My husband and I didn’t so much pick Lisbon for our honeymoon as Lisbon picked us. The original plan was to put off the trip until our first anniversary or save some money and skip it altogether. Then Justin found out that he had a conference in Portugal a month after our wedding and we were like, Okay, okay! You convinced us, Portugal.
That’s when something strange started to happen. Every time I said we were going to Lisbon, I was either talking to someone who had just been to Lisbon or was going to Lisbon. Or their friend just went to Lisbon or was going to Lisbon. Really.
Apparently, we weren’t the only ones Lisbon was calling. In April 2017, CNN said Lisbon “could be coolest capital in Europe.” A little over a year later, The Telegraph listed “23 reasons why Lisbon should be your next city break.”
Meanwhile, The New York Times’ “36 Hours” column called Lisbon “the budget capital of Europe.” With its hot new restaurants and plentiful tourist attractions, Ingrid K. Williams wrote that the city is “primed for a new golden era.”
Well, I just got back from our trip, and I can confirm the rumors are true. You need to book a ticket to Lisbon, like, now.
The next time you cross paths with someone who’s going (hey, maybe it’s you), here are 12 spots and activities not to be missed, in no particular order.
After landing and grabbing our luggage, we booked an Uber straight to Pastéis de Belém. In January, Business Insider declared this “the most reviewed eatery in the world.” On TripAdvisor alone, it has over 41,000 reviews. And it’s easy to understand why: The bakery’s namesake signature, pastel de Belem (also known as pastel de nata), is Portugal’s signature dessert. Oh, and they’ve been making ’em for 181 years. Pastel de Belem is an egg tart, or custard tart: two or three bites, depending on who’s eating it, with a flaky, crunchy crust, sweet, creamy custard, and a blistered, burnt top. Justin and I tried to go a day without eating one and failed miserably.
Here’s what to do on your first day: Go on a free tour. Well, sort of free. The tour guides encourage pay-what-you-wish donations at the end of the tour, which feels pretty dang fair considering the quality and length (three hours!). If three hours sounds like a long time to be walking around a very-hilly city, worry not. You take lots of breaks for chitchats about everything from the 1755 earthquake to where to go bar hopping. You don’t need to reserve a spot in advance. Just show up at Praça Luís de Camões (Luís de Camões Square) at 10 a.m. or 3 p.m. and look for the guide with the yellow bag.
Weird name for a café in Lisbon, right? Well, its first location is in Copenhagen. Since then, the Coffee Lab has branched out to other locations, including four in Lisbon. Lucky us. Justin and I stumbled upon the Alfama location, down a staircase, leading into a cave-like café, where we ended up most mornings of our trip. Because they started as a hand-craft coffee roastery, you can expect some of the best espresso around (which is saying something). But don’t miss out on the griddled sandwiches on homemade bread (especially the brie and Serrano ham) and European pastries from a tiny, nut-topped marzipan tart to a traditional cardamom bun. This is also where I first learned to open and eat a soft-boiled egg!
Originally built in the mid-11th century, this castle was just around the corner from our Airbnb, which made it an easy pick for a day activity. Assuming you’re staying farther away, you should still go. Not only is this a great way to learn about Lisbon’s rich history first-hand, but its canons-included overlook offers some of the best views of the city (your Instagram can thank us later).
When Cafe de Sao Bento opened in 1982, it wanted to “recreate the old Lisbon cafes that had almost totally disappeared.” Indeed, 36 years later, walking into this restaurant feels like stepping back in time. Maybe because you can’t just walk in—you have to knock on the door. You wait, it opens, and a dapperly dressed waiter welcomes you inside. There, the shades are drawn, making the bright red chairs and dark wood walls feel even more dramatic. This all plays exceedly well into a steakhouse-style dinner with lots of red wine. Order the namesake steak, which arrives in a puddle of cream sauce, and French fries in tow. Bonus points if you also order a sunny egg and side of creamed spinach.
Located in Lisbon’s Belém district, this jaw-dropping monastery is in a cluster of don’t miss-spots, including the Torre de Belem (you can go up or just admire it from afar like we did) and the Museu Coleção Berardo of Modern and Contemporary Art, the most visited museum in Lisbon. Head to the area and make a day of bouncing from here to there. Oh, and that famous egg tart shop is nearby, too, in case you need sustenance. (Egg tarts count as breakfast, lunch, and dinner, right? Don’t answer that.)
If you want to eat here—and it seems everyone does—go early. Taberna doesn’t take reservations, but they also just happen to be right near a great wine bar where you can spend your 2-hour (yep, 2-hour) wait drinking vinho verde and eating canned sardines. Chef Nuno Mendes, who recently published My Lisbon: a Cookbook from Portugal’s City of Light, said, “Every time I’m in Lisbon I always stop by Taberna to see what the chef André Magalhães is doing...Lunch is usually more of a working man’s sort of lunch—dinner is more creative but casual.” Indeed, there isn’t even a “real” menu. It changes regularly and is written on a chalkboard, which the servers carry to your table, where they talk you through each item. You’ll want to order everything, but estimate 2 tapas-sized dishes per person.
If you want to drink an Aperol spritz in the sunshine—I mean, you do, don’t you?—Cascais is the place to be. This coastal resort town is a short train ride from Lisbon proper and a roundtrip ticket costs less than the Spritz. No need bring a chair or umbrella, either; you can rent both for the day.
If you want to wander around castles and palaces and eat cheesy pastries (queijadas) and get lost in pitch-black caves, go to Sintra. Like Cascais, this is a totally manageable train ride from Lisbon, and the number of historical attractions is unbeatable. Places to hit up: Pena Palace, Moorish Castle, Quinta da Regaleira, amongst others. Because some of these are tricky to get to by car, forgo the Uber and hail down a tuk tuk (basically a motorized rickshaw) instead. This is reliably faster and the driver usually gives you a mini tour. Ours led us to a fountain with supposedly magical water!
If Lisbon is famous for its seafood, Cervejaria Ramiro is one of the reasons why. Which is slightly ironic considering that it opened in 1956 as a beer house with no significant focus on fish. In the 62 years since, it’s become one of the most beloved restaurants in the city. Anthony Bourdain travelled here for his show No Reservations in 2012 and called it “one of those places locals love, have always loved, and always will love.” My co–recipe developer Ella Quittner echoed as much, telling me, “This is on all of the food intel sites, but don't be deterred: You must go here and get tiger prawns.” So we went to Cervejaria Ramiro and got the tiger prawns—and the buttery-winey clams and even butterier-winier shrimp—drank maybe too much beer and ate definitely too much bread. It was heaven. Like Taberna, either get here early, or expect a wait.
When Bourdain went to Cervejaria Ramiro, he was accompanied by two Portuguese chefs. One of them was José Avillez, who today has over a dozen restaurants. I’m only low-key embarrassed to admit that, during our week-long trip, we went to three of them: Cantina Zé Avillez, Taberna, and Páteo. The last two are part of Avillez’s Barrio, where multiple restaurants share one holy-cow space. While many restaurants in Lisbon proudly describe themselves as “tipico,” Avillez thrives on being atypical—celebrating Portuguese traditions while updating them to modern day. Dishes not to be missed: octopus swimming in a sea of smoked paprika oil at Cantina, beefsteak sandwich at Taberna, and traditional Brás-style cod (potatoes, eggs) with untraditional exploding olives at Páteo.
Have you ever been to Lisbon? Where did you go? Tell us your recommendations in the comments!