As a city that’s brimming with history, fresh ideas, and delicious food, Lisbon has always been somewhere I’ve wanted to visit – so with visions of Portuguese expresso and pastel de natas dancing in my head, I chose to kick off my most recent trip to Europe by spending a few days in the city. And I’ve got to say, I was blown away by the tantalizing mix of culture, innovation, and high quality of life here.
Lisbon is a city that’s chronically underrated, and for travelers, maybe that’s a good thing. The city isn’t nearly as congested or chaotic as some of its neighbors (Marrakech and Madrid come to mind), but it’s every bit as fun and lively.
After landing from Istanbul on a cool September morning, I kicked off my visit by ambling up and down Lisbon’s hilly streets, and found myself at Restaurante Azulejos for an early lunch of espresso, baked bean stew, and codfish cakes – all Portuguese specialities. It’s probably worth mentioning that dining out in Lisbon is quite affordable, especially at lunchtime, as many restaurants will offer a “plate of the day” set lunch that won’t set you back more than $10 USD.
Later on, I also explored Comercio Square, situated at the center of the historic city center and with sweeping views of Tagus Bay. It’s a pleasant spot to walk around, people-watch, and enjoy the beautiful weather (on account of its geographic location, Lisbon gets generally good weather year-round – even during autumn and winter!) One can easily spend a few hours exploring this area, as there are plenty of great places to grab a quick snack as well. In particular, I’d recommend checking out the historic Cafe Nicola, as well as stopping by Fabrica Da Nata (which serves a delicious and affordable breakfast set every morning).
Lisbon is a lively city at night, and a quintessentially Portuguese experience is to take in a traditional Fado show at one of the many local restaurants around town – some of the most popular performances can be found at Bela and A Nini. Fado is a type of Portuguese guitar music, and it’s a staple of the local culture that’s been around for centuries. The genre is characterized by wistful lyrics that tell a generally depressing story, but the performers are absolutely captivating.
This may seem random, but at this point it’s probably worth mentioning that Lisbon reminds me a lot of San Francisco. Indeed, the two cities are long-lost cousins – if not twins altogether. Both are hilly cities are located on a bay, with historic cable car systems and vibrant startup communities. They also both even have their own Golden Gate Bridges, that were even designed by the same architect! Needless to say, if you like San Francisco, you’ll love Lisbon.
If arts and culture are your thing, Lisbon is a dream to visit. I spent one day of my visit walking down Lisbon’s beautiful waterfront, while stopping in at several museums along the way. If you’re an architecture buff, I’d highly recommend checking out MAAT, a beautifully-designed museum located just south of the city center. This museum has a number of permanent exhibitions, with temporary displays rotating through every few months.
A few kilometers down the road is Lisbon’s Museu da Marinha, which I found fascinating. A lot of people forget that Portugal was once one of the world’s great seafaring empires, with territories spanning from Angola to Macau – and this museum does a great job of capturing that moment in time when Portugal was truly a world power. There is an interesting exhibit on Vasco Da Gama (arguable the most famous of Portugal’s many explorers), and a number of incredibly well-preserved maritime artifacts. If you’re into history at all, I’d highly recommend visiting.
After a busy day of museum-hopping, I decided to take a break for lunch at the historic Pasteis de Belem, which is located just a stone’s throw away from the Museu da Marinha. This venerable cafe is famous for being one of the original homes of the pastel de nata, or Portuguese egg tart. Pro tip: instead of waiting in line for hours with all the other tourists to pick up some egg tarts, go inside and dine in instead. The wait is generally short, and there’s nice atmosphere as well. I ordered a mocha and several egg tarts – so delicious, and the perfect way to cap off a long day of walking.
The last stop on my visit to Lisbon was the Castelo de Sao Jorge, the oldest part of the city and a testament to Lisbon’s heritage. Located on the top of one of Lisbon’s many hills and overlooking Tagus bay, the castle is an adventure just to get to. One could always take a taxi to the entrance, but instead I went by foot, wandering through a byzantine set of alleys and stairs before finally arriving at the top. And this is part of the joy in exploring Lisbon – there’s always something new and unexpected around every corner, from colorful murals to tiny hole-in-the-wall cafes.
Once at the top, you’ll be treated to beautiful views of Lisbon’s city center, as well as its iconic Bay Bridge, which is a carbon copy of its more famous cousin, the Golden Gate Bridge. Walking around the grounds of the medieval castle is fascinating, as is the small museum that showcases many artifacts found over the years.
After a few relaxing days in Lisbon, it was time to head south to Morocco. But first, I stopped at a roadside cafe on the way to the airport for one last espresso. Lisbon has an easy-going but fun vibe that’s hard not to like, and I can see why so many creatives and entrepreneurs are beginning to set up shop here. It’s a great place to visit for a few days (or longer), and I’ll definitely be back the next time I’m in Europe!