I’ve been described as having a sweet tooth (or having only sweet teeth…) so when Lisbon, Portugal was introduced as the city with a sweet tooth, I had a feeling that we would get along. And when I met locals who are kind, laid-back, and welcoming, that feeling became a fact. It’s easy to travel Lisbon on a budget, and this city quickly became one of my favorite spots in Europe!
What to eat in Lisbon
Lisbon is a foodie’s paradise. The city’s pastry shops are filled with sweets ranging from pão de Deus (God’s bread), a brioche with coconut topping which is the best at A Padaria Portuguesa, to hundreds of egg yolk-based sweets. Most of the recipes come from nuns who baked with the yolks after using the egg whites to starch uniforms.
The most popular pastry, by far, is the pastéis de nata, creamy egg custard tarts in a flaky crust which is available in every pastelaria around the city. Although they’re similar everywhere you buy them, thousands make the trek to Belém each day to enjoy the original Pastéis de Belém. Created prior to the 18th century by Catholic monks, the recipe is now only known by three people and the custard is created fresh each morning in the ‘secret room.’
This may be considered blasphemy to those who love Pastéis de Belém, but I prefer the pastel de nata at Confectionaria Nacional because they are sweeter and have less of an egg taste. They also have rows upon rows of almond cookies and pastries.. so I was sold!
Do your research and you’re sure to find the pastel de nata in Lisbon that suits your taste buds!
In addition to eating so much sugar, I tried a few other local flavors. Wines of Portugal allows you to put a few euros on a card, which you insert into a slot above a case of wines. You choose the wine and receive a taste of port, vine verde (green wine), or Madeira for anywhere between .50 and 1.50€.
For a super cheap meal, I popped into Manteigaria Silva and got one of these little Queijo de Azeitão rounds and a small loaf of bread on my way back to my hostel. This cheese literally melts as soon as you cut into it… and now my mouth is watering just remembering how awesome it was!
One way I got to see the city was through Taste of Lisboa’s Downtown-Mouraria Food & Cultural Tour. Upon arrival at The Lisbon Loft hostel, I dropped my bags and headed out to start my tour. I learned that although bacalhau (salted cod) is a favorite in Portugal, most Portuguese have never seen a live codfish. Our small 3-person tour wound our way through limestone and basalt mosaic cobblestone streets, stopping to admire tiles on the homes and photos that depict famous fado singers and the local community.
Our guide decoded the street art depicting the first diva of fado, Maria Severa Onofriando, who was also a prostitute. Depending on who you’re talking to, she either died of a broken heart or an STD at 26. You can also see another famous fado singer— although fado is typically sung without a microphone, this singer has hurt his voice, so he’s depicted with a mic in the painting. There’s another scene of a local, beloved priest who’s conducting a crowdfunding effort to roof the church. Each tile is sold for 5€ and will have the name of the donor written on it. Other parts of the mural include the neighborhood gossips and a Baby Jesus hugging the world and riding on the back of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers.
Throughout my five days in the city, I walked up and down Lisbon’s 7 hills (or 11 depending on who you ask) admiring the walls around me. The street art scene in Lisbon is indicative of the city’s penchant for decriminalizing typically criminal activities. In this case, it lead to creative, colorful streets where artists are given a blank canvas and as much time as needed to create a masterpiece.
In America, canned fish— tuna, sardines, etc.— are seen as either inedible or a necessary ingredient in a tuna salad, but I’ve never heard it referred to as a delicacy. Not so in Lisbon. Canned fish in artisanal sauces is sold everywhere from the grocery store to specialty shops to nice restaurants. We tried both canned tuna and sardines with toast and a tomato jam on the food tour, and I’m not quite sure why this hasn’t caught on in the States yet. It’s inexpensive and tasty! Ginjinha is a sweet drink made from infusing ginja (sour cherries) in aguardente (firewater) and mixing it with sugar and other ingredients. It’s often served in a chocolate cup or with sour cherries at the bottom of the cup. It was originally created as a cough syrup, with the instructions that six glasses a day would keep the doctor away. With the strength of this drink, six drinks numbed any pain but unfortunately didn’t do anything about a cough. The recipe was sold and soon became one of the most popular drinks in Portugal.
After an informative and eclectic food tour, I joined some new friends from my hostel for an evening out in Barrio Alto and Pink Street. Barrio Alto contains hundreds of tiny bars, but the real scene is in the street where students, travelers, and locals mingle in the open air, listening to music wafting from clubs and trying to avoid the vendors selling light-up headbands and the sketchy men who offer drugs. On my first night there, I was offered cocaine no less than 14 times. Don’t worry, I put my middle school D.A.R.E. knowledge to practice and ‘just said no’ every single time.
Pink Street is where everyone goes when the Barrio Alto bars close around 2 am and is more of a dance/ club scene. I visited again on another rainy morning and find that I appreciate the street a little more when it’s empty…. but it was a good experience for a first night in Lisbon!
Things to do in Lisbon
There are so many places to go and things to do in Lisbon, it’s hard to know what to choose when you’re short on time.
Feira da Ladra is a Tuesday/Saturday flea market that I heard about from many locals and bloggers, but if you’re short on time, I think this is an attraction that can be missed. The only reason I’d suggest going is to meet Telmo of Nic Nac Handicrafts. He goes around town and photographs Azulejos (handpainted ceramic tiles) and prints them onto thin strips of paper which he folds and turns into incredible origami earrings. If wearable art is your thing, his 3€ price is unbeatable. Just look at this smile… this guy is proud of his city and the work he does!
There’s so much to see and do in Lisbon and my five days there felt like just enough time to take in the highlights, although I could have spent much more time there. Take a trip across the river to see the Christ the King statue, built with thanks to God for sparing Portugal from involvement in WWII.
If you’ve got the time for a day trip, hop on the train to Sintra at the beautiful Rossio station. The architecture is gorgeous, but the entrance shaped like two horseshoes is a statement from the artist that he didn’t like the building style he was forced to use and would like to kick it down.
Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its 19th-century Romantic architectural monuments. I opted against the 5€ hop on/ hop off bus and ended up walking 13 miles and 130 flights of stairs on my day in Sintra. Walking led to some great souvenir discoveries, but meant that I only got to visit two of the sites. If I had to do it all over again, I think I still would choose to see the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace if I could only see two. The Moorish Castle gives you perspective on the religious history of the area and a great view of the town and Pena Palace.
Called the “greatest expression of 19th-century romanticism in Portugal,” Pena Palace is bright, beautiful and was built as the summer home of the royal family. The entrance fee includes the outer grounds and interior of the palace, which is still fully furnished.
While you’re in Sintra, don’t miss the Queijadas (Sintra cheesecake) and Travesseiros (almond and egg cream stuffed ‘pillow’ pastry). If you’re looking for me, I’ll just be hanging out at Sintra trying to figure out how to become the princess of this sweets-loving kingdom!
Now that you’ve experienced the best food and activities of Lisbon, it’s time to check out the rest of Portugal! Will you choose to head to Porto, where the famous wine is made? Or will you go island hopping in the Azores? Whatever you choose, Portugal is sure to delight you at every turn!