A travellers guide to Lisbon: Top 10 things to do

Miradouro da Graça

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.

Words: Benjamin Goodwin

On a recent trip to the Portuguese capital, Ben Goodwin decided to truly get under the skin of the city and seek out some of the lesser-known sites the guide books often overlook.

1. 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 origins that were unclaimed by clients after their respective ‘operations’.

2. 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.

3. 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 has 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.

4. Deli Delux

If all the salt cod and sardines are 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.

5. 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.

6. Sala Ogival de Lisboa

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, to take home.

7. 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.

8. Ginjinha

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.

9. Livraria Bertrand

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. Opened in 1732, its historic status was verified by the Guinness Book of Records in 2011.

10. 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 can enjoy lively street performances into the night.

Monarch flies directly to Lisbon from Birmingham.

Want keep up with Ben’s travel adventures? Check out his blog, Railways and Randomness.