Earlier this year, we traveled across the ocean to Lisbon, Portugal, for NOS Alive Music Festival, which takes place every year on the banks of the Tagus river, just before it empties out into the Atlantic. Headliners The Weeknd, Foo Fighters, and Depeche Mode were joined by acts like The xx, Phoenix, Alt-J, Ryan Adams, as well as a number of Latin and local acts, to create an eclectic lineup of music that appealed to seemingly every young person in this city of 2.8 million.
And while the festival provided more than enough action for one weekend, you don't travel to Portugal's capital to spend the entire time on the festival grounds. Once considered a step sibling to Europe's great cities, Lisbon has recently been enjoying a reputation as one of the continent's most exciting metropolises, an up-and-coming cultural hub with an exploding arts scene, a unique dining culture, and a cosmopolitan vibe that blends in seamlessly with the city's old-world charm. It's become, in short, one of the most popular cities to visit in all of Europe. Also, it's very, very cheap. Here, a rundown of some of the best places Lisbon has to offer.
WHERE TO STAY
Widely known as “the place Madonna stays when she’s in town,” this five-star hotel stays true to its name in that it’s housed in a former palace. The rooms in the main building will make you feel like you’re in an episode of The Crown, and the grounds are sprawling and majestic, with a pool that features a fountain at its center and exotic gardens fit for royalty. The vibe here is secluded and luxurious, and if you're willing to splurge, it's worth it.
Part hotel, part hostel, this bohemian local institution is housed inside an elegant Art Deco building, perfectly located in between the electric Barrio Alto and trendy Príncipe Real neighborhoods, features rooms with classic decor that feels both understated and classic. It’s also a great place to hang out, with a terrace bar that overlooks the old city and a restaurant, The Decadante, that is one of the most popular in town with both tourists and locals.
Photo courtesy of The Independente
WHERE TO EAT
If you’re willing to hop on a ferry and take the short ride across the Tagus river, then Ponto Final is worth the trek. Walk 10 minutes from the ferry station along the river—where sprawling views of Lisbon await—and only stop when you come across a collection of bright yellow seats, tables, and umbrellas on the water’s edge. Grab one of those seats, perilously close to the water’s edge, and take it all in. The food is great—traditional Portuguese kicked up a notch—but it’s admittedly secondary to the setting, which is spectacular.
This wouldn’t be a Lisbon guide without including this seafood institution. Locals might tell you to steer clear since the place became a major tourist destination after appearing on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, but if you don’t, then you’re missing out. The freshest prawns, crabs, and clams await in a bustling old-world setting that oozes atmosphere and charm. Go during off hours to avoid serious lines.
If you’ve ever wanted to dine with a giant octopus hanging above your head, this is your spot. But the Gram-worthy installation is just the beginning. Ever since chef Kiko Martins' restaurant debuted a few years ago in Príncipe Real, it’s become one of the most popular spots in the city, which you’ll notice thanks to the crowds spilling onto the streets, waiting for their table while sipping on Pisco sours. Inside, the place is small and cozy, with a crescent bar taking much of the space, where diners are feasting on the restaurant’s namesake dish of which there are several varieties. But the star of the show is the classic ceviche: white fish, puréed sweet potato, onions, seaweed, and tiger's milk. It’s revelatory.
Taberna da Rua das Flores
Full disclosure: When we tried to go to this narrow, dimly lit, exceedingly romantic restaurant hidden away on a quiet side street, the hostess kindly informed us that by the time a table became available for us, they would be closed. Bummer, because the Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato (clams in a garlic and butter sauce) that everyone was enjoying looked on point. If we ever came back to Lisbon, this charming, transportive spot would be first on our list.
Cantinho do Avillez
It would be sacrilege to write a Lisbon city guide without including one of Jose Avillez’s restaurants, who is basically the city’s Mario Batali. This is his first, most accessible restaurant and the one that put him on the map. (Avillez is also behind fine dining institution Belcanto, considered by many to be the best restaurant in the country.) The decor is simple and welcoming, which matches the food, traditional Portuguese fare like steak sandwiches, flaked cod, and Algarve octopus, all elevated with Avillez’s trademark flare.
Solar Dos Presuntos
Walking into this seafood mecca, you’ll be struck by two things: an awe-inspiring raw (and alive) seafood on display, and the walls adorned with photos of every damn celebrity that’s ever visited the place (there are a lot). The multi-story restaurant is great for groups, and the seafood is prepared extremely traditionally and is of the highest quality. Melt-in-your-mouth Galician-style octopus is transcendent, the cod cakes are perfectly fluffy, and the lobster is the best you'll find anywhere. Be warned, the place is loud and always packed.
WHERE TO DRINK
As much a museum as it is a bar, this eccentric destination is housed in a former grocery store and has multiple rooms, each one packed to the brim with war paraphernalia, whether it’s old Soviet medals, tiny marching soldiers, model fighter jets, and yes, even a few Hitler dolls. Get lost in history while sipping on some real-deal cocktails, made expertly by a stoic bartender in a tux, of course.
Any of the city’s many kiosks
It is often said that Lisbon is a city of hills. But it is also a city of kiosks. The ubiquitous stations, dotted all over town (including atop its many stunning lookout points), have outdoor seating and serve pretty much any beverage you could desire, alcoholic or otherwise (go for the alcoholic). There’s something to be said about ordering a cold beer, right there on the street, and sitting down to enjoy it while taking in the bustling street life like a civilized person. North Americans could learn a thing or two from Lisbonites.
Lost in Esplanada Bar
Lisbon has such an overwhelming number of rooftop and terrace bars with staggering views of the terracotta rooftops and the deep blue Tagus, that it’s hard to choose which one is worth your time. May we suggest this one, a quirky, colorful, tree-covered terrace with Middle Eastern flavor and 360-degree views of the city. The sleepy days come alive at night with live music.
A Tasca do Chico
And speaking of live music, the style that is most associated with Lisbon is Fado, a nearly 200-year-old art that usually involves a singer performing mournful and melancholic music over one or two guitars. Maybe the best place in the city to catch some live music is here, a charming and intimate refuge in the heart of the chaotic, party-centric Barrio Alto neighborhood.
WHERE TO SHOP
This string of shops and restaurants in a revamped historical industrial complex is a symbol of Lisbon’s recent revitalization and its emergence as a budding center of design and entrepreneurship. Located in the shadow of the 25 de Abril Bridge, this outdoor mall features retailers like Retroshop, a store dedicated to vintage pieces like luggage and typewriters; Pura Cal, a cute shop filled with handcrafted artisanal home items; and Ler Devagar, arguably one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, located in an old printing factory and featuring floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. It’s a must.
Located in the stunning Ribiero da Cunha Palace in Príncipe Real, this "shopping gallery" sells furniture, clothes, accessories, jewelry, cosmetics, and shoes from local vendors. Storytailors, one of Portugal's coolest design houses, is located here, too. Muu is a chic space focusing on handbags and accessories, while O da Joana is a great place to scoop handmade clothes. But even if you're not looking to drop any euros, just walking around the majestic space is reason enough to visit.