Lately it seems as though all conversations about travel lead to Portugal, whether someone has just returned or hopes to go. I travelled to Lisbon with my husband and oldest son back in 2018 (you can read about that trip here) and couldn’t wait for a chance to return; thankfully the opportunity presented itself on our most recent adventure to Europe. In order to be “economical” we decided to fly TAP to Rome, and because we were flying through Lisbon we opted to add on a couple of days for some unforgettable food and fun. TAP offers a tremendous number of flight options to European destinations at prices that are a fraction of the Business Class fares on other airlines. When we originally shopped for direct Business Class fares to Rome the prices were in the ballpark of $7,500- $8,000 which seemed outrageous to me. TAP’s business product is fine (lie flat beds) and at only $3,400 per ticket seemed a smart move.
After an uneventful flight from Rome to Lisbon , we were met by the Hotel car, and before we knew it (the Lisbon airport is very close) we were checked in to the Hotel Bairro Alto, a member of Leading Hotels of the World, and ready to explore. The Hotel is smack in the middle of the very bohemian and historic Bairro Alto neighborhood, a convenient place to be based. The buildings that make up the hotel date back to the 18th Century, but everything has been completely modernized and renovated in the past few years. While Lisbon is a very vibrant city, there is a dearth of 5 Star luxury products, and although this one isn’t over the top, it is probably the nicest one in the best location we could find.
The entire staff went out of their way to be exceedingly friendly and accommodating, from the doorman, to the front desk staff, to the servers which made it a winner in our book. Another plus were the shots of home-made Ginjinha (sour cherry liquor) and delicious chocolates in our Suite. The Portuguese linens lived up to their reputation, (the bed was extremely cozy) and the tile work in the bath was also impressive. We had a Deluxe Junior Suite King while our son had a Classic Queen bedded room.
Lisbon is a paradise for both walkers and sightseers. On every corner there are colorfully tiled buildings; the polished painted tiles are called Azulejos and they are a tradition brought to Portugal by the Moors who had been influenced by the Persians, who had in turn been influenced by the Romans. However they came about, they are stunning and make you smile.
In addition to a vast array of Azulejos, there are endless varieties of tinned fish whose packaging almost rivals the tiles in their beauty and creativity. After wandering in and out of small shops trying to curate a collection to bring home, we happened upon Loja das Conservas, an emporium created in conjunction with ANICP (Portuguese Association of Canned Fish Industry) that allows the “Tinned Fish curious” to shop from all the Portuguese purveyors in one place. We had an incredibly knowledgable “docent” walk us through all the different products and help us pick cans to bring home with us. The prices are not discounted in any way (we walked to a grocer down the street and found the same items for far less) but no other shop could rival the number of choices, AND they delivered our purchases to our Hotel at no cost.
Contemplating all that fish reminded us that we hadn’t eaten lunch, so we paid a quick visit to Time Out Market Lisboa the iconic food hall located in the historic Mercado da Ribiera. The Market is perpetually crowded with locals and tourists alike, and it is home to some truly wonderful food stalls such as Manteigaria, a mecca for Pastéis de Nata, the buttery eggy sugary tarts that are the ubiquitous snack of Lisbon. The woman at the counter may have been having a hard day as she was very snippy, but luckily that didn’t detract from the pleasure these pastries brought us. I opted for a sublime piece of Chocolate Raspberry Mousse Cake on a meringue crust from Nós É Mas Bolos which was decadent and sweet as can be. We washed these treats down with some strong coffee and decided we were good until dinner.
Well, we thought we were good until we passed the Espinheira Ginjinha Dispensary (the best description I can think of) a tiny nook where shots of Sour Cherry Liquor are doled out from early in the morning to late at night. We certainly couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a taste, if you go, be sure to ask for yours with cherries!
After several hours of walking and exploring it was time to return to the restaurant we had been dreaming about since our first visit to Lisbon, Cervejaria Ramiro . Founded in 1956 as a beer hall, Ramiro has evolved into one of the most sought- after dining experiences in all of Lisbon. It is possible to request a reservation online at Ramiro (our travel agent did this for us), but most people line up outside and nurse (several) cold delicious Sagres Beers while they wait. While the menu consists almost solely of seafood, they also offer a few other other gems, specifically one of my favorite cheeses of all time Quiejo Serra da Estrela , a sheep’s milk cheese that rarely gets imported in to the US.
The Seafood can be ordered according to your appetite, it is all weighed and then charged by the Kilo. The Clams on Garlic and the Scarlet Shrimp were insanely good, as was the Shrimp on Garlic. We couldn’t pass up the Barnacles or the Glass Prawns, two delicacies you don’t ordinarily come across. The quality of absolutely everything was outstanding, including the steak sandwich my husband and son split for dessert while I contentedly polished off the generous portion of cheese. The waiters were helpful and friendly, assisting us in crafting our order, and restraining us from over-doing it. We seriously contemplated returning the next night, but instead promised to return on our next trip.
Because we had such limited time in Lisbon we enjoyed an early breakfast at the hotel the following morning and then set out to conquer the city. The breakfast was included in our Virtuoso rate, and was quite tasty.
Lisbon has a very young and exciting energy that when set alongside the dramatic history of the city makes it a really special place to spend time in. It is also a highly appealing city to photograph, I was constantly holding us up by stopping to take yet another picture. Cobblestone streets (wear sneakers), monuments, trolley cars, endless pastry shops and appealing small neighborhoods make for a highly enjoyable time.
Our agenda for the day was to cover as much ground as we could and then participate in a Culinary Backstreets Tour starting at 2pm. I am a huge fan of this company, and the tours we have taken over the years have never disappointed. I have recommended them to countless friends, and every single one has come back raving. The last time we visited Lisbon we experienced the Culinary Crossroads tour with Martim, but on this trip we took part in the Hidden Flavors of the Hillside tour with Celia Pedroso , exploring Mouraria and Graça, two neighborhoods we never would have found on our own. If you are a fan of Somebody Feed Phil you may recognize Celia as one of the guides who led Phil through Lisbon.
Although our afternoon was to be spent eating, that didn’t deter me from snacking on a tiny serving of ice cream from Santini (Chocolate and Torrone). It was not too sweet, but very satisfying.
We set off to join Celia and the rest of our group at a local landmark, the Church Senora da Saùde. I feel confident in making the sweeping generalization that people you meet on Food Tours are invariably some of the nicest, most curious, enthusiastic folks you can hope to get to know. This proved to be the case on our tour.
Our first stop was Pastelaria Doce Mila, a family run small restaurant and pastry shop in the Mauraria part of town. We had a taste of Caldo Verde (Portuguese Kale soup) as well as ethereally light Pastéis de Bacalhau (salt cod fritters). There is a small outdoor seating area and the shop enjoyed a steady stream of locals going in and out.
What our guide conveyed to us is that Lisbon is truly a melting pot of cultures and flavors, with influences coming from all of the territories Portugal had colonized in the past including Madeira, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Macao, Goa, Nagasaki and Brazil. The result of this is that Lisbon has one of the most diverse and unique food scenes that you can imagine. There is no better way to experience these flavors than through a food tour.
Celia led us up and down through the hilly landscape, pointing out beauty all along the way.
Our next stop was at Restaurante São Cristóvão, a very small local spot we never would have found ourselves. The owner (who is also an accomplished singer) opened her restaurant in the 1970’s and it continues to bring good food and a taste of Cape Verde to an enthusiastic clientele. The specialty of the house is Cachupa, a stew consisting of both traditional Portuguese sausage, Blood Sausage, Hominy, Cassava and Sweet Potatoes. Not that we had anything to compare it to, but this dish was a huge hit. The stew was devoured within minutes of serving, with everyone having seconds (I loved the Hominy and Cassava). Celia is pictured below with some local Portuguese wine that helped wash everything down.
Happy with our first taste of food from Cape Verde we continued on to a fascinating section of Lisbon, the Bairro Estrella D’Ouro, a planned community for factory workers in Graça dating back to the early 1900s, I just loved the tile work and cobblestone stars. Around the corner from this community was a VERY local seafood spot, similar to Ramiro, but with not a single other American tourist in sight, Penalva da Graça.
Penalva da Graça is part seafood spot, part diner, part social club and an all around crowd pleaser. When we arrived it was just about 4:30, and the restaurant was filled with people stopping by after work. Penalva da Graça was a winner, and if you are adventurous enough to go off the beaten path I would recommend it 100%. Dare I say it was almost better than Ramiro?
Following lunch, some more walking featuring some killer views, and then on to the next spot.
A Taberna do Mar is a tiny place specializing in Japanese -Portuguese fusion. They allowed us to stop in for two of their signature dishes before the dinner crowd arrived, and we were fortunate they did. A shot of Horse Mackerel Soup along with Smoked Sardine Sushi were just enough of a taste to leave you wanting to come back for more. This is another spot I would add to your list if you are in Lisbon.
As we approached the end of our tour it was time for dessert. In all truth we were pretty stuffed, didn’t want to miss sampling an iconic dish. Haweli Tandoori is a family run Indian spot dating back to 1991, and aside from their food which is supposed to be terrific, they are known for the traditional Goan Portuguese dessert called Bebinca. This cake was made up of many layers of coconut- creamy, sugary, eggy goodness. It is exceedingly sweet, but very tasty. The Bebinca had flour, so I had my own dish of Mango ice cream.
Before we were to head our separate ways we needed a shot of Ginjinha to toast our group and end the day on a sweet note. I can not emphasize enough how fabulous these Culinary Backstreet Tours are, If you are traveling to a new city, check their website to see whether a tour is offered, and sign up! You won’t regret it.
As you might imagine we were pretty well satiated when we ended our tour at about 7:00 pm, but we had received a $200 Virtuoso Food & Beverage Credit upon check-in and didn’t want it to go to waste, so after a little downtime we headed up to Hotel Bairro Alto’s restaurant Bahr to have some snacks.
I restrained myself from having anything more than tea, but my husband and son enjoyed some Port, cheese, and some other dishes they deemed to be delicious, but I was too full and tired to pay attention. We sat at the bar and were entertained by the Bartender’s prowess with a cocktail shaker.
One last breakfast before we set off for the Airport, and so ended a whirlwind 2 days in Lisbon. If you haven’t been to Portugal yet, book a trip to this special place, you won’t be sorry. We would very much like to return to explore the Algarve and Azore regions at a later date.
On the flight home I opted only for the Cheese/Dessert selection. I couldn’t miss out on one last opportunity for a taste of queijo.
We arrived home to this lovely sight, grateful for the adventures we had, and ready to plan the next!