5 Ways to Feel Lisbon Under Your Skin

5 Ways to Feel Lisbon Under Your Skin

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?).

But…

You can still find ways to feel Lisbon under your skin and see the authentic city.

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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.

Lisbon Cycle Tours | 5 Ways to Feel Lisbon Under Your Skin
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.

Indulge in Mediterranean Cuisine, Listed as UNESCO Cultural Heritage | 5 Ways to Feel Lisbon Under Your Skin
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:

5 Ways to Feel Lisbon Under Your Skin
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.

Live Fado Music | 5 Ways to Feel Lisbon Under Your Skin
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.

You can read the fun behind-the-scenes stories of each book here and here.

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.

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24 Comments

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    I would love to try the Portuguese food, I have heard a lot of good things about it and I am a bog fan of fish. Also, they make some really delicious sweets, like pastel de nata.

    • 6

      We love to eat so I think that, inevitably, we love to cook and create with food. We also love to savor food and linger around the table with a good meal. Part of our Arabic ancestry 🙂

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    I love how you admit to all the perceived faults at the beginning but then go on to prove everyone wrong about how their still are unique things to do! Would love to catch a Fado show next time!

    • 10

      Cities are what they are, they evolve and change; people can’t expect them to stand still like art pieces in a museum 🙂 It has ups and downs and you just have to go with the flow.

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    You would definitely find me eating all the food and drinking all the coffee! I love Mediterranean food and could eat it everyday – my husband actually makes fun of me for it.

    • 14

      One of the best cuisines in the world! Plus, the Portuguese one has all these other influences from India and Africa because of the spice trade in the 1400’s so it’s all mind blowing!

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    I’ve never been to Lisbon, but I’m definitely game to add it to the list. I love a place that mixes intriguing history with delicious cuisine. While I might be first intimidated by the hills, I dig your suggestion about taking the cycling tour. It seems like the perfect way to not only see parts of the city, but to have a knowledgable guide give you the history of places, but also the local take on things. I’m sorry to say I don’t know much about Fado music, so clearly it is time for me to start listening.

    • 18

      Fado is so complex I can’t even begin to explain it! And the hills aren’t as intimidating as it sounds – the city is not that big (compared to other European capitals) and the e-bikes definitely help (plus, Nuno and Xavier are two excellent guides)

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    These are some great suggestions! I’ve wanted to visit Portugal for a while now and will definitely check out your guides when I plan my trip!

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