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Experience Lisbon Like a Local
“Life is what we make of it,” wrote Fernando Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet, “Travel is the traveler.” Portugal’s most famous writer ceaselessly wandered the streets of Lisbon—he even wrote a guidebook about it in English, published posthumously in 1992. “Lisbon, even from afar,” he writes as he introduces his beloved city, “rises like a fair vision in a dream, clear-cut against a bright blue sky which the sun gladdens with its gold.” Indeed, the city built on seven hills and cooled by breezes off the Atlantic enchants visitors today just as it captivated Pessoa.

This itinerary explores the city the way he would, wandering some of its neighborhoods while trying to touch on all that makes Portugal’s capital so appealing: the historic sites from its moment as a world power; its eclectic museums; and some places where you can experience the energy of Portugal today, including its music and food scenes and boutiques showcasing young designers. 

In Pessoa’s day, most travelers to Lisbon arrived by ship. Today, however, the easiest way to get there from the United States is via Lufthansa. The airline’s warm hospitality, engineered around passengers, promises a hassle-free start to your Portuguese adventure.
  • Day 1
    After you arrive in Lisbon, settle into your hotel of choice. For a no-expenses-spared stay, As Janelas Verdes is a favorite that combines the services and amenities of a luxury hotel with the intimacy of a boutique property—it has only 29 rooms. The hotel is next to the Ancient Art Museum in an 18th-century mansion just off of the Tagus River. It’s a quiet residential neighborhood, yet only a short walk to many of the main sights of Lisbon.

    A more affordable option is the Avani Avenida Liberdade, a four-star hotel built in 1968 that has retained the cool modernist style from when it first opened. As its name implies, it is just off of Avenida Liberdade, a shady Parisian-style boulevard.

    Start your explorations of Lisbon in the Alfama, the city’s oldest neighborhood. Ask your cab driver to take you to Chapitô à Mesa, just below the Castelo de São Jorge. This popular venue has three dining options—a snack bar, a terrace with grilled meats, and a full restaurant—that all come with views of the city and the Tagus River. After lunch, make your way up to the castle. With its oldest portions dating from the 10th century, having been constructed as defenses during the Moorish occupation of Lisbon, much of the history of the city is embodied in the fortress’s walls and explained in the permanent exhibition. If your jetlag is catching up with you, take an invigorating stroll around the gardens of cork oak, olive, and umbrella pines—all native to the area—and admire the views of Lisbon.

    It’s only a 20-minute walk from the castle to dinner, and all downhill, but take your time to meander through the warren of streets that makes the Alfama so charming. You’ll eventually cross into Barrio Alto, a neighborhood that comes to life in the evening when its many bars and restaurants fill up with residents. Just as with your lunch stop, Tágide, located in a restored 18th-century mansion, offers options from a wine and tapas bar downstairs to a full restaurant upstairs.
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    Photo By Paulo Valdivieso
    Day 2
    Having seen the oldest part of Lisbon on your first day, head this morning to Belém, a neighborhood in the southwest that is associated with the most famous period in the country’s history, the Age of Discovery. In the 15th and 16th centuries, figures including Henry the Navigator, Bartolomeo Dias, and Vasco de Gama explored the world and established an expansive empire in the process.

    The 16th-century Torre de Belém was built as part of Lisbon’s maritime defenses, and today it is, along with the nearby Jerónimos Monastery, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. While the elaborate Manueline architecture gives the tower, an icon of both Lisbon and Portugal, the look of a fantastic folly, it in fact played an essential role in several conflicts over the centuries. (It also served as a customs house and prison at different points.) A visit in the morning offers the best light to photograph the landmark. Afterwards head to the nearby Pastéis de Belém for a breakfast of coffee and one of Portugal’s most famous dishes: pasteis de nata, egg custard tarts.

    Once you have refueled, you’ll be ready to explore the Jerónimos Monastery, an enormous building funded by the riches from Portugal’s young empire. Construction began in 1501 and took a hundred years to complete, all financed by a tax on trade with Asia and Africa. It is famous as one of the pinnacles of Manueline architecture, an elaborate Gothic-inspired style that incorporates maritime motifs—twisting ropes, anchors, shells, and strings of seaweed are recreated in stone. For more than 300 years, until the monastery was dissolved in 1833, the monks here prayed for the success of the expeditions that departed from Lisbon. Get a late lunch at Enoteca de Belém, a local favorite that’s a little off the beaten tourist path. Fitting with the maritime history of the neighborhood, the restaurant specializes in seafood, both in traditional Portuguese dishes and some Asian-inspired ones as well. Its wine cellar has been recognized by Wine Spectator and other publications.

    After lunch, head from Lisbon’s most famous historic landmarks to one of its newest ones: MAAT (short for the Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology), in a stunning tiled building by the British architect Amanda Levete. If you have had your fill of culture and are more in the mood for shopping, the LX Factory is also located between Belém and central Lisbon. This 19th-century textiles factory has been restored and now houses cafés, designer boutiques, and bookstores, as well as some performance spaces.
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    Photo By Leo Patrizi
    Day 3
    The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 shook not only the city, but also all of European culture. The destruction it wrought became a subject for Voltaire (in “Candide”), Kant, Rousseau, and others. The reconstruction that followed the earthquake is what you can see today in the Baixa. The Marques de Pombal directed the rebuilding of the neighborhood and he discarded the medieval street plan for an orderly, and at times monumental, grid.

    The enormous Praça do Comércio, a square that serves as the symbolic gateway to Lisbon, has one side open to the Tagus River. Along its opposite, northern side, a grand arch marks the entrance to Rua Augusta, Lisbon’s most elegant boulevard. A five-minute walk along this pedestrian-only street lined with cafes and stores ends at Rossio Square, also rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake. This has long been considered the heart of the city—a meeting point for residents for centuries. The ornate neo-Manueline train station at the north end of the square, built from 1886 to 1887, is stunning. If you want to stop for a snack, the Pastelaria Suíça here has satisfied customers for nearly a century while another nearby pastry shop, Confeitaria Nacional, dates back to 1829.

    If you wish to continue your stroll northwards, you can follow the route of the Avenida da Liberdade, a 19th-century counterpart to the 18th-century grandeur of the Baixa. The boulevard counts Cartier, Hugo Boss, Loewe, Louis Vuitton, and Prada among its tenants.

    When you’re ready for dinner, options on or near the street include Open Brasserie Mediterrânica, which highlights fair trade ingredients, and Restaurante 33, located in a former hunting lodge. Keep the revelry going at Hot Club of Portugal, the country’s oldest jazz club.
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    Photo By fotoVoyager
    Day 4
    Museums of Lisbon
    MAAT, which you visited on your second day in Lisbon, is only the latest addition to the impressive and sometimes surprising collection of museums found in Lisbon.

    If you are staying at As Janelas Verdes, one of the city’s most important institutions the National Museum of Ancient Art, is right next door. The common English translation is a bit misleading as the collection consists of all the works in the national collection of Portugal from before 1850. Its galleries are filled with pieces from dissolved monasteries and Portugal’s far-flung colonies.

    The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum houses one of Europe’s largest—and most eclectic—art collections. Gulbenkian, an Armenian businessman born in England, amassed more than 6,000 works that cross historical periods and genres, and then provided in his will that it be housed in a museum in Lisbon, where he spent the last 13 years of his life. The museum, which opened in 1969, has displays of ancient Roman coins, Armenian carpets, and French jewelry by René Lalique.

    The Museum of Design and Fashion, or MUDE (to use its abbreviation in Portuguese) is scheduled to reopen at the end of 2017 after closing temporarily for work to assure the structural integrity of its building. Exhibits cover everything from fashion to product design, and are focused on leading international figures as well as Portuguese ones.

    Finally, it’s fitting that the National Azulejo Museum, or Tile Museum, is located in Portugal’s capital given that this country is passionate about tiles, elevating them to works of art. You’ve already seen some of the most beautiful tiles in Lisbon at the Monasterio de Jerónimos. Here, in the former Convent of Madre Deus, more than a dozen galleries recount the history of tile making in Portugal from the 16th century to the present day. Related arts—ceramics, porcelain, and faience—are covered too.

    Whichever museums you decide to visit, and in whatever order, the Time Out Market Lisbon, a 75,000-square-foot food hall in the renovated Mercado da Ribeira, makes for a good lunch break in the middle of your day. Even though it only opened in 2014, the market with more than 40 different restaurants and food vendors has already become the city’s most visited tourist attraction.
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    Photo By Guillén Pérez
    Day 5
    In the foothills of the Sintra Mountains, the town of Sintra is a popular excursion with a royal seal of approval. Roughly a half-hour by car or under an hour by train, it has a number of palaces, both stately and whimsical. The Castle of the Moors, for instance, was built in the 8th and 9th centuries to defend this agricultural region, but today it is used principally for picnics and by travelers who come to take in the panoramic views of Sintra.

    In the 19th century, Sintra began another chapter in its history when it became a retreat for the nobility and royal family of Portugal looking to escape the heat and crowded conditions of Lisbon. The pine-forested hills here came to be dotted with palaces that form a unique assembly of Romantic buildings. The most extravagant elements of Moorish and Manueline styles—along with Egyptian, Romanesque, and other touches—were brought together to form playful and at times almost surreal retreats. The area is home to eight major palaces, as well as notable convents, churches, and other sites.

    If you only have one day in Sintra, the Pena Palace should be at the top of your list. In the 19th century, King Ferdinand II purchased the site, which included the remains of a monastery. In 1842, construction began on this palace that would become one of the world’s most fully expressed visions of Romantic architecture. Medieval castle walls sit next to tiled Moorish domes and elaborately carved gargoyles overlook the palace’s terraces. As of Portugal’s Republican Revolution in 1910, the royal family went into exile and the palace into decline until it was meticulously restored at the end of the 20th century.

    Catch a train back to Lisbon late in the day for a final dinner. Restaurante Eleven combines culinary excellence with an enviable location, at the top of Parque Eduardo VII, with views of the city and the Tagus River.
  • Day 6
    Before heading to the airport to catch your Lufthansa flight, you may want to grab one last custard tart, purchase an azulejo tile as a souvenir of your trip, or make a quick visit to a final site on your must-see list. Or just enjoy a morning at leisure, knowing that you are sure to return to Lisbon soon.