho verde today is really a DOC, a designated region from which wines labeled “Vinho Verde” can originate from; it can be red, white or rosé, and is typically had young; all of them have light carbonation, added artificially these days.
By The Wine and Grapes & Bites
On our last night in Lisbon we waited for a seat at the bar at the busy By The Wine José Maria da Fonseca, a trendy wine bar serving only wines from this winemaker. We drank wine over cheese, bread, olives, olive oil, and a romesco dip, sitting under the arched ceiling made out of empty wine bottles.
From there we went to the also crowded Grapes & Bites, located on the ground level of a hostel in Bairro Alto. We didn’t have to wait long for seats at a small table right in front of the live music. The staff took their wine seriously; our waiter opened a new bottle for our order and from smelling the cork could tell it had turned. He immediately opened a new bottle and tried it himself to make sure it was good. We ordered more cheese, along with cured meat, while sitting front row to the entertainment.
Port wine is a fortified wine that gets its name from the northern city of Porto, the second largest city in Portugal. More recently the Douro valley has been known for its excellent value table red wines, but Port wines, exclusively made here, is what first brought it attention and much of the world still knows it for.
Towards the end of our tour with We Hate Tourism Tours, as the clock struck midnight and brought us into the next day, we found ourselves standing under the quiet arched entranceway of the National Palace, closed for the night, sipping Port wine from plastic cups as we chatted with Marcos and the other visitor on our tour. An experience we never would have had on our own, it was really unforgettable.
On our first night we walked down the hill from our neighborhood to Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, one of many plazas that serve as a viewpoint. The city below was lit up, tourists and locals were taking in the view or waiting to take the tram down another hill, and plaza vendors were wrapping up for the night. Before the ginja hut with a walk-up counter closed, we ordered a round of the cherry liqueur in chocolate shot glasses. While not bad, we felt we had crossed it off our list and weren’t in a rush to try it again. Still, along with the atmosphere surrounding us, it made for a memorable experience.
Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara is at R. São Pedro de Alcântara, 1200-470 Lisboa, Portugal
Beer and Cocktails
After passing Duque Brewpub many times on our way to and from our apartment, we finally stopped in for a beer. Lisbon’s first brewpub, they serve their own beer as well as an impressive list of craft beer from near and far. The beer we tried wasn’t anything to write home about, but it was nice to have some options other than Sagres or Super Bock, the country’s equivalent to Bud and Miller.
Pharmacia is located inside Museu da Farmácia at Rua Marechal Saldanha, 1, 1249-069 Lisbon, Portugal
In a race against the sun we made it to Park Bar in time to order a drink and catch the sunset. For a prime viewing spot you have to arrive early, but we found that the guests sitting in the front of the roof were kind enough to let us by to take a photo of the beautiful sunset over Lisbon. The menu is nothing special, but the view is worth a visit, if you can find it; the internet offers conflicting addresses and you have to walk through a multi-level parking garage to reach the rooftop bar.
While Prem found plenty of specialty coffee shops, my sister and I preferred getting caffeinated in old-school cafes, with old Portuguese men and women behind the counters, outdated decor, and sidewalk seating. The coffee at these places may not be great, but the feeling of being in a different world, and even time, makes up for it.
Stay tuned for a post on specialty coffee, by Prem.
Portugal has plenty of cheeses, but one that caught our attention early on was Queijo de Nisa, a raw, semi-hard sheep’s milk cheese from Nisa, Portugal. We found rounds of Nisa at tables in several restaurants in town. At Cantinho do Avillez, we shared oven-roasted Nisa, which transformed it into a sweeter gooey deliciousness that we eagerly cleaned up with bread. This was followed by a delicious dinner of shared plates.
Most restaurants will automatically serve bread, butter, and olives when you sit down. Some restaurants may even include meat and cheese in this array of snacks. Be warned that, if you eat this food, you will be charged for it on your bill! If you don’t touch it, the server will remove it and presumably serve it to the next group who sits down. We made our decisions on whether to consume these snacks based on how hungry we were and how good the options looked. We came across some dry bread, but otherwise it was usually worth paying for these snacks for the succulent Portuguese olives and their flavorful juices and herbs that could be soaked up with fresh bread.
Morcela (Portuguese Blood Sausage)
Marcos, our We Hate Tourism Tours guide, took us to Restaurante Lucimar, a traditional Portuguese restaurant, for dinner. We shared endless amounts of food, one being morcela, or blood sausage. Even after a year of living in Argentina, I am usually not a big fan of the texture, but I actually really enjoyed this sausage, especially following Marco’s suggestion to eat it on bread with butter. Restaurante Lucimar also had excellent olives, soaked in fresh herbs and olive oil, which started off a seemingly endless meal of family style dishes and plenty of vinho verde.
Açorda de Camarão
Another dish served at Restaurante Lucimar, with great fanfare, was acorda de camarão. The bread based stew, cooked with coriander, garlic, and salt, was presented in a large bread bowl with camarão (shrimp) perfectly arranged on top. After we had the chance to take a photo, our waiter gave the dish a big stir to mix in the shrimp. It was creamy and savory, not unlike a risotto.
Bacalhau is the Portuguese word for cod and, culinarily, almost always refers to salted cod. Salted cod has been produced for centuries, since around the time of the discovery of the New World, as a way to preserve cod. For an insightful “biography of the fish that changed the world”, consider reading one of Prem’s favorite books from author Mark Kurlansky. Bacalhau is used in various foods all over Portugal. We ate it as Bacalhau à Brás, made from shreds of onions and thinly chopped fried potatoes in a bound of scrambled eggs, purportedly an invention from Lisbon’s Bairro Alto neighborhood; Pastéis de Bacalhau (or, Bolinhos de Bacalhau), or codfish fritters, made using cod and potatoes, which became Prem’s go-to snack; Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, a casserole of bacalhau, potatoes, eggs, olives, and onions, originating from the northern city of Porto; at Antonia Petiscos in Bairro Alto, we shared a variation of Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, where a big piece of the fish was surrounded by potatoes, olives, and garnished with parsley.
Caldo verde is another popular dish in Portugal. The basic soup contains potatoes and kale and sometimes sausage, in a broth flavored with olive oil and salt. We really enjoyed the soup and ordered it a couple of times as an appetizer. You can find this at most tabernas, and we each had a bowl for lunch one rainy day in the cozy Taberna da Rua das Flores, a traditional restaurant worth eating at. Get here early, as this popular restaurant, whose menu changes daily, doesn’t take reservations. Aside from traditional restaurants, caldo verde is often served at celebratory events.
Prem could not wait to eat grilled sardines in Lisbon, a very common dish here. A bit tricky to eat, since they are grilled and served whole, they’re simply flavored using olive oil, salt, and pepper and often served with boiled potatoes. Prem didn’t flinch when he was served a huge platter of sardines at Merendinha do Arco, all for himself.
Restaurante A Merendinha do Arco is in Lisbon’s Baixa at Rua dos Sapateiros 230, 1100-581, Lisboa, Portugal
Carne de Porco à Alentejana
The Portuguese version of surf and turf, carne de porco à Alentejana is one of the most traditional pork dishes here. The pork is marinated and fried before clams are added. The dish is usually served with potatoes. Carne de porco à Alentejana was the daily special when we ate in Belém at Rui dos Pregos, a local diner-esqe chain, and we couldn’t pass it up. The huge portion was too much for even the three of us to share, especially as it was rich and fatty, but it was delicious.
Piri-piri is a type of pepper, which was introduced to Goa in India by the Portuguese, which is how Prem was exposed to the dish in the past. Piri-piri sauce is a marinade made using crushed chillies and various spices, tracing its origins to Africa and Portugal. The three of us shared an excellent piri-piri chicken at Miguel Laffan in Lisbon’s Time Out Market within the Mercado da Ribeira.
Time Out Market is in Mercado da Riberia at Av. 24 de Julho 49, 1200-109 Lisboa, Portugal
Goan food at Sabores de Goa
Goa, the state in India where Prem was born, was a Portuguese colony, so of course we had to seek out some Goan food while here. On a rainy Lisbon day, we took a leisurely 3 kilometer walk to Sabores de Goa, a tiny family-run restaurant, not far from the Anjos metro station.
Between us, we shared caril de peixe (fish marinated with garlic and salt and stir-fried with coconut and spices) and a Goan classic of pork Sarapatel along with Goan bread called sannas (a lightly fermented bread made with rice flour and coconut milk) to mop up the curries. The restaurant had a steady stream of locals, many of whom were of mixed Portuguese-Goan heritage. We ended the meal with one of Prem’s favorite Goan desserts, bebinca, a layered Goan cake made with layers of coconut milk, flour, and egg yolks. Prem enjoyed chatting with the Indian owners, who moved to Lisbon over 25 years ago, about India and their experience living in Lisbon and Portugal.
Although we mainly ate at traditional restaurants, we did visit two fine dining restaurants while in Lisbon.
Chef Henrique Sá Pessoa is a household name in Lisbon. We first had a modified version of one of his signature dishes, which is confit suckling piglet with sweet potato purée, pak choi, and orange jus, at his outpost in the Time Out Market at Mercado da Ribeira, which we all loved, especially the crackling skin.
One rainy afternoon we made our way to Alma, Pessoa’s first venture that opened in 2009 until it closed doors in 2014 before reopening at its current location at the end of 2015. Among a few other items, we shared the same signature confit suckling piglet dish, albeit a more expensive version, and agreed that it was actually better at Time Out Market. That said, the food was overall delicious, and we would happily go back.
After lunch we stopped next door to explore Bertrand Books and Music, the world’s oldest bookstore, open since 1732.
Chef Alexandre Silva is another household name in Lisbon, winner of Portugal’s first televised Top Chef competition, and also has an outpost at Time Out’s Mercado da Ribeira. Loco’s spacious dining room is modern and manages to be fancy but also dressed-down. Along with the calm open kitchen, it’s a fitting space that serves Portuguese haute cuisine, with distinctly Asian influences, as was evident in the fish of the day, marinated in a Thai green curry like spice mix.
Prem is a big fan of duck, and he really enjoyed this version which came along with the tart-sweetness from rhubarb and kale.
The "main" dishes ended with a rich dish of Pork Neck with Black Garlic and Spicy Mushroom.
As is often the case, when Prem said he didn’t want the desserts, the chef insisted he try it. This can end up either way; luckily, pastry chef Carlos Fernandes’s desserts of Persimmon and Chestnuts followed by Papaya, Coconut, and Passion Fruit were both interesting, simple, and incredibly flavorful — and arguably not too sweet for Prem.
We enjoyed our desserts and petit fours with the last of the Graham's 20 year Port at the restaurant.
Pastéis de Belém
Our addiction to pastéis de nata came strong and quick and from our first taste we planned our days around fitting in one or two of these rich, creamy, flaky pastries in between meals or, in the case of breakfast, as a meal.
On our night with We Hate Tourism Tours, Marco took us to the famous Pastéis de Belém after an evening already full of eating and drinking. Before ordering one pastel de nata for each of us, he gave us a tour of the restaurant that has been making these, following a secret recipe, since 1837. The recipe is so secret that the three people who know it cannot travel together, in case something happens to all of them. Even with a huge space that can seat over 400 guests, there is always a line out the door, and they end up serving anywhere from 20,000 - 55,000 pastéis de nata a day, produced in their massive kitchen.
Marco was smart in making us wait to eat the pastries, allowing our heavy dinner and many glasses of vinho verde to digest. We left Pastéis de Belém, pastries in bag, and drove to the Belém Tower, lit up against the dark sky and river. As Marcos told us about the history of the Tower, with not another person in sight, we took our first bites of the famous pastry, sprinkled with cinnamon and confectioner’s sugar, and knew we’d be back again for more.
We visited Pastéis de Belém once more, during the day, for the experience, but found the much more convenient, and just as good, if not better, Manteigaria Fábrica de Pastéis de Nata near our apartment. The pastry is the only food this establishment sells, and you can watch them make them behind the glass counter. For only €1 a pop, it’s easy to order a couple and eat them standing up at the counter. We even ordered a box before boarding our flight, to enjoy back in Brooklyn with a cup of coffee.
Walking around the streets, smoke rising from a mobile cart seemed to mean one thing: roasted chestnuts. Mainly around central Lisbon areas of Baixa, you can easily purchase a brown paper bag, smartly doubled, with one side full of warm chestnuts and the other empty for the shells. A quick and simple snack, these were delicious to munch on.
As mentioned above, cod fritters became Prem’s go-to snack, as did meat fritters, all of which are easy to find in traditional cafes and restaurants, where you can usually purchase one for €1 or €2.
Of course I couldn’t leave Lisbon without eating gelato, and luckily my sister felt the same way, so together we were on the hunt for our fill regularly. Lisbon didn’t disappoint, with plenty of options available.
Lisbon’s charm and beauty really stole our hearts, not to mention the good food and wine. Looking at pictures from our trip makes us want to jump through the screen and be back among the beautiful tiles and hilly cobblestone streets, taking in the view with a glass of wine and a pastel de nata or two. We can’t wait to return one day.
See these places on our Lisbon map: