Now, this is no definitive guide to the best Lisbon restaurants. I’m nowhere near hipster enough or in-the-know enough to even attempt that. No, this is more a tale of my own wanderings and feastings around the Portuguese capital, with a few ideas of where to eat in Lisbon. The thing I love about return trips (and to Lisbon I have returned many a time in the last couple of years) is that you have the luxury of shifting perspective, from the big sights and tourist must-sees to hidden museums and snapshots of everyday life, to – finally and deliciously – the food. And boy, did we eat Lisbon up.
It’s not that we planned this Lisbon trip around food exactly, but I went with my friend Fiona, and when we’re together, eating and drinking becomes our central activity. We just seem to sniff out the best wine, partake in petiscos, and test out flavours. She’s an incredible home chef and makes her own wine, so she knows a thing or two about those.
We were staying in an airbnb rental in Alfama, the old, Moorish part of the city which is a warren of cobbled becos and travessas, and gorgeous, slightly crumbling buildings, many of which house tiny restaurants. The first night, we decided not to venture far, so we wandered along the Rua dos Remedios, where Fado club marketeers waved leaflets, and cozily-lit restaurants tempted with wafting aromas and blackboard menus. We chose Alfama Cellar, enticed by the wall of wine we could see from the window.
It didn’t disappoint. It’s a tiny place, with just a few, simple tables – no frills, no fancy touches; the food and wine is the star of the show. It’s run by an extremely kind and knowledgeable team, who indulged our Portuguese practice, though they conversed fluently in English and French at other tables, delighting every customer in turn. Their wine recommendations were superb, and before long, our cheeks were flushing. To accompany our wine, first a light, refreshing white, then a full-bodied red, we indulged in a selection of cheeses – goat and sheep, creamy and tangy – an utterly delicious carrot and herb salad, and some generously-sized prawns in a slightly spicy oil dressing that was out of this world. It was probably the most expensive dinner we had (though we didn’t exactly splurge at any point on the trip so it wasn’t £££), and we didn’t eat a huge amount, but we didn’t stop talking about it for the rest of our trip, and it was worth every penny.
Our other indulgence didn’t involve food, but it did involve a gorgeous sunset and the hugest, most decadent gin fizz cocktails either of us had ever seen. The wind whipped our hair as we tried to snap photos of each other at Zambeze, a stylish rooftop restaurant and bar in the Castelo district. It spoiled the chic look we were aiming for, but we had a giggle, and the cocktails were fabulous, darling.
Under a brilliant blue sky the next day, we took a nostalgic (for me) jaunt across the Tagus. When I lived here last year, I made that five-minute boat trip every day, and the main street in Almada, where I lived, throngs with restaurants, tables and parasols spilling out onto the pedestrianised thoroughfare. Yet I’d never eaten at a single one of them, precisely because I lived there. I just ate in my apartment, or if I was eating out, it was generally with friends in the centre, on the other side of the Tagus.
It was time to rectify that. So with salty breezes singing in the air and gigantic crabs crawling lazily in tanks in restaurant windows, we found ourselves a sunny table and tucked into a feast of seafood, accompanied by a bottle of vinho verde, Portugal’s ‘green’ wine. It’s youthful, fresh, and perfect for lunchtime.
Feeling sated, we chugged back across the river and made our way to nearby Belem, famed for its pasteis de nata. However, as a coeliac, these divine pastries are sadly off-limits to me, and in a show of solidarity, Fiona too opted to steer clear of the blue awnings and telltale queue outside Pasteis de Belem, and we wandered down to the waterfront, where the monumental Padrão dos Descobrimentos stands, glorifying the voyages of Henry the Navigator. We caught sight of a cute van, which had in it a rather cute guy, who beckoned us over and gave us some free frozen yoghurt. Not quite a pastel de nata, perhaps, but delicious all the same.
A trip to fairytale Sintra was on our agenda for the next day, and knowing I was taking Fiona on a punishing hike up to the Palacio de Pena, high on the mountain above us, I thought it wise to give her some sustenance first. As with all of our meals so far, we just wandered around the town, eschewing the packed restaurants on the main street for Tacho Real, a little suntrap of a place a bit higher up, where guitar music serenaded us, and where a little cat yowled indignantly at us, clearly hopeful for a tasty morsel or two. He gave up and wandered off before our food appeared – more fool him, since Fiona had a plate of gorgeous mussels in iridescent shells, while I had grilled salmon, and we were soon fortified for our hike.
All too soon, our time in Lisbon was up, and in our last few hours, we decided to take it easy, and just have a wander along the water and around Cais do Sodre, the old fishmarket district. It was there we noticed the Time Out signs on the cavernous market house, and intrigued, we ventured inside. As it turns out, this place has been revitalised in the most hipster way possible: as well as a fresh produce market, there’s a vast food hall, where tiny pop-up restaurants do a roaring trade, serving everything from traditional Portuguese dishes to vegan fare and crepes. We couldn’t pass it up, so after a couple of tours of the hall, which sent our heads spinning, we made our choices and grabbed a space at one of the long tables. Not only was the food delicious – I had an amazing sweet potato salad that I want to try recreating at home – but the atmosphere was buzzing.
It can be challenge in Lisbon to get beyond the bacalhau and the pasteis de nata, but this foodie trip revealed a flourishing gourmet scene in the Portuguese capital, and it’s left me hungry for more.