Exploring Lisbon and Its Surrounding Areas
The charming city is laid back, the locals are friendly and the food is amazing
Lisbon, one of Europe’s oldest cities, has an abundance of charm: its steep, cobblestoned streets, baroque and sometimes crumbling buildings, historic cafes and bakeries make it feel like it belongs to a bygone age.
Known for its friendly locals, laid-back, seaside vibe and low prices, Lisbon, along with the nearby historic town of Sintra and the coastal resorts of Estoril and Cascais, is a holiday hotspot, but the city has been hit hard by population decline and neglect over the past few decades.
High property prices and economic recessions left the historic city center with large swathes of empty, bricked-up homes after many wealthy Lisbon natives relocated to the city’s coastal suburbs in the 1970s.
Now it is undergoing a revival, with regeneration schemes taking place in the city center and in post-industrial areas in the east and on its waterfront. Once-abandoned homes in the city center are in particular demand.
The introduction of the Golden Visa program, a fast track for foreign investors from non-E.U. countries to obtain a fully valid residency permit in Portugal, and a favorable tax regime for non-habitual tax residents has sparked global interest, according to Manuel Neto, of estate agency Engel & Volkers in Lisbon.
The city has a growing number of co-working hubs, where freelancers and small companies rent desks and share facilities, and demand for these spaces is increasingly coming from independent workers known as digital nomads who travel while working remotely.
Lisbon has much to offer the so-called global creative classes: English is widely spoken and it has cheap and good-quality gastronomy and a warm climate, with 300 days of sunshine a year.
Set over seven hills and facing the Tagus River, Lisbon feels like a collection of interconnected neighborhoods. Its narrow, steep streets are laid out as dictated by its hilly topography and accessed via quaint trams and cable-winched elevators.
Lisbon’s heyday was in the 15th and 16th centuries when it became a departure point for discovery expeditions into the New World. This era brought in a new style of architecture called Manuelin, named after King Manuel I, which was financed by the spice trade with Africa and India.
Most of the buildings constructed during that time were destroyed in the mid-18th century by an earthquake. Belem Tower, a monument to Portugal’s maritime history beside the River Tagus, and Jeronimos Cathedral are the two most impressive surviving Manuelin-style buildings. The Lisbon Cathedral, dating from the 12th century, is the city’s oldest and most prominent church.
New architectural landmarks include the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, comprising a newly-constructed contemporary building and a converted power station on the waterfront in Belem, and the new cruise terminal, designed by Portuguese architect Joao Luis Carrilho da Graca.
Sintra, a picturesque town in the wooded hills of the Sintra Mountains, known for its beautiful scenery, palaces and castles, is 40 minutes away from Lisbon by train. Once the summer residence of royalty and poets such as Lord Byron, and home to Castle of the Moors and the National Palace, the Unesco World Heritage-listed town is now a getaway spot, popular with day-trippers from Lisbon.
If you make the trip to Sintra, go to Cabo da Roca, a cape that forms the most westerly point of mainland Europe, and Guincho Beach, which offers breathtaking views of the Atlantic, said Nuno Lopes de Paula, a Lisbon native and a blogger for travel blog network Spotted by Locals Lisbon.
The oldest market in the city, Feira da Ladra flea market in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto district takes place every Tuesday and Saturday, and it sells everything from clothes and books to ceramics and furniture.
Baixa, the heart of Lisbon, has Silva & Feljoo, an old-style 1920s drugstore, while Barrio Alto has alternative boutiques and shops selling traditional Portuguese products such as Casa das Velas do Loreto, an 18th-century handmade candle shop.
Chiado, the most upmarket area in the city, is home to Avenida de Liberdade, a leafy avenue with mansions, hotels, fountains and cafes, along with designer clothing stores like Louis Vuitton and Prada, and two outlets of A Vida Portuegusa, a gift shop selling high quality Portugal-made wares.
Chiado’s Rua Augusta has Tous, an accessories store that specializes in jewelry and purses, along with high street brands such as H&M and Zara. Rue Garrett is to home to Gardenia, which has hip pieces by designer brands such as Calvin Klein.
Situated by an estuary and surrounded by fertile farmland, the city’s restaurants have access to great fresh produce, so it is no surprise that eating out is popular in Lisbon.
Going out for lunch and dinner is a big part of the culture here, Mr. Ferrao said. “People will happily drive to a restaurant two hours away for lunch,” he said.
The city’s dining scene is on the up. New high-end restaurants putting a contemporary, global-inspired twist on traditional Portuguese gastronomy have turned the city into a culinary hotspot.
You can’t talk about Lisbon’s culinary scene without mentioning celebrated chef and restaurateur José Avillez, said Patricia Coutinho, the concierge at the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon.
The 30-something chef has almost single-handedly reinvented the city’s dining scene, according to Vogue. His restaurant, Belcanto, is the only restaurant in Lisbon to be awarded with two Michelin stars.
The chef also owns Mini Bar, a gourmet bar, as well as Cantinho do Avillez, Bairro do Avillez and Catina Peruana. The latter three restaurants have more accessible prices but still give clients a little taste of his two Michelin-starred menus, Ms. Coutinho added.
A summertime playground since it attracted royalty in the 19th century, Cascais has five Michelin-starred restaurants, while Sintra’s culinary highlights include Tascantiga Sintra, which serves Portuguese tapas, Incomum by Luis Santos, a fine dining Portuguese restaurant, and Casa Piriquita, a 160-year-old elegant bakery.
Ramiro is arguably Lisbon’s most iconic seafood restaurant and is still a classic and Sea Me is great and more affordable, Ms. Coutinho said. She also recommended the no-reservation restaurant A Cevicheria. “The chef Kiko Martins serves Peruvian-style food and pisco sour,” she said.
The city does not have food trucks and festivals–yet—but its street food scene is flourishing. One of the trendiest spots is the food court at the Mercado da Ribeira, an iconic 19th-century market with food and fresh produce stalls that is run by Time Out Lisboa magazine.
Mr. Lopes de Paula recommends Campo de Ourique market, which has gourmet food stalls, bars and seating, and Alvalade Norte market, where you can buy produce from local farmers at affordable prices.
Cafes selling Portugal’s famous egg tart pastry, or pasteis de nata, are not in short supply. Pasteis de Belem café makes the sweet treats using the recipe that came from the Jeronimos monastery, where delicacies were first created.
From major art museums and small independent galleries to buildings adorned with street art, Lisbon has a thriving art scene.
Mr. Lopes de Paula recommends the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, which has a collection by the similarly-named foundation, dating from antiquity to the early 20th-century, as well as modern and contemporary Portuguese art.
The neighboring Centre of Modern Art houses contemporary and modern Portuguese art including work by Paula Rego, the country’s best-known contemporary artist, along with some famous British names, such as David Hockney.
A larger collection of Paula Rego’s work, including paintings, etchings and drawings is on permanent show at the Paula Rego House of Stories, which is housed in pyramid-shaped buildings in Cascais.
The Museum of the Orient explores Portugal’s links with Asia, drawing on its history of trade and exploration and cultural interaction with the Far East since the 15th century. Not only does it have great views, it has the best brunch menu in the city on weekends, according to Mr. Lopes de Paula.
Graffiti and street artists have used Lisbon’s derelict buildings to create a rich range of striking murals. The city council-run initiative Urban Art Gallery, or GAU, its acronym in Portuguese, has been set up to promote the art form and designates proper authorized spaces for artists to create their art in a legal way.
The artist Shepard Fairey, most famous for the Barack Obama Hope poster, created three murals in the city, according to Mr. Lopes de Paula.
A prominent example of Lisbon’s flourishing entrepreneurial enterprise culture, LX Factory is a “creative mini city” formed from a complex of disused 19th-century warehouses built for textile manufacturing.
Located in Alcantara, a district that has been dubbed the Brooklyn of Lisbon, it contains start-ups, corporations, graffiti-style murals, galleries, restaurants, design shops and concert halls.
Highly decorative painted tiles, called azulejos, can be found on the exteriors and interiors of buildings throughout the city. Good examples of the ancient art form can be found at the convent of Dos Cardaes and the monastery of Sao Vicente De Fora as well as the Palace of Sintra.
With its hilly topography, you can get a workout by just walking around the city on foot. Walk up any steep street and you will soon come across a terrace with a viewpoint, known as miradouro, over the city and River Tagus.
Locals note that a downside of the city is a lack of green space. It has stone plazas and few large recreational spaces. There is, however, a wealth of landscaped gardens, and Monsanto Forest Park, which lies on the edge of the city, has 1,000 hectares of wilderness.
Mr. Lopes de Paula recommended Gulbenkian Gardens, which is home to the similarly named art gallery, along with a lake. The Tropical Botanical Gardens, where peacocks roam among grand palm trees, are beautiful, though a bit rundown.
Torel Garden, a small romantic park perched on one of Lisbon’s hills, is another well-loved spot, while Principe Real Garden is picturesque, dominated by a large cedar tree with branches creating circular shade, and market stalls underneath.
City-goers flock to the sandy, wave-rich beaches around Lisbon during the summer months. The coastline, located 15 kilometers west of Lisbon, between the beach resorts of Carcavelos and Cascais, is a year-round surf zone, a mecca for surfers, body boarders and wind surfers.
The rocky, green peaks of Serra de Sintra, about 18 miles northwest of Lisbon, can be explored on foot. There are trails through typically Portuguese farmland, vineyards and forests of eucalyptus, pine and acacia, with views of the Atlantic.
Portugal has produced high-quality wines since Roman times, but it is getting more popular outside of the country, with its estates attracting wine lovers from across the globe.
Adega de Colares, a winery in the Sintra Mountains, has its own Appellation Origin since 1908, and is the smallest still-wine producing region in the country.