The secret of a good pastel de nata, according to the manager of our accommodation, Alex, is “in all the small details”. As I swallowed the last mouthful of my pastel de nata from Pasteis de Belém, reputedly the makers of the finest pastel de nata in Lisbon, I would like to think that I noticed those details. The silky smoothness of the filling, the crunch of the caramelised top, the lightness of the pastry bottom. Truth be told, though, I suspect that any differences of small detail that I noticed were in my head and that I enjoyed this pastel de nata as much as the one I had from the local pastelaria the day before and the one that I ate in a restaurant in Chiado the day before that. They were all good and left to my own devices they may have been all that I ate for the duration of our stay.
Lisbon, however, is not just about eating pasteis de nata (the plural of pastel de nata and let’s be honest my eating wasn’t confined to the singular). Alex, a man of strong opinions and sweeping generalisations (I liked him immediately), proclaimed that “Lisbon was not a town for touristic experiences”. Instead he said we should live like locals, walk the neighbourhoods, stop for coffee, eat food and drink wine. So we took his advice – well, except for the drink wine bit, albeit our confession that we didn’t drink wine seemed beyond the comprehension of a person born and bred in Lisbon.
Walking the neighbourhoods. Lisbon is also called the cidade das sete Colinas (city with seven hills), which means that any walking beyond the low-lying neighbourhood of Baixa involves a fair bit of up and down. For those who don’t have a husband who thinks that all exercise should be embraced (with the added justification that one of us had been eating rather a lot of pasteis de nata) some of the uphill can be avoided by use of the strategically placed funiculars. The neighbourhoods that most travellers will visit are:
- Baixa – the most touristy of neighbourhoods, with pedestrianised streets passing shops and restaurants. A fairly flat neighbourhood, it was completely destroyed in the 1755 earthquake and rebuilt in a grid of wide streets.
- Alfama – the only neighbourhood to survive the 1755 earthquake making it the oldest part of Lisbon. The sparing of this less than savoury neighbourhood whilst the other districts were first flattened by the earthquake which struck during All Saints Days services and were then hit by a tsunami and fires was a significant factor in the birth of modern seismology.
- Barrio Alto – the high district which sits above Baixa. Known for its nightlife and fado houses.
- Chiado – the district which sits between Baixa and Barrio Alto. Home to fashion boutiques, the theatre, restaurants and museums.
Take the tram. The classic vintage yellow tram 28, the only type of tram which can navigate the narrow streets of the Alfama, rattles along through many of Lisbon’s districts and provides a cheap, enjoyable introduction to the city (€2.85 for a single ticket).
Take a lift. Finished in 1902, the Elevador de Santa Justa is the only remaining vertical lift in Lisbon and connects Baixa with the higher Carmo Square.
Belém. No visit to Lisbon is complete without taking the half hour train or tram ride out to Belém, the location of the 16th century Torre de Belém and Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (together World Heritage sites) and, of course, Pasteis de Belem.
Watch the sun go down. One of the things people rave about in Lisbon is the quality of the light in the late afternoon. Perhaps the best spot to take it in is at the mirador in Barrio Alto, where you can look out over Lisbon and São Jorge Castle while having a beer and listening to fado.
Once again this proved to be a topic upon which Alex had an opinion. First he said we must stay away from any place which opened for dinner before 7pm and had spruiker out front beckoning you to come in – such places were for tourists. Instead he gave us a list of recommendations which he described as ‘tugas’ – authentic neighbourhood restaurants which didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Our favourite place to eat, however, was the Mercado da Ribeira a market combined with Time Out food hall opposite the Cais do Sodre train station. To describe it as a food hall, however, conjures unfortunate images of bad, cheap Asian food laden with MSG. The reality of Mercado da Ribeira is that it is one of the best food markets in Europe, where some of Lisbon’s top chefs ply dishes like ceviche, suckling pig sandwiches and the ubiquitous shaved ham and cheese.
Lisbon has many great inexpensive accommodation options. We booked a great apartment in the Principe Real district through booking.com. The only issue was that it was at the top of a hill on the fifth floor of the building with no lift (a common problem in Lisbon, so if this is an issue for you research the accommodation options carefully).