If you need a European break with balmy weather, fantastic wine, and a relaxed attitude, Lisbon is a great place to go. A walkable central city with views of the River Tagus, it has fascinating glimpses into the Age of Exploration when the Portuguese explored the coastline of Africa and on to India and the Far East, as well as West to Brazil.
I visited in early September 2019, drawn to the city by its history and the need for some sun as autumn progressed further north. It was a book research trip for my ARKANE thriller series, so my choice of sites might be a little different from others! But we also enjoyed some wonderful food and wine along the way, so hopefully, this article will give you some ideas for your own weekend in Lisbon.
Walking and other transport options
We love to walk so we tried to do so as much as possible. It’s an easy walk from the Praça do Comércio up the hill to the Sé cathedral, and then on through the Alfama district to Largo das Portas do Sol (tourist trap, very busy!) and on again to Miradouro da Graça for the views.
We did walk to Belem from the center which is only 9km, but it’s a horrible main road for a lot of it, so we ended up using tuk-tuks for transfers. They are lovely and airy in the warm weather and you get some extra tour guide comments in the bargain.
You can also take one of the many trams, and Uber is also an option, plus there are electric scooters, bikes, and other transport options. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere with so many possibilities! Tram 28 is the most famous ride with views around the city in a rickety old-fashioned tram-car, but whenever it passed us, it looked packed with tourists so we mostly walked.
If you do walk, look down and check out the pavements, hand-crafted stone by stone. Watch out in the rain as they can be slippery!
Jerónimos Monastery, Belem
Built in 1495 with money from the Age of Exploration, the monastery was intended to house the Hieronymite order of monks (Order of St Jerome) who prayed for the soul of King Manuel. They did so until 1833 when the order was dissolved and the monastery abandoned.
It has a truly grand facade and some lovely cloisters, so it’s well worth a visit. However, getting tickets can be a challenge! You buy tickets (10EUR at the time of our visit) to the left of the entrance to the monastery and there were two queues either side of the door when we got there. Both end up at electronic kiosks where you can buy tickets. Don’t get the free Sunday special if you are a tourist as they won’t let you in.
You can also get a ticket by going to the desk of the Archaeological Museum through the middle of the two queues, so my tip is to go straight there and avoid the kiosks.
Once you have a ticket, the queue is to the left side of the entrance of the monastery. The right-hand queue is for the church, Igreja Santa Maria de Belém, which is free to enter. The tomb of Vasco da Gama is on the left as you enter. It’s not as grand as I expected for such an important character in Portuguese history.
Henry the Navigator monument, Map of the Age of Exploration, and the Belém Tower
Walk down the river esplanade and check out the grand monument to Henry the Navigator, patron of the Age of Exploration, built for the 500th anniversary of his death.
Check out the mosaic map on the ground in front of the monument which truly encompasses the extent that the Portuguese once ruled over, or at least explored and settled. It is impressive because it spanned the world, but it is also a metaphor for the end of Empire. Nothing lasts — and this pavement is evidence of that. Somehow I will weave it into my story!
If you walk through Lisbon now, there is no sense of what an empire it once had. The city is run down with many derelict buildings and graffiti, a sense of resigned acceptance to being on the edge of Europe, rather than the driving force for global expansion. But then I live in the UK, which once considered itself the center of an Empire as well, so I understand how times change!
The sense of loss is described in The Portuguese by Barry Hatton, an excellent book if you want a short overview of the nation’s history and current state. Fado, the Portuguese blues, “carries a wealth of cultural baggage, its hard-luck stories affording in many ways a telling glimpse of the Portuguese soul … The lyrical fatalism and victimhood (God’s will) and sense of powerlessness are other cultural trademarks. So are the resilience, the lament for the irrecoverable past and the wistful sentimentality.” You can go and listen to Fado at one of the many bars, but avoid the tourist spots and head for late-night local spots.
Saudade is another interesting Portuguese word, sometimes called “The Word that Cannot be Translated. It springs from ancient Portuguese bloodlines and historical experience and carries such a breadth of meaning, such a rich texture, that no other language can produce an equivalent.” [The Portuguese by Barry Hatton]
From Wikipedia, “a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one cares for and/or loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return … the love that remains after someone is gone.”
The Tower of Belem is just a short walk along the promenade from the monument. As the tide comes in, it becomes more like its own island. A 16th-century fortification, it served as a ceremonial gateway to the city and as you walk along the front, you can still imagine the great ships coming in from adventuring, although now you are more likely to see tankers and a few tourist boats.
Ruins of Convent de Carmo
I live in Bath, England, where we have Roman ruins from thousands of years ago, as well as a medieval Abbey. I had assumed that Lisbon would be full of buildings from the age of empire as well. But an earthquake in 1755, along with fires and a tsunami, decimated the city. The death toll was somewhere between 10,000 – 100,000 people, making it one of the deadliest earthquakes in history. Most of Lisbon’s buildings were destroyed, including the Royal Ribeira Palace and the archives, which included the details of exploration.
The ruins of the convent were kept as a reminder to the city of what was lost. You can visit during the day or for a sound and light show at night. It’s smaller than expected with arches open to the sky. If you enjoy the macabre as I do, go into the tiny museum at the back and check out the Peruvian mummies in the library.
The Portuguese Inquisition
Just down the hill from the convent is Rossio Square where the Inquisition once had their headquarters at the Estaus Palace. It is now Teatro Nacional D. Maria II, a theatre. I wanted to visit Lisbon because we went to Amsterdam and visited the Portuguese Synagogue there, built by Jews fleeing persecution in Portugal. I wanted to find out more and perhaps visit some of the sites left behind. There is a Jewish walking tour, but most of that part of the city’s history has disappeared.
In 1536, during the reign of King John III, the Inquisition was installed in Portugal, and the palace eventually became the seat of the institution. The palace had a prison and tribunal where the accused of heresy, witchcraft, and, particularly of secretly practicing the Jewish faith (New Christians), were subjected to trial, persecution, torture, and execution. Rossio square and nearby St. Domingos square were frequently used as setting for public executions. The first official auto-da-fé took place in 1540.
Among the thousands of people accused by the Inquisition and held in the prison of the Estaus are important personalities like historian Damião de Góis, poet Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage and dramatist António José da Silva, nicknamed “the Jew”, executed by the Inquisition in 1737.
The Inquisition Palace was heavily damaged in the catastrophic 1755 Lisbon earthquake, but was rebuilt under designs by Carlos Mardel. This building was destroyed by fire in 1836. The Inquisition was not abolished in Portugal until 1821.
The oldest operating bookshop in the world claims they have witnessed one earthquake, one civil war, nine kings, one regicide, 16 presidents, three republics, six coups, two world wars, the building of a wall … and its fall, the unification of Europe, and changing to the Euro. “And we have books to tell you all about it.”
I’m an author, but I’m a reader first, so I always buy books when I travel. You can often find some travel gems from locals. I picked up Lisbon: Unique and Unknown by Anisio Franco.
Other cool things
The Elevador de Santa Justa is a 19th-century wrought-iron elevator which takes tourists up to a viewing platform. It is pretty cool to look at but the queues are long, so we didn’t go up it. You can get great city views from the rooftop bars and restaurants as below.
It’s also worth looking up and around as you walk because the buildings are often covered with intricate tiles or painted with colors, plus there’s some street art amongst the copious graffiti! I should add that even though the city is run-down in parts, we felt entirely safe walking around at all times of the day. The atmosphere is relaxed and easy, so don’t try to get anything done in a hurry. As Barry Hatton notes in The Portuguese, “Portugal is closer to Africa than to Brussels,” the center of the European Union to which Portugal is a member.
Eating and drinking
It was a wonderful surprise to find so much fantastic Portuguese wine on offer. Even the house red was superb everywhere we went. We asked the sommelier at Bistro 100 Maneiros about this and he said that Portugal is mainly made up of small vineyards and most of it is sold domestically, rather than exported which is why it’s little known. But I can definitely recommend the Douro reds!
The coffee was also excellent everywhere I ordered it, which was a lot of places as I am a coffee addict. Plus, we really enjoyed the local spirit, ginginja, a kind of sour cherry liqueur. I thought I would hate it but it was lovely … so we had a couple. Saúde!
Tip: Eat at specialty restaurants that focus on one thing, rather than the places that have a massive menu with all kinds of choices. We had great fish at fish places, great meat at meat places, but mediocre food when they served all kinds of dishes.
Best for Pasteis de Nata: Pasteis de Belem, a few hundred meters to the right of the monastery. There will likely be a queue but it moves quickly. You pay at the till and take your receipt to the servers who hand over your still-warm, crispy, perfect pasteis de nata (plural for pastel de nata as I assume you’ll have more than one!). They are not as sweet as those served in other places, and they put extra sugar and cinnamon in the bag in case you want it. I think they are perfect as they are!
Brunch: The Mill. Australian/Portuguese with great omelets. You might have to queue outside, but make sure to register your name inside the cafe so you’re on the waiting list.
Vegetarian/vegan: Organi Chiado. My husband is a confirmed carnivore but he said this lunch was the best vegetarian food he’d had in a long time. It was delicious!
View of the river: Darwin Cafe, a few hundred meters beyond the Torre de Belem behind the military monument within the confines of a research center. They have a terrace overlooking the river and it’s quiet and full of locals since it’s out of sight of the tourist area. You can see the 25 April Bridge (previously called the Salazar Bridge by renamed after the revolution that overthrew the dictator) and the statue of Christ in the distance.
Rooftop bar: Hotel Mundial. It’s pricey but well worth it for the views. We went early at 5.30 pm when it opened and had a gin and tonic overlooking the city. You don’t need to be staying at the hotel to go to the bar. Go into the entrance and head to the lifts at the back of the bar and go to the 8th floor. This is a standard gin and tonic — honest!
Best for carnivores and a view over the city: La Paparrucha, Argentinian steak restaurant. It’s a steep climb to get here but again, it’s well worth it. Incredible view at sunset, delicious steak. I can recommend the pepper sauce and also the baked sweet potato side dish — and yes, the wine!
Fish and seafood: Solar 31 da Calcad. Slightly off the beaten track, this restaurant over-delivers on incredibly fresh fish and seafood. The waiter showed me my sea bass and filleted it at the table, checking my preferences and making sure we were well looked after.
For a millennial hangout with cool coffee and juice bars, restaurants, art, and cultural events as well as co-working spaces, check out LX Factory. We walked there from the central city.
Over-rated: Avoid the Time Out market unless you enjoy fighting for a seat in a noisy food hall.
Other practical things
The airport is only 20 minutes away and you can get an Uber from the Departures area upstairs on arrival. It’s a little chaotic but much cheaper than most airport transfers. Money is Euro and most places take cards so we didn’t use much cash. The temperature in mid-September was 25-30 degrees C (77-86 degrees F) and we didn’t even need a jumper for the evening. There was a breeze coming off the water while walking at the Esplanade in Belem but it was a welcome coolness in the hot sun.
We stayed at Hotel de Baixa, chosen for its central location and walkability to most places. It has a good restaurant with breakfast buffet and meal options throughout the day. The room was spacious for Europe with a safe and a Nespresso coffee machine — which I appreciated as I do like my coffee! It was quiet with blackout blinds and good A/C with different pillow options so we slept well. The reception staff were helpful and friendly, and there were apples and pastel de nata in the lobby as well as iced water for guests to access anytime. They also delivered little bottles of port to the room in the evening which were most appreciated. There’s a pharmacy across the road for any requirements. I’d stay there again.
Have more time?
We only had a weekend so wanted to focus on the city itself, but if you have a few more days, check out these options:
My Dad, Arthur J Penn, is a printmaker and visual artist and recommended the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, the national tile museum. Portugal is famous for azulejos, patterned tiles introduced by the Moors in the 15th-century and embellished over the years into all kinds of art. He also recommended the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, which holds a collection of international and Portuguese art.
A town west of Lisbon towards the Atlantic coast famous for its castles and palaces as well as its fine dining and access to the national park of Sintra-Cascais. You can get a train there which takes about an hour, but there are also many tours run from the hotels in Lisbon. If you only have a weekend, then this is a certainly a whole day trip, so we decided to leave it for another time.
The city is about 2 hours drive east of Lisbon, a UNESCO World Heritage site with well-preserved medieval walls and the ruins of a Roman temple. I wrote about Evora’s Capella dos Ossos, chapel of bones, in my thriller, Crypt of Bone, so I wanted to visit, but again, with a weekend trip, it’s hard to do everything!
In conclusion, we had a wonderful weekend in Lisbon. I found the threads of a story I want to write about in my next ARKANE thriller and we enjoyed the sun, the great food and the hospitality of the friendly people. We’ll be back!
Recommended books for Lisbon
- The Portuguese – Barry Hatton. A fast read giving an overview of the history of Portugal and the spread of Empire as well as comments on the current state of the country and its people. Great introduction. I read it on the plane over from London.
- Lisbon Unique and Unknown – Anisio Franco. I bought this in Libreria Bertrand and devoured it over the weekend. It contains some interesting anecdotes about parts of the city that aren’t so accessible to visitors, and it’s how I learned of the Peruvian mummies in the library behind the Convent de Carmo.
- The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon – Richard Zimler. I first read this historical novel years ago and revisited it for this trip as I researched the Portuguese Jews who fled persecution or converted to become New Christians, many of whom then died at the hands of the Inquisition or by Christians of the city. The year is 1506, and the streets of Lisbon are seething with fear and suspicion when Abraham Zarco is found dead, a naked girl at his side. Abraham was a renowned kabbalist, a practitioner of the arcane mysteries of the Jewish tradition at a time when the Jews of Portugal were forced to convert to Christianity. Berekiah, a talented young manuscript illuminator, investigates his uncle’s murder, and discovers in the kabbalah clues that lead him into the labyrinth of secrets in which the Jews sought to hide from their persecutors.
- Night Train to Lisbon – Pascal Mercier. One man’s escape from a humdrum life in search of passion and spontaneity as he boards the night train to Lisbon and wanders the city meeting local characters along the way.