It seems that once in a while a new wave of hate for travel bloggers surfaces. It looked like I had two choices: either mope about it or prove them wrong. One month went by, and I chose a third one – to continue to show a Lisbon that most people who visit don’t know about.
Yes, parts of the city are crowded. Yes, Lisbon, at first sight, seems unoriginal (especially if you continue to compare it with other European capitals to mask your lack of skills to properly describe something…). Yes, some places are overrated, described and recommended by travel bloggers who are misinformed (or, worst case scenario, were paid to write and never visited). Yes, there is a Lisbon beyond the trendy neighborhoods of Cais do Sodré, Alfama, Bairro Alto. Yes, not all tourists are explorers and therefore don’t step out of their comfort zone (unless someone shows them it’s okay to do so). Yes, Jamaica, Tokyo and Europa (three famous nightclubs in Cais do Sodré) closed in April and the word on the street is that they’ll be transformed into hotels (and the question is, does Lisbon really need more hotels downtown?).
You can still find ways to feel Lisbon under your skin and see the authentic city.
1. Take a Bike Tour of the City of the 7 Hills
At first sight, Lisbon doesn’t strike you as the perfect city to go biking – a look up to the Castle from downtown will probably make you wonder if you could pedal all the way to the top.
Like everything else, it’s all a matter of knowing the right people who happen to know a couple of tricks (and detours, and workarounds, and hidden gems…). Consider Lisbon Cycle Tours as your next group of friendly locals who will show you around. Not only the guides know the city like the back of their hands, they use e-bikes to make the whole tour a lot smoother. Plus, they take customer care very seriously.
Photo courtesy of Lisbon Cycle Tours
2. Savour the Mediterranean Cuisine, Listed as UNESCO Cultural Heritage
As much as we all fancy some familiar food when we’re away from home (I should know. I craved feijoada in Bangkok…), trying local cuisine goes beyond satisfying a basic need. It’s the whole experience around food that helps you feel Lisbon – the smells, the flavors, the colors, the simple act of sitting around the table to experience a meal.
The Portuguese cuisine is mainly Mediterranean, and it’s the perfect balance of seasoning and olive oil, plenty of fish, masterfully paired with the right cheese and the right bottle of wine, usually topped with heavenly desserts.
Go for the smaller, hidden restaurants, for the chances of better meals at lower prices. If you’d like to test your waters before diving in, I suggest you take one of Lazy Flavor’s food tours through Lisbon.
Photo via Flickr
3. Embrace the Café (and Coffee) Culture
With 260 days of sunshine throughout the year (and relatively mild temperatures in the Winter), Lisbon is a bright and warm city. The cafés are usually equipped with outdoor seating (esplanades) wherever there is space to have a few tables and chairs.
If possible, try to find a café with more locals than tourists, one where an espresso will cost you under €1.00… If you’re not feeling adventurous and not entirely sure if you want to go for something completely offbeat and unfamiliar, look for the Portuguese chain Padaria Portuguesa – they keep up the Portuguese tradition and flair alive, the employees are friendly but they keep it professional, the prices aren’t over the top, and the servings are generous. And when you are ordering their chocolate cake, you want the serving to be generous, right?
Oh, and when ordering coffee anywhere, keep it simple. Forget the complicated recipes of places like Starbucks. Here’s a picture to help you out:
Photo via Pinterest
4. Listen to Live Fado Music
Just as famous as the sardines is Fado music. Part of the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List since 2011, Fado carries more meaning for Lisbon’s urban culture than any other symbol (except maybe S. L. Benfica, the football team).
Lisbon has almost as many Fado Houses (“Casas de Fado”) as cafés. There’s almost one in every corner, especially in the Alfama neighborhood, so how do you choose which one to go to if you don’t know what to look for?
If you’re looking for a full meal and a show, look for Adega Machado (Bairro Alto), A Severa (Bairro Alto), Café Luso (Bairro Alto) or Parreirinha de Alfama (Alfama).
If all you want is some snacks (the good old Portuguese “petiscos”), a full glass of their finest house wine and a chit chat with friends with some live Fado in the background, look for the small “tascas” like Bela (Alfama), Fado na Morgadinha (Alfama) or Tasca do Chico (Bairro Alto).
Visiting the Fado Museum is an absolute must-do to understand the roots of this music genre and get you a little inspired. The museum’s restaurant, A Travessa do Fado, also has live music shows every Wednesday.
Photo by Chris via Flickr
5. Invest in an Independent Travel Guidebook Written By Locals
If you don’t know it by now, I wrote two travel guides for two different types of travelers but with one thing in common: they both want to see the essence of the city and they don’t mind a mix of tourist-y spots with offbeat detours.
“Lisbon Travel Guide for Urban Explorers” (I’m currently updating the first edition and, hopefully, it will be launched later this year) lists all my recommendations of places to see in the city, an overview of each one of the neighborhoods and their vibe, and a list of those little things you can’t miss while you’re here (including festivals to attend). It’s for those who want to know all the information and who would rather plan out their own itineraries (nevertheless, I include three itinerary ideas to help you out). It’s available on Amazon* and iBooks*.
“Choose a Way Lisbon” is for the adventurous, go-with-the-flow type of traveler. It’s an interactive ebook that allows you to call your own shots. To the question “where do I want to go next?” there are 162 possible answers. It’s available on Amazon*, iBooks*, Gumroad.
What other activities do you recommend to feel Lisbon under your skin? Share it with us on Facebook or Twitter. If you’re not much of a talker, follow us on Instagram and Pinterest for your daily dose of travel inspiration.