Lisbon, Luminous and Lively
Lisbon’s nickname may be the City of Seven Hills, but we think of it as the city of light. It’s the light that first enraptures us. It’s not only because it’s sunny some 2,800 hours each year; it’s the vibrancy of the saturated blue sky, the evocative shadows on the narrow streets of the old quarter of Alfama, and the gleam of sunbeams reflecting on the colorful azulejos (tiles) that adorn so many of the homes.
The light seduced us in the same way as the city. Lisbon has its historic soul, all dignity and moodiness, and its contemporary creative culture. It is somber and exuberant all at once. We cry at a traditional fado show one night, then dance until dawn the next. One day we feast on shellfish—heavy on the bulhão pato sauce of garlic, lemon, and olive oil, of course—and beer at a decades-old cervejaria like Ramiro, and the next we sample the trendy new restaurant such as the pan-Asian Boa Bao or superstar chef Kiko Martins’ clean-eating O Watt. The City of Seven Hills has never been more fascinating—or more fun—than it is right now.
Thanks to an influx of international and homegrown innovators and entrepreneurs, the historic city, on the banks of the wide Tagus Estuary, is growing more cosmopolitan by the day. Yet rickety antique trams still rattle along their tracks, and the traditional quietly beautiful architectural styles are being preserved. Museums celebrate not just fine art but also the history of textiles and tiles, carriages and currency, and of course the 15th-century Portuguese Discoveries, an era in which Lisbon was the world’s most prosperous trading center, thanks to its skilled seafarers and colonies around the world.
Lisbon is also where we jump off for day trips. One day we go to the monuments and monasteries (and delicious, beloved custard tarts known as pasteis de Natal) of Belém, and the next to the stunning, colorful European Romantic palaces and mountainous countryside of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Whenever possible, we go to the long, sandy Atlantic beaches of tony towns like Estoril and Cascais—the small crescent of Praia do Guincho is our favorite—and the seemingly endless stretch of the Costa da Caparica. Here, we lounge in the sun and lunch on the simplest, most delicious grilled fresh fish and glasses of cool, crisp Vino Verde, watching surfers ride some of the best waves in Europe. When the sunset inevitably comes and tints the sky with shades of salmon pink and soft lavender, we swoon for the light of Lisbon once more.
When to go?
Sticky and crowded in midsummer and often rainy in the winter, Lisbon is best visited in autumn or spring, when a vivid new flower seems to pop out on trees across the city every few weeks.
How to get there?
Thanks to Portugal’s new popularity, flight routes are being added from many cities around the world. While riding a tram, particularly the iconic 28, is a must-do, much of the city can be explored on foot. But know that the streets can be steep and the cobblestone calçada sidewalks can be quite slippery—we never wear heels.
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Theatrical fine dining
It was José Avillez who first brought Portuguese gastronomy onto the international stage. His fine-dining venue, Belconto, is the only Michelin two-star in the city. It’s plenty creative, but he took an even more theatrical approach to his most ambitious restaurant yet. A hidden passageway inside another of his restaurants leads to an intimate, 37-seat room where a 12-course tasting menu is paired with a 1920s-style cabaret show.
Rua Nova da Trindade 18
A Portuguese love letter to Peru
Another rising star of modern Portuguese gastronomy, Kiko Martins is behind this intimate Peruvian restaurant in the posh neighborhood of Principe Real. While most of the menu is similar to what you might find in Lima, he’s added local twists, like a ceviche made of bacalhau and octopus. Go at an off hour to avoid the crowds, splurge on the tasting menu and try the house wine, which is made especially for Chef Kiko.
Rua Dom Pedro V 129
Bistro 100 Maneiras
Everyday fine dining
Transplant chef Ljubomir Stanisic has crafted a love letter to Portuguese cuisine that’s on par with the city’s Michelin-starred establishments via his irreverent tasting menus at 100 Maneiras. (In Portuguese, the name is a double entendre meaning “100 ways” and “without manners”, as he enjoys breaking with culinary dogma) That restaurant is a special-occasion destination, but the more relaxed Bistro is where Lisboetas return again and again.
Largo da Trinidade 9
Coffee as an art form
While coffee is something of a religion in Portugal—there are no fewer than 15 commonly recognized coffee beverages with varying amounts of water, milk, and heat—until recently it was lacking artisanal brews. That changed with the 2015 opening of this specialty coffee company, which buys 100% Arabica straight from farms in Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, and Guatemala and is involved in everything from the harvesting of the coffee cherries to the in-house roasting of the beans to the pulling of the perfect espresso. The Chiado café doesn’t have Wi-Fi, keeping everyone’s attention on their cups.
Rua das Portas de Santo Antão 136
A classy, quiet cocktail den
Operating for more than 38 years, Foxtrot is one of the oldest bars in Lisbon—and one of its most beloved. It’s spread across for intimate, cozy rooms with Art Deco lamps and red velvet couches and banquettes, one of which has a fireplace. The cocktails are as sophisticated as the room and the well-dressed crowd, mixed by nattily attired barmen using fresh fruits and exotic liqueurs and bitters.
Travessa Santa Teresa 28
Casa de Chá de Santa Isabel
A historic tea house for good
The roots of this Principe Real tea house go back to 1956, when a group of women organized as the Vincentine Group of the Work of Our Lady of Amparo in order to support tuberculosis victims and others in a poor neighborhood. They did so by teaching them to sew garments for organized sales, and in their showroom they began offering tea and scones that many at the time claimed to be the best in Lisbon. While they now occupy a cozy new space, they still donate all their profits to the social works of the parish of Santa Isabel.
Rua de São Bento 700
A Vida Portuguesa
The Portuguese soul
Picture the impeccable retro packaging of Claus Porto soaps. Everything in this shop, which specializes in products from companies that have survived the passage of time and represent the best of Portugal, looks like that. The goods on offer range from personal care products and stationery to home goods and gourmet foodstuffs. They inspire nostalgia among Lisboetas and make fine souvenirs for visitors.
Multiple locations, including Rua Anchieta 11
Convento do Carmo
Decay at its loveliest
The ruins of this half-built, roofless neo-Gothic church have become one of the most hauntingly beautiful, spiritual places in all of Lisbon. The soaring arches, now holding up nothing but blue sky and air, make for an unusually quiet, contemplative spot in the bustling Chiado neighborhood (not to mention striking photos). The site is also home to the country’s archaeological association and a compact but comprehensive museum of artifacts that spans a broad chronology from prehistory to contemporary times.
Largo do Carmo
Weekend shopping, dining, and people-watching
A once-derelict 19th century factory in the working-class Alcantara district has been reinvented as Lisbon’s center of hipster cool. The formerly abandoned warehouses have been filled with cowork spaces, yoga studios, cutting-edge restaurants and outstanding indie shops like the Ler Devagar bookshop and the Organii natural cosmetics bar. Outside, the buildings are festooned with lively street art, and on one of the rooftops is Rio Maravilha, one of the coolest sunset spots in town.
Rua Rodrigues de Faria 103