New York City and I have an open-relationship, but it's fair to say Lisbon is my side piece. The fantastic, cheap wine, neighborhoods beckoning for a stroll, a burgeoning indie arts scene, locals who embrace diversity, music that ignites passion, food that sweetens the tongue: Lisbon is everything I love about life, and you will covet my side piece!
This walking tour itinerary is one of two I'll be posting. It's a lot to do in one day, so I recommend prioritizing your interests. For your convenience, I've sequenced it so the next site is nearby. This isn't The Amazing Race, and travel that stresses you out by making you feel like you have to tick items off a list under a time crunch is no way to vacation.
If you're doing it for the gram, make sure you wear comfortable walking shoes and bring a bottle of water because Lisbon's got curves and will wear you out. The hilly cobblestone streets are literally, and figuratively, breathtaking.
Start your day off with an inexpensive, hearty breakfast at Café do Monte in the São Vicente – Graça neighborhood. It's got a funky, 1960's San Francisco vibe, so don't be surprised if you hear some Hendrix while you slurp your chai or sip your cocktail. From there, it's a 6 minute walk to Igreja e Convento da Graça, a church with a spectacular miradouro, one of Lisbon's many lookout points. You can even see Castelo de Sao Jorge, a medieval castle that traded hands between the Moors and Christians during the Siege of Lisbon in 1147. If you want to see the castle up close and personal, you're in luck: it's only a 10 minute walk, 15 if you factor in the hills. If an adrenaline shot is in order, walk along the high walls of the castle and look down at the expansive ancient city below.
For me, the most vibrant part of the castle is the confluence of cultures outside the wall. African men sell selfie sticks to tourists and play the balafon, a painter wearing a fedora and a bowtie dips his paintbrush in coffee to paint portraits, colorful tuks tuks toil up the steep cobblestone hills, and souvenir shops selling azulejos (tiles), cork purses and dishrags embroidered with roosters line the path to the entrance, interspersed with cafes where you can grab a bica (espresso) and rest your feet.
From the castle, a 15 minute walk will bring you to Figueira Square, a transit hub alongside a grocery store where the locals shop. If the grocery store isn't your thing, I hope it's the weekend: food vendors cover the square offering all the pork you can dream of, gourmet cheese, luscious pastries and refreshing sangria. It's a terrific place to linger for a light lunch and al fresco imbibing, a luxury we Americans are too often denied (unless you're in New Orleans.)
From Figueira Square, you're perfectly positioned to take the number 15 or 27 tram to Torre de Belem, about a 35 minute ride. The Belem Tower was built along the Tagus River in 1515 as a defense system against invaders and was additionally used as a customs check point to partially fund the kingdom's extensive maritime explorations (and subsequent invasions). Both the invasions and excursions are what make Portuguese architecture, food and culture so diverse; still it's necessary to recognize the brutality behind the beauty.
The exterior of the tower is more impressive than the interior, and even if you buy a ticket in advance, you could wait in line for over an hour to enter, so skip it. Rather, head on over to Pastéis de Belem, the home of the best pastel de nata in Portugal. There you can have the sweet egg custard on the very grounds where nuns invented them 200 years ago inside the Jeronimos Monastery next door.
For a peaceful reprieve from the hot sun, pop into the monastery for 10 Euro. It's a peaceful reprieve from the bright sun, and the cue is likely shorter than the one at Belem Tower, though the architecture is much more impressive. Vasco de Gama is buried inside. A quick visit (under an hour) should do ya.
From there, the Museu dos Coches (the National Coach Museum) is only 7 minutes away. Built for Portuguese royalty during the 16th to 19th centuries, the world's most valuable collection of horse drawn carriages now sits in a former horse riding arena. Coming from Amish country myself, a carriage museum seems quite provincial; however, this museum is unlike any I've ever seen. Too regal for princesses even, it's like the Disney princesses' moms parked their carriages for a "how to kill the evil witch" convention, and we get too ogle the red velvet and gold silk interiors, gilded cherubs, and hand-carved 400-year-old wheels while they plot and plan.
I'd venture to guess you're tired and need some down time. These next two places are not must dos, so if you're pressed for time, or just need a quick rest and recuperation, don't feel the pressure to squeeze them in. The evening plans are musts while in Lisbon, so prioritize them.
From the Coach Museum, take a tram or walk to LX Factory. The former industrial factory is an artist haven and houses vintage shops, a rooftop bar, restaurants, and a bookstore. You could spend a whole afternoon here, especially if an exhibit or concert is on the agenda. The bookstore, Ler Devagar, is a bookworm's dream come true; an books from floor to ceiling. It's a place meant for lingering, embodying that authentic Lisboan attribute of slowing down and eating the pastries. Speaking of which, the chocolate cake at Landeau will change your life.
As an alternative, I recommend taking the tram from Torre de Belem back toward Cais Do Sodre, and getting off at Corpo Santo. Walk 2 blocks to the Tagus River (Rio Tejo) and you'll bump into Pitcher Cocktails, one of Lisbon's quiosques de refresco (refreshment kiosks). Sip and stroll, or sit and soak up some vitamin D.
Bairro Alto is the nocturnal neighborhood of Lisbon; it comes alive at night. Revelers spill out of bars and onto the narrow cobblestone streets. There's a joie de vivre in their chatter, both from their lips and their shoes striking the cobblestones.
After you're refreshed and rejuvenated, head on over to Taberna Portuguesa in Bairro Alto for dinner, where you'll find Portuguese comfort food at its finest. Plates of cheese, bread, jam and olives await you, though they're not free like the breadsticks at Olive Garden, because this is real food! Order yourself a 2€ glass of wine, and consider the 30€ tasting menu; it'll give you a good sense of Portuguese homecooking and won't break the bank. Bom apetite!
After you've had your fill at Taberna Portuguesa, head to Tasca Do Chico, an intimate, cozy fado bar popular with locals and tourists alike. Fado is Portuguese blues, and it will rip your heart out. Accompanied by a guitar, a fado singer will pour her yearning, regret, hope, and eternal sadness into each word. You'll understand, even if you don't speak Portuguese.
Make your way through the swinging Western saloon doors of Tasca do Chico and you'll be hit with a double dose of nostalgia and romanticism, for which there is no cure. Fado singers begin around 8:30pm and will instantaneously enrapture you. The dim light and the wine will lull you into a state of tranquility, only for the regretful tones of fado to make you wince in empathy.
Up soon: another walking tour that takes you through Lisbon's most diverse neighborhood to its most lavish district, to a food market straight from Anthony Bourdain's wet dream, and into Lisbon's indie art scene. Stay tuned!