With castles and Unesco World Heritage sites seemingly around every corner, Lisbon’s rich history is well established. But recently young creatives are flocking to its cheerful terra-cotta tiled neighborhoods lured by the city’s affordability and warm disposition, giving Lisbon a youthful vitality that sets it apart from other European capitals. Once you visit it’s easy to understand the city’s appeal, whether you’re on the hunt for the best pastels de nata or just watching swallows dance in the sky at dusk, Lisbon has an ease and an elegance which make it the perfect destination for a city break.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to join my talented friend and shoe designer, Sarah Flint, on a trip to this magical city to gather inspiration for her upcoming 2020 shoe collection. We spent three fun-filled days taking in the ornate architecture and colorful tiles, revisiting my old favorites and unearthing new treasures, and I honestly cannot wait to come back to continue to explore this incredible country! I’ve personally spent more time in Lisbon any other city in Europe, but this is the first time I’m sharing my favorites in a city guide here on the blog. Read on for three perfect days on your first trip to Lisbon, Portugal!
Palácio Belmonte – Almost one with Castelo de Sao Jorge, Palacio Belmonte was home to nobility for 500 years before undergoing a six year restoration giving the property new life as a chic getaway in the heart of historic Lisbon. Much more than a luxury hotel, Palacio Belmonte is so quintessentially Lisbon you (almost) don’t need to leave the property to experience the city. Each of the 10 suites are uniquely decorated showcasing the owner, Frederic’s extensive collection of modern art against a backdrop of carefully restored rooms whose architecture spans 12 centuries. Offering a grand sense of place without pretense, the rooms are filled with treasures, and you might find yourself brushing your teeth next to a 1st century Roman bust Frederic “found in the garden.” We stayed in Suite Bartolomeu de Gusmão, in the Muslim Tower which was built in the 8th century and covered with azulejos from the 1700s. A spiral staircase connects the living room, bedroom, and private deck overlooking Alfama and the Tejo River. An almost invisible staff of 25 manages the 10 suite property, discretely refreshing linens and delivering breakfast to guests every morning. The sheer scale of the place and winding hallways meant we only bumped into other guests twice over the course of our three night stay and felt like we had the palace all to ourselves.
Exploring Alfama – Alfama is one of Lisbon’s oldest and most beautiful neighborhoods stretching from the castelo to the River Tejo below. Tucked between the ancient homes and cobblestone streets are countless restaurants, shops, and scenic outlooks over the city. While I love wandering without an agenda, be sure to stop by the beautiful gardens surrounding Igreja de Santa Luzia, which are best enjoyed around 8am, and watch for the charming yellow Tram 28.
Pastry Santo António – We sampled Portugal’s famous pastels de nata (custard tarts) all over town and found the best was just a short 4 minute walk from Palacio Belmonte. At Pastry Santo António they’re lighter, creamier and served warm from the oven with cinnamon and powdered sugar – I dare you to eat just one.
Prado Mercantile & Prado Restaurant – Prado Mercantile and its neighboring restaurant by the same name are Instagram perfection. Take a break from wandering the beautiful old neighborhood of Alfama for a long lunch at either spot surrounded by artfully arranged lights and hanging gardens.
Castelo de Sao Jorge – A fixture on Lisbon’s skyline, Castelo de Sao Jorge is a Moorish fortification built in the 11th century to house military troops and serve as a retreat for the elite should the city come under siege. The best time to visit is at sunset for a glass of wine on the wall as golden hour kisses the terra-cotta rooftops and illuminates Lisbon’s Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge.
Grenache Lisboa – This cozy French restaurant tucked into a passage near Castelo de Sao Jorge is my favorite discovery from our trip. Chef Philippe Gelfi came from Paris to open Grenache Lisboa and it’s only a matter of time before they’re awarded several Michelin stars. We were lucky enough to visit the night after they opened and Sarah and I agreed it was the best meal either of us had in recent memory. From the mackerel, beetroot, and berry starter to the strawberry and black olive dessert every bite was inventive and magical. We canceled our reservation at another restaurant the last night of our trip so we could return to Grenache a second time, and it did not disappoint!
Jerónimos Monastery – One of the most prominent examples of the Portuguese late Gothic Manueline style of architecture in Lisbon, walk through the cathedral, but save most of your time for the cloisters – they steal the show.
Pastéis de Belém – Equal parts tourist trap and Lisbon fixture, Pastéis de Belém is a necessary stop on your pastels de nata tasting tour. I like to order a few tarts to go and carry them across the street to enjoy next to the fountain in the Jardim de Belém.
Torre de Belém – Portuguese sailor Vasco de Gama became the first European to reestablish direct trade with India since Roman times by circumnavigating Africa from 1497-1499 AD. Belém Tower served as both a fortress and a port for from where Portuguese sailors would depart during the “Age of Discoveries”.
Lunch at Taberna da Rua das Flores – I eat here on every trip and especially recommend their lunch menu which features simple yet hearty Portuguese comfort food. (At dinnertime their menu takes a global turn.) This tiny restaurant has roughly 15 tables and average wait times of 1 hour but I like to put my name down and do a little shopping around the corner while we wait for our table.
A Vida Portuguesa – If you could only visit one store in Lisbon this would be it. A Vida features the best Portuguese heritage brands from Bordallo Pinheiro’s whimsical pottery to Banho’s bath products and the country’s spectacular embroidered linens. I’ve been to all their locations and like the two in the Chiado neighborhood best. If you’re on the hunt for bedding or linens I also recommend Paris EM Lisboa which sadly doesn’t allow photos but you’ll want everything they sell. Also visit the darling antique book store Bertrand Livreiros across the street, and Luvaria Ulisses around the corner for handmade gloves and old-world charm.
Principe Real – If you’re looking to work off your lunch, walk up to Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara to take in the city views before continuing on to the neighborhood of Principe Real, where you can browse boutiques or the Jardim Botanico, then head to dinner at BouBou’s romantic and plant-filled space.
Palacio Nacional da Pena – A chaotic fusion of colors and architectural styles come together in this 19th century Romanticist castle. Whether you find the Palace beautiful or not, it’s considered a must for first timers to Lisbon.
Sintra Town – A serene 40 minute walk through the gardens and forests of Sintra (or 10 minute tuk tuk ride), Sintra has a charming town center but save your appetite for Cascais. If you have time visit the fascinating Quinta da Regaleira summerhouse and gardens on the edge of town, with it’s stunning initiation step well decorated with Masonic and Templar iconography.
Lunch at the Albatroz Hotel – The Albatroz Hotel just reopened in May 2019 after an extensive renovation and the new look is a preppy chic reminiscent of The Ocean House in Rhode Island – and it’s good. Snag a table on the veranda that overlooks Praia da Rainha for the perfect spot to negotiate a salad and a bottle of rosé.
Praia da Rainha – A great spot to watch the locals at play, everyone young and old will be out enjoying the the sparkling aqua waters. Dry off and wander the bougainvillea-filled lanes of old town Cascais when you’ve had too much sun and before you catch a train or cab back to Lisbon’s city center.
Dinner in town – We returned to Grenache for our final dinner in Lisbon, but if you’re looking to try something different I’ve loved meals at BA Wine Bar Bairro Alto (zero ambiance, but amazing wine list and cheese selection) or one of the many small shops in the Mercado da Ribeiro . On my next trip I hope to check out Bistro 100 Maneiras and The Decadente.
Thanks as always for reading and let me know if you visit any of my favorite spots in Lisbon!