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Lovin‘ Lisbon

By John Bordsen
John Bordsen
John Bordsen is the Travel Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

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Kerry Christiani, 34, is a native of Essex, England, who first visited Lisbon – Portugal’s capital and largest city – as a child. She is the author of the recently updated “Pocket Lisbon” (Lonely Planet, $13.99).

Q. There seems to be a buzz about Lisbon these days. What’s going on?

A. Lisbon has become quite cool. It didn’t necessarily have that image in the past, but the nightlife scene has exploded recently, particularly around the Cais de Sodre area near the waterfront. That area used to be a red-light district, but was given a new lease on life over the last couple years with quirky bars and new live music venues. There’s been quite a bit of coverage recently in the British press, for places like Sol e Pesca, a fish-tackle shop that turned into a tapas bar with tinned fish and a strong retro flavor. On the same street, Rua Nova do Carvalho is a former brothel that was converted into a bordello-chic bar.

Close by are the grid-like streets of Bairro Alto – one of the key nightlife areas that has become even more attractive to those going to Lisbon specifically to party. It’s totally pedestrianized and crammed with hip restaurants, bars and boutiques. It’s great for late-night dining and bar crawls, with the fun often spilling out onto the streets. Get a table on the steps, have some tapas and move on to the next place. For going to eat and having a good night out, it’s also extremely affordable compared to other European cities, and that’s appealing to a younger generation of travelers.

Q. Spanish is a more common second language in the U.S. If you can’t speak Portuguese, is Spanish helpful?

A. Many Portuguese speak or understand enough Spanish to understand you. The problem is whether you understand their responses. The languages are similar, but pronunciations are quite different. The Portuguese will go out of their way, particularly in Lisbon, to speak English with you.

Q. Is Lisbon very compact?

A. It’s divided into lots of neighborhoods, all of which have their own distinct flavor and that can feel like villages or bite-size towns at times. It’s a great city for walking. In some districts, you can only walk, like in the Alfama: the old Moorish quarter with cobbled streets and stairways – called caalçada – that rise up to miradouros, or lookouts, with views reaching over the rooftops.

It’s a wonderful way to explore Lisbon, walking is the only way to do this, and there’s no traffic.

Q. Let’s say it’s your first time in Lisbon. What are the top bite-size places to check out?

A. There are three I’d highly recommend. The first is Baixa, the heart and soul of the city. It has the Praça do Comércio, with 18th-century arcades all around it, a triumphal arch, and fabulous vintage trams that are bright yellow. Some, like tram 28, are more than 100 years old. You can hop on them for a self-guided tour of big city landmarks.

The Elevador de Santa Justa is the only vertical street lift in Lisbon, built in 1902, which takes you above the city to a miradouro where you can see the old town, the castle, and down to the river. There are great shops and old-fashioned boutiques.

The second is Alfama, which is beautiful. It’s a maze of narrow lanes close to the castle, so you can tie that into a visit. Streets are hung with fresh washing; little adegas – cellar bars – have sardines on the grill. Or you can have some seafood on a sunny terrace and perhaps snatch a glimpse of the river.

Alfama is also the specific heart of the fado scene. Fado is traditional Portugese folk music and is specifically found in Lisbon. It’s melancholy and beautiful. Evenings, you can hear it in dark little clubs. A nice one called A Baiuca does “fado vadio” – amateur fado, where anyone who can sing stands up and takes a turn. It’s a good way to get a feel of the soulfulness of this former working-class area.

The third area is Belém, slightly west of the city. Take a tram to get there, about 15 or 20 minutes from the city center. You can get a great feel there for Lisbon’s maritime history and the age of discoveries. You’ve got a UNESCO World Heritage Site monastery, built in 1501 during the reign of Manuel I: The exquisite Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was built to celebrate Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India. It’s pure fairytale stuff, with incredibly intricate stonework. You can easily spend an entire morning there.

The Belém district borders the Tagus and you can really feel close to the Atlantic. The river is so broad it’s like looking out to sea. You’re in fact almost on the ocean. There are two monuments that are quite important in maritime history. Torre de Belém – also a UNESCO site – is a fortress built during the age of discovery to defend Lisbon’s harbor. And you’ve got the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a monument shaped like a ship that’s 52 meters (170 feet) high. It has stone carvings of the great explorers; Henry the Navigator, Vasco de Gama and others. You can climb the monument for a 350-degree view of the river. There’s also a maritime museum in Belém where you can see Vasco de Gama’s portable altar, old cannon balls and more.

Q. How about restaurant advice?

A. Lisbon has a strong mix of places, from family-run tascas (traditional taverns) to creative, Michelin-starred restaurants. You can go to a simple bar-restaurant and have a special for 6 euros or 7 euros ($8.20-$9.50) – like sardines and salted potatoes. A specialty in those places is sardinhas assadas (grilled sardines).

If you’ll be partying afterward, Sol e Pesca is great.

Lisbon also has quite a burgeoning gourmet scene. Pharmacia in Santa Catarina, a really cool district with little bars, boutiques and brilliant views down to the river. Go for a stroll and dine there. The restaurant is housed in Lisbon’s apothecary museum and some dishes are even served in test tubes.

Another place is Alma, in the Lapa district. It’s more of a gourmet place and is run by Henrique Sá Pessoa, one of Lisbon’s star chefs. It’s quite hot at the moment. Alma has a modern interpretation of Portuguese food with all the fantastic ingredients – fresh seafood – and Henrique puts his own imaginative stamp on it.

In Chiado, one of the upmarket shopping districts, is Sea Me. It’s quite a fun, contemporary place with tapas and seafood with a Japanese fusion. it has locally sourced food.

For more tradition, most first-timers won’t want to miss Antiga Confeitara, in Belém. They’ve been there since 1837 and do Lisbon’s best custard egg tart – turning out around 15,000 a day. It’s an open kitchen so you can watch everything. You can eat a couple in one sitting, definitely. Last time I looked, they cost about 1 euro ($1.39) apiece. They’re light, puff-pastry bases with custard cream filling; they’re dusted with cinnamon.

Q. Portuguese wines: What’s the strategy in Lisbon?

A. Try Vinho Verde and Alentejo whites or the reds from Douro. Anyone interested in wines should go to the square in Praça do Comércio for Vini Portugal’s tasting rooms: It’s an initiative in Lisbon to promote wines, and every day there are two to four wines you can taste for 2 euros ($2.74). Admission is free.

The wine experts on hand are extremely friendly and will give you insights and make recommendations of wineries in the surrounding regions.

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