Portugal in general and Lisbon in particular remains an excellent urban value especially in relation to other European capital cities and is chock full of visual, culinary and oenophile treats.
Down the street from Lisbon’s Sete Rios subway stop or 10 minutes by taxi to Lisbon’s main tourist hub, the Corinthia Hotel Lisbon is a good choice for those seeking a modern property with all expected large hotel bell-and-whistle amenities. Artistically created, colorful floral arrangements fill the large lobby and comfortable rooms with excellent bedding assure a good night’s sleep. In-room Nespresso machines make waking up an entirely pleasant affair and the expansive breakfast buffet at its Sete Colinas restaurant has something for everyone. Its well-equipped gym with daily exercise classes and heated indoor pool means that travelers have at least the theoretical opportunity to work off some of those great Portuguese meals and wines.
Av. Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro 105-1099, Tel 351/21 723 63 63 (No U.S. toll free number, but special offers on the web.) https://www.Corinthia.com
Da Prata 52 restaurant, located a stone’s throw from Lisbon’s landmark Se Cathedral with its 17th century blue tile baptismal room, has no exterior sign and just 12 tables and a small bar. Delectable, traditional dishes with innovative, modern twists are described on 11- by 14-inch wooden board menus and are explained in English, French or Portuguese by Da Prata’s owner Hugo, or one of his friends. Dining here is undeniably delicious and the restaurant’s charming ambience makes it memorable. Try the tender black pork cheeks in red wine, codfish “a braz” with olive tapenade and grilled octopus with pureed beans and mint. Their house wines are good and their sangria will have you speaking Portuguese in no time. Reservations are taken only for early dining at 6 or 6:30 p.m. Best just to walk in and enjoy.
Cash only. Rua da Prata 52, 1100-419. Tel 351/918 776 261, www.DaPrata52.pt
Near the National Theater Dona Maria at Praça da Figueira — Square of the Fig Tree, though there are no fig trees anywhere in sight and haven’t been for years — are several excellent kiosks where you can have a lovely al fresco lunch or dinner and watch Portuguese life unfold. The grilled chorizo sandwiches are wonderful and the ham and cheese sandwiches are second to none. There are also enormous vats of paella that will make it impossible to walk by without indulging. Equally important there are several Sangria stands and all manner of made-to-order mojitos to complete this outdoor culinary experience.
For traditional and authentic Portuguese food in a lively, familial atmosphere, head to Marisqueira de Santa Marta near Avenida da Liberdade. Though a neighborhood gem, you will be made to feel very welcome. The seafood and house wines are good and reasonably priced.
Travessa do Enviado de Inglaterra 1D, 1150-057, www.marisqueirasantamarta.pt.vu (Note that website is often down, so best to call 351/ 21 352 56 38).
For a swank outdoor dining and drinking experience, the Corinthia Hotel Lisbon’s Soul Garden has modern furnishings complete with heat lamps and pashmina-style blankets for chilly nights, live music Wednesdays and weekends and a good selection of signature cocktails and small plates nearly too pretty to eat.
Tel 351/ 912 592 111, Bookatable.firstname.lastname@example.org
The Portuguese are rather obsessed with pastries and coffee and for good reason. Indeed, most social discourse occurs with pasteis de nata — Portugal’s signature egg custard pastry — and espresso or café com leite. Lisbonites are no exception and there is a bakery on nearly every corner, sometimes two, with large windows tantalizingly enticing even the most strident of carb-avoiders. Make sure and try the pasteis de nata at several different bakeries. Each one will be your absolute favorite.
There is no shortage of excellent museums in Lisbon, but one certainly not to be missed is the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. Of Armenian descent, Gulbenkian was born in 1869 in what is today Istanbul. Educated in England he became a British citizen, but also lived for a spell in Egypt, spent many years in France, then passed most of World War II in Portugal where he remained until his 1955 death. He was an influential oil magnate, vast art collector and generous philanthropist who became known as “Monsieur Five Percent,” reflecting the share Gulbenkian collected on each oil transaction.
Most notable in Gulbenkian’s Permanent Collection are the massive and gorgeous Qing Dynasty vases, a room devoted to Lalique and intricate European furnishings that would make even Napoleon and Josephine turn green with envy. Running through Sept. 10, the Gulbenkian has an excellent temporary exhibit of Portuguese Pop Art from 1965-75, reflecting an abundance of color and the intense political nature of that era from the colonial wars to the Carnation Revolution. There is also a wonderful garden with several sculptures and plenty of ducks milling about.
Avenida de Berna 45A. Closed Tuesdays. ://gulbenkian.com.pt/museu/
After visiting historical Belém in Lisbon’s west, where at the Tower, Palace and Monastery of Jeronimos, one can gorge on Manueline architecture – the merger of Moorish, Renaissance and Gothic styles – it’s a half-hour stroll or five-minute cab ride east to nearby Alcantara.
At Alcantara’s LX Factory, a series of gentrified fabric warehouses is now used to house all manner of Uber cool design shops, galleries and quirky shops sandwiched in with trendy bars and eateries. There is also a hip, throwback barbershop and for non-carnivorous types, a boutique selling vegan shoes. Check out Bairro Arte for trendy trinkets and German design shop Kare for interesting, well-priced, decorative household accessories and furnishing ideas. Then head to the end of the alleyway and take the elevator up to the fourth floor’s Rio Miravilha. Here you will vigorously – and of course creatively – debate what is better: the stellar veranda views or the mighty minty mojitos.
Make sure and save time to aimlessly stroll the wide Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s own Champs-Elysées. That almost all international luxury brands are present on this street is actually its least interesting part. There are beautiful mosaics, plenty of cafés, and on summer weekend nights, impromptu dancing to festive music where young and old, and everyone in between, two-step waltz, samba and fandango with joyful abandon.
An excellent day trip from central Lisbon, just a 45-minute train ride (trains depart every 20 minutes) is Sintra, which was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1995. Once the summer retreat for Portuguese royalty, one can easily spend several days here in the cooler climate and lush greenery exploring all of the sites. However, if you only have one day, it is best to select two or three sites in Sintra to explore, and if possible, go on a weekday and start early.
From Sintra’s compact train station, take a tuk-tuk up the verdant, windy, cobblestone road to the Pena National Palace and you will be utterly bowled over by the magnificent mid-19 th century Moorish-influenced royal residence. Perched high atop the hill, the main structures possess ochre-hued archways, pimento-colored towers and intricate tile-covered walls. And that is just the exterior. Inside, ornate Oriental inspired fixtures, including eclectic, turbaned-wearing statuary light fixtures, European furnishings and a massive, equipped kitchen, all reflect a grandiose, bygone era.
At Sintra’s Regaleira Estate, you can walk amid emerald-green gardens full of blooming hydrangeas in a myriad of fuchsia, pink and lavender, and encounter unusual stone wells, fountains and other mind- bogglingly unique structures. While strolling the estate you can channel your inner wanna-be millionaire and imagine what kind of palace, grounds and buildings you would create if you were both Rockefeller rich and as unabashedly unconventional as Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, the entomologist and bibliophile who built Regaleira in the early 1900s.
From Regaleira it is a 10-minute stroll downhill to Sintra’s charming town center. This was a perfect spot for a café con leche and yet another pasteis de nata. However it was also perfect for a Ginja, Portugal’s cherry liqueur that locals sip from a shooter-sized glass, though I preferred it refreshingly over ice with soda and lime.
THE LESSONS LEARNED
Travelers will continue to be amazed by the kindness, hospitality and generosity of Lisbonites. Grand boulevards, museums and sites, both historic and new, are sure to make for a blissful few days. It is also extremely easy to fall deeply in love with the blessed marriage of excellent Portuguese food, wines and pastries. However, getting divorced from all those calories, not so much. Without doubt, the acquisition of every single ounce will be well worth the intense cohabiting with one’s treadmill in the immediate aftermath.
Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, legal columnist and attorney and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com