PORTUGAL DISPATCH // vol. 1
Lisbon, Sintra and Surrounding Beaches: the food! the history! the tiles!
This is the first in a two part travel series —a detour from recipes to bring you the best of what I see when I’m out in the world. Because travel reporting is extremely time intensive, I’m offering the full posts to paid subscribers. You’ll find a good portion of this post is free, but if you want every last detail—all the meals, hotels and beaches from Sintra to Lisbon and south to Lagos—a paid subscription (on sale now!) gets you in.
Bom Dia! (Good Day, in Portuguese). If you read my last two letters (or follow on Instagram), you already know that we spent spring break in Portugal—and fell in love.
Apparently Portugal is the new black, but in two decades of travel to Europe for work and to visit family, I’d missed it. Never again.
Did you know that Lisbon is older than Rome? Also: Astoundingly beautiful, and relatively speaking—affordable (we priced out Disney, Jamiaca, Bahamas and Puerto Rico for a Spring break, before landing on Portugal).
There’s ample reason to go to Portugal for the views and art and history. But since a lot of you are here for the food—know this: I’d go back to Lisbon for the meals alone, in a hot minute. The restaurants/cafes are chic, welcoming, design-forward and delicious. More on the down below. But first, a basic itinerary that worked well for us.
WHAT TO SEE IN // FIVE DAYS IN PORTUGAL:
You could EASILY spend three weeks in Portugal, but you can still do a lot with six days. How’s How.
DAYS 1 + 2: Start in Lisbon, with two nights + two days of eating, drinking and walking (you see more that way). Sure, there’s plenty of museums and monuments, too—but we do food.
DAY 3: Pop up north to Sintra or Caiscais for the day (my pick: Sintra! Full Sintra guide, below).
DAYS 4 + 5: Drive south to Lagos (three-ish hours) then meander east toward Spain, stopping at the best beaches and seaside restaurants. Sleep seaside for maximum beach time with minimal hassle. (See Vol 2 // Algarve and Lagos!)
DAY 6: Drive back north to Lisbon, stopping to beach hop on the cove south of Lisbon on the way, spending a final night in one of the affordable, conveniently located hotels near the Lisbon airport, for an early morning, next-day flight.
WHERE TO EAT: LISBON (with kids)*
My list of places to eat in Lisbon was long before we arrived, and got longer each day. Every time I turned a corner another window or open door begged me to enter to a tiled, textured, plant-filled paradise—an upscale coffee house, an unassuming fish shack, or a cozy cafe.
There are many fine places I’ll return to one day, when traveling alone or as a couple, but below are the places we found delicious and stress-free as a family. This is in no way an exhaustive list, or the newest/chicest spots—but a good list of gems to start with. My best advice, make a few reservations, but mostly walk and discover, and make sure to get in lunch before 2 PM when everything closes until dinner (late!).
TABERNA DA RUA DAS FLORES—visually a classic Lisbon tavern, with the tiled floors and bodega-esque vibes to match; this spot doesn’t take reservations, but the kitchen earns your wait time with spot on yet sophisticated versions of Portuguese classics.
MERCADO DA RIBIERA (TIME OUT MARKET): This was devised (by Time Out Magazine) for tourists. Locals don’t eat here. But the chefs were hand selected and the selection, extremely good. Expect to be overwhelmed. Have the family grab a table, and assign the most decisive, able-bodied adult to zip around, ordering your family’s favorites by sight—we had the best fried fish of our lives, along with a brothy seafood and bean soups, octopus, olives, and of course—gelato and more pastéis de nata.
PRADO MERCEARIA- Prado’s spin off is one part high-end grocer, one part one-bar and cafe, that serves a notable two course lunch, with a starter and dessert, all worth writing home about (if the kids can last). For the less patient, stop in for stunning produce, cheeses and bread.
SOL E PESCA: tucked into the famous (and touristy) pink street of Lisbon, this former bait and tackle shop serves decanted tinned fish and seafood in simple preparations, with soft bread and a bracing, perfect glass of house white. The menu is extensive—save yourself a headache and tell your server what you like (sardines? tuna? octopus? clams?) and flavors you might enjoy (garlic? spiced? smoked? tomato?) and leave it in his capable hands.
O PITEU DA GRACA: Reputedly where the chefs eat on their day off, traditional, family friendly, old-world.
CASA DE PIEXE—Literally translated Fish House, this red-checkered stalwart above the Mercado 31 de Janeiro Fish Market serves simple dishes from the freshest fish below. Go for lunch—or if you’re lucky to have a great Air B N B, buy fresh fish to cook at home.
MANTEIGARIA - Here is the place to try pastéis de nata—Portugal’s most famous pastry, though everyone will tell you to go to Pastéis de Belém (it’s charming but packed—see below). There’s several Manteigaria’s around town, including an outpost in Time Out Market, and another across from Pastais De Belam (with no lines!)
A PARADIA PORTUGUESE —We chanced upon this eat-in/take-away coffee/pastry outpost, near our hotel, in Santo Antonio, tucked into a museum (with pink buildings on every corner). The Starbucks of Lisbon (the other outposts are likely less charming), you won’t find this on LISBOA COOL lists, but this works with kids. We adjusted our morning walks to the sweet Pão de Deus (bread of God) and fresh squeezed orange juice—plus takeaway Pastéis de Bacalhau (salt cod fritters) for later.
WHERE TO EAT: LISBON (without kids)
HELLO KRISTOF: Full disclosure, we did stop into this spot-on coffee shop/bakery with our kids, but I would have loved to stay solo for the sunny window spot, and to soak in the indie magazines, including Lisboa Insiders lush print journal—a high end guidepost for where to go on an (adult-only) trip. Either way: order their (potent!) cappuccino and melt-in-your-mouth pastries.
PRADO: this class act has design and the menu on lock. Not over the top, a classic example of Lisbon’s solid status as a premiere dining destination, on par with Madrid, Paris and New York.
PASTAIS DE BELAM: There was no way we were going to stand in this (one-block-long) line with young kids, but if you hit at it an off time and can slip in solo for a table or take-away, it’s worth enjoying the distinctively Portuguese charm on display here, along with excellent pastry.
WHERE TO (FOOD) SHOP: LISBON:
MERCEARIA STO —the best of the best Portuguese products. Think: low-intervention (or natural) wines, long-fermentation bread, small-production cheeses and nearly homemade jams
COMPANHIA PORTUGUEZA DO GHA—we chanced upon this elegant apothecary after we missed lunch, and wandered this narrow, coffee-and-goods lined corner instead. Like stepping back in time, the shop is lined with floor to ceiling tins of premiere teas from all over the world. The aroma enough is a gift—but also an excellent place to buy gifts for back home.
CONSI.GO—One of Lisbon’s many, reputed high end markets, with organic foods and natural wines. Would I make a detour for this? Not especially, but if you’re in the neighborhood, stop in.
RUA AUGUSTA — Not a shop, but a whole pedestrian street of shopping. Wander, enjoy, and don’t get stuck here—some of the best charming gems you’ll chance upon on slow walks with no destination at all.
*NOTE: We mostly had excellent, friendly service in Lisbon, but a few places—recommended by several sites but not listed here— clearly catered to locals, only (these tourists, even dressed like Europeans with decently-behaved kids did not pass). If you’re waiting super long for a table, while everyone else is getting seated, don’t take offense; Politely move on—you’ll have a better meal where you’re most welcome.
WHERE TO STAY: LISBON
There are LOADS of thrilling Airbnb options in Portugal, from terraced Lisboa apartments to sprawling, citrus-tree lined villas in the South. Many are decently priced, but most had three-night minimums—with clean up on the agenda for check out—so for a short trip, a hotel is still the way to go.
You’ll find beautiful hotels on some of the lists below—if they’re in your budget, and you can plan ahead. We found all our hotels last minute on Expedia, sub $200/night, and were totally pleased for the price (see, below, Hotel Florida).
A Note: Most rooms had only twin/double beds (no queens/kings). For our (tall!) family of four, seeking out hotels with family rooms (suites with two rooms and four twin beds, or in some cases four beds all in one room) paid off.
Consider these lists a jumping off point for your own research on what’s best for you.
(SOME) HOTELS IN LISBON
1908 LISBOA HOTEL (CHIC, ART-CENTRIC, ROMANTIC)
HOTEL FLORIDA (AFFORDABLE, FAMILY FRIENDLY, CENTRAL)
TOP TEN COOLEST HOTELS LISBON (BOUTIQUE HOTELS)
As for Airbnb’s, I’m bookmarking these stays for longer, future trips:
(AFFORDABLE) AIR B N B’s IN LISBON
(NOTABLE) AIR B N B’S IN PORTUGAL (Lisbon, and beyond)
BEST BEACHES: A SHORT DRIVE FROM LISBON
Portuguese beaches are drop-dead gorgeous—no matter what time of year you visit. I spent a lot of time mapping these out to see what was possible in one 5 to 6 day trip—so use my custom BEST BEACHES IN PORTUGAL MAP, to save yourself time. A few of these stunners are near Lisbon—listed below; I’ll hit the best beaches of Southern Portugal in the second dispatch, next week.
COSTA DA CAPARICA - one long stretch of gorgeous sandy beaches, 20 minutes from Lisbon, in a resort town that has recently been called the Venice of Portugal—with a culinary scene to match.
PRAIA DO MAGOITO- North of Sintra, with sandy beaches lined with cliffs, acacia and eucalyptus trees. Expect rougher waters here but gorgeous views.
PRAIA DA ADRAGA—Just a few km north of Cabo da Roca—the westernmost point on mainland Europe—characterized by high cliffs and a deep valley winding down to the beach. Smaller and mostly locals.
PRAIA DO PORTINHO DA ARRABIDA—Considered one of the prettiest beaches in Portugal, located within Serra da Arrabida National Park. Expect white sand beaches, clear blue waters, and lush green hills in this former fishing village.
WHERE TO BUY PORTUGUESE TILE (LISBON):
Google “where to buy tile in Lisbon” and you will get addresses for 20 + stunning houses of tile, with histories that date back generations. Here were our four favorites.
VIUVA LAMEGO FACTORY
DAY TRIP TO SINTRA
We missed our flight back to NYC (cliff’s notes: don’t forget to covid test before you arrive at the airport!) and got a bonus day in Portugal. We used it to squeeze in a day trip to magical SINTRA, 30 to 40 minutes north of Portugal—which was top on our list for the next trip. It’s a perfect (full or even half-day) trip from Lisbon and an absolute delight—one of our very favorite days of our trip. All the details, below.
WHERE TO EAT: SINTRA