A sojourn in the westernmost, sun-soaked capital of mainland Europe is a right of passage for those who love to travel. We’re talking about Lisbon, Portugal’s bustling capital and the land of pretty, ornamental tiles, gourmet sardines, ginjinha, fado and of course *those* custard tarts. Here’s our travel and food guide to 48 hours in Lisboa.
Transport around Lisbon
Lisbon is a walkable city but it is built over seven hills (historically, quite like Rome was) so be prepared for uphill struggles and steep descents. It’s a fairly compact city centre though with sprawling suburbs running from Cascais in the west and Loures in the north plus the sprawl to the south on the other side of the bridge at Almada.
The rickety old trams are a beautiful real-time relic of Lisboa of yesteryear, but they are tiny, hard to stand up in and can get very crowded (especially Tram 28, which is a great way to see some of the main features of the city on a budget but go in early morning or evening to avoid the crowds).
We suggest a 48 Hour Lisboa Card (€32) or 72 Hour (€40) which is a 3-in-1 card entitling you to free transport across the bus, metro and tram network as well as free entrance to over 25 key attractions, museums and heritage sites, as well as other special offers like reduced fare on official bus tours and special food and drink discounts.
Like with many of the cities we’ve visited and recommended, take the tour bus. It’s one of our failsafe tips to get to know a place within the first few hours – where the main streets and areas are located, how far walking distance it is between places you might want to visit and also a pretty visual overview of the destination.
The starting point for the CitySightseeing Lisbon hop on-hop off tour bus is at Marquês de Pombal and 48-hour tickets begin at around €20 per person – you do get a slight discount with the Lisboa Card too, but you need to present the tear-off voucher in the accompanying booklet, the card itself is not enough. There are two routes on this particular sightseeing tour, the red takes you towards Belém in the west, while the blue takes you along the coastline on the east. While it’s a great, snappy way of seeing the city, it isn’t for the fact finders among you. Long periods of filler-music, interspersed with information about the sights around you. Enjoyability will be a judgement best left to you.
Renowned for their spit-roasted peri-peri chicken at seriously great value prices, you could absolutely call this a precursor to Nando’s. With its tagline of “Rei dos Frangos” (king of chicken) you will be hard-pressed to find a superior rival to this place in the Portuguese capital.
The setting is down a side-street and the restaurant is a bit no-frills but you get fed and watered finely! The menu is simple: 1/2 chicken, skinny fries, salad, creamed spinach and a couple of other grill options – but the aforementioned is what you need to order – with the piquant peri peri sauce on each table to adjust the spice to your own preference. Sit on the terrace (if you can get a table) and wash the meal down with a cold beer; the secret to a delicious lunch in Lisbon.
Over the course of a week in the city we sniffed out the best pastelaria we could find. Wading through lots of suggestions of “the best custard tarts” – of which we were inundated – we found three in particular that we wanted to shout about and share with our readers.
As this is a more specialised insight into our guide to the Portuguese capital, we didn’t want to divert attention from the main draws of the city, so click through for our full feature on The Best Custard Tarts in Lisbon (that we found)!
Drink: Vinho Verde, White Port & Tonic & Ginjinha
Vinho Verde is one of the nicest wines we’ve *ever* tried. We fell in love with this impressively light, fruity and lightly sparkling white wine whilst travelling in Portugal and safe to say we’re now obsessed with ‘green wine’, so much so we keep trying to source more and more of it at home in Ireland. Send us a DM on Twitter if you want to know where we’ve found the best in UK/Ireland, btw. The above Casal Garcia is one which we found to be our favourite, though for your own sake, do a price comparison in the supermarket before ordering it in a restaurant!
Another favourite discovery of ours was white port & tonic. Port, one of the country’s biggest food/drink exports, is most popular around Christmas time in its ruby flavour. However, in Lisbon it’s very easy to source a bottle of high quality white port, which you serve like a G&T with some ice and tonic water. Refreshing and fabulous, especially on a hot day. However, if you want to try something a little sharper and sweeter, try some Ginja.
Ginjinha (to use its full title) is a sour cherry-flavoured spirit widely served in bars and restaurants across Lisbon. It’s on many of the drinks lists but there are also standalone kiosks that you can try a shot for as little as a €1. Perch and people watch as you sip this strong, fruit-flavoured liqueur, which is served with or without fruit at the bottom of the shot and also is offered served in a little edible chocolate cup.
So, Belém is a town on the outskirts of the city which has three or so big tourist draws. The first being the stunning Torre de Belém, or Belém Tower. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the limestone fortified tower dates back to the early years of the Age of Discovery and was a significant defensive tower to protect the city of Lisbon and the mouth of the River Tagus.
Padrão dos Descobrimentos
Somewhat nearby is a much newer structure, the Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos). Opened in 1960, following an idea announced at the time of the Portuguese World Exhibition in 1940, this is a beautifully detailed monument dedicated to those brave explorers who constantly looked outwards, flying the flag for Portugal around the world.
A modern depiction of the bow of a ship, on either side of a central rectangular column stand 16 figures representing the central figures of the Portuguese Age of Discovery – from cartographers to missionaries, navigators and captains to kings and queens. It’s located right across from Empire Square (Praça do Império), behind which sits the Jerónimos Monastery, Bélem Cultural Centre and Jardim Vasco de Gama.
The third is Pastéis de Belém – who claim to be the originators of the iconic custard tarts that the city is famed for in the modern era. Theirs is the oldest recipe still used, we believe, but did we rate it? The hoards of people queueing up to eat-in and take-away these magnificent flaky, custards creations may be testament, but if you want to know our opinion click through to our Custard Tarts in Lisbon post.
In our opinion, Belém is very nice to see on a pretty day, but non-essential and the trip may take you a little bit out of the way if you’re cramming everything into a two-day trip. Nice if you wish to get away from the bustle of the city centre for a few hours. If you find yourself around Belém for an extended period of time, we’ve heard great things about both Nunes Real Marisquiera and Enoteca de Belém for food and drinks. As mentioned above, the Citysightseeing tour bus takes you to the town. However, the tram line 15 takes you from Praça da Figueira to Cais do Sodré. There is also a mainline train service from Cais do Sodré every 15 minutes or so.
Dinner: Infame (1908 Hotel)
Infamous by name… well, you know the rest! Destination restaurant Infame oozes modern sophistication at every hour of day, but we preferred it after the sun had set. The night sky is the ideal backdrop for dinner and drinks in the space which is equal parts sexy detailing, plush interiors, industrial elements and floor to ceiling windows.
We pre-booked a table one of the nights and our hearts fluttered when we began to pass this stunning building (the 1908 Lisboa Hotel) by taxi, only for our driver to pull up outside the door, indicating that this is indeed where we would be dining.
A stone’s throw from Martim Moniz square, Infame traces a line from East to West, with a subtle Portugal-meets-Japan theme underpinning the menu. Fresh local produce, Japanese techniques and specialist ingredients combine to create a modern mélange of Portuguese and Japanese flavours, with an occasional peppering of international influence (French tartare, south American ceviche, Indian pakoras etc.) that provides light relief but doesn’t interrupt.
The à la carte menu is neither small nor large, but tempts terrifically with meat-based, seafood and vegetable-centric dishes. Mains sit mostly around the €13-€20 mark with starters all about €10 and desserts €5 each. Naturally, we need to recommend you order the seafood dishes (the bacalhau fresco fillet with prawns, the steamed octopus, the market fish in oriental broth…) in particular. There’s a great little cocktail bar adjoining; the terrace is ideal for late night drinks in the balmy heat with bar snacks; and communal, family-style brunch is served on the weekends.
Mercado da Ribeira: Time Out Market
You cannot leave Lisbon without checking this market out. It’s right by Cais do Sodré station, so you can’t miss it whilst it also sits at the southern extremity of the incredibly cool and buzzy Bairro Alto district. Time Out Market is the market you wish you could find in every capital city you visit, boasting a picture-perfect line-up of local restaurateurs, dining concepts, bars and stores, each chosen in a very specific curation which arguably lists ‘Lisbon’s best’.
We don’t even need to describe every element here, but beside the traditional bountiful fresh produce-filled Mercado da Ribeira is the new incarnation, with square stalls set around a central communal eating area filled with hundreds of seats and long tables.
Wrapped around, you’ll find a gourmet croquette stand, an outpost of SEA ME, a gourmet burger bar, Manteigaria pastelaria and much more. We particularly loved the offering from chefs Miguel Castro E Silva, Henrique Sá Pessoa and Croqueteria whose expansive menus each totally blew us away. These places turn the idea of market dining on its head and shatter the illusion of street food having to be limited.
The blackened pork cheek (bochecas porco preto) from Henrique Sá Pessoa was absolutely sensational – and worth a bit of a wait – served on a bed of buttery mash with some crisp buttered cabbage on top speckled with juicy, salty bacon bits and a drizzle of incredible jus.
The bacalhau (salt cod) dish at Miguel Castro E Silva was served in an unusual way to us (with scrambled eggs and potato sticks), but we believe it’s also a twist on a traditional recipe. Salt cod is one of the lifebloods of Portugal and it’s huge business in Lisbon especially, so you’ll find it on almost every menu but all are not created equal. If you want an introduction to this delicacy – try it here!
Blow-out dinner: Sea ME Peixaria Moderna
For one of the finest feeds of seafood in the entire city, book a table at Sea ME Peixaria Moderna. We can’t even begin to describe the freshness of the fish and the simplicity of the flavours of this fashionable fish-focused restaurant. You can choose from the à la Carte menu or simply pick what you like from the counter, to which the staff will suggest a price and how best your chosen seafood can be cooked. It’s incredibly popular (read: hugely busy at peak times) so best to book a table. You’re guaranteed to be blown away, and you’ll also be impressed by the bar and the quality of the sushi, too – we’ve heard it’s some of the best found in Lisbon!
Listen to: Fado
Fado is a form of music which dates back to the 1800s (but who knows, really) and comprises ballads or laments often featuring sentimental, mournful or melancholic lyrics. It’s punctuated by love lost, longing and hardship but don’t let that deter you, fado is absolutely beautiful to listen to, captivating every ear that hears it. Though we didn’t get to go to any fado bars on our snappy trip to the city, we do have it on good authority that there’s a great authentic fado bar called O Faia on Rua da Barroca (pinpointed on our map at the bottom).
Quirky Quarter: LXFactory
Set in an old industrial estate in Alcântara, LXFactory occupies today what once was the base of one of the largest manufacturing sites in Lisbon. Celebrating its industrial history, it’s like walking on to a movie set with little boutiques, restaurants and bars set within and around the unusual architecture. It’s appointed with lots of different offices and studios, too, from fashion designers and music producers to photographers, new technology start-ups and advertising firms.
You could argue that this is the Shoreditch of Lisbon.
There’s a destination restaurant and rooftop bar, Rio Maravilha – which we had planned to go to but didn’t make it in the end – which is achingly cool and located within the LXFactory complex. Flashes of colour abound in the interior and if you go up to the sun trap rooftop bar you might spot the unusual statue….
One thing you must do is stop by Landeau for its heavenly chocolate mousse cake and a double espresso. Even in the fierce September heat in Lisbon, sun rays splitting the cobbles, we had to savour this much-celebrated delicacy and it was an ideal little afternoon indulgence and a fitting pick-me-up to push us along with our itinerary of exploring.
Brunch and Coffee
To be honest, LX Factory has all of your brunch, lunch, casual dinner and drinks situations sorted, there’s really a world of choice there and that precinct oozes coolness. However, closer back towards the city centre, Heim is widely regarded as one of the best brunch spots in the city. For coffee, we didn’t get to try many spots on our whirlwind visit, as it seems many of the specialist roasteries and third wave coffee spots are on the periphery of the city centre. We particularly adored the small, perfectly formed Hello, Kristof on Poço dos Negros.
Espresso is exceptional and mandatory in Mediterranean countries, so if you have a caffeine craving you’re sure to find a little corner shop cafe to boost your energy levels. But if looking for something a bit more precise and special, we’ve heard The Mill, Copenhagen Coffee Lab, Fabrica Roasters and Pois Cafe are all excellent.
Lisbon is all about the viewpoints. Because the city is built across several hills, you’ll find the most breathtaking vistas at countless spots dotted around the city – even in some of the most unexpected corners, crevasses and crannies. You could spend 48 hours traversing the city just finding miraduoro after miraduoro and nothing else. There are lots of blogs and websites out there offering guides to where the best viewpoints are, or you could just have fun exploring and stumbling upon them yourself.
Now, for gelato. We visited Lisbon in the semi-scorching heat of the summer, but we’re sure anyone could find year-round excuses to visit Gelato Daverro. Now, we tried this first (and many times after that) at their St. Paul’s Square shop, which has since closed as they relocate to a larger shop and factory, but you can find lots of their outposts scattered across the city. Check their Facebook page (linked above) for locations, ’cause it’s well worth seeking this gelateria out! Try the white chocolate flavour, it’s seriously special.
Getting from Humberto Delgado (Portela) Lisbon Airport
The airport is connected by bus and metro. The metro connects Gare do Oriente with the airport in a journey time of around 10 minutes – if you need to catch a train onwards to other parts of the country – and will get you to downtown Lisbon in around 20 minutes, mostly likely with a change of line. Carris buses and Aerobus operate frequent services, whilst local taxis are also available. We personally found booking an Uber was cheap enough, fast and effortless – plus it got us door to door and didn’t require us lugging cases up and down stations and in and out of modes of transport. Pick up will be from designated set-down spots (‘Kiss & Fly’, as most European airports call it), where drivers can wait for free up to 10 minutes.
Other Essential Information
Like all major cities in the world, it’s always important to have your wits about you. On our visit, we had a very nice and peaceful time. But many websites warn of pickpockets, in particular on the trams and public transport. Keep an eye on belongings, and avoid standing close to the closing doors. Also, often into the twilight hours and almost exclusively surrounding major squares and streets, there’s the chance of being approached by men offering to sell drugs, quietly but also pretty openly. You can read into the laws of the land in your own time, but it’s something we were made aware of before visiting and is just a good thing to know for anyone traveling. It did make us feel a touch uncomfortable at times.
You’ll spot tuk-tuks everywhere in the city, speeding through the streets. While they’re a popular way of travelling around for tourists, there is no historical reason for them being in Lisbon, or for their operating. They’re also not officially regulated by the city, but some operators are more reputable than others. Private tours for up to 4 or 6 passengers are available at negotiated rates around specific circuits. We didn’t use a single one, so can’t recommend it either way.