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Travel to Lisbon

Lisbon - A Blast from the Past
October 12, 2011
By , Galavante Contributor

The sedate beauty of Portugal’s capital will captivate you the minute you step off the plane. With its retro vibe and unassuming ambience, Lisbon equals an authentic European experience like no other. Unlike its scene-y European cousins, a trip here is less about being seen and more about seeing – and experiencing – the sights, the energy, and the real soul of the city.              

The Lapa of Luxury

Get the royal treatment, literally, when you check in to the über-luxe Lapa Palace. Lapa PalacePerched high on a hill overlooking the Tagus, this palace-turned-bed-and-breakfast is Lisbon’s chicest address, and tea time on their river-view terrace will really make you feel refined. For a palace, it’s quite homey, with each traditional room uniquely styled and super-comfortable. To kick your jet lag, hit the spa where they specialize in massage.  Don’t be surprised if you are lulled to sleep, as it’s the ultimate in pampering.

A City of Sights

Lisbon is about meandering at a leisurely pace through the city’s neighborhoods and major sights. For tourists, it’s a road less traveled, though there is much to see, learn, and appreciate. The city is regal, with its white-stone streets, grand buildings, and Roman-, Baroque- and Moorish-influenced architecture. Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Europe, even older than Paris or London. While the rest of the world marched forward economically and commercially, Lisbon has stayed quietly authentic – and almost beautifully sad. It’s no wonder the Fado, the Portuguese blues, is such an intrinsic part of the culture. 

A neighborhood you’ll spend lots of quality time in is Lisbon’s SoHo, the bohemian Chiado District. Though it burned down in the ‘80s, this area rose from the ashes like a phoenix to become one of the most sophisticated neighborhoods in Lisbon. In Chiado, you can stroll the streets that are lined with designer boutiques, Art Nouveau jewelry stores, and quaint bookshops. The big names like Louis Vuitton and Hermes have invaded, but there are many specialty stores with high-quality, locally made clothing. After your walk, you’ll find yourself at the famed Café a Brasileira, a nostalgic nod to the past and one of the oldest cafés in the city. Claim an umbrella-ed outdoor table and enjoy a strong hit of caffeine (Brazilian-style, as you might have guessed) while sizing up the passing crowds. And if you’re in a touristy mood, make sure to take a picture with the bronze statue of poet Fernando Pessoa who occupies one of the tables – everyone else does.

To get the best view of the city, continue on the tourist circuit and take the Santa Justa Elevator. For some reason, it won’t bother you to do the tourist thing because the city isn’t overrun with the fanny-pack crew. Along the circuit, you’ll stop by the Torre de Belém, a former fortress that once guarded the harbor’s entrance. It looms as a monument to Portugal’s Age of Discovery and is an icon of the city, if not of the entire country. Head to the top for a spectacular view of the city, and then to nearby Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, an impressive testament to Portugal’s wealth during the 15th to 17th centuries, and a designated World Heritage site. Check out Vasco de Gama’s final resting spot just inside the entrance and the magnificent cloisters. While in the area, drop by Antiga Confeitaria de Belémfor a taste of the best custard cakes in the city, which are served warm, right out of the oven. Hidden behind a nondescript façade, you’ll spot it by the crowds of people jammed inside enjoying the delicious pasteis de nata. Once you’ve had your fill, work off the one-too-many treats you’re sure to consume with a walk to the close-by Docas, or docks, along the water’s edge under the Ponte 25 de Abril(25th of April Bridge, named in honor of Portugal’s independence) that spans the Tagus River. Ideal for a late lunch and a cold Sagres, the national beer, this bustling area is chock-full of renovated warehouses now home to great restaurants and bars. As the hour gets later the scene gets livelier. 

Immerse yourself in the authentic side of Lisbon with a walk around the old city. More rustic and less crowded, the Alfama District is like a throwback to the ‘60s, and the best way to see it is to put away the map and get lost among its labyrinthine white cobblestone streets. A glimpse into Lisbon’s past, the district reveals antique shops and art galleries scattered among the whitewashed buildings with iron balconies and laundry strung across narrow alleys. Utterly charming and retro, this is what separates Lisbon from the rest of Western Europe. From the afternoon until late into the night, Barrio Alto will have you hanging with the young and bohemian of Lisbon.  

Falling Fast for Portuguese Cuisine

Completely underrated, Portuguese cuisine is Mediterranean-based, with a focus on fresh fish, seafood, and rich flavors.  A Travessa is a cozy restaurant in a 17th-century former convent, tucked down a side street in the quiet Lapa neighborhood. While considered one of the best restaurants in the city, like Lisbon itself, it remains relatively under the radar. Dig in to Portuguese-Belgian fare with international flair, and afterwards head back to Lapa Palace’s Rio Tejo Bar for a delicious cocktail under the stars to the tinkling of live piano music.

For contemporary cuisine, try trendy Bocca for dinner, located uptown and a little ways away, but definitely worth the hike. The sleek, cream-colored space serves up innovative Portuguese cuisine, and your best bet is to try one of the tasting menus, accompanied by a glass (or three) of wine per course – they offer over 100 by the glass. 

There are certain cities where you need specific recommendations, but in Lisbon, part of the charm is to just wander through neighborhoods like the Alfama District in search of lunch. Here, you can hit up one of the many marisqueiras, beer halls-turned-seafood bars, and munch on tasty jumbo grilled prawns. You really can’t go wrong by following the locals. 

Singing Anything But the Blues

You absolutely cannot leave Lisbon without taking in some Fado music. The most popular Fado quarter might be Barrio Alto, but on your last night, make a rezzie for dinner and a show at the gorgeous Casa de Linhares in the Alfama District, which is considered the original inspiration for Fado. You’ll be serenaded in between each course and will leave with the hauntingly beautiful music lingering in your mind. While Fado is the Portuguese version of the blues, in this captivating city, you’ll be singing anything but.