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Portugal’s capital is a mosaic, comprised of different neighborhoods that all come together to form the cohesive metropolis that is Lisbon. Each district has its own indelible character, from the graffiti-covered party that is Bairro Alto to chic Chiado and on to touristy Baixa and the crumbling tiles of Alfama—cross a single street or descend a steep staircase and you’re someplace new. As is typical in Europe, the classic-to-the-point-of-cliché juxtaposition of ancient and modern holds here. But the true joy of Lisbon comes in peeling back the different layers of “old” that simultaneously exist. Pre-WWI tram cars run through the streets past buildings reconstructed after the earthquake of 1755. These are mixed in with remnants of the Renaissance, the Moorish invasion, and the Iron Age. Together, all of these layers form Lisbon, a city as full of surprises as it is of history. To experience its character to the fullest, get lost here. Let your nose lead you to sardinhas assadas; stumble through an alleyway to find an architectural marvel; talk to the locals at the hole-in-the-wall and take their advice. We promise you won’t regret it.
Lisbon’s historic center has four main neighborhoods: Baixa, where accommodations, shopping, and tourists abound; Chiado, where the shopping gets a bit ritzier; nightlife-rich Bairro Alto,still farther west; and ancient Alfama, on the east side of Baixa. The narrow, winding streets and stairways of Alfama and Bairro Alto can be confusing and difficult to navigate without a good map. The Lisboa Mapa da Cidade e Guia Turístico has nearly every street in these neighborhoods labeled and is a good investment if you’re going to be exploring Lisbon for a few days. Even so, expect to spend some time aimlessly wandering, as even the most detailed of maps will have a hard time effectively detailing these neighborhoods. The maps at the tourist offices are reliable but do not show the names of many streets, particularly in Alfama and Bairro Alto. Tram #28E runs east-west, parallel to the river, and connects all these neighborhoods, with its eastern terminus in the inexpensive and off-the-beaten-path neighborhood of Graça. The palm-tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade runs north from Baixa all the way to the business district around the Praça do Marquês de Pombal, and on the far western edge of the city lies Belém, a neighborhood full of magnificent sights and delicious treats.
Lisbon is bursting with character due to its diverse neighborhoods and cultures. Ancient and modern live side-by-side here, typical of many European cities. With so much variety, you are sure to be surprised in Lisbon.
It seems impossible to decide what to see when there are so many options. Let us help! Here is our list of top picks. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
The Portuguese take their food seriously—especially fish. The national and easily the most prevalent dish throughout the country is bacalhau, a salted cod with origins in the sea voyages of the 15th and 16th centuries. While you may be sick of it after a few days, the Portuguese won’t be—it is said that a different recipe exists for each day of the year. Fresh seafood, though, is more than available—particularly in coastal regions like Algarve, peixe espada (swordfish), polvo (octopus), lulas grelhadas (grilled cuttlefish), and a wide variety of shellfish are inescapable.
Meat and pastries are also staples of Portuguese cuisine. For a manly meal, head inland to ranching regions like Alentejo, where hearty meat stews (cozida) are standard fare. For more adventurous travelers (and those on Team Edward), ask for cabidela, a dish made with the blood of pigs or chickens. Portuguese foods are not without their delicacy, though, as evidenced by the ever-popular croissant. While one might not normally associate croissants and the Catholic church, the rich tradition of pastries in Portugal dates back to the monasteries of the Middle Ages—explaining today’s barriga de freira (nun’s belly) and papos de anjo (angel’s chins).
Portuguese wine is the famous grandfather of all alcoholic beverages, known for its quality since ancient Roman times. Most well-known, especially nowadays, is port—a sweet wine grown in the Douro valley often served as an appetizer drink or as a dessert wine. You may just be looking for a buzz, but stop to appreciate what goes into a glass of port—a specialized wine institute certifies quality and production methods. Your high school Spanish may be good, but don’t get caught looking like a tourist—vinho verde isn’t a green wine but a young, un-aged wine often served sparkling. For other drinks, try Tginjinha, a sour cherry liqueur native to Lisbon.
Given its impressive colonial history, Portugal’s cuisine is underrepresented outside its own borders. As the Portuguese people are more than happy to make clear, their Mediterranean-inspired style is similar to that of Spain’s upon first glance but is, in fact, quite distinct. External influences are everywhere—a unique blend of exotic spices often used in even the most basic dishes reflects the nation’s past in the far east, while other dishes show traces of religious diversity and the Judeo-Christian mixture within Portugal itself. Cuisine varies from region to region, but meat and seafood pairings and a rich, filling, full-flavored cuisine is constant throughout. Breakfast is a light affair in Portugal—pop a small pastry or toast and some OJ for your hangover. Meal times are slightly shifted from the American norm—lunch (almoço) is served a bit later in the afternoon and dinner (jantar) is served late, from about 8pm on.
Although Lisbon might not be the first city that comes to mind when discussing art, it is actually packed with various museums and attractions, particularly those pertaining to design and modern art. Bullfighting reveals the edgier side of Portuguese culture, and futebol dominates the sporting scene. However, to experience the most authentic and distinct part of the Lisbon cultural experience, you have to turn to fado. This Portuguese soul music has moved hard-nosed men to tears, and even if you don’t understand the words, the prevailing themes of love, loss, and Lisbon will be easily conveyed through the emotions of the performer.
A mandatory experience for visitors, Lisbon’s trademark form of entertainment is traditional fado, an art form combining music, song, and narrative poetry. Its roots lie in the Alfama neighborhood, where women whose husbands had gone to sea would lament their fado (fate). Singers of fado traditionally dress in black and sing mournful tunes of lost love, uncertainty, and the famous feelings of saudade (to translate saudade as “loneliness” would be a gruesome understatement). However, many fado venues will have less melancholic songs and even some comical crowd-pleasers (if you understand Portuguese, at least). Many fado houses are located in Bairro Alto and in Alfama between the cathedral and the water, and finding one is not difficult, as you can hear snippets of songs drifting into the streets as you pass by (fadistas don’t use microphones, but that doesn’t mean you won’t hear them). Almost all fado houses are rather touristy, but locals—especially older folk—still crowd in amongst the hordes of tourists. Expensive fado houses with mournfully high minimums include Café Luso and Adega Machado. There are also some well-marked and easy-to-find places on Rua de São João da Praça in Alfama, including Clube de Fado, with road signs pointing you in that direction all the way from Baixa. The places listed below are either free or truly worth the money.
Portuguese bullfighting differs from the spectacle practiced across the border in Spain in that the bull is not killed in the ring; it’s butchered only afterward. In this version, it is the cavaleiro (the horseman who fights the bull first) who is the star of the show instead of the matador. At first blush, the Portuguese variety of tauromaquia seems a much fairer match between man and beast: rather than one matador with a sword, like in Spain, five unarmed forcados line up in front of the bull and take him down with their bare hands. Most bullfights take place on Thursday nights at the newly renovated Praça de Touros de Lisboa at Campo Pequeno. True fans of the sport, however, will want to make a pilgrimage to Santarém, Portuguese bullfighting’s capital and home to the best matches.
For many Portuguese, futebol (known in many Anglophone countries as “football,” and in the United States as “soccer” or “that sport we care about for two weeks once every four years”) is a way of life. The Portuguese returned from the 2006 World Cup as national heroes after reaching the semifinal round for the first time in 40 years. They had a strong showing in the 2010 World Cup as well, though they lost in the quarterfinal round to eventual champion Spain in a lackluster performance that left many a Portuguese citizen in tears. If you’re in Lisbon when Portugal is playing, head to one of the giant TV screens set up around town, usually located at Praça do Marquês de Pombal, Praça da Figueira, or just off Praça dos Restauradores, next to the Rossio train station. Two of the “big three” clubs that have dominated Portuguese soccer play in Lisbon: Benfica won the league championship in 2010, and Sporting last touched silverware in the ’08-’09 League Cup and consistently finishes in the top three or four in the league. The two clubs have a combined total of 50 league titles. Benfica plays at Estádio da Luz,known to fans as the catedral, and Sporting plays at Estádio José Alvalade. These two sides are bitter rivals, so be careful which team you’re supporting and where. If you can’t stand the thought of looking like a front-runner, or just want to see a match with a bit more character, Estoril Praia, who play just outside of Cascais at Estádio António Coimbra da Mota, were just promoted to the top league in 2012. Their stadium is a bit more cozy, seating just 5,000. The season begins in mid-August and ends in mid-May.
Teatro Nacional de Dona Maria II in Rossio stages performances of classical and foreign plays. At Lisbon’s largest theater, Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, opera and classical music hold sway. From the end of June to the end of July, this theater fills the neighboring Largo de São Carlos with free music and dance performances in the open-air Chiado evening. The Cinema São Jorge is one of Portugal’s grandest and oldest movie theaters. Other cinema complexes can be found at the Amoreiras shopping center, the Colombo shopping center, the Centro Vasco da Gama, and El Corte Inglés.
Introductions are incredibly important in Portugal. In pretty much all social interactions, make sure to keep both politeness and formality in mind. Handshakes are standard for most first time greetings, with a slightly relaxed grip the norm (just don’t go limp fish). Among women or younger Portuguese, light touches or a kiss on each cheek is also customary.
In general, the Portuguese are very open to foreigners, and, unlike the French, they appreciate attempts to speak the native language. Although the person you’re addressing probably speaks Spanish, don’t assume they do: this might be taken offensively and mark you as culturally insensitive. Portuguese often speak loudly and quickly—don’t be intimidated; this is normal and doesn’t indicate any anger or irritation (usually).
Probably not, unless you want to pay for it. Portuguese restaurants often charge for what might seem to be freebies—for example, the cheese, bread, and olives served at the beginning of the meal. Expect to pay a few euros for these small appetizers. Don’t forget a five to 10% tip if the service charge is not already included.