Long Weekend in Lisbon

Posted by Adam Erace on July 15, 2014 at 12:00:00 PM EDT | Post a Comment

Is there anything more indulgent than a weekend getaway in Europe? What can be an expensive endeavor becomes surprisingly affordable if you decide to head to Lisbon. You don't need platinum status or a platinum mine to enjoy a long weekend in the affordable, accessible, and absolutely enchanting Portuguese capital. Only six hours from the East Coast, Lisbon makes an ideal getaway to the Continent, and it's much less visited by Americans than its better-known, pricier neighbors in Spain. Here's your itinerary for a long weekend in this charming city. 


After you land at the airport from your overnight flight, grab your bags and hail a taxi to the Memmo Alfama Hotel (rooms from $142), a serene white-washed boutique located down a narrow, lemon-tree-lined alley in the colorful Alfama neighborhood. (Confirm the rate with the driver beforehand; the 15-minute drive from the airport shouldn’t be more than 15 euros). Breakfast should still be happening in the Memmo's Scandinavian-esque, bookshelf-lined living room. Grab a low-slung armchair or a seat at the communal table, and enjoy a plate of pastries, charcuterie, cheeses, and fruit. By European standards, Memmo's complimentary breakfast is bountiful and served late, and the Aquafresh-green Smeg fridge is always stocked with water and swing-top bottles of freshly squeezed juice.

Your room won't be ready until 3 p.m., so drop your bags with the front desk, freshen up in the bathroom, and head out to explore Alfama's winding cobblestone streets. (Splurge on a data bundle for your phone; GPS comes in handy while exploring.) At the top of Alfama's hill, you'll reach Castelo de São Jorge (St. George's Castle), which has stood like a watchdog over the city since the second century B.C. The main Moorish fortress sits in the center of a verdant park populated by resident peacocks and clans of local teens. Check out the neat archaeology museum and scale the castle's parapets for jaw-dropping views of the red-roofed city and shimmering Tagus River.

Once you've worked up an appetite, sample two of Portugal's most popular foods near the castle at Frei Papinhas (average main $10); the restaurant's grilled bacalhau (salt cod) with olive oil-drenched potatoes is exactly the kind of restorative lunch you need when you've been on the go for close to 24 hours. Wandering back toward the hotel, kill your last hour before check-in with some retail therapy at A Arte da Terra, a chic, bi-level gallery specializing in products (braided cork belts, embroidered linens) made by Portuguese artisans, and CHI Coração, featuring womens- and menswear crafted from the country's luxurious wool. Pick up a scarf or cape; balmy Lisbon gets cool after the sun goes down.

Even after an afternoon siesta, you'll be beat from the travel and walking all day. Fortunately, Restaurante Alpendre (Rua Augusto Rosa 34; average main: $12) is within walking distance of the hotel. Décor runs toward paper tablecloths and a peekaboo butcher's case—they'll stash your bottle of wine next to the racks of ribs—and the can't-believe-you're-in-Europe prices match the setting. Order the mixed meat grill for two—a cutting board stacked with skinny housemade sausages, veal, picanha (a cut of beef), and slices of pata negra, the hallowed, acorn-fed pork that is deservedly worshipped on the Iberian Peninsula.


Start your morning at Alfama's stunning Sé Cathedral, a twin-towered, Romanesque church built on the site of a former mosque in 1150 to mark the defeat of the Moors. Admission is free, but you'll need a ticket to tour the cathedral's Cloisters, a promenade of outdoor gardens and tombs ringing an ongoing archaeological excavation discovered beneath the church's central courtyard.

Meander down the hill into busy Baixa and Chiado, Lisbon's central commercial zones, which are peppered with pocket-sized plazas, grand promenades, big-name shops (Hong Kong's Muji), and anachronistic boutiques (Luvaria Ulisses, a leather-glove store the size of a phone booth). Grab a cone of gelato—passionfruit and dark chocolate is a winning combo—from Gelados Santini, a peppermint-striped ice cream parlor that got its start in the nearby beach town of Cascais in 1949. Then check out MUDE, Lisbon's free modern-design museum, which explores the intersection of culture, fashion, and furniture through the 1900s and beyond.

It might not be au courant to dine early in Lisbon, but Cervejaria Ramiro (average main: $18) has a such a rabid following of locals (and savvy food-tourists; Bourdain visited on No Reservations) that you might want to go around 7 p.m. to avoid the first-come, first-served line of hopefuls snaking down ramshackle Rue Palma. Steamed and sautéed seafood is sold by the kilo beneath the dining room's coffered wood ceilings, while giant lobsters and gangly spider crabs glower from window tanks. Don't miss the gooseneck barnacles, a local delicacy you won't find back home.


Skip breakfast at the hotel today and catch a cab to Belém, the picturesque riverfront neighborhood ten minutes west of central Lisbon. Ask your driver to ride along the river, and marvel as you pass beneath the soaring April 25th Bridge, which, with the omnipresent morning fog, lends Lisbon its common comparison to San Francisco. Aim to arrive at Pastéis de Belém, the city's most famous pastry shop (est. 1837), for opening at 8 a.m. The sweet, thick egg custard in the signature pasteis de nata will still be warm. Slump in food ecstasy against the building's Azulejo tile facade as the morning wind beats the navy awnings overhead.

Belém's waterfront is a linear treasure trail of Lisbon's major sights: the Belem Tower, a four-story limestone fortress jutting into the river; the Monument to the Discoveries; and Jerónimos Monastery, a Manueline-style confection home to Vasco de Gama's tomb, gorgeous gardens, and the National Archaeology and Maritime Museums. Add in the Berardo Museum for modern art in the Belém cultural center, and you've got more than enough for a full day in this neighborhood. You'll be glad you started early to avoid the crowds, especially on Sunday.

Where to Stay

Alfama offers an ideal mix of local color and traveler-friendly amenities. You can observe old men playing chess in the plazas and their wives hanging laundry from their balconies—but don't have to walk far for an ATM or bottle of Tylenol. The crisp, soothing Memmo is the place to stay thanks to its wonderful staff, thoughtfully constructed rooms, and generous bathrooms. (Insider tip: Views can be obstructed in the lower room categories, so if you have a few extra bucks, upgrade to a suite with rooftop-and-river vistas.) On the other side of town, the Pestana Palace (rooms from $230) is a former royal residence whose tropical-green grounds are within walking distance of the sights of Belém. Inside the ivory-and-canary-yellow mansion, the sumptuous 193 rooms have a luxurious, regal sensibility; think draped bed canopies, balconies behind arched windows, iron chandeliers, and furniture in Easter-egg pastels.

When to Go

Like most of southern Europe, Lisbon is best in spring and fall, when it's not too hot or too crowded. September/October is ideal for balmy days and cardigan-friendly nights, and you can often catch deals on airfare at this time. Lisbon's tourism website is a great resource for more practical information.

How to Get There

The only year-round direct flights to Lisbon are from Newark (United, TAP) and Miami (TAP). Seasonal nonstop service is available from Philadelphia (US Airways/American) and Boston (US Airways/American, SATA, TAP). East Coast flights depart in the evening and arrive in Lisbon six-to-seven hours later in the morning. Connecting flights are available from all other major U.S. cities.

Adam Erace writes about food, drink and travel for Fodor's and magazines like Details, Southern Living and Men's Journal. He loves exploring far-flung destinations and their regional specialties almost as much as his hometown, Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife and two rescue pups. 

Courtesy of Memmo Alfama; Courtesy of Tourismo de Lisboa (Castelo de Sao Jorge, Se Cathedral); Courtesy of Camara Municipal de Lisboa (MUDE); Courtesy of Cervejaria Ramiro; Jose Manuel (Pasteis Belem)

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