Early spring is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best time of year to visit Lisbon. Why, you may ask? It is certainly too early for a trip to the beach – unless you’re feeling particularly adventurous or momentarily forget Portugal is bathed by the North Atlantic (operative word here being “north”). All the same, March in Portugal already means copious amounts of sun and temperatures that sun-deprived Brits can easily describe as “balmy”. Being still far away from the high season also means low prices and few crowds. A win-win situation all around. In order to help you make the best of your trip to one of the sunniest capitals in Europe, here are our insider tips.
For nightlife lovers, Bairro Alto is the place to be. It blends tradition with modern sensibilities, creating a mandatory hotspot for tourists and locals alike. Here you can find restaurants with traditional food, live music, and some of the most popular pubs in the city. However, you should know that pubs in Bairro Alto – one of the city’s historic quarters – tend to be rather small in size. As a consequence and also owing to the generous weather, people tend to hang out outdoors. This means you should wear something warm enough that you won’t freeze standing outside in the cold – it’s still March, after all – but not so heavy you feel overburdened with clothes. Layers are key.
Also, whatever you do, don’t wear heels when going out to party. Locals can pull it off: they have practice. Foreigners however, should not attempt it unless they wish to become intimately acquainted with the ground. Sidewalks in Bairro Alto are very narrow, but there is hardly any traffic – only the occasional taxi desperately trying to navigate the crowds – so people stand in the middle of the street. This is a historic quarter, so the roads are made out of dark stones irregularly shaped and pressed down next to each other. If you wear heels, you’ll spend the night looking down trying to avoid getting your heels stuck in the crevices between the stones, something that is bound to become increasingly difficult as the night progresses. Word to the wise.
Coffee and Pastéis de Belém
The Portuguese are big coffee lovers and you can find cafés sprinkled throughout the city. The Portuguese “bica” is served in a small cup and looks harmless enough to the untrained eye – it’s such a small amount of coffee, after all. Resist the temptation to ask for one. Trust me, you will thank me for this advice. The words you need to learn are “uma meia de leite”. That means “coffee with milk”, and unlike a straight out “bica”, it is unlikely to give you palpitations for the rest of the day.
Travel bloggers often recommend you try the famous Pastéis de Belém, one of Lisbon‘s most renowned delicacies. This is both good advice and bad advice. It’s good advice because Pastéis de Belém are amazing and a feast to the senses; it’s terrible advice because they are only sold in one place in the city and it’s always crowded with tourists. Here is the insider scoop: Pastéis de Belém are the branded version of the more unassuming Pastéis de Nata, which you can find in any café in the city (and really, you can’t walk ten paces without stumbling across another café, they’re EVERYWHERE).
Purists will tell you there’s a world of difference between Pastéis de Belém and Pastéis de Nata, but they’re wrong. There isn’t a world of difference; there isn’t so much as a small street of difference. It’s the same thing, only cheaper and easier to acquire. You’re welcome.
Don’t miss out on a trip to Sintra
Sintra is a village located a short drive from Lisbon and it is nothing short of amazing. While it is relatively small, it is home to no fewer than six palaces and one castle, including Pena Palace which looks like something Walt Disney might have drawn so he could have an enchanted palace in which to lock up a princess. If you’re less into Disney and more into Allan Poe, you may prefer the mysterious Quinta da Regaleira with its mystic symbols and curious initiation wells designed by Freemasons. Sintra National Park is perfect for nature lovers, and if you don’t want to come this close to the coast without at least enjoying a walk on the beach, Praia das Maçãs is only a few miles away.