September 2, 2014 Lisbon
Not Your Standard Guide to Lisbon
Every once in a while you take a trip so incredible, so enthralling, that it ignites the travel bug within you all over again. This was one of those times. Perhaps because Lisbon embodied everything we love in a bustling cultural hub – world-class dining, stunning streetscapes, life flowing from every corner, day and night – within an hour of everything we so cravingly desired to escape to – tantalizing teal waters crawling up kilometer-long stretches of pearly sand beaches and crashing into razor-sharp cliffs just metres away – that we left already planning our next visit.
Taberna da Rua das Flores – It was so good the first time, we came back for a second. Expect a packed house, with a wait of about 45 minutes to an hour. But don’t let that turn you off: post up outside and order your favourite drink while you wait – wine bottle service extends past the front door here. Highlights of the share plate menu include sesame-crusted tuna filets with a red wine reduction, clams in a mouthwatering white wine broth sprinkled with pieces of local chorizo and coriander, and a generous mound of sea bass ceviche topped with too many accents of flavour to count.
Santa Bica – The real winner here was the octopus salad, as well as their private back patio overlooking the historic tram 28 line below. The red wine sangria was as refreshing as the night’s breeze and it’s worth taking a chance on the special of the day, in our case a generous serving of blackened pork skewers with a side of home fries.
Moules & Gin – We stumbled across this gem while scouting for the perfect location to shoot off the tourist path in Cascais and it delivered by far the most memorable lunch during our stay. The concept is simple: order one of their 10 delicious bowls of mussels and pair with a gin cocktail. The fresh oven-baked bread didn’t stand a chance as we soaked up every last bit of our tomato-herb and curry-mango mussel broths. The salmon, sea bass and tuna tartare was an excellent appetizer, and the staff exceptionally friendly. You’ll also find a Moules & Beer location in Lisbon.
Mercado da Ribeira – You can find everything to your heart’s content at the market food court, from inventive seafood creations to steak sandwiches, salads and burgers. There really is too much on offer to make a proper recommendation, so I’ll leave the discovery entirely up to you. Keep in mind that prices here are somewhat higher with smaller portion sizes than you’d expect at restaurants in Lisbon, so two dishes are probably necessary to satisfy your definition of ‘entrée’. My personal highlight was the selection of juicy green figs in the adjacent market hall.
BEACHES & DAY TRIPS
Praia Grande – We took two short, 35-minute day trips to the town of Sintra, which was our point of access to some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. Another 20 minutes by bus (441, about a 15-minute walk from the train station) leads you to the surfer’s paradise that is Praia Grande, a lively stretch of beach that gains and shrinks in size mid-day at the mercy of the tide. People-watching was as much a highlight as lazing at the edge of the crashing waves, and there’s a hidden cove towards the furthest point of the beach to give you a few minutes of private relaxation. The water’s freezing, but this is the Atlantic, after all.
Praia da Agrada – Our second trip to Sintra saw us continue by taxi (12 euros) to Praia da Agrada, another gem of a beach featuring plenty of waves and tropical seascapes at the foot of the coastal cliffs. Playing tag with the tide kept us on our toes as dry beach space disappeared significantly as the day wore on, but you’ll still find plenty of opportunity to shut off from the world.
Cascais – A 40-minute train ride will take you to the coastal town of Cascais, the most charming of small towns with winding side streets lined left and right by tiny pastel houses overflowing with explosions of colourful flowers. Moules & Gin (above) was the culinary highlight and there’s even a chance to lounge beachside nearby at Estoril. You won’t find more stunning backdrops than this, so don’t forget to pack your camera with a cleared memory card.
Goodies Boutique – We of course left our gift shopping to the last day, so it was a bit of a scramble to find some unique take-aways from the city that had won our heart over the past week. Again, we strolled somewhat aimlessly away from the main tourist quarter and found ourselves inside Goodies, which features a gourmet, hand-picked selection of some of the best wines, olive oils, sardine pates and jams Portugal has to offer. We had a lovely half-hour conversation with the owners, who were delighted to explain the significance of each product and share their recommendations for our next stay. Stopping by for a chat with them is worth visiting Goodies alone, but I guarantee you can’t leave without a shopping bag in hand.
Fabrica Sant’Anna – An absolute heaven for original home décor, this tile shop has been creating one-of-a-kind pieces since 1741. I fell in love with the tile patterns scattered throughout the city and couldn’t wait to work something similar into my space at home. Definitely worth the investment, and my handcrafted piece is already accumulating strong sentimental value on my work desk.
Pasteis de Belem – I’m sure I’m not the first to direct you to this famed egg tart factory and sweets shop just outside Lisbon’s city centre, but I can’t stress enough how necessary this visit is. Sure, we had plenty of pasteis de nata in the days leading up to our short trek to Belem, but these truly are on another level. Feel no guilt in ordering six with a large Americano. We rounded off our lunch with an egg custard almond croissant and sausage roll (no beach that day). Don’t let the massive queue scare you off: just walk in and take a seat in their massive table service section.
THINGS TO KNOW
– Always check if your restaurant of choice takes reservations. It could save you up to an hour of waiting for a spot. 8-11pm is prime time to dine.
– If people are standing outside a restaurant, it’s probably worth putting your name on the waitlist and exercising a bit of patience. Like I said, you won’t go thirsty.
– Taxis are incredibly cheap and sometimes the best transit option, even though we had generally very positive experiences taking public transit. Getting to the airport from our hotel in the city centre cost around 12 euros with luggage.
– Take as many day trips as possible. Lisbon has an abundance of sites, but more than a few hours in the congesting heat can be draining both physically and on your mood.
– Always take an indirect path. There’s so much to see around every unsuspecting corner.
– You’ll be greeted at almost every table with a plate of bread and olives. Keep in mind there’s a charge for these, albeit a very reasonable one.