How to Experience Lisbon Like a Local
Portugal’s capital feels pocket-sized and accessible—and Lisbonites are passionate about what their city offers.
I recently spent nine days in Lisbon, which felt downright decadent. The whole time I was there, I kept meaning to visit Castelo de São Jorge. It’s a guidebook must-see and I definitely had time. But the castle on the hill started to feel less and less important as I roamed the city’s colorful neighborhoods and joined the rhythm of everyday life.
Portugal’s capital feels pocket-sized and accessible—and Lisbonites are passionate about what their city offers. “I want you to love Lisbon so much that you become an ambassador for us when you go home!” one local told me.
That wasn’t a tall order. Here’s why I returned home an ambassador for the city:
Time Out’s Spin on Mercado da Ribeira
This bold reimagining of a long-beloved market debuted in spring of 2014. While the traditional fish and produce markets in operation since the 19th century remain, top chefs and local restaurants have opened satellite stalls here, including Santini ice cream and SeaMe for prego steak sandwiches. Celia introduced me to bolo do caco, a soft, circular bread subtly flavored with garlic butter and herbs. But one of the best bites in Lisbon has to be the bolo do caco com chouriço, a chorizo-spiked sandwich I still crave. Sample them both at Bolo do Caco. The market is packed at midnight on weekend nights; go then to get the real local experience.
I was told I couldn’t leave Lisbon without trying the famous custard tarts at Pastéis de Belém. (Outside of this classic restaurant, the pastries are called pastéis de nata.) While they tasted great, I won’t go back (think tour buses unloading and massive lines). Instead, Celia took our tour group to the sleek Manteigaria in the Chiado district for coffee and sublime tarts with a buttery crust and sweet warm custard.
A 30-minute walk or easy subway ride from downtown, Choupana Caffe is a spacious, modern eatery with free Wi-Fi and great eats, including flaky croissants, hearty salads, and an organic yogurt bar. Don’t be surprised if you’re the only non-local in the wildly popular weekend brunch spot.
The best time to visit this former industrial complex turned creative hub, located under the iconic 25th of April Bridge, is on Sunday, when an above-average flea market sets up shop. The surrounding Alcântara neighborhood is full of buzzing cafés and restaurants, cool shops, and innovative art galleries worth exploring. Don’t miss: Ler Devagar bookstore, a cavernous space filled with both new and used reads, art, and old printing presses.
This cozy shop, which quickly became my go-to coffee spot, serves only one food item—a rich, addictive chocolate cake made with a top-secret recipe by owner Sofia Landeau. The welcoming space has a communal wood table, vaulted brick ceilings, and soft lighting. A second location can be found at LX Factory.
Because Lisbon is a city built on many hills, finding a fantastic view isn’t a challenge. But some rise above the rest, like the Memmo Hotel bar in the winding, cobblestoned streets of Alfama. There’s no sign alerting pedestrians to PARK, a garden bar located on the roof of a seven-story parking garage, so just find the elevator and head up. The sweeping views from the outdoor jogging track atop the Four Seasons are the best I found in town.
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If it’s Portuguese goods you want, your first stop needs to be A Vida Portuguesa, a treasure trove of whimsical finds, from journals and jewelry to tiles that have long been the city’s architectural calling card. At Goodies Boutique, guests are welcomed by smiling faces, tastes of port wine, and a selection of local teas, jams, cookies, olive oils, and much more. The original Conserveira de Lisboa, since 1930, is worth a stop to pick up high-quality, inexpensive tinned fish (sardines are a local specialty). At Luvaria Ulisses, you can shop for beautiful leather gloves in a tiny sliver of a space oozing with Old World charm.
Where to Stay
Because Lisbon is less expensive than many other major European cities, it’s possible to find great deals at top hotels. I absolutely loved the Four Seasons, slightly removed from the downtown tourist center and perched on a hill overlooking Eduardo VII Park. Highlights include a beautiful indoor pool and a reasonably priced all-you-can-eat sushi buffet (I spotted Lisbon’s most famous chef, José Avillez, eating with his wife, so you know it’s good). For a great value downtown, check out the brand-new Browns Central Hotel, where I scored a tiny but comfortable room for $99 a night in November.
Annie Fitzsimmons is Nat Geo Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures on Twitter @anniefitz and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.