Forget Lisbon as the budget capital of Europe. Yes, the seafood is still (relatively) cheap, as is the wine. The old canary-yellow trams still rattle along steep hills, and you’ll never pay more than a euro and change for a pastéis de nata, the classic Portuguese pastry. But today the Portuguese capital is better known for its red-hot culinary scene and fine cultural institutions, including a new world-class museum on the waterfront. The faded Old Europe charm remains, but with a stream of exciting openings and fresh inspiration drawn from across the Atlantic, Lisbon seems primed for a new golden era.
To gain some perspective on Lisbon’s undulating terrain, ascend the city’s highest hill into the Graça district. Start at the Graça Convent, whose tiled chapel and Baroque cloister opened to the public for the first time after recent restorations (free). Then head outside to admire one of the city’s finest miradouros (viewpoints) that sweeps across the terracotta-tiled rooftops. Afterward, on the steep descent, peek inside Surrealejos, a closet-size atelier producing surrealist tiles — one series depicts an anthropomorphic panda — that are a cheeky twist on Portuguese azulejos (traditional painted tiles).
Getting to know Fernando Pessoa, the shape-shifting writer who is considered one of Portugal’s greatest poets, is no easy task. But that’s the goal of Casa Fernando Pessoa, a museum and cultural center in the residential Campo de Ourique neighborhood. Situated in the final home of the bespectacled author, the site is a treasure trove of Pessoa’s early 20th-century works — most published posthumously — including poems written under three well-developed heteronyms. Through interactive exhibits, engage with the poet’s language: “I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist.” There’s also a collection of portraits of Pessoa — fittingly, in diverse styles — including paintings by Júlio Pomar. Admission, 3 euros, or about $3.70.
For a feast of seafood petiscos (Portuguese tapas), reserve a table at Peixaria da Esquina. Opened in 2015 by the acclaimed chef Vítor Sobral, this low-key restaurant on a quiet corner of Campo de Ourique serves fresh-caught seafood raw, cured, marinated, grilled — you name it. Start with a glass of Douro branco and paper-thin octopus carpaccio topped with cilantro, sweet potato chips and a drizzle of olive oil (13.50 euros). Then move on to the marinated dishes, like citrusy salmon with passion fruit, ginger and cilantro (9.60 euros), followed by Sobral’s superlative version of amêijoas à Bulhão Pato — a steaming bowl of plump clams seasoned simply with lemon, garlic and more cilantro (17.50 euros).
Lisbon’s night life reached new heights when a wave of rooftop bars opened around the city. Squirreled away on the Terraços do Carmo, Topo Chiado is an open-air lounge serving cocktails to tables overlooking the castle and the neo-Gothic, wrought-iron Santa Justa Lift. For more al fresco night life, venture west to Rio Maravilha, a new fourth-floor hangout in the resurgent LX Factory area. This sprawling industrial space offers live music, two outdoor terraces and a much-photographed rooftop sculpture. Order a porto tónico — white port and tonic — and head to the roof where dazzling views span the Tagus River and the 25 de Abril Bridge, a doppelgänger of the Golden Gate Bridge.
In the canon of Portuguese pastries, the most storied sweet is the pastéis de nata, a flaky, palm-size tart with creamy egg-custard filling. At Pastelaria Alcôa, a standing-room-only pastry shop that opened last year in a prime location in the bustling Chiado district, rows of those golden tarts are displayed alongside a variety of other so-called monastic pastries whose centuries-old recipes originated in Catholic monasteries and convents. Pair a pastéis de nata with one of the lesser-known specialties, like the award-winning Torresmo do Céu, a sweeter cousin of the egg tart featuring a rich almond-and-citrus filling.
Home to a third of the world’s cork oak forests, Portugal has dreamed up myriad uses for the natural, sustainable material. Shop for cork-centric souvenirs that extend beyond the bottle stopper at Cork & Co, a bi-level store filled with eco-conscious designs, from decorative bowls to stylish wine coolers carved from the lightweight material. A short walk north, find more innovative cork products at Pelcor, a boutique stocked with cork-lined golf bags and umbrellas made from naturally water-resistant cork skin.
If there’s a line outside A Cevicheria, a popular Peruvian restaurant opened by the chef Kiko Martins in 2014, order a frothy pisco sour and wait — it’s worth it. Inside the bright, white-tiled restaurant, a giant foam octopus hangs from the ceiling above a handful of tables and bar seats around a horseshoe-shaped counter. On the menu, you’ll find ceviches and causas, smaller dishes to share, including an excellent barbecued roast octopus with black mashed potatoes. One must-order dish is the transportive ceviche puro of white fish in lime juice with red onion, tiger’s milk and rich dollops of mashed sweet potato crowned with sweet-potato chips. Lunch for two, about 50 euros.
Southwest of the city center, the pretty riverfront Belém district is defined by its landmarks: the Manueline-style Jerónimos Monastery, the 16th-century Belém Tower and, since 2016, the futuristic facade of MAAT, the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology. The latter takes a page from other European capitals — see London’s Tate Modern and Rome’s Centrale Montemartini —by repurposing a former power plant, in addition to that newly constructed exhibition hall encased in gleaming white tile, for showcasing world-class art. Visit both buildings to explore contemporary art installations, interactive science exhibits and video works displayed amid the plant’s hulking, well-preserved machinery (admission, 9 euros).
Located in a former grocery store, Taberna da Rua das Flores has the well-worn atmosphere of an old Lisbon tavern, with tile floors, wooden chairs and marble-topped tables. What distinguishes this homey taberna is its innovative, market-driven cuisine. The daily menu — scribbled on a large blackboard and patiently explained by servers — recently included wasabi-spiced oysters, bright mackerel tartare with seaweed and crunchy dried shrimp, and a flavorful pile of matchstick potatoes and local trumpet mushrooms. Add to that a bottle of Tejo tinto and some Portuguese sheep’s-milk cheese for dessert, and a satisfying dinner for two is about 50 euros (cash only).
After dinner, swing by Pub Lisboeta in the increasingly lively Príncipe Real district. This cozy, narrow bar opened a few years ago with crowded tables, an emerald-tiled bar, and a variety of Portuguese craft beers — try the Kölsch from Lisbon’s Oitava Colina brewery. For something stronger, continue down the street to Gin Lovers, an elegant back-room bar within a 19th-century palace-turned-shopping complex. The menu lists over 50 varieties of gin and tonic, served Spanish-style in bulbous glasses. Overwhelmed? Order the house gin garnished with orange and cloves.
In Portugal, as in Italy, coffee equates to espresso. For a wider variety of caffeinated options, start the morning at Fábrica Coffee Roasters. Established in 2015, this specialty coffee purveyor operates two cafes that serve traditional shots as well as cold brews, pour-overs and frothy cappuccini. At the spacious Chiado locale, order a velvety flat white, take a seat amid the plants, put away the phone (there’s no Wi-Fi) and savor your coffee.
In an impressive show of reverse colonization, Brazil has taken over a magnificent mansion in Príncipe Real. Opened in April 2017, Casa Pau-Brasil is a concept shop and showroom for top Brazilian designers and brands spanning fashion, home furnishings, stationery, soaps and more. Ascend the elegant staircase, which is circled by a flock of yellow stuffed parrots, to explore the maze of rooms that recently displayed Lenny Niemeyer’s fashionable swimsuits, orange-trimmed Panama hats from Frescobol Carioca, bars of Rio’s Q chocolate, and exquisite polished-wood armchairs designed by Sérgio Rodrigues.
A local initiative begun in 2009 to revive the city’s many abandoned quiosques de refresco (refreshment kiosks) is today a resounding success. With attractive Art Nouveau architecture and prime locations in plazas, parks and scenic overlooks throughout the city, these popular kiosks are natural gathering points from sunup to sundown. Join the local crowd sipping ginja, a traditional sour-cherry liqueur, at purple tables beside the restored quiosque in Praça das Flores, a small, leafy park with a central fountain that doubles as a watering hole for neighborhood cats. In inclement weather, take cover at Cerveteca Lisboa, a quiet beer bar across the street pouring hard-to-find brews from Portuguese craft breweries, like Dois Corvos and Passarola Brewing.
Opened last year in a historic building formerly occupied by the consulate of Brazil, Le Consulat is a sophisticated hotel with eight spacious suites decorated with artworks culled from top Lisbon galleries, and views across the lovely Camões square in the central Chiado district (Praça Luís de Camões 22; 351-212-427-470; leconsulat.pt; from about 200 euros).
Another noteworthy newcomer, the Corpo Santo Lisbon Historical Hotel is an upscale property that also opened last year near the lively Cais do Sodré district, with welcoming staff, a convenient location, an on-site restaurant and 77 plush, neutral-hued rooms (Rua do Corpo Santo 25; 351-218-288-000; corposantohotel.com; from about 180 euros).
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