Lisbon, Europe’s westernmost capital city is perhaps lesser known as a tourist destination. Although the Algarve, in southern Portugal is an extremely popular holiday destination, Lisbon certainly deserves its time in the spotlight as a fun, vibrant place to visit, and an extremely interesting destination for foodies, like me.
First of all, it’s worth mentioning that Lisbon is surprisingly easy to get to. It’s around 2 hours 30 minutes from London, and there is a regular and inexpensively priced flight schedule. What’s more, once you arrive into Lisbon, the airport is located very close to the city centre, and a taxi into the centre costs around £10-15. It is also a very manageable city in terms of size and is a brilliant destination for a long weekend or city break.
Lisbon is situated very near to Portugal’s coastline, and on the banks of the enormous river Tajo, or Targus, which divides the city. Lisbon is a really quirky capital city with a real mix of historic, cobbled streets, marked with Moorish influences in the Alfama district, to slick, modern architecture at Parque das Nações designed for the 1998 Lisbon Expo. Despite being quite hilly, Lisbon is really easy to explore. If you don’t fancy walking, you can catch a colourful wooden tram, and taxis are cheap.
It is a really interesting region gastronomically – as you might expect, fish and seafood are widely enjoyed, both fresh and canned. Pumpkins feature heavily, in soups, cakes and spreads. And the Portuguese just love anything sweet, with tea, coffee and cake almost a daily ritual. There are a huge variety of Portuguese cakes and pastries to try – many are filled with cream and custard, and flavoured with cinnamon, dried fruit or lemon. Breads are often made using white corn, producing a soft, dense bread with a thick, firm crust – not dissimilar in texture to soda bread.
With that in mind, I’d like to share my tried and tested top foodie picks from Lisbon.
If you like fish, you are absolutely spoilt for choice in Lisbon. Can the Can in Praça do Comércio or Trade Square is a newly opened restaurant situated in the square, with plenty of outside seating with views across the square and of the river. Its menu, unusually, features a variety of canned fish, which is extremely popular in Portugal, as well as fresh fish, such as octopus and a rare find – Portuguese dry cured tuna, which is only made by one elderly gentleman in the country. Dishes worth trying are the Portobello mushrooms with mackerel and cheese – an unusual combination of ingredients which is very successful, and the grilled octopus. A rare combination of great food served in a fantastic location.
La Tasca da Esquina is a small neighbourhood restaurant on Rua Domingos Sequeira. It has a great local feel, a warm, open kitchen and is a favourite of local residents.
Belém is around 10-15 minutes drive from the heart of Lisbon and is a really interesting suburb to visit for its museums, marina and the Mosteiro de Jeronimos, or monastry. It’s worth taking a walk along the sea front, or hiring a bike to take the cycle path which runs alongside the river.
5 Oceanos at the Doca de Santo Amaro is a particularly nice restaurant for lunch and dinner. The views from their outside seating area are stunning, and their fish is excellent. Try the seafood to start: the garlic prawns, fresh clams and crab in mayonnaise are all excellent. Try the whole baked sea bass for the main course. It’s baked in salt and served with green vegetables, potatoes and warm garlic and oregano olive oil to pour on top. Simple but delicious.
If fine dining is more your thing, then Lisbon has some exceptional restaurants offering world-class dining. Portuguese celebrity chef José Avillez is one of the leading figures in food in Portugal. He owns four restaurants in Lisbon, with Belcanto his flagship venue. Situated in a very discreet building in upmarket Chiado, you have to ring the doorbell to be let in on arrival. Once in, it feels as though you are in someone’s house, with the warmest, most cosy and comfortable dining room. The food is extraordinarily good, with a wide choice of menus linking Avillez’s love of Lisbon and its ingredients together, which also manages to deliver pure pleasure, excitement and intrigue all at once. The service is delightful – a rare balance of the slick professional attitude you’d expect in a Michelin starred dining room, and warmth, friendliness and fun.
Feitoria restaurant in the Altis Hotel is also exceptional. With one Michelin star, chef João Rodrigues cooks a blend of international and Portuguese flavours in his menus. The tasting menu is excellent, with a particularly amazing selection of appetisers, served with delicious breads and regional olive oils (my favourite was from the Alentejo region) and goat and cow milk butters. The ricotta, spinach and egg yolk ravioli with Alba white truffles was the standout dish for us all. Wines are very good, too, with the Vale das Areias Touriga Nacional 2011 from the Lisbon region being a standout red. Dining at Feiroria is a glamorous affair and feels like a really special occasion.
Visitors with a sweet tooth will be spoilt for choice in Lisbon. The Confeitaria Nacional is a famous Portuguese cake shop and tea room, founded in 1829 and is a fantastic centrally located spot to visit at any time of day. Popular choices are thick doorsteps of toast, or cinnamon French toast, served hot and buttered. We tried some lovely traditional Christmas cakes, including broas, little torpedo shaped sweet treats made with different flavours, such as castelar (almond and orange, de specie (sweet potato) and de milho (made with corn). Bolo Rei is a delicious Christmas cake which is well worth trying. It’s a sweet dough ring, filled with dried fruit and topped with candied fruit and flaked almonds. It’s not dissimilar to stolen in texture (without the marzipan), and is really good enjoyed with a bica, or espresso.
Antiga Confeitaria de Belém is an absolute must, too. Founded in 1837, it is the home of the famous Pasteis de Belém. These Portuguese custard tarts are made to a top-secret recipe, as they have been for nearly 200 years. These little tarts are exceptional – so much better than any you’ll try elsewhere. I was lucky enough to go behind the scenes and meet the ladies who shape the pastry tarts by hand and have a go. It was great to see this still being done by hand – some of the ladies had been working there for over 25 years.
If you enjoy wines, then Portugal has some really lovely regional wines to try. Viniportugal in Praça do Comércio is a centrally located wine tasting centre, where you pay for your wine samples by the glass.
If you can make it out of Lisbon, José Maria da Fonseca in Azeitão do a brilliant vineyard tour and tasting. Their Moscatel is delicious and just 5 Euro a bottle.
Whilst you’re there, stop at Casa Das Tortas, opposite for coffee and cakes.
Disclosure: I visited Lisbon as a guest of Turismo de Lisboa.