Lisbon is a fortuitous marriage of gastronomy and geography. The Portuguese may specialise in calorific cakes – a legacy of colonising sugar-giant Brazil – but since their capital is draped across seven hills, a brisk hike up from the Tagus River’s banks will counter some of the damage.
A gourmet walk is a good option in a city less about headline sights, more about navigating alleys of classily crumbling buildings and happening upon yet another pastelaria that looks too good to pass.
Both my feet and stomach were in good hands – food-loving Lisboeta guide Alex was showing me around. We met in wide Praca do Comercio – a riverside square from which the city fans upwards and outwards – by the King Dom Jose statue and triumphal Rua Augusta Arch, the crowning glories of the rebuild that followed the 1755 earthquake, tsunami and fires that devastated the city.
We headed north, under the Arco, heading into the heart of the Baixa (downtown) district, turning right down Rua da Conceicao, then left up Rua dos Correeiros to peer into the BCR bank. Inside weren’t cash machines but Roman ruins. “These vats were used to make garum – fish sauce,” said Alex. “It was exported across the empire and gained Lisbon a smelly reputation.”
At Rua de Sao Nicolau, we turned left, then right back on to Rua Augusta, Baixa’s main thoroughfare. At Rua de Santa Justa we turned left; ahead stood the 32m-high latticed-metal Elevador. Built in 1902, it whisks the weary to the higher levels of Baixa. We, however, were walking up.
Turning right down Rua dos Sapateiros, passing a glorious Art Nouveau theatre façade (now a peep show), we emerged into Praca Dom Pedro IV, turning immediately right for Praca da Figueira, once site of Lisbon’s main market. Although it no longer hosts the market, there’s still a strong foodie theme here. We paused at Manuel Tavares (00 351 213 424209; manueltavares.com), purveyor of cured meats and vintage port since 1860, and we drooled at the venerable pastry shop Confeitaria Nacional (00 351 213 424470; confeitarianacional.com). Less appealing was the pungent Antiga Casa do Bacalhau (00 351 213 426256), piled with salt cod.
We exited the square via Rua Dom Antao de Almada, which widened into Largo de Sao Domingos, a popular gathering place for Lisbon’s immigrant communities. “This is where to buy obscure African ingredients,” Alex remarked. The square promotes tolerance – an olive tree stands in front of the tragedy-scarred Igreja de Sao Domingos. In 1506 , this church witnessed a massacre of converted Jews; when a fire destroyed its interior in the 1950s, it was pointedly left unrestored. Outside, we lifted the sombre mood at A Ginjinha, the city’s original hole-in-the-wall ginjinha bar, which has sold shots of this sweet cherry brandy since the 1840s.
Next, we aimed for Rua das Portas de Santo Antao, known for its seafood restaurants – and inflated prices. However, it was worth nosing into Casa do Alentejo (00 351 213 405140) – formerly a 17th-century palace whose Moorish-style interior has fine azulejos tiles and a grandly gilded bar-restaurant.
We cut down the narrow Travessa de Santo Antao, heading south around Praca dos Restauradores. “I know a trick,” declared Alex, leading us through the entrance of Rossio Station – not to catch a train, but to use the escalators and save our energy. We exited on Calcada do Carmo, climbing south to leafy Largo do Carmo – home to the Museu Arqueologico (00 351 213 460 473; museuarqueologicodocarmo.pt), housed in the 14th-century Convento, one of the few buildings to survive the destruction in 1755.
From here, we followed Rua Serpa Pinto to turn right on to bustling Rua Garrett; much of the hubbub surrounded Art Deco A Brasileira (00 351 213 469 541). “In Lisbon we don’t say espresso, we say bica – which comes from this place,” Alex explained. “In 1905, it was first to sell small cups of strong coffee – which weren’t initially popular. So, they put a sign up saying ‘drink this with sugar’ – in Portuguese, the initials of these words spell ‘bica’.”
After a quick shot at the bar, we continued west to Praca Luis de Camoes, then cut right into the alleys of the Bairro Alto – Lisbon’s party district. We took Rua do Norte to Grapes & Bites (00 351 213 472431; grapesandbites.com). In its vaulted interior we were introduced to five Portuguese cheeses of increasing potency, from mild Alentejo goats’ cheese to a spiky well-aged Azorean queijo. We also sampled olive oils and cured meats: smoked pork sausage with garlic and pepper; a salami mixed with uncooked rice; presunto, sliced from a huge ham, right at our table. Then there were ports, from a complex white to a vintage ruby, which our sommelier opened using red-hot tongs. It was so good that it wasn’t hard to indulge – and besides, we’d walk it off tomorrow.
Lisbon’s Ribeira das Naus reopened in April. The renovated riverfront, which launched many a 16th-century explorer, features a wide promenade and a staircase down to the water – a re-creation of one that existed here before the 1755 earthquake.
Due to open later this month, Memmo Alfama (00 351 213 514368; memmoalfama.com) will be the first boutique hotel in the city’s Moorish Alfama district, complete with wine bar and pool overlooking the river.
New for foodies, local Michelin-starred chef Jose Avillez has just opened Pizzaria Lisboa (00 351 211 554945; joseavillez.pt) in trendy Chiado. His high-quality, innovative pizzas start at €9.50.
Sarah Baxter travelled with easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), which flies to Lisbon from Gatwick, Luton, Bristol, Liverpool and Edinburgh. One-way fares start at £30. Lisbon is also served by TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com/UK) from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester and by BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow.
Lisbon offers everything from affordable five-stars to award-winning hostels. To live more like a local, try an apartment rental from HouseTrip (020-3641 9944; housetrip.com). For example, host Dianka’s central, river-view, characterful flat, excellently located in Baixa, sleeps six and costs from £72 a night. Ref: 159705.
Tripbod (020-8144 0565; tripbod.com) offers guided tours with Lisboetas; a four-hour Lisbon and Port Wine Tasting trip with Alex costs £63.50pp, including cheese, meats, and five port wines.