Thursday 31 January 2013

Drinks you must try in Lisbon

This post could have easily been titled "Where to try Port wine in Lisbon". It does not mean there is no other drink worth trying out, but this way or another a visitor to the capital of Portugal will come across some Port sooner or later.

Although Port wine is produced in only one region of Portugal - the Douro Valley, it is very popular all over the country. Port wine is just one of many excellent Portuguese wines. There are many wine tasting opportunities in the city of Lisbon and I really advice you to try at least one. You don not need to be a wine connoisseur to like this. Usually things are explained according to the level of your knowledge of wine. I am convinced after the first one you will be ready for more.

As you probably already know port wine (also known as Vinho do Porto) is Portuguese fortified dessert wine. Although it is usually a red wine of sweet taste it also comes in dry, semi-dry, and white varieties. It has been produced since 18th century when long trips to England often resulted in spoiled wine. That is why fortification of the wine was introduced to improve the shipping and shelf-life of the wine.

We did a few wine tastings while in Lisbon and I can only say they were all great. I especially recommend a visit to two places mentioned below:

  • Wine Bar do castelo on your way to or from the castle. It is located in Alfama just outside castle walls on Rua Bartolomeu de Gusmão 11/13. We really liked the atmosphere of this place and also staff were super nice.
  • The other place I can also recommend is BA Wine Bar do Bairro Alto and you can find it at Rua da Rosa 107.
You can expect an average tasting to cost you around 20 euro or more. Some tapas are usually included, but you can expect to pay extra if you choose to try some exquisite cheeses or something similar.

Since wine prices may vary greatly, you should always agree about the tasting process, your preferences and price ranges in advance.
Of a few different approaches we tried I preferred the following approach to tasting: every one of us (we were a group of seven) got to taste one small sample of four different whites, four reds and three ports. After each round every one of us chose a glass of wine he preferred. We payed only for those three full glasses per person.

We were especially impressed by those ports we got to try - none of us has ever tried a port wine before. I guess it is pointless to emphasize the older (and more expensive) they were - the more we liked them. There is a distinct difference between different types of port wines. White, Ruby, Tawny and Vintage are the kinds we managed to try. I liked Tawny Port the most, but all of them were good.

We were even treated with something special at the end of one of those tastings (at the second place mentioned above). The owner gave us something really special to try - something we would never have ordered, considering the budget we were on. It was a taste of a 1880 Vintage Port. It definitely tasted great, but considering the price of it I think I could not appreciate it nearly enough.

In my lay opinion the differences among up to a 20 year old Tawny Ports are very noticeable. From there on you can expect a substantial price leap and in my opinion you have to be a bit of an expert to appreciate it enough to justify a purchase.
I recommend you buy at least a bottle for your home collection since good quality port wine is hard to get and more expensive to buy back home. Just make sure you secure the bottle properly for the way home.

There are also other drinks you should not miss when in Lisbon. One of them is Ginja. There is a small bar in Baixa district on Largo de São Domingos 8 (near Rossio station at Praça de São Domingos) offering this famous Portuguese sour cherry liquor. At Cafe ‘A Ginjinha’ there is a 150 year old tradition of serving this specialty liquor. Although you might not like it you should at least give it a try.
You can settle for a shot or get yourself a whole bottle for around 7 euro.


Monday 28 January 2013

Where to eat in Lisbon?

One can choose Lisbon as a travel destination for different reasons. One of them can most definitely be to enjoy great food and wine.

In my experience various seafood is the most popular local choice and a visitor can easily find a huge diversity of fish and shellfish dishes. Lots of them also with a pinch of exotic flavor - the history of Portugal as a colonial superpower definitely reflects today in a great variety of food. A vast array of spices used in the modern Portuguese cuisine is definitely a consequence of that and a long history of spice trade.

Another interesting fact I learned is about Bacalhau - this is the Portuguese word for codfish and (in a culinary context) dried and salted codfish. It is considered the iconic ingredient of Portuguese cuisine - it gained its popularity in the time of great discoveries (dried and salted was perfect to last through all those long sea voyages) and is still very popular today. Supposedly there are over 1000 recipes for bacalhau in Portugal alone.
Dried and salted is still a variety mostly consumed today. I guess the fact Portuguese have to import all those large quantities of codfish has also a lot to do with its form. Yes, that is right - surprisingly there is NO bacalhau in Portuguese waters.

Seafood is equally popular in the form of high end cuisine served in many posh restaurants and also as simple, mostly fried fast-food found in many far-from-fancy fast food joints.

I was looking for something in between those two extremes and found the perfect thing in a place called Cervejaria Ramiro (located on Avenida Almirante Reis 1). As the word cervejaria is derived from cerveja (Portuguese word for beer) some might think of it as a pub, but that is not the case. These types of places are actually restaurants specializing in either meat (“bifes”) or sea-food (also called “marisqueiras”).
Ramiro is extremely popular with locals and gets pretty busy in the evenings - making a reservation is strongly advised. When we visited we had to wait for about 15 minutes despite our reservation.
They have two types of tables available:

  • ground floor which looks prety much like a canteen and
  • a bit classier first floor - still nothing special, but with nicer tables and a bit more space.

As usually with better atmosphere also come higher prices. So if you are on a tight budget you should opt for a seat on the ground floor. Prices may vary a lot, depending on what you order. They mostly have shellfish to choose from.
Be sure to arrive early if you want to have a choice at all.

Another interesting place worth checking out is Cantina das Freiras (located on Travessa do Farragial 1). I found out about it from the most unlikely source - an easyJet brochure during our flight from Venice to Lisbon! That is the reason I was quite skeptical about it but when I saw the place it was just what it was supposed to be - low-key, local, affordable and run by actual nuns. Food is simple but local and portions are quite large.

Do not turn around when you see an entrance not resembling a restaurant. It is just a door like any other in a small alley. To get in you have to ring the bell. Unfortunately I don't have any idea about opening hours but I guess every day around lunch time is a good time to pay those nuns a visit.

If Lisbon is mostly about seafood in other regions of Portugal the emphasis is definitely on other kinds of foods. For instance in more rural, continental parts of the country pork convincingly takes the first place. As we did not visit any of the rural parts of the country I am unable to share any first hand impressions on that.

When looking for a dessert there are quite a few nice options to choose from. The most obvious one is to get yourself a couple of those famous pastéis - delicious local custard tarts.
I recommend you try them at the Pastéis de Belém confectionery (on Rua de Belem 84, near the Jerónimos monastery) in Belém. I already wrote about this in the post about attractions of Belém.

A stop at one of the city's best ice cream shops is also a must for those with a sweet tooth. You can find it in Baixa’s Baixa-Chiado area (Rua do Carmo 9). Santini is a traditional italian icecream shop and quite new to Lisbon - opened only since 2010. It has however been very popular in Cascais since 1949. They offer a number of different flavors. Apart from the usual selection there are also some with a local twist - if you feel adventurous you can try one of the cheese flavors. If you want to try different flavors, you can get two even with the smallest cup size (copo pequeno).
You can visit them daily from 10 in the morning till midnight.

There are many more great places apart from these. When trying your luck you just have to follow the usual pointers and you will be fine. You will usually get more for your money if you walk a couple streets away from the busy avenues in the city center.
You can try one of many small family restaurants with only a couple of tables (you can find them at least in Bairro Alto and Alfama districts). These usually do not disappoint but a reservation is a must (try reserving for a few days ahead when you spot one).
I had a great meal in a place like that - a veal steak in creamy coffee sauce. I did not know what to expect and since I am more a tea person then a coffee one, I was a bit skeptical about my choice. It turned out to be extra delicious and I cleared my plate in a flash. I have to find a recipe for it somewhere.

At first I intended to also write about local drinks you should not miss when in Lisbon but this post is getting too long even as it is. If wine is your thing you should definitely check out my next post.


Wednesday 23 January 2013

Wordless Wednesday: Rua Augusta Arch, Lisbon


Monday 21 January 2013

Ride on Tram 28 in Lisbon

When thinking about the most photographed attractions of Lisbon those charming old trams definitely come to mind. The most popular of the lot must be those trams driving on the track #28.

Tram 28 (or elétrico 28, as locals refer to it) is one of ‘must-do’ Lisbon attractions and at the same time a cheap way to visit most old town tourist attractions and Tagus River viewpoints. You can also conveniently hop on and off it.

I guess all that popularity has a lot to do with its tracks running from square Praça Martim Moniz to Campo Ourique (Prazeres). The whole ride takes approximately 40 minutes.

This tram line tends to be pretty touristy and during the peak tourist season I think I would rather skip it and instead do a walk along a part of its tracks. During our visit at the end of November it was not very busy and rather nice. There is however one thing that kept us from having an even better ride...

Tram 28 is unfortunately as popular with pickpockets as it is with tourists. There are even stickers on the tram alerting its users of this unfortunate thing. During our ride we watched a group of pickpockets on their work. There were five or six of them cornering their unfortunate victim on one part of the tram and trying to get to the contents of that old guy's pockets.

In the end everything turned out fine and it seemed the guy came out of the event with nothing being taken from him. The group of no-goods left the tram on the very next stop to avoid any possible confrontation. At the moment of the event it was pretty hard to tell who was who. Only when I saw the whole group walk away, I realized they were all in it together.

I advise you to secure all of your belongings before going on the ride. It also helps if you are not alone and someone can watch your back. I guess if you take reasonable precautions, you should be OK.


Friday 18 January 2013

A Window into Ocean Life

For ocean-life enthusiasts there is definitely a thing worth checking out when near the capital of Portugal. Lisbon Oceanarium (Oceanário de Lisboa) is actually one of the most popular Lisbon's tourist attractions.

I have visited a few Aquariums around the world before, but the Lisbon Oceanarium has left the biggest impression so far. After all it is supposed to be the largest indoor aquarium in Europe.
I visited the Berlin Aquarium a year ago, featuring the AquaDom - the World’s Largest Cylindrical Aquarium. You can read a little something about that trip and the aquarium in one of these posts.

The Oceanarium is located in the NE part of the city, near the Parque das Nações (you can check out the map here). You can easily get there by city metro (you will have to walk the last few hundred meters) or using other means of transport.

Besides a large permanent setup there is usually also an additional temporary exhibit - during my visit it was dedicated to turtles. In all parts of the large building an environmental note was always present. This is especially great for educational purposes since there are many young visitors.

There are four water-tanks placed around the large central tank, each housing a different habitat. The idea is to have a separate water tank representing wildlife from world's four different oceans (North Atlantic, Antarctic sea, Pacific and Tropical Indian ocean).

One of the most interesting species there is definitely sunfish, rarely seen in aquarium environment. Also very popular with visitors of all age is a pair of playful sea otters (Eusébio and Amália). In total there are 450 species represented by about 16,000 individual animals.

Apart from various marine species there are also some other animals housed there, for instance quite a few species of jungle frogs.

The entrance fee is quite high but in my opinion still worth it (if I remember correctly it was 16 euros). Family tickets with discounts are also available. You should reserve enough time for this - if you take it easy it might take you most of the afternoon to see it all. The Oceanarium is open 10:00 - 19:00.


Wednesday 16 January 2013

Wordless Wednesday: Sunset on river Tagus, Lisbon


Monday 14 January 2013

Castle of São Jorge and Viewpoints of Lisbon

One of the most obvious attractions in the capital of Portugal is the Castle of St George (Castelo de São Jorge). It is a medieval Moorish castle overlooking the city of Lisbon from the highest of 7 hills within the city.

Apart from a fantastic view of the city from the castle's ramparts and a small museum, there is not all that much to see inside the castle walls. If you do not want to pay the entrance fee just to admire the view, you can still try finding a lookout spot outside the castle walls.

There are also two such viewpoints just by the track of Tram 28 near the main entrance to the castle - get off the tram at Portas do Sol. There are two viewpoints nearby (Miradouro das Portas do Sol is one of them), offering a great view towards the river Tagus with the Alfama rooftops descending in its direction.

There are also other places where you can get a great panoramic view of the city. One of the best is from Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara. It is a garden-terrace in Bairro Alto overlooking the city.
Another great viewpoint is at the top of Elevador de Santa Justa. You can find a few useful tips for visiting it in my previous post.

Apart from these there are many other viewpoints (miradouros) at the highest points of each hill. Here is a short list of the most popular miradouros in Lisbon:

  • Castle of St George,
  • Elevador de Santa Justa,
  • Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara,
  • Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte,
  • Miradouro de Santa Luzia,
  • Miradouro da Graca,
  • Monument to Christ,
  • Sao Vicente de Fora Monastery,
  • Miradouro de Santa Catarina,
  • Vasco da Gama Tower,
  • Edward VII park.
Which one do you like the most?


Friday 11 January 2013

Amazing views from Santa Justa Elevator

Apart from São Jorge castle situated on the highest of seven hills within the city, Santa Justa Elevator (Elevador de Santa Justa) is definitely the most popular panoramic viewpoint in Lisbon. In addition to great views of the city here you can also experience a ride in an old lift operating since 1902, which makes it well over a hundred years old.

It is 45 meters high and was built in order to facilitate the movement between the main Baixa and the Carmo Square. In the beginning it carried 24 passengers. In accordance with modern standards, nowadays the lift admits 20 people to go up, but only 15 to go down. Interesting, isn't it?

It is visible in the top right corner of the above photo.

The lift is accessible from two points:

  • You can find the bottom entrance at Rua de Santa Justa and Rua Aurea intersection in Baixa.
  • If you are after the view and do not care about the ride so much, you can save a few euros and head directly to the platform where the elevator reaches the top. Just walk past the Carmo Church and Convent (Igreja e Convento do Carmo). Walk by the right wall of the church in the direction of São Jorge castle.
You will have to climb the last few steps no matter which way up you choose.

I recommend the visit, but the short ride in the old elevator is nothing special and also a bit pricey for my taste. If I would visit it again I would definitely opt for the cheaper option.
Also if you are visiting during the peak tourist season, you should try to get there early. It operates every day from 07:00 till 21:00.


Wednesday 9 January 2013

Wordless Wednesday: Chestnut season in Lisbon


Monday 7 January 2013

Fado, the Portuguese Blues

Some people might say you have never really been to Portugal if you have not spend at least one evening listening to the local version of blues music. The Portuguese simply call it Fado.

It is pretty easy to find it in a random Lisbon café. Most of them are in the traditional fado quarter of Alfama and also Bairro Alto. Good places in both of those neighborhoods are usually pretty pricey - to find a more economical alternative, your best bet is to get a taxi out to the suburbs.
Surprisingly fado is not very common in other parts of the country (with the exception of the city of Coimbra).

It is pretty easy to find a place to get a taste of it, but getting a taste of the top notch performance is another thing. Cafés with present and potential future fado stars are usually reserved for fado connoisseurs, willing to pay 100 euros and more for the real thing. Usually food is also included in such deals, but do not expect too much - music is what you pay for.

If you ask me, as a first time visitor you will not be able to appreciate the difference between a really good, five star fado performance and a good touristy one. However, genuine local atmosphere could mean all the difference to some... in the end - the choice is yours.

If you are lucky you can also get a taste of the real thing for just a fraction of the price. The hostel we were staying in (Lisbon Destination Hostel), happened to have such a deal on their "menu" one night. You could get into one of the best fado cafés for a modest 10 euros.
Of course there was a catch - the hostel made a deal for a small group of their guests to arrive late and get a place near the bar (other guests were seated at proper tables). Also only tapas were included instead of a full dinner. If you do not mind being treated as a second-class guest and catch a strange glance or two from other guests every now and then, the whole idea might turn out just fine.

I think I could have actually enjoyed the performance in spite of everything if there were two or three of us. Unfortunately our group that night consisted of a dozen people and the place was already pretty crowded when we arrived. There was literally no way for all of us to squeeze next to the bar.

After a while the whole situation simply felt too awkward and some of us simply decided to leave the place. The hostel did not complicate a bit and gave us a full refund.

I actually could not say I do not recommend this whole thing but I definitely suggest you inquire about details. We were simply not told about the whole deal in advance and found it too far from our expectations.

However strange (or for some even unpleasant) this fado experience turned out to be, I liked the music. So afterwards I decided to at least buy a CD with some best of fado music.

I found a perfect place in the middle of a street on my way to the famous Elevador Santa Justa one morning (look for tips about that in one of the following posts).
There was an old car parked in the middle of a street, serving as a vending spot for fado CDs. The guy inside this little "music shop" was really knowledgeable and played music performed by a few different fadistas (i.e. fado singers) so I could choose my favorite. I chose Ana Moura and I really like her after I listened to the CD for a couple of times. Great stuff!


Friday 4 January 2013

Attractions of Belém, Lisbon

Belém is the part of Lisbon I liked the most. Many of the most popular city's tourist attractions are situated there.
Jerónimos Monastery, Torre de Belém and the Discoveries Monument are just a few of the things that can all be found there.

Even if you do not intend to actually visit any of them, it is well worth taking a walk around this neighborhood and at least take a look at those magnificent buildings from the outside.

Especially Jerónimos Monastery blew me away - the building literary stretches for half a kilometer into distance. The front and inside details are all equally stunning. It is really hard to imagine enormous fortune spent on it (and that was just a portion of what trade with the Orient brought to Vasco da Gama and his men).
The church within the monastery is among others also the resting place of Vasco da Gama.
Besides great ornamental details on literary every step and an extensive presentation of building's history alongside other major events in the country and the world, there is not all that much to see inside.

The story goes Vasco da Gama and his men spent the night in prayer before departing on their expedition to the Orient in 1497 there. Then there was only a hermitage in disrepair, but they promised to build a monastery if they make it back. The building project was funded with money obtained from a 5% tax on commerce from Africa and the Orient, equivalent to 70 kilograms (150 lb) of gold per year.

The task of residing monks for centuries was to provide spiritual assistance to navigators and sailors who departed from the nearby beach to discover the world.

If you actually decide to see some of those attractions from the inside you can even do it for free if you follow this tip. Like some other attractions in Lisbon also these offer free entrance on Sundays until 14:00. If do not get there on a Sunday you can expect the following entrance fees:

  • Jerónimos Monastery - 6 euros
  • Belem Tower - 5 euros
  • Discoveries Monument - 2,5 euros
I found both - Jerónimos Monastery and Torre de Belém very interesting and well worth spending a Sunday morning there. The 52 meter high point of view is what you get if you go inside the Discoveries Monument. We decided to skip it.

When in the neighborhood you should also make a short stop at the Pastéis de Belém confectionery (on Rua de Belem 84, near the monastery) and try their delicious custard tarts. Since this place is always busy and they supposedly sell over 10.000 of these tarts every day, you can be pretty sure to get a fresh - still warm one for yourself.

I would hardly describe those custard tarts as "to die for" but I liked them, especially considering the price (just over 1 euro per tart). I also tried them on a few different locations and these were my favorite - there might actually be something about the hundred years old secret recipe. You should definitely try them.


Wednesday 2 January 2013

The Discoveries Monument, Lisbon

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