You may think you know the Portuguese capital, but the real Lisbon lies beyond the tourist trail. Local travel expert Francisco Henriques sheds light on the social and cultural lives of Lisbon’s citizens and his favourite spots to visit in the city.
A quick online search will show you why Lisbon is one of the most visited cities in Europe: delicious traditional food, historic landmarks and stunning viewpoints make it a popular holiday destination. The thing is, you won’t find many locals around these major attractions – in part due to the tourists that make them extremely crowded. Beyond the scope of travel guides, there are many places where you can experience a real slice of Lisbon culture. Enjoy the Portuguese capital like Lisboas do, with a local’s 11 favourite spots in the city.
Have a snail snack at the marina
Food Kiosk, Portuguese
Take it from a local: stewed in herbs and garlic, snails are a delicious (and entertaining) snack that goes perfectly with beer. The best place to get them is at the marina, in the Parque das Nações neighbourhood. This quiet location has all the perks of the riverfront, with a wide and long promenade, minus the crowds you would normally find in such a beautiful setting. Just pick a table by the river, soak up the views and nibble away. The best way to get here is by car, and parking is always available. Otherwise, you can catch the subway to Estação do Oriente (red line) and walk the rest of the way along the river. The marina has many restaurants lined up along the promenade, with Mestre Doce a particularly good option for trying snails.
Medieval pub Trobadores is just steps from the Pink Street and Barrio Alto, and hidden from the tourist crowds. It can get rowdy with Celtic bands playing live music, but otherwise it’s a chill spot with a great atmosphere where you can drink mead and share flame-cooked sausages with friends. The decor and staff costumes reflect the venue’s history as a tavern from the Middle Ages, with rustic wooden tables and wrought-iron chandeliers. They also have great brews on tap that are poured into clay tankards, perfect for Viking toasts.
Lisbon is a city with many beaches, all of them a good option for some summer sun. But on those cloudy, windy days, it’s a good time to head for Avencas Beach. This tiny patch of sand on the way to Cascais is carved into the cliffs, granting it protection from the strong winds that keep most beach-goers away. Locals say you can’t have a bad beach day at the Avencas Beach, and they haven’t been wrong yet. Check the tide before going – the sand almost disappears at high tide. The easiest way to get here is by renting a car, which you can park at the residential area close to the beach. Otherwise, take the train to Carcavelos Station and walk the rest of the way.
If you’ve been on the internet in the last few years, you’ve probably heard of CrossFit: the high-intensity workout known for getting people in shape. In Lisbon, if you want to workout with the locals, the place to try it is Crossfit Alvalade. The coaches here adapt the workout to each person’s fitness level, while the sociable mood makes it fun all the way through. The rugged gym is in a former warehouse, with top notch facilities. It’s home to a friendly community of beginners and pros, with daily classes you can join anytime no strings attached. You can get here by riding a bicycle along the river or by catching a bus from the city centre. At the time of writing, the price is an affordable €15 (£13) per class – call ahead to make sure there’s room for you.
Underdogs Gallery specialises in Portuguese street art | Courtesy of Underdogs Gallery
Located in a renovated warehouse in the Marvila quarter, Underdogs Gallery is the go-to place to get a feel for Portugal’s urban art scene, with regular exhibitions from high-profile local artists and acclaimed international names. They also have guided art tours with experts, who take you to notable works around the city (from the likes of artists such as Vhils). The gallery is only open for temporary exhibitions, so check what’s on before going. You can get here by riding a bicycle along the river or by catching a bus from the city centre.
In the residential area of Alvalade, not far from the city centre, there’s a vast forest park mostly sought out by people who live close by. In the middle is where you’ll find Esplanada da Mata, a hipster kiosk café with good music and a humble yet flavourful food offering. It’s surrounded by tables and seats carved out of tree trunks where you can relax with a drink, or, on weekend afternoons, enjoy DJ sets. It feels a bit like a music festival, except you don’t have to pay for a ticket and the kiosk is open from 12pm to 8pm. The best way to get here is by renting a bicycle; there are bike lanes connecting the city centre to the park and it makes for a fun trip.
There are hardly any conventional restaurants in Lisbon that don’t serve croquetes: the customary breadcrumbed fried rolls, filled with ground meat and vegetables. Try the ones from Galeto – they’re the best in town. This long-established restaurant, inaugurated in 1966 and since unchanged, is famous among locals for its long-flushed counter that curls along the vast dining room, providing seats for up to 150 customers. There is no wrong way to eat a croquete, although connoisseurs recommend dipping it in mustard. Galeto is right next to Saldanha Subway Station (red and yellow lines), and the restaurant is open from 7.30am to 3.30am, although prices go up from 10pm onwards, so it’s better to go earlier.
There are many delightful places in Lisbon where you can have a view of the river, but not many that include a view of the city. Sat atop a hill across the Tagus river, Casa da Cerca is a little-known art gallery with a large and well-tended botanical garden, from where you can see Lisbon and the waterfront in all its glory. There’s also a charming little café on site selling drinks and tasty pastries. To get here, take the ferry boat from Cais do Sodré to Cacilhas and walk along the riverside until you reach the Boca do Vento Elevator. The trip up the hill costs €1 (less than £1) and drops you right in front of Casa da Cerca.
Intimate concerts, lively jam sessions and brilliant DJ sets: the entertainment at O Bom O Mau e O Vilão is constantly changing, but always fun no matter what’s on. This bar prides itself on making everyone feel comfortable. Decorated with kitsch furniture, local art (available to purchase) and graffitied walls, the venue is neatly split into three areas – dance floor, lounge and bar – each with its own vibe. It’s located close to Pink Street, home to many of the city’s best bars and nightclubs, but it’s unlikely you’ll want to leave the pumping dancefloor at O Bom O Mau e O Vilão.
Hidden in away down an alley in the Chiado area, there’s a building belonging to a women’s rights association with a cantina on the top floor, serving homely food at affordable prices. It wouldn’t be worthy of a mention if it weren’t for the adjacent terrace with breathtaking views of the river. The staff is mostly made up of the friendly local women who run the place and always make you feel welcome, and all things considered, it’s a bargain of a deal. The restaurant is only open for breakfast and lunch and closes for the weekend, with a menu that changes daily.
A bit farther north of the tourist track, right in the middle of the city, is a park with a lake where you can rent small rowing boats and have a fun afternoon among the ducks. Campo Grande is one of the city’s biggest garden parks, dotted with picnic areas, playgrounds, padel playing fields and even a McDonald’s. But if you get hungry from rowing, you’re better off going to the café in the middle of the lake. It’s delightful to sit on the terrace and watch people struggling with their boats, and the food is good too. The park is open 24 hours, but you can only rent boats during the day. To get to the park, take the subway to Campo Grande Station (yellow and green line).