‘You’ll love it!’
‘It’s great for food!’
‘Best city break ever!’
To say I heard these declarations of love for one of Europe’s sunniest cities once or twice during the weeks leading up to J’s and my much needed holiday in Lisbon would be something of an understatement. The glorious sunshine, the gorgeous food, the dreamy tiles, the kitschy gifts, the pastels de nata – all these things were raved about to me in sentences heavy with near fanaticism for Portugal’s capital and every single one of them raised my expectations to nigh on stratospheric levels…
…luckily Lisbon knows a things or two about making a gal happy so consider every expectation exceeded.
There are a lot of places to stay in and around the city centre; J & I are
somewhat rather very a teeny bit antisocial when it comes to holidays. We’re not fans of cloud scraping hotels with all-you-can-eat buffets at 8am, fights for the sun-loungers at 1pm or traditional British pubs that vomit drunken tourists onto the pavements outside at 2am. Small, gorgeous, friendly places are more up our street which is exactly what we found in Palacio Ramalhete, a 10 room boutique hotel (barely 15 minutes walk from the legendary Time Out Market) which boasts a rooftop pool & the nicest staff in Lisbon.
Clean, cool & pretty rooms come dressed with the loveliest little touches – complimentary homemade chocolate covered fruit & nuts on the dresser or a creamy roses in the bathroom anyone? – while the communal rooms are a beautiful blend of modern and antique and that aforementioned rooftop pool was ours alone for most of the week.
There’s no restaurant on site at Palacio but the breakfasts are a little bit special and there’s a small but decent snacks menu that’ll see you through the day. Cheeseboard and local beers by the pool, you say? Well chaps, I didn’t fly all the way here for green juice and broccoli.
First day exploration of the local neighbourhood revealed a hidden gem of a restaurant – Le Chat, named after one of the owners’ semesters in Paris. A modern construction of glass, chrome and white parasol shaded terraces, this was a gorgeous place to stumble across, sink into and enjoy the first of many local beers and dishes at. FYI, as someone totally uninitiated in Portuguese beers, it may well be that it’s actually the Stella of its market but we loved the super light & refreshing Superbock.
Codfish shredded with chickpeas & pink pickled onions was light and gently herbed…
…while chubby pink prawns lazed gently in a pool of paprika spiced oil from slices of food of the gods, chorizo. Top tip 1 – Le Chat’s homemade focaccia comes fat & fluffy in hipster approved kilner jars and is pretty perfect for mopping up every last golden slick.
A wheel of goats cheese looked like it was about to win first prize in a ‘vegetables masquerading as creme brulee’ competition but tasted tangy and soft against crisp greens and earthy walnuts…
…and eating everything al fresco on the terrace which slowly filled up with locals-in-the-know and lucky-to-find-it-tourists was the perfect way to watch a setting sun paint the sky around us with flushes of candyfloss colours.
Top tip 2 – save room for dessert. Like a heaving bosom in the court of Louis XIV, Le Chat’s decadent yet elegantly simple chocolate mousse is piled high in ridiculously soft & velvety mounds while sprinkles of popping candy stop it from being too serious and grown up a dessert.
So we’ve established without too much difficulty that Lisbon is a city in which you want to go out and eat.
Like as much as is humanly possible without your fiance starting to look at you in a different and slightly fearful light but it’s also good to stay somewhere you can start the day well at or banish thoughts of starvation come midday when the custard tarts of breakfast have worn off.
Palacio offers local fig bread and saffron rolls which are nutty, sweet and lovely when topped with regional cheeses, sticky chutneys and balsamic dribbled creamy mozzarella. Morning fruit bowls here come piled high with juicy pineapple, melon & berries, fresh & crunchy salads are generously proportioned and any place that offers platters of local meats, baby pastel de natas and homemade strawberry cake before 9am is frankly, somewhere I want to move into.
Let’s venture out of the hotel again though and head to the first place that found itself on my comical-cartoon-length-must-eat-list; Mercado de Ribeiro aka the Time Out Market. I love Time Out, like actually, properly adore it. I’ve done so many things in London thanks to the wealth of local information that pepper the pages and I trust it implicitly to steer me right when it comes to
stuffing my face eating like a well fed lady.
Launched in 2014 and open every day from 10am until at least midnight, this mecca for food devotees welcomes over 3 million visitors last year to the 30+ food & drink stands that line this glorious warehouse of gluttony. One of the things I loved most about the place (apart from the meat…and the seafood…and the desserts…and the wine…and the port) was the vibe – this is not a place that was built solely for tourists. It’s a place for locals, for people to come with families, with kids, with each other for a leisurely weekend feast or a bite to eat after work on a Tuesday night. It’s fast paced and it’s bustling and finding a seat can require the athletic skills & mental agility of a Crystal Maze winning team but it’s oh so worth it.
Whatever you’re in the mood for eating can be found here. Artisan burgers, pizza flatbreads, sandwiches, sushi, fried chicken, tapas, charcuterie, seafood, meat, cheese, ice-cream, custard tarts, eclairs, beer, wine, port – if you can’t find something here you want to eat, you may need to check that you’re actually still alive.
The truly outstanding suckling pig rolls with homemade pickles at Henrique sa Pessoa (one of Portugal’s finest and most talented modern chefs) made me adore pork for the first time in my life with slender layers of crispy edged fat that were so mellow and melty you barely tasted them before their flavour gave way to a crunchy exterior…
…while scallops with mango puree and fleur de sel from Sea Me (a regular on lists documenting Lisbon’s top 20 best restaurants) were light, perfectly charred & fruity plus that caramelised hint of salt? Simply wonderful.
Croquettes from Croquetaria are one of the best value snacks in the building at €1.50 each. Top tip 3 – skip the chicken & almond and go straight for the codfish & chorizo or, even better, the cuttlefish with squid ink which you’ll find to be warm, savoury and moreish.
After all the time we’ve spent together dear readers, I don’t really need to say this but I will anyway – do not skip dessert. Manteigaria has a branch of their pastel de nata shop here though I’d suggest you save your first bite of those beauties for the shop itself in Lisbon city centre and although there are plenty of cakes & pastries on offer, it was the incredible value of the dessert tasting menu at Cozinha de Felicidad that won us over. At €10 for a generous portion of each of their puddings, this is where you want to carve another notch on the belt buckle, get yourself a glass of ruby and dig in. The frozen dark chocolate & brandy mousse thickly dusted with cocoa powder took first place for both J & I but special mention also goes to the bitter almond liqueur mousse with eggs, the carob, fig & orange pie and the honey ice-cream with red berries & almonds.
So, basically everything then?
God, it’s a good thing we don’t live within walking distance of this place otherwise someone’s wedding dress would be needing some very attractive elasticated panels sewn into it around 10 months from now.
So what about what’s actually in the centre of the capital itself I hear you hollering at me from your sofa? Well apart from a gorgeous building on every corner, a glorious number of tiles to fall in love with and a surprising amount of graffiti down most of the streets…
…there are a lot of places you’ll want to embark upon a gastronomic love affair with and we might as well start with one of the best – Manteigaria.
Pastels de nata or Portuguese custard tarts are a staple of the city. Pastelarias dot every avenue, boulevard and mews and while some will say that Pasteis de Belem have the original and the best, I – and many others, so safety in numbers – are here to tell you that’s not true. Maybe they made them first but y’know whose I’ll be eating last?
Of course you do…if nothing else, my following ode to all things Manteigaria-n should give it away.
A sweet little shop where you’ll have to amicably jostle for space on the counter with dozens of other over-excited, custard-smeared, cinnamon dusted faces, the staff are lovely, the vibe is great and the tarts? Hand on heart, for the price of one teeny tiny euro you can enjoy one of the best things you’ll ever eat so know this and be happy. We were.
Crispy on the outside with a glossy top and a smooth, rich custard filling, dust them with cinnamon, relish the experience of eating, buying & repeating, then pump your fists in the air when I tell you that it’s entirely possible to pack a couple in your suitcase for breakfast the first morning back off your holiday. True, they don’t taste quite as good when you’re weeping the bitter, salty tears of the recently-departed-holidaymaker over them but still, they are utter perfection.
In the interests of being fair & balanced, J & I also adjusted our waistbands and headed to Belem where we queued with people whose anticipation was at mildly alarming fever pitch level, we handed our money over to staff who were slightly barky and very much ‘get them in and get them out’ and we tasted the alternatives.
Like a slightly sulky child who’s been told he cannot have dessert until the vegetables are gone, J’s verdict to the second tart of the day was a flat out ‘no’…
…and I kind of have to agree. Quite different in every way, Pasteis de Belem’s eggy offerings were crunchier and slightly more brittle on the outside while the interior custard was far looser, creamier & less flavourful than Manteigarias.
Is it just me or does anyone else hear birdsong and angels when I say that name?
Clearly Belem have a fan base of near Belieber proportions – I’m not gonna argue with the people who buy 20’000 of them a day – but if you can only try one in Lisbon, hotfoot it to, well, you know the name by now, wait for the ringing of a bell that signals a fresh batch warm from the oven and enjoy.
As tremendous as they are, hungry tourist cannot live by pastel de nata alone.
Ok you can but I’m not here to advocate the pursuit of diabetes so let’s turn our attention to something a little bit savoury, a little bit traditional and an awful lot likely to put you into a food coma. The main square in Lisbon, Praca do Comercio, is lined with bars and restaurants; if Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden had a torrid, tawdry affair, this place would be the Lisboan version of their squalling love child. I’m not sure anything here will give the finer dining establishments of the city a run for their money but for relatively cheap & cheerful carb-loading of the Portuguese variety, you’ll find just what you need.
Bifanas are a traditional pork sandwich made with thin cutlets of meat smothered in traditional herbs & spices and stuffed between a crusty edged, softly middled roll. Meanwhile, down the other end of the lunching spectrum, you have the Francesinha. If the inoffensive but tasty Bifana is our Michael Buble then this Francesinha my friends, is the Steven Tyler of our Portuguese sandwich universe. It’s not traditionally gorgeous but there’s something about it that just works.
Originally from Porto, layers of wet-cured ham, fresh sausage and steak pile between white bread, are covered with melted cheese and then sit squatly in a warm, lightly spiced, tomato & beer sauce. Oh, it also comes with fries in case you needed that extra gentle push towards heartburn or a mild coronary.
Safe & satisfying, I’m not sure I’d find myself a repeat offender where eating either of these are concerned but as I’m genuinely always keen to try local things I’ve never come across before, I consider my work here to be done.
In case you were
jealous concerned that we literally spent 24 hours hand-to-mouth, let me reassure you that over 22k steps were walked on this day as well as miles and miles of ground covered via Tram 28, a brilliant little trolley that takes you through just about every area of the city. The streets are very hilly, the roads are very narrow and tourists will literally risk life & limb for the perfect selfie. These are three things of note that I took away from a ride down the cobbled hills. We loved it.
So we’ve had our baked goods & we’ve loaded up on breads as if tomorrow marks the start of wintry hibernation so let’s turn our attention to gelato. Specifically the best gelato in Lisbon. No joke, this was how Gelato Davvero was sold to me before I came and in a place where ice-cream is a serious business (plus my all time favourite food), that was a recommendation I didn’t take lightly.
We walked past a lot of other gelaterias but none of them had the choice of flavours that this one did.
I mean, come ON. Look at that board and tell me you’re not breaking out into a mild panic at the thought that even the largest cone will only take 3, maybe 4 flavours at a push.
At only €2 each for enormous portions (aka small on the menu) this is both a luxury and a bargain. Hands down the best flavour is the nectarine which was ripe, juicy and sunshine sweet. Pistachio was subtle and ever so grown up whilst peanut and biscotti were everything you could want from a chunky cup of frozen, softly whipped heaven. Sit outside with the locals, watch the world go by & fall in love a little bit more with Lisbon.
At the end of a long day, what do you want? Somewhere to deposit your weary bones and something cold and, let’s face it, boozy to ease your sun-scorched soul. Get the tram up to Miradoura de Sao Pedro de Alcantara, find the bar, score a deck chair, order a drink and watch the sun go down over the city below you. Staff are chirpy, prices are decent – this is the city where wine is cheaper than beer don’t you know? – and although it gets breezy when the sun slips over the horizon, sitting here and people watching is the perfect way to end your day.
A quick note to say that this suggestion isn’t strictly food related (although my gorgeous friend L, a self-confessed addict to the fabulously kitschy tins of sardines on sale here will disagree) but Ceramicas da Linha and A Vida Portuguese are two of the greatest shops. In. The. World.
The first sells crazily cheap and wonderfully stylish ceramic goods that’ll make you want to ditch your clothes and fill your suitcase with bubble-wrapped plates, dishes and fish shaped jugs while the second has enough gourmet fish, chocolate, tea and oil to render you speechless and enamoured. Plus, if you can get the ceramic pigs head with fruits & vegetables in your bag and through the hands of Easyjet in one piece, know that you are indeed winning at life.
If you fancy a trip out of the capital and down the coast, a forty minute train ride will take you to Cascais. This little seaside town has some of the prettiest buildings and street signs imaginable alongside a behemoth of a hotel where I believe you could easily find that all-you-can-eat buffet, that struggle for a sun-lounger and that pint or twelve in a British pub I mentioned earlier.
It also has a charming beach complete with very warm sands, very cold water, very expensive yachts and some PG-13 verging on R-rated very topless sunbathers.
Wander through the castle, follow the pristine artist community buildings round and you’ll also stumble across a beautiful, lush, well maintained park (Parque Marachel Carmona) that boasts winding paths, sculptures, playgrounds, about three thousand birds including somewhat surprisingly, several bullish, chest-puffing, screeching roosters and a sweet little cafe where I’d advise you to partake of the excellent homemade quiche.
Alright then kids, last recommendation coming up. I’ve always been a believer in the last night of holiday equaling an extra lovely dinner somewhere a bit special. We tried and sadly failed to get into the one spot we’d earmarked – note to self: book Jose Avillez’ Mini Theatre Wine Bar super early next time – but we ended up somewhere which was, like that rarest of finds a talented singer on X Factor, unexpected and rather brilliant.
Insolito is perched on top of the same hill where Miradoura’s deckchairs and flutes of rose had restored us earlier in the week. Entrance to the restaurant is via one of Lisbon’s oldest lifts; straight out of the universe of Wes Anderson, you trundle up two at a time and enter a world where al fresco terraces meet cosy indoor spaces, where fairy lights meet fairy wings, where theatrical dishes meet excellent food. It might sound a bit odd but that’s part of its quirky style.
Staff are super charming & effortlessly cool and the crowd is a mix of in-the-know out-of-towners and locals dating & dining in style.
Prices are on a par with a decent London restaurant – 4 glasses of wine, 2 starters and 2 mains came to around €80 so whilst not cheap, not as eye watering as you’d fear either and there’s a decent sized menu with a bolshy blend of the familiar and the adventurous.
J’s smoked duck starter came with orange & plum salad and a ‘Smoke Me’ cocktail. Delivered tableside, this was a dangerously delicious mix of bourbon, Granny Smith Apple syrup, lime juice and smoked thyme and both the presentation and the flavours were knockout as was my heaping bowlful of sour, fresh, sweet, tangy ceviche.
Confit salt cod with Granny Smith matchsticks, pink pickled onions and an umami packed tomato rice was utterly glorious to both look at and eat. Lit like the sunset outside, it was a clever and modern interpretation of one of Portugal’s best known dishes…
…whilst an enormous and softly charred hunk of lamb was accompanied by sweet peas and roasted baby potatoes, proving that big cuts of meat aren’t just for winter warmer dinners.
As last dinners go, this was a great shout considering a) we’d never heard of it before and b) we booked a table in Portuguese rather than English! As a spot for a pre-dinner cocktail or a full blown feast, I’d stick it on your ever expanding, well-worth-a-visit list.
Dessert skipped at Insolito, we ambled back down the hill with bellies full but (obviously) still possessing enough room for a sweet treat or two.
Stopping in at Alcoa, a pastry shop that dates back to 1957, we picked up a sweet, sticky, chewy date & almond cake and a mirror-shiny chocolate dome. This place is now considered something a specialist seller of “monastic pastries,” which follow the recipes of Cistercian monks.
To be fair, those monks probably didn’t eat theirs perched back at the bar of their hotel and washed down with Don Draper snifters of ginjinha, a local cherry liqueur but hey, I’m happy to do that on their behalf.
Lisbon proved to be a fine, fine city, the ideal spot for escaping to sunnier climes, for climbing hills and tasting history, for whiling away hours by blue waters and floral draped walls and as one whose passion for travel means she rarely ventures back to the same place twice, know that it’s a serious compliment when I say I’ll be back.