Hack the Hidden City: Loads to love about Lisbon

Hack the Hidden City: Loads to love about Lisbon

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Need some inspiration for unique things to do in Lisbon? Look no further — let’s show the Portuguese capital the love it deserves

A capital city on the edge of Europe, Lisbon is what you might describe as an easy, accessible place. The cost of living is very manageable for Western Europe, it doesn’t take more than a few days to get around everything, the weather is pleasant, and the locals are friendly and approachable. It’s therefore unsurprising that it sees its fair share of tourism, but as ever, when we hack our hidden cities, we’ve come up with some of the more unique things to do in Lisbon. So, there’s no time like the present!…

Spot urban masterpieces… from the back of a Jeep

Street art in Lisbon — MollySVH, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia CommonsAbundant street art is one of Lisbon’s USPs — MollySVH, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lisbon is home to some of the best street art in Europe. During the Portuguese revolution of 1974, citizens first took to street art as a means to express themselves, and now the capital is a complete canvas of vibrant visual handiwork. Everywhere you look, you’re sure to catch some seriously impressive graffiti, which is embraced by the city’s council and residents with the utmost pride.

With Lisbon Street Art Tours, you get a choice of walking tours around the most captivating pieces of street art, starting at just €15 for a very thorough two and a half hours. And speaking of tours, the sardonically-named We Hate Tourism tour company promises an insight into the “real deal” Lisbon from — depending on your preference — the back of a van, a convertible Jeep, or a skateboard.

The company started out in 2008 as a small group of like-minded, ethically-conscious city residents who simply wanted to befriend visitors and show them some hidden gems. In recent years, they’ve attracted media attention for their occasionally dark and cynical branding demeanor; as well as for their quirky and undeniably ingenious means of allowing people to experience Lisbon like a local.

The best beaches

Aerial view of the coastline in Costa da Caparica — ShutterstockThe best beaches in Lisbon are along Costa da Caparica — Shutterstock

The locals in Lisbon will tell you that the waterfront along the central district of Cais do Sodré is overcrowded and overrated, bustling with partygoers. If, in fact, this does sound right up your (Pink) street, then fair enough. But for a more relaxing beach experience, head over the river to Costa da Caparica.

The town of Costa da Caparica isn’t particularly picturesque, but its some 15 sandy beaches stretch for several kilometers and each one has a different vibe. Some are popular with families, others with day-tripping 20-somethings, and there are others on which naturism is commonplace, despite that public nudity is technically illegal. Catch the mini train (which operates from June until October) and trundle on a tour down this characterful coast, to find the spot that suits you.

Surfing is also a popular pastime in this part of Lisbon as the waves across the beaches vary in strength, making the breaks suitable for surfers of all levels. So, if you’re so inclined, don’t forget your board (or, you know, rent one from one of the several surf shops and schools on the beachfront).

Get out, get active

Forest trail in Monsanto Forest Park — ShutterstockThere are numerous winding trails at Monsanto Forest Park — Shutterstock

Lisbon’s mild, subtropical climate means that, one: its winter nights are the mildest of any major European city, with temperatures not straying far from 9°C on average. (There’s a good meteorological fact for you.) And two: opportunities for outdoor sport are abundant pretty much all year round.

If surfing isn’t your thing, the locals love a game of tennis or padel. AirCourts is a website that lets you book courts to play a variety of racket games for very reasonable prices, not just in Lisbon, but throughout the whole of Portugal. What a perfect way to bond with the new friends that you’ll make on your We Hate Tourism tour.

Or, what about walking or cycling? The Monsanto Forest Park is a stone’s throw away from the heart of the city. Endearingly referred to as Lisbon’s “green lung”, this leafy expanse boasts walking and biking trails, a skatepark, and gorgeous panoramic views.

A park built for the world

The exterior of the Lisbon Ocenarium on a sunny day — ShutterstockLisbon Oceanarium is the biggest indoor aquarium in Europe — Shutterstock

Lisbon isn’t all terracotta roofs, tucked-away authentic shops and twee, rickety funiculars tracing cobblestone hills. An area completely revived for the Expo ‘98, Parque das Nações (Park of the Nations) is now a commercial and residential district stretching five kilometers along the northeastern bank of the river. To get there, take the Red Metro Line to Oriente. You’ll be greeted by modern high-rises, innovative architecture, and very well-kept public gardens — quite a far cry from the Lisbon on the postcards.

One of the most special attractions of Parque das Nações is the Lisbon Oceanarium, right on the marina. It’s the largest indoor aquarium in Europe, host to over 400 different species of marine life, including the sunfish — an animal rarely kept by aquariums due to it being difficult to care for. Admission is €19 per adult, which is pretty cheap compared to days out at aquariums in other Western European cities (looking at you, London).

Casino Lisboa at night — Husond, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsCasino Lisboa is Parque das Nações’s gaudiest feature — Husond, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After your sea-life experience, dine out at one of the haute-cuisine restaurants lining the promenade, many of them Chinese or Japanese. The Vasco da Gama viewing tower is also in the area, as is the Casino Lisboa, opened in 2006. From the outside, it’s a wonderfully tacky building, completely transparent and illuminated by neon colors at night. If you’re into gambling and/or mid-2000s kitsch, be sure to stop by.

Arty bar tips

Street in the Barrio Alto neighborhood — ShutterstockThe Bairro Alto neighborhood — Shutterstock

Exploring any city is thirsty work, and especially in the center, choosing a decent place to drink can be overwhelming. Luckily for you, we’ve narrowed down the myriads of Lisbon bars to two that we cannot recommend highly enough, and both are in keeping with the creative vibe emanated by the city’s walls. 

Through an unassuming double door on Largo do Intendente street hides Casa Independente — a laid-back, arty spot set up in an old apartment. This trendy and welcoming bar triples as a bookshop and gallery, and we particularly recommend visiting in the summer when you can sip cocktails on the sunny terrace, chatting with like-minded people until gone dusk.

Like Casa Independente, Zé dos Bois is an bar-cum-art gallery-cum-bookshop off the beaten track. It’s discreetly nestled as a means of escape from the chaos of the city’s Bairro Alto area, and its events program is jam-packed with performances from alternative visual artists and musicians. With inclusivity at the forefront of the mindset at Zé dos Bois, it’s known for being queer-friendly, and the drinks are affordable; a gin and tonic will cost you no more than €4.

Tastes from all corners of the globe

Falafel with salad and salsa on a wrap — ShutterstockTantura serves some mouth-watering Middle Eastern delights — Shutterstock

When it comes to food, Lisbon is extremely cosmopolitan for its size of approximately half a million people. Whether you’re craving Indian or Indonesian; Mexican or Mozambican, or simply something quintessentially Portuguese, you’re sure to be satisfied somewhere or other. We’ll let you in on a couple of our favorite eateries.

Tantura, winner of Tripadvisor’s Traveler’s Choice award in 2020, is just around the corner from Zé dos Bois. Feast on falafel, shakshuka and other authentic Middle Eastern dishes in this cozy little restaurant, from a menu in Portuguese, English and Hebrew. While meat dishes are aplenty, this is a great spot for vegetarians.

Alternatively, for the best Italian food around, seek out L’Ape Boteco Italiano in the Graça neighborhood. They’ll fix you a mean Aperol Spritz while you wait for your antipasto, arancini or freshly-baked focaccia in a dining area embellished with house plants and signature artistic wall lights. You can’t go far wrong.

Cacilhas

The view down the river from Cacilhas, facing westwards — ShutterstockThe view down the river from Cacilhas, facing westwards — Shutterstock

On the south side of the river is the township of Cacilhas. It’s a bit out of the way, the upside of this being that it remains virtually untouched by tourists. Catch the ferry from Cais do Sodré and you’ll soon see why it’s worth the journey; not just for the succulent seafood and high-quality wine available for a fraction of the price of that in the city center, but also for the stunning views and other assorted visual candy.

Stroll for 30 minutes along the river and climb the steep hill up to Casa da Cerca — a charming, sleepy museum with a café and botanical garden. The temporary exhibitions at Casa da Cerca are typically daring and unconventional, as the facility is generally supportive of international artists and aspiring local students. Once you’ve had a good look around, make sure you take in the all-encompassing view of Lisbon over the water. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of dolphins frolicking below.

Just over a kilometer further is the monument of Santuário de Cristo Rei (Sanctuary of Christ the King). Admission is free, and for making it this far, you’ll earn yourself the most spectacular view of the 25 de Abril Bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world, with those tiny terracotta roofs dotting the horizon.

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