Having grown up in Goa and studying history of the 450-year Portuguese rule, I had longed to draw comparisons – to see how much of their influence was left behind, the similarities in food, culture, architecture and everyday life. For a Goan, a trip to Portugal is a home-coming of sorts, an instant connection right from the weather, to the Fontainhas-style brightly colored walls of homes and abundance of fresh seafood and perfect crusty bread at every neighborhood bakery.
One of the highlights of our Lisbon trip was riding on Tram 28that passes through Lisbon’s most scenic districts like Baixa, Graça, Alfama & Estrela making it easier to navigate the many steep slopes and narrow streets. It also boasts of quaint old churches that have a certain aura – avoid the more “touristy” ones, and go see Igreja Do Convento De São Domingos (Alto Dos Moinhos). Also, spend your morning at the open market square at Praca Figueira with the backdrop of the towering equestrian statue of King John I and your evenings at Praca Luiz de Camoes in the very happening Baixa Chiado area.
I’ve heard many a tale of the famous Portuguese tart – crunchy, flaky pastry filled with creamy custard and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and it was the first order of business when we arrived. We hopped on to the tram and made way to Belem early morning, so we barely had to wait at Pasteis de Belem -the cafe that invented the famous custard tart infamous for its serpentine tourist queues. Their version is far superior to any other you’ll eat in all of Portugal – impeccable pastry to custard ratio, right amount of sweet and served up warm. While at it, explore the Belém Tower and thethe spectacular Jerónimos Monastery, both just a stone’s throw away from the cafe.
Wherever you walk in Lisbon, you’ll find beautiful facades and tiles on old buildings. Also dotting the city are kiosks at city’s famous hills or in parks and open spaces that and offer decent nibbles, juices, Portuguese espressos, beers and wines. Many have been in the same spot for decades and offer the perfect respite from all the steep slope climbing to take a break and soak up the city views. All the slopes means there’s plenty of walking to do so pack comfortable shoes. Many a turns will lead to sweeping city views to admire making the walk worthwhile – our favorite was watching the sunset over Miradouro Portas do Sol.
There is a reason why at lunch or dinner there’s a long queue of locals and out-of-towners alike waiting for a table at Cervejaria Ramiro. In business since 1956, Ramiro’s is shellfish heaven, I do not say that lightly. You are welcomed with glass displays of live and fresh local seafood – tiger prawns, crabs, lobsters, clams and oysters. An army of waiters breezing through tightly packed tables with platters of seafood and buttery toasted garlic bread, setting down pints of beers are a treat to watch.
With eyes hungrier than our stomachs, we ordered a bit of everything – perfectly grilled tiger prawns drenched in butter and garlic with a generous squeeze of lemon, clams in garlicky broth and fresh cilantro (named after Bulhão Pato, a 19th-century Portuguese poet), giant stone crabs served up as steamed claws and the outer shell stuffed with its own roe. Also if you are a meat-maniac, make sure to leave room for a Prego, a steak sandwich very popular at Ramiro’s.
Portuguese breakfast is also very tapas-style. A bunch of nibbles, a strong shot of espresso and baked goods with a mandatory sweet something to end. Pick of them for us was Confeitaria Nacional, a Lisbon institution founded in 1829 owned and managed by the same family for five generations. From meat croquettes to Pasteis De Bacalhau ( salted cod fritters) and Rissois de Camarao ( creamy prawns packed into pastry pouches), there’s something for every tastebud.
Time Out has transformed Lisbon’s main market hall Mercado da Ribeira into a foodie hangout that brings together some of the city’s favorite restaurants – we sampled our way through some Carob special bread with crispy fried sardines & coriander mayo from Cozinha da Felicidade, piri piri chicken, grilled octopus from Sea Me – Peixaria Moderna and more!
The Portuguese believe that they invented the Tempura – their version is called Peixinhos da Horta, or “little fish from the garden” as the slender green beans resemble deep fried fish. And there’s plenty of beers and wine selections to keep you occupied (along with free wifi). The original fruit and vegetable stalls on the other side of the huge 19th century building are still there but seem over-shadowed by the buzz at the eateries.
Weather in Lisbon was pretty beachy as I’d like to call it – sunny with a constant breeze in the air, making it almost perfect for sightseeing in shorts and flip flops. Of course, the fact that you’re never too far away from fantastic seafood and wine, complements that feeling. While the custard tarts call you from every bakery display, save yourself space and head down to Gelataria Nannarella – this teeny tiny hole-in-the-wall blink-and-you-miss-it Italian-family run place does absolutely divine gelatos. We tried and loved their Amareno (Ginja) cherry & Hazelnut Chocolate.
The Portuguese pride themselves for their canned fish exports and rightly so – practically every menu in a restaurant would have at least one dish highlighting its bold use, never masking the briny taste. Your travel souvenirs would be incomplete without a trip to Conserveira De Lisboato bring back a few retro-tastic cans of Atum (Tuna) and Sardinhas. The packaging is quirky ( far more attractive than anything you’ll find in supermarkets/cliched touristy spots) and make fantastic gifts to bring back for friends. Unless of course you’re bringing back wine or crockery. In which case, all the best!
Lisbon, with its quirky street art,music and lazy-afternoon-siesta vibes will draw you in. Go prepared not to run through your holiday, but to embrace the Portuguese way – where there’s a beer at 11am followed by lunch with vino and an easy infectious calm that’ll keep you in a holiday mode, watching time pass you by only through shadows cast by sunlight on rooftops from one of its many Miradouros.
Obrigada Lisboa! Você tem sido fabuloso. *Thank you Lisbon! You’ve been fabulous.*
Note: All restaurants and sights recommended are easily available on Google Maps making it very convenient to find places in the city. Pick up a cheap prepaid data plan while you’re there so you can be hassle-free.