Why Lisbon Should Be on Your Bucket List
- Written By:Christina Valhouli
Lisbon is often described as the San Francisco of Europe and it’s easy to see why. Like its Golden Gate counterpart, Lisbon’s landscape is marked by steep hills and a network of rickety old trolleys. This city built on seven hills offers a charming mix of the old and new. You’ll see castles and cathedrals, alongside juice bars and stylish boutiques. Street art is everywhere, and the ornately tiled buildings may be just as likely to house a tech start up as a pharmacy that looks untouched since 1960.
Lisbon is a city that is best explored on foot, to offset the calories in a classic Portuguese egg tart (pastel de nata) as well as to see the city unfold in front of you. Walk down little side streets to discover one of a kind shops, like a boutique selling hats, and take time to enjoy a coffee and soak in the laid back atmosphere.
Base yourself at the boutique Torel Palace, which is housed in two adjacent townhouses on top of a hill. With just 28 rooms, it feels more like a well-appointed home than a hotel. Although the guest rooms are inspired by Portuguese kings and queens, the vibe is more low-key than regal, and attracts a mostly European clientele. Rooms are generously sized and have ornate details like stucco ceilings and classic blue and white Portuguese tiles in the bathrooms. For relaxing, there’s a small pool on the cobblestoned terrace, with sweeping views of the city.
Fuel up with a big, healthy breakfast at Torel Palace’s buffet — you’ll need the energy to walk around Lisbon. Bypass the pastries (for now) and go for the smoked salmon, eggs and a freshly squeezed juice.
Make sure you’re wearing sneakers or flat sandals; Lisbon is not a high heel city thanks to its steep, cobblestoned streets which can be slippery. When you need a break from the hills, the city has a network of trolleys, elevators and funiculars such as the graffiti covered Lavra, the oldest one in the city which is a short walk from the hotel.
Explore the boutique shops of the Chiado neighborhood. A Vida Portuguesa is a one stop shop for beautifully packaged Portuguese products. Pick up stylish tins of sardines, soaps and olivewood bowls. Lavanda cologne is citrusy and unisex, and the hand creams from Benamor are ulta-hydrating. You’ll want to fill your suitcase with linen tablecloths and exquisite pajamas at Paris em Lisboa, a multi-story boutique which dates back to 1888. The nearby Republica das Flores is stocked with fresh flowers, Portuguese ceramics and Comporta perfumes, inspired by the nearby beach area.
The city is full of shops that specialize in one thing, from sardines to hats. Comur is a jewel-box of a store selling tins of sardines while Chapelaria Azevedo Rua sells handmade hats; this is the place to pick up a straw fedora.
Many of Lisbon’s top museums are closed on a Monday so plan accordingly. A must-see is the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, which houses the extensive art collection of its namesake founder, a British-Armenian oil magnate. He was an avid, thorough collector and his collection spans ancient Egypt, to Greco-Roman pieces and Islamic art to contemporary pieces. Spend time wandering the gardens here and stop for a quick pick-me-up at the outdoor café. The ice cream comes in unusual flavors such as almond, fig and chocolate, or blood orange.
Another can’t miss if you love Portuguese tiles (or azulejos) is the National Tile Museum. Located in a 16th century convent, the museum showcases everything from individual tiles to elaborate wall murals, including the 118-foot long Panorama of Lisbon (1730) a detailed study of the city. Near the museum, don’t miss the giant mural on the side of a building by legendary Spanish street artist duo, Pichi & Avo. They use graffiti style art to depict classical imagery.
Eating is serious business in Lisbon and no visit would be complete without trying grilled sardines and mackerel, which are ubiquitous and usually the most affordable item on a menu. Only in Lisbon would you find a restaurant like Miss Can, which serves only tinned fish. If you prefer your sardines grilled, try the tiny Restaurante Morgadinha de Alfama where a platter of grilled sardines is about 8 euros; grab a seat on its covered patio and settle in for a long, lazy lunch.
Sr. Lisboa is a charming little spot near Torel Palace offering tapas-style dishes in a casual atmosphere. Like most Portuguese restaurants, it doesn’t get hopping until around 10pm. Take your pick from plates of grilled octopus, black pork sausage and seared tuna loin. For a special occasion meal, try A Travessa, which is housed in a former cloister. Sit outside and tuck into a multi-course meal. A parade of starters (blistered peppers, scrambled eggs with truffles) is followed by a selection of mains, ranging from organic fillet of bull to tuna steak with lime sauce.