From the beating heart of Alfama to the Manueline marvels of Belém, Lisbon is a truly world class city that is sure to delight any visitor. On a recent trip to the Portuguese capital, I decided to truly get under the skin of the city and seek out some of the lesser-known sites the guide books often overlook.
For first time visitors, don’t forget to check out Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Castelo de São Jorge and Praça do Comércio or enjoy the pleasures of ‘pastéis de nata’, ‘fado’ music and the charming trams and ‘elevadores’ that grind up and down the city’s streets.
However, if you’re planning your second (or umpteenth) trip – or just fancy going beyond the tried and tested tourist trail – here I present my Top 10 Alternative Lisbon.
- The Doll Hospital
Above an unassuming toy shop on Praça da Figueira you can visit ‘Hospital de Bonecas’ – The Doll Hospital. Owned by the same family since 1830, it is one of the world’s oldest doll hospitals, where beloved possessions sent in from around the globe are given a new lease of life.
Our guide whisked us up a staircase at the back of the shop where we were shown around the hospital proper, with drawers full of plastic limbs and dusty heads waiting patiently around a mini operating table. We even got to see a ‘doctor’ at work in one of the two ‘wards’; she was busy stitching up a tiny dress.
As well as the hospital, our guide proudly showed us the family’s vast personal doll collection – “not for sale” our guide kept calling out, as if we came with the intention of buying one – which consisted of seemingly endless rooms full of dolls of all different sizes and styles that were unclaimed by clients after their respective ‘operations’. Among clowns and Father Christmas incarnations, look out for the most unnerving doll of all – a capirote-wearing figurine, which could be representing the Portuguese Inquisition or the equally terrifying KKK.
- Fábrica do Pastel de Feijão
It’s pretty much a given that you’ll eat your body weight in ‘pastéis de nata’ (custard tarts) while in Lisbon, however, while exploring Alfama, follow your nose to the tiny ‘Fábrica do Pastel Feijão’ and treat yourself to one of their bean cakes.
Famous in the city of Torres Vedras, ‘pastéis de feijão’ (bean cakes) are made from white beans, almond and eggs, surrounded by a pastry exterior. In 2009 acclaimed chef António Amorim reinvented the cake for modern Lisbonites, encasing the creamy filling in a crispy, caramelised shell. The people of Torres Vedras obviously approved, as Amorim’s new incarnation won first prize in the city’s bean pastry contest in 2014.
Personally, I normally turn my nose at anything containing beans – the thought of baked beans makes me heave – but these delicate delights really hit the spot and our server, Ana, expertly described the history of the cake and how it was made, making our Alfama pit stop even more pleasurable.
- Sé cloister
Sé, Lisbon’s cathedral, will be on most tourist itineraries of Lisbon. Built on the site of a Moorish mosque and instantly recognisable from its twin battlemented towers, the Sé is a combination of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles.
However, make sure you visit the cloister at the rear of the cathedral. For a small charge, you can get a unique glimpse of the archaeological excavations taking place in the ancient complex which have revealed activity below the Sé from the Iron Age to medieval times.
As you walk over the site on a rickety walkway surrounded on three sides by the 14th-century cloister, a Roman street is clearly visible and you can spot a Moorish courtyard, surrounded by the pink-painted walls of an Islamic public building.
The scale of the excavations in a relatively small space is truly impressive and was certainly one of the most memorable sights of our visit to Lisbon.
- Deli Delux
If all that salt cod and sardines is getting too much to you, head to Deli Delux for one of their legendary brunches. Situated at the rear of a shop selling international delicacies and overlooking the River Tagus, this place is achingly cool, but easy on the wallet.
For the price of a standard main course back in the UK, we each enjoyed a freshly squeezed orange juice, a home-baked croissant, scrambled eggs with bacon and tomatoes, two types of coffee, warm bread rolls and Portuguese sliced meats and cheeses. It certainly set us up for the day… and then some!
Deli Delux is situated in Alfama, opposite Santa Apolónia station – an Instagrammable piece of Neoclassical architecture itself, being the oldest railway terminus in Portugal.
Deli Delux also has another branch at 15a Rua Alexandre Herculano, near where the street intersects with Avenida da Liberdade.
- Museu Arqueológico do Carmo
The Gothic ‘Convento do Carmo’ was a victim of the 1755 earthquake – which killed thousands, including worshippers in the convent itself, and destroyed 85 per cent of Lisbon’s buildings. Today, the Carmo Convent’s ruins, which include an open nave and towering arches, provide an evocative backdrop for an archaeological mash up of finds from around Portugal and Europe.
Opened in 1864, the ‘Museu Arqueológico do Carmo’ (Carmo Archaeological Museum) was built to safeguard relics following the dissolution of religious houses in Portugal from 1834. As well as impressive ecclesiastical pieces, the indoor section of the museum also boasts 4th-century sarcophagi, ‘azulejo’ (hand-painted tile) panels and a pair of gruesome 16th-century Peruvian mummies.
Situated around the corner from the ‘Elevador de Santa Justa’ (Santa Justa lift) at one side of Largo do Carmo in Chiado, the Carmo Archaeological Museum is a beautiful hidden gem that also serves as a poignant reminder of the events of 1755 which all but destroyed Lisbon.
- Wines of Portugal Tasting Room
Portugal has some of the world’s best wines, including port, but it’s sometimes difficult to know where to start.
Luckily, the ‘Sala Ogival de Lisboa’ (Wines of Portugal Tasting Room) behind the arches on Praça do Comércio can offer some assistance at a very small price. Simply load a card with a few Euros and for mere cents two machines deposit a decent glug for you to quaff at your leisure at one of the many large tables in the venue’s spacious hall.
Helpful English-speaking staff are also on hand to help you understand more about the reds, whites, rosés, greens and fortified wines on offer, and you can even purchase a bottle, or two, take home.
- Pátio Dom Fradique
An abandoned courtyard close to ‘Castelo de São Jorge’ (St George’s Castle) has found an unlikely rebirth as an outdoor gallery for recycled art.
Despite a long history and boasting an enviable ‘miradouro’ (a scenic lookout, one of many sprinkled across Lisbon’s hills) the area has remained unoccupied since it was earmarked for development in the 1990s.
Enter Júlio Bernardino de Oliveira, a homeless artist who recycles rubbish that he finds on the streets to form part of his ephemeral canvas. Carefully placed furniture, plastics and stones were scattered among murals awash with heart motifs and huge faces when we visited.
The artwork on display is somewhat questionable, and the space has a whiff of Copenhagen’s Christiania about it, but the Pátio makes for a quirky and colourful interlude among the medieval sights and ‘azulejos’ of Alfama.
Ginjinha is a Portuguese liqueur made by infusing ginja berries (sour cherry) in alcohol and sugar, and once you know what it is, you’ll see lots of ‘Lisboeras’ sipping it from little plastic cups throughout the city. As well as being enjoyed socially, the Portuguese believe it to be a wonder cure for a whole host of illnesses.
We sampled the sweet cherry liqueur at the hole-in-the-wall A Ginjinha, which, as the name suggests, just sells ginjinha. Under the watch of the drink’s 19th-century inventor, Galician friar Francisco Espinheira, and with an alcohol-laden cherry added, we slowly sipped the potent number – which, after a slightly painful burning sensation, leaves a saccharine aftertaste – before exploring the wider Largo de São Domingo where the bar is located.
- Livraria Bertrand
With an exterior covered in blue-and-white ‘azulejos’ and an interior that feels more like a medieval monastery, it’s easy to see why Livraria Bertrand in Chiado is the world’s oldest bookshop still in operation – something that was verified by the Guinness Book of Records in 2011.
Opened in 1732, the bookshop was frequented by acclaimed Portuguese authors such as politician, social scientist and minister, Joaquim Pedro de Oliveira Martins, poet Antero Tarquínio de Quental and realist José Maria de Eça de Queirós. Meanwhile, novelist and historian Alexandre Herculano, launched many of his books there and another frequent visitor was Nobel Prize nominee Aquilino Ribeiro. In fact, in the first room on the right side as you enter you can see the ‘Corner of Aquilino’.
- Pastel de Camarão
Perhaps more famous in Brazil, the ‘pastel de camarão’ (shrimp pasty) in Portugal is less flaky than its South American variant and more like a Findus Crispy Pancake of yore, complete with a creamy filling and coated in breadcrumbs.
You can find shrimp pasties in bakeries across Lisbon, but they never taste better than when sold with a beer from a pop up stall in Alfama during ‘Festas de Lisboa’ throughout June, as you enjoy lively street performances into the night.