Back in November and already anticipating the January Blues, Nick and I found ourselves drawn to the Ryanair flight sale like moths to a flame. The cheapest deal was to Copenhagen, but we plumped for Lisbon (£35 return) and crossed our fingers that the average January temperature of 13 degrees would feel tropical after the cold in the UK.
We arrived in Lisbon on a Saturday lunchtime, and managed to successfully navigate the metro system to Santa Apolónia. We were staying in an AirBnB in Alfama, the oldest district in Lisbon, and at £43 per night (with all fees included) we were over the moon to find a bright and airy studio flat, complete with a complimentary bottle of wine waiting for us.
We asked for a recommendation for a late lunch from our host at check-in, and we were advised to walk up the streets and ‘follow your eyes and your nose!’ We decided to take this advice and, slightly bemused, stumbled upon the restaurant Tolan – it looked a little run-down, but definitely more a family run restaurant than a tourist trap, and so we headed inside. Asked if he would like a small or large red wine, Nick went for a large (at 3.60€ why wouldn’t you?) and we were a little shocked a moment later when a litre jug of red wine landed on the table! This set the tone for what was to become more of a bar crawl weekend interspersed with some sights, rather than a cultural extravaganza! The food was delicious – the menu featured lots of pork, and the special complete with clams and mussels was delicious.
We walked across the city, only slightly inebriated, towards Bairro Alto, which we had been told was an area full of people spilling out from the many bars in to the streets, drinks in hand. Unfortunately for us, the area seemed very quiet: we thought maybe the early weeks of January were to blame. Nonetheless, we settled ourselves first in to a cocktail bar, and then several other bars, meeting a range of friendly people along the way, including some Spanish rugby fans! We ended our evening in a lovey restaurant back near Alfama – unfortunately, after all the drinks, I can’t remember what it was called!
Day two arrived and, determined to soak up some culture before hitting Lisbon’s plethora of bars, we caught the bus to Belém, renowned for its Pastéis de Belém and the Jerónimos Monastry. It was worth the 5 mile bus journey just for the Pastéis de Belém alone! We’d found ‘Pastéis de nata’ (or egg tart pastries to you and me) all over Lisbon, but the decision is unanimous in that the ones in Belém are the best!
We also visited the Jerónimos Monastry, and the Tower of Belém – both UNESCO world heritage sites, and both beautiful to look at. From the waterfront there are incredible views over to the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge, which has an uncanny similarity to the Golden Gate Bridge, and also to ‘Santuário Nacional de Cristo Rei’, or the Christ the King statue, inspired by Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio. We also had a good look at the ‘Padrão dos Descobrimentos’ – monument to the discoveries – where we decided against climbing up to the top as it was so windy!
We caught the bus back towards town, and jumped off at the Mercado da Ribeira, a food market put together by Time Out with a huge selection of food stands offering food from some of the top chefs in the country. What more could you want! We sampled bread, cheese and meat, risottos and chocolate cake, all washed down with beer and wine – yum.
We made a quick trip to ‘The sexiest WC in the world’ located in Praça do Comércio, with a rainbow of toilet paper, before we headed back up to Alfama. The plan was to make our way up to São Jorge castle, but we kept meeting dead ends in the web of medieval alleys and staircases. Apparently the area was designed this way as a defence system for the castle – it worked on us! After trying – and failing – to find the entrance to the castle we took refuge in a lovely wine bar. What was meant to be just one drink before the castle soon turned in to a couple more drinks – it started to rain, and we moved next door in to a small bar where I had the strongest carprinha of my life!
Sitting in the warm bar with our drinks whilst the rain lashed on the steep cobbled hill outside was perhaps one of my favourite memories of Lisbon. After the rain had stopped we stepped out in to a fresh evening and this time managed to successfully navigate the streets to a lovely tapas restaurant – Arcaz Velho – for dinner before falling in to bed feeling pretty exhausted!
Our third and final day arrived and we were anxious that we still had lots to see and do, not least the castle after yesterday’s aborted attempt. We started off with a trip on the famous number 28 tram, which we took from Graça all the way through the city to Campo de Ourique station. We walked back from there – a long walk! – calling in at the impressive Estrela Basilica, and for a lunchtime beer in the Jardim de Estrela cafe opposite.
Once back in the centre of Lisbon we searched high and low for a restaurant where we could eat Piri Piri chicken – a surprisingly difficult task. We ended up at Bomjardin, a restaurant we had seen in various articles and food blogs, and it didn’t disappoint. We sat by the road and ordered spit roast chicken, fries and creamed spinach, complete with a pot of Piri Piri oil, which you can put as much (or as little) as you like using a brush. I’m a big Nandos fan, but this really was the real deal!
As our final day continued to run away from us, we soaked up the atmosphere of Lisbon’s lovely combination of back streets, busy squares and waterfronts, walking back to Alfama to collect our bags. We had just enough time to admire the stunning views across the tiled Alfama rooftops, and one last beer in a rather shabby bar before heading to the airport. Lisbon has left me with a lasting impression of tasty food, cheap drinks, wonderfully dilapidated buildings and charming streets. Lisbon wasn’t the kind of city break that we returned from feeling like we needed another holiday just to recover – but rather that we had soaked up enough sunshine (and alcohol!) to make it through the rest of a dreary month. It was so worth the visit!