Traditional and modern flavours will make you fall for the Portuguese capital, hook, line and sinker
The walls and ceiling are covered in fishing tackle paraphernalia; small nets, rods, lead sinkers, intricate colourful baits and bright floats. This unusual space, with its lively ambiance, is filled with people sitting on diminutive stools at low tables. Spread out across the table before me are small plates and tapas; a distinctive, rich pâté, some tinned sardines in a zingy citrus oil and chunky tuna in a spicy sauce that invites you to dip your bread and indulge.
I had only been in Lisbon for a short while but already I was seduced by the flavours and tastes of this historic hillside city. It had been some years since I was last here, and my memories of that trip were not of museums or monuments but of food too; of indulgent cakes, rich chocolate mouse and those unforgettable ‘pastéis de nata’ custard tarts that are so darn good you can’t stop eating them.
Eat, Drink, Walk
It’s probably true to say Lisbon’s culinary reputation is dominated by those tasty tarts and of course salt cod, introduced by northern European traders. The Portuguese remain the world’s greatest cod consumers, but there is so much more to the country’s food scene.
To get an insider’s perspective of this ancient capital and its distant neighbourhoods I took a walking food tour with Celia Pedroso. Co-author of the bestselling book ‘Eat Portugal’, Celia is undoubtedly passionate about the country’s food, but not in a pretentious ‘foodie’ way. She is relaxed and informal, a great companion whilst discovering the city. Her ‘Eat, Drink, Walk Lisbon’ tour has become almost a city institution and a requisite for anyone that wants to add some authentic flavour to their city break.
We had met in the city’s market, Mercado da Ribeira. In the past year or so the market has been transformed into a dining destination. A food hall has been opened, a cavernous space of communal wooden tables and stools surrounded by smart units representing some of Portugal’s finest restaurants and food producers. It’s a perfect place to start to understand the city’s culinary story, its relationship with the sea, trade and the Portuguese adventurous spirit.
The revitalised, fashionable market is part of the renaissance of the Cais do Sodré district. Once the city’s red light district, it is now the on-trend neighbourhood, perfectly located for riverside walks and city views.
My first night was spent in the LX Boutique Hotel in Cais do Sodré. A smart hotel, with light, modern rooms, each with striking photo murals on the walls depicting breath-taking Lisbon views.
But really one doesn’t need them as from my room I could see out across the rooftops to the broad Tagus River, towards the huge 28 metre Christ monument (inspired by Rio de Janeiro’s art deco Christ the Redeemer) and the city’s iconic ‘25 de Abril’ suspension bridge.
When I checked–in at LX Boutique I realised how much this city loves its food. In reception were freshly baked custard tarts and a decanter of tawny port for guests to help themselves. Then early evening, the hotel offers a free glass of wine and sushi from its in-house chef – perfect to get you in the mood for an evening exploring Lisbon’s nightlife.
The nearby Bairro Alto reveals the essence of the city and it was here that I found the intimate Fado bar, ‘Tosca do Chico’. The unique, poetic, story-telling songs of Fado are a captivating expression of Portuguese culture, and inevitably a big draw for visitors. I’d opted not for a formal dinner show, but instead to listen to some amateurs and professionals in this crowded bar where you share tables. The wine is a little rough, and the smoked spiced sausage offered as a tapa a little strong, but it made for enjoyable experience.
That night I slept well, the bed with its luxury linens was one of the most comfortable I could remember in a hotel and the double glazed windows and electric blackout blind meant that I was cocooned from the city.
On my food walking tour I realised that the city is having a love affair with canned fish and especially sardines! Forget preconceptions about tinned food, here it’s truly gourmet and fashionable. Celia took me to a cooperative store, the ‘Loja das Conservas’. The walls and shelves are covered in hundreds of different types of canned sardines and other fish. The cans are works of art, with beautiful decorations and interesting paper wrappers.
Yet in this capital city, it’s not all rustic tapas of canned fish; Lisbon has a vibrant gastronomy scene with Michelin starred chefs that are adding new chapters to the city’s culinary adventure story. Head a few kilometres out of the city centre to the historic district of Belém and one finds some of Lisbon’s most striking architecture, remembering Portugal’s seafaring superpower past; palaces, squares, the Monument to the Discoveries and the iconic Belém Tower.
Here at the mouth of the River Tagus one finds a very modern interpretation of Lisbon’s adventurous past. The über stylish, 5 star Altis Hotel & Spa, a strikingly contemporary property commanding unforgettable views, is home to Chef João Rodrigues. (Ypu can read about my experience dining at Feitoria, here).
His Restaurante Feitoria is one of the country’s gastronomic hotspots and he looks to Portugal’s past for modern day inspiration for his menu that celebrates Portuguese produce and wines, combining them with an international flavour, a homage to Portugal’s maritime explorers
My second night was spent in the Memmo Alfama Hotel, a strikingly stylish hotel in the Alfama district, close to the cathedral and São Jorge Castle. The location couldn’t be better, and the hotel’s chic roof top terrace with pool offers views across Alfama and the river that just oblige you to reach for the camera.
Lisbon is a city of views, its seven hills offer a wealth of ‘miradouros’. Walking or taking a tram to these different viewpoints is a great way to spend a day. Alternatively just relax and stay at the Memmo terrace wine bar, soak up the vistas and instead be adventures in your choice of Portuguese wine – chances are you can’t go wrong.
The Memmo Alfama, converted from historic city buildings including a bakery, has contemporary interiors that contrast perfectly with the old structure. The compact designer guest rooms have luxury touches like Egyptian cotton sheets, and the elegant bathrooms somehow encourage you to linger just that little bit longer under the rainforest shower.
But exploring the city is the most rewarding experience; finding interesting places like the old fishing tackle shop, ‘Sol e Pesca’, now one of the city’s best tapas bars. That is what makes a Lisbon city break so satisfying, so seductive.
I was hosted by the two hotels featured in this piece and my the Feitoria restaurant but this has not influenced by piece. Please bear in mind that this site and my articles are intended as entertainment only and not a definitive resource for purchasing decisions. Before making any travel or purchasing decision I recommend that you seek as much information as possible from various sources including review sites, guide books and other blogs. If you act based on my writing you do so at your own risk. If you wish to add anything to this piece, simply comment using the WordPress or Facebook plug-in.