This article first appeared in Travel Extra magazine.
With its cheap food, quality wines and boutique accommodation, Lisbon is one of the best mini-break destinations.
Although it’s raining hard when I arrive, I’m promised that Lisbon’s temperatures soar to 30 degrees during peak season, the perfect time to visit the strip of fish restaurants at Santo Amaro dock.
Try the Spanish-influenced sea bass cooked and served in salt at Restaurante 5 Oceanos. Knock back a glass of white wine and enjoy the view of the River Tagos. The view is especially unique around two o’clock in the afternoon. That’s when you’ll see the hippo tour bus cruising by in the river (think Viking Splash tour without the shouting).
Of course, Portugal is the place to be if you’re a fan of seafood. Here, cod is king. It’s said that the Portuguese have invented 365 different ways to cook cod (one for every day of the year). I sampled only six but can confirm that if you’re banking on cod alone during a week’s holiday, you’ll do just fine.
The city has a rich cuisine thanks to its many colonial influences. But, there are some food experiences that are wholly Portuguese.
If you visit the wonderful Belém district, you must try a Pastéis de Belém pastry with cinnamon and icing sugar at Antiga Cafeitaria. These custardy, flaky treats were created by the monks at the neighbouring Jeronimós monastery. When the monks were evicted from the monastery in 1834, the secret recipe was passed on to the Clarinha family, whose descendants run the patisserie today. Be sure to get your timing right though; between the cruise ships and tour buses that pull-up nearby the café can get pretty full.
Although Lisbon is the oldest city in Western Europe, its architecture is quite diverse. Modern buildings sit comfortably alongside traditional structures, especially in the Belém district.
Jeronimós monastery is one of the oldest structures in Lisbon having survived the 1531 Lisbon earthquake and subsequent tsunami and fires. Colloquially known as “the pepper monastery”, Lisbon’s history is literally written on its walls. All the motifs that appear on the tiles that line Lisbon’s streets are here – sea monsters, elephants, lions, etc. – and the tomb of Portugal’s greatest explorer Vasco da Gama is housed at Jeronimós.
Museu Coleçao Berardo is only a five-minute walk away. The Berardo art collection is home to some of the 20th century’s greatest artworks. Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and David Hockney all find their place in the permanent collection, which is free to visit.
If you’re travelling back to the city centre, be sure to make a stop-off at the LX Factory in Rua Rodrigues de Faria. It mightn’t look like much from the outside, but this former printing factory is home to some of Lisbon’s most unique cafés, restaurants and shops.
Around 150 companies have set up camp in the LX Factory, making use of its old warehouses, cafeteria and shops to create a hipster haven. You could easily spend half a day here, wandering around the impressive Ler Devagar bookshop-café, admiring the artwork in Studioteambox Gallery and filling up on Landeau chocolate cake.
Comercio Square in the city centre is a popular meeting point for tourists, and the Lisboa Tourist Board has given the square a revamp by renting out spaces to new restaurants and attractions like the Lisbon Story Centre. The multimedia experience takes about 50 minutes to complete and tells you all you need to know about Lisbon’s long history.
Rua Augusta, one of Lisbon’s busiest shopping streets, leads off Comercio Square. The pedestrianized street offers the usual high street shops as well as a couple of unique design shops like Typographia, a shop that sells Portuguese themed t-shirts by Lisboan designers.
If you head away from Lisbon’s historic centre and visit Parque das Nações, you’ll find that the former Expo 98 site has been put to good use with attractions like Oceanário de Lisboa. Thanks to its unusual layout, the aquarium is very interactive and child-friendly.
Located only 30 minutes from the beach town of Cascais, Lisbon is a great destination if you’re after a short, cultural city break and want to get your share of beach time as well.
The city itself is relatively small, so it won’t take you long to find your feet, which is an obvious help if you’re only here for a short stay. And besides, Lisbon is the birthplace of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost articles, so if you do get lost, pray to him and he’ll help you find the right path.
- The most exciting cod dish is the incredible bacalhau à bras with exploding olives by Michelin-star chef José Avillez. The young chef owns a string of restaurants in Lisbon, including Pizzaria Lisboa on Rua dos Duques de Bragança – a unique experience to be served pizza from a Michelin-star chef.
- If you’re in need of retail therapy, explore the huge Vasco da Gama shopping centre in Parque das Nações. If you’re the gambling type, check out Casino de Lisboa next door.
- If you hike up to the Saint Justa lift and onto Rua do Carmo, you’ll find the Santini ice cream shop, home to the best ice cream in Lisbon. The locals tell me it’s better to eat Italian-influenced ice-cream, rather than Italian ice cream.
- Minesterium bar at Comercio Square serves great beer and cocktails at a very reasonable price. An XL glass of beer will only set you back €4.
- Hostels are a relatively new concept in Lisbon. One of the best is The Independente near Bairro Alto. The boutique hostel is owned and run by three brothers who backpacked around the world, borrowing ideas from the best hostels to bring home to Lisbon. A night in one of the bright and spacy dorms with big cork bunk beds will cost €12 on average.
- Thanks to the lower minimum wage, food in Lisbon is very cheap for Irish tourists. The Independente’s restaurant, The Decadente, serves a three-course lunch for only €10. The food is high quality and the surrounding décor is very fashionable. Plus, if you fancy an espresso after your meal, it will only cost you 60c.
- One of the biggest annoyances for tourists is the constant hassle from “drug dealers” at every corner in the city centre (notice the quotation marks). The constantly pick on tourists to buy “hashish”. If you’re that way inclined, don’t be fooled: what’s on offer looks suspiciously like tobacco with green tea and herbs.
- Tram 28 is a good way to get around the city and is very popular with tourists. It takes to you to 30 stops around the city. But it mightn’t be a great idea if you are travelling with small children. The cart can get very crowded.
- The Yellow Bus tour will bring you to all the usual touristy spots as well as some of the more unusual attractions that you might want to explore.
- Lisbon is a city of seven hills, so prepare for some serious hill-walking. The tiled paths can be slippery in the heat, so good footwear is essential.
- Fashionistas must visit the MUDE fashion and design museum on Rua Augusta.
- Lisbon Story Centre opened in September 2013. It tells the story of Lisbon’s colonies and the infamous 1531 earthquake through audio, video re-enactments, props and dummies. It’s a quick way to learn about the city’s history, but not as entertaining as it sounds.
- Like most continental cities, Lisbon’s nightlife starts late in the day. Bairro Alto is a hotspot for nightclubs and bars.
Conor McMahon travelled to Lisbon courtesy of the Portuguese Tourism Board. Ryanair commenced flying from Dublin to Lisbon on April 1.