By Maddy Thom
As Portugal’s capital, Lisbon is not without its fair share of museums and historical attractions. Most enchanting about Lisbon, however, is the colorful culture that the city births, which can’t quite be captured in guidebooks. While there is plenty here to see and do, most integral to experiencing this city is seeking out the best seafood, spending happy hours sipping vino verde, white sangria, or ginjinha, and getting lost in the company of the warm and welcoming Portuguese inhabitants who call Lisbon home.
As the only neighborhood downtown to survive the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that wiped out most of the lower part of the city, Alfama is probably the best place to explore by foot the sights and sounds of Lisbon’s past. With narrow, winding alleyways, few cars are seen here and even taxis often refuse to navigate some of the smallest passageways. If you’re lucky enough to visit in June, you’ll find the smell of cooking sardines wafting through the streets—stop to converse with a local and enjoy this grilled treat to in honor of St. Anthony’s Day and the Festas de Lisboa that take place all month.
Authentically Alfama, no trip to this district (or Lisbon, for that matter) is complete without a Fado experience and Mesa de Frades, a chapel turned Fado House, is one of the best places to take part. Reservations are required for their fixed price dinner (39€/person), which starts at 9 PM, but the restaurant opens to all for drinks and tapas at 11 PM. Be wary—this location is always bustling and there is often times standing room only. It also heats up inside during the summer nights, so be sure to dress light. Added Bonus: The music frequently runs until the morning hours—stick around once the crowd clears for a truly unforgettable experience.
For an evening out on the town, head to Bairro Alto—undoubtedly home to Lisbon’s most vibrant nightlife; you’ll be hard-pressed to find empty and abandoned streets, regardless of when you go. Set on top of one of Lisbon’s famous seven hills, this neighborhood features over three hundred bars, making it well worth the trek. You might break a sweat getting there, but you’ll be rewarded with some of the best mojitos, caipirinhas, and views that the city has to offer.
Follow the sound of voices and laughter or the limes that litter the streets and you’ll surely come across the crowd; however, if you’re looking for something a bit more intimate, check out Associação Loucos e Sonhadores, or “Wild Dreamers Association." What this place lacks in complex cocktails it makes up for in incomparable atmosphere. Its low lighting, antiqued and Middle Eastern décor, unmatched furniture, predominantly Portuguese patrons, and inexpensive drinks make the spot a hidden gem.
Like any city where tourism is present, you’ll find loads of souvenir shops if you need to do some shopping for friends and family at home, but for finding something one-of-a-kind, Feira da Ladra and Ler Devagar are your best bets.
Feira da Ladra (the “Thieves Market”) is the flea market set up every Tuesday and Saturday next to São Vicente in Alfama. Vendors arrive just before 8 AM with displays of handmade crafts, art, antiques, and clothes. Challenge your friends to who can find the most fascinating item for 1€ or less or spend the day trawling for the camera you lost on last night’s pub crawl.
Ler Devagar, or “Read Slowly” in English, is perhaps one of Lisbon’s quirkiest establishments. Located in the Alcântara neighborhood at the LX Factory, this new/used bookstore is easily accessed by tram, bus, train, or on foot.
Set in an old warehouse, it enchants readers of all ages and backgrounds, with shelves that stretch up stories, flying bikes suspended from the ceiling, and an old printing press serving as a centerpiece. While the varied collection is printed primarily in Portuguese, books in a multitude of languages are available—from French to English to Arabic, and with a bit of patience and a keen eye, everything in between. Venture up to the second floor for further delight—a listening section complete with chairs, compact disc players, and a used CD collection.
While it is open everyday except Monday, by far the best time to visit is Sunday. Coinciding with the LX Factory flea market, it’s the perfect late morning excursion. Just be sure to come hungry—it’s nearly impossible to resist brunch at one of the charming cafes across the street.
For accommodation look no further than Lisbon’s newest hostel, the Beach Destination Hostel, located in the Cais do Sodré train station. Opened in summer of 2012, this uniquely located hostel offers a variety of private and dormitory-style rooms. The owner, who has three hostels in the area, has established a variety of daily events for the guests—including homemade dinners offered every night by their own chef. Its relaxed atmosphere, friendly staff, and rooftop terrace overlooking the Tagus River make it the perfect place to relax after a long day (or night) exploring Lisbon. On top of that, they offer a free pancake breakfast and Wi-Fi included in the price of your room.