Cheap food, fine wines, boutique hostels – Lisbon has it all. For budget holidaymakers, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Located only 30 minutes from the beach town of Cascais, Lisbon is a great destination if you’re after a short, cultural city break and want to get your share of beach time as well.
If you can get it, that is. When I arrive in the Portuguese capital, it’s a washout, but my guide Carmo promises temperatures of up to 30 degrees during the summer.
First off, accommodation: The Independente is your best bet any time of the year.
Located near Bairro Alto (the heart of Lisbon’s nightlife), the trendy hostel is run by the three S’Eça Leal brothers. The price is very agreeable: an average night in one of the bright dorms with the cork bunk beds costs €12.
What’s more, The Independente’s restaurant, The Decadente, boasts an excellent menu and hipster-friendly décor. A three-course lunch will set you back a mere €10 and coffee costs 60c. Need I say more?
Tram 28 is one of the most popular ways of getting around the city. Or you can opt for the Yellow Bus tour, which will bring you to the usual touristy spots as well as the more off-the-track attractions. Bottom line: Lisbon is a city of seven hills, so prepare for some serious hill-walking. The tiled paths can be slippery in the heat, so good footwear is essential.
The city is relatively small, so it won’t take you long to find your feet. And besides, Lisbon is the birthplace of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost articles, so if you do get lost, pray to him and he’ll help you find the right path.
If you’re looking to get your fill of culture, pay a visit to the wonderful Belém district, where your first stop should be the Jeronimós monastery. It is one of the oldest structures in Lisbon and survived the famous 1531 Lisbon earthquake and subsequent tsunami and fires.
Colloquially known as “the pepper monastery”, Lisbon’s history is literally written on its walls. All the motifs that appear on the tiles that line Lisbon’s streets are here – sea monsters, elephants, lions, etc. – and the tomb of Portugal’s greatest explorer Vasco da Gama is housed at Jeronimós.
While you’re in Belém, grab a Pastéis de Belém pastry at Antiga Cafeitaria. Sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar, these custardy, flaky treats will melt in your mouth. But watch your timing: cruise calls bring hundreds of tourists to the café and it can get pretty full around lunchtime.
Although Lisbon is the oldest city in Western Europe, its architecture is quite diverse. Modern buildings sit comfortably alongside traditional structures.
Juxtaposed to the 15th century Jeronimós is the very modern Museu Coleçao Berardo. The Berardo collection is home to some of the 20th century’s greatest artworks. Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and David Hockney all find their place in the permanent collection, which is free to visit.
On the way back, stop-off at the LX Factory in Rua Rodrigues de Faria. It mightn’t look like much from the outside, but this former printing factory is home to some of Lisbon’s most unique cafés, restaurants and shops.
Around 150 companies have set up camp in the LX Factory, making use of its old warehouses, cafeteria and shops to create a trendy haven. You could easily spend half a day here, wandering around the impressive Ler Devagar bookshop-café, admiring the artwork in Studioteambox Gallery and filling up on Landeau chocolate cake.
Comercio Square in the city centre is a popular meeting point for tourists, and the Lisboa Tourist Board has given the square a revamp by renting out spaces to new restaurants and attractions like the Lisbon Story Centre. The multimedia experience takes about 50 minutes to complete and tells you all you need to know about Lisbon’s rich history.
Rua Augusta, one of Lisbon’s busiest shopping streets, leads off Comercio Square. The pedestrianized street offers the usual high street shops as well as a couple of unique design shops like Typographia, a shop that sells Portuguese themed t-shirts by Lisboan designers.
If you head away from Lisbon’s historic centre and visit Parque das Nações, you’ll find that the former Expo 98 site has been put to good use with attractions like Oceanário de Lisboa aquarium.
In Lisbon, cod is king. It’s said that the Portuguese have invented 365 different ways to cook cod (one for every day of the year). I sampled only six but can confirm that if you’re banking on cod alone during a week’s holiday, you’ll do just fine.
One of the most delicious dishes is served at Restaurante 5 Ocenaos: sea bass cooked and served in salt and a white wine.
The most exciting cod dish is the incredible bacalhau à bras with exploding olives by Michelin-star chef José Avillez. The young chef owns a string of restaurants in Lisbon, including Pizzaria Lisboa on Rua dos Duques de Bragança – a unique experience to be served pizza from a Michelin-star chef.
One of the biggest nuisances for tourists is the constant hassle from “drug dealers” at every corner in the city centre. They constantly pick on visitors to buy “hashish”. If partial to a joint, don’t be fooled: what’s on offer looks suspiciously like green tea.
Apart from that, there’s very little bad to say about Lisbon. It’s cheap, it’s cheerful, it’s a platter of culture. What more could you want?
Conor McMahon travelled to Lisbon courtesy of the Portuguese Tourism Board and Ryanair.