“Why Lisbon?” my friends asked, when I told them of my upcoming visit. Well, as well as a reputation for great food, great geographical positioning, and the street art (which, incidentally, is actively encouraged and supported by the city), there is a tangible buzz about the destination in travel circles. And now, having just returned, I can say that the buzz is real and justified.
Geographically, it is a stunning setting. Like Rome, Lisbon is built on seven hills, making walking in the old part of the city a test of endurance and leg strength. However, because of the hilly terrain, you stumble regularly upon “miradouros” — scenic lookout points — that provide breathtaking views, either of the city or the vast estuary the city is perched on.
The challenging hills and stairs you’re forced to climb wherever you are in the city provide the perfect excuse to indulge in the national pastry, pastéis de nata. These crispy tarts filled with a creamy custard are a national obsession, so much so that there are annual awards devoted to the pastry. The current champion is a specialist bakery called Manteigaria, which, as luck would have it, was just up the hill from our rented apartment. This resulted in a daily order of “dois pastéis de nata com bica”: two custard pastries with a shot of espresso — the quick breakfast for locals on the run. This bakery recently beat the original pastéis de nata makers situated in Belem, a waterfront suburb of Lisbon.
Most people hop on a tram (another charming aspect of Lisbon’s public-transport offering) to visit the Jeronimos Monastery. Historically, when Portugal separated church and state, the monks turned to making pastries as an alternative source of income, and the iconic pastéis de nata was born. An outing to Belem is as much a pilgrimage to see the monastery, as it is a pilgrimage to visit the original pastry shop set up by the monks — and the queues to visit either site are just as long. One of the unexpected things I stumbled upon in the monastery’s cathedral is the tomb of Vasco de Gama, which is somewhat overshadowed by the vaulted interior of the cathedral. Even if you’re not a fan of visiting old churches, this one is one you’ll make an exception for: its interior is breathtaking.
But I am one of the new breed of food travellers, so the lure of ancient cathedrals is fleeting. A visit to the TimeOut Food Market was high on the to-do list, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a vast warehouse of carefully curated food stalls, serving anything from reimagined bachalou (salted cod, another traditional Portuguese staple) to more mouth-watering pastries. In the pursuit of new food experiences, I now book an Airbnb Experience in every city I visit. The last one was a “bike & bite” tour in Paris, which was a combination of a bike-share ride and foodie exploration.
In Lisbon, I booked a food tour called “Lisbon’s Best Flavours” in the Alfama district — Lisbon’s oldest suburb — which included an award-winning reinvention of pasteis de feija (a bean pastry). Far from sating the appetite of what Lisbon has to offer, it firmed my resolve to return again. So many pastries, so little time.
Dion Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com
Additional images from Chang's Lisbon getaway: