Feature: The Hidden Charms of Lisbon

The stars are aligning for the Portuguese capital. Here’s what we discovered about Europe’s best-kept secret.

By Bree Sposato | Photographs and video by James Bedford

One of Europe’s more affordable capitals, Lisbon is an unpretentious beauty, a place where you can sit at a café sipping a two-euro glass of wine from a vineyard in the Douro Valley while marveling at centuries-old buildings clad in patterned tiles, or azulejos. Many travelers pass through the city on their way to the beaches and villages of southern Portugal’s Algarve coast, but it is well worth a stay of two or three days. The city is small (about 600,000 people) compared with other Western European capitals but no less rich in history: Romans and Moors first laid claim to Lisbon, and it later rose to prominence thanks to explorers such as Vasco da Gama, who blazed trade routes to Africa and India during the Age of Discovery.

Today, Lisbon is undergoing a revitalization but remains mostly free of global chains. Another delightful surprise: Almost no one walks around with a smartphone in hand. Even then it’s presumably to snap a photo of the light that filters through one of the city’s older districts, such as the maze-like Alfama, which extends to the Tagus River. Lisbon grew up along its banks, and then in the 19th century the city grew inland, and neighborhoods, such as Príncipe Real and Chiado, emerged. Get to know them and you may find that you too want to keep this once-sleepy city all to yourself.


Getting Around

Lisbon is built on seven hills, so remember to pack a pair of comfy walking shoes. From the airport, you can take a taxi ($16) or the subway (a 24-hour Viva Viagem pass is $6.50) downtown. You can walk between neighborhoods (most are 30 minutes apart or less) or hail one of many taxis (you can get to most places for about $6). Taxis don’t accept credit cards, nor do a lot of restaurants, so consider taking out euros from a bank at home with a good exchange rate before you go.

Alfama & Mouraria

Alfama was once a bustling sailors’ quarter. One of its highest points affords a panoramic view over the city and the Tagus River and is a great way to get oriented. To get there, catch Tram 28 ($3*) at 8:30 in the morning—you’ll sit alongside locals as it rumbles uphill—to arrive at St. George’s Castle (Rua de Santa Cruz; 011-351-218-800-620; admission, $18) when it opens at nine (crowds usually don’t start swarming the entrance until about 10). Here, 11 towers and the ruins of a royal palace sprawl over the city’s tallest hill, and a natural terrace looks out on the city’s red rooftops and 25th of April Bridge.

In the heart of Alfama below, you’ll encounter a labyrinthine street plan once meant to confuse invaders. Wander aimlessly through its tight becos (alleys), where laundry sways in the breeze, and largos (small squares), where clusters of tables invite you to sit down for coffee or wine. In the neighboring Mouraria (or “Moorish quarter”), you can pop into A Vida Portuguesa (23 Largo do Intendente Pina Manique; 011-351-211-974-512) to browse made-in-Portugal products, from notebooks (from $9) by Emílio Braga, a family company that’s been making them by hand since 1918, to wall-mounted swallows (from $12) made from ceramist Bordalo Pinheiro’s original molds.

Patterned tiles came to Portugal in the 15th century when parts of the Iberian Peninsula were under Moorish rule, and they cover thousands of buildings all over Lisbon. As you leave A Vida Portuguesa, take a moment to admire the stunning mosaic facade of the Fábrica Viúva Lamego factory next door. For a souvenir, you can walk 10 minutes south to Cortiço & Netos (66 Calçada de Santo André; 011-351-919-703-705), owned by four brothers who sell thousands of discontinued tiles dating from the 1960s that their grandfather collected; a small selection are fashioned as coasters ($5).

In the evening, consider listening to fado, Portugal’s traditionally mournful folk music about lost love, revenge and other inevitabilities of the human condition, at Parreirinha de Alfama (1 Beco Espírito Santo; 011-351-218-868-209; parreirinhadealfama.com, site in Portuguese; dinner for two, $60), a quaint restaurant with arched doorways that serves an hours-long meal while three singers perform between courses.


Lisbon’s most cosmopolitan neighborhood lies west of Alfama and is lined with restored 18th-century buildings. There are international brands here, but you’re better off sticking to the more unique shops. Tiny Luvaria Ulisses (87 Rua do Carmo; 011-351-213-420-295; gloves, from $60) has been selling nothing but buttery leather gloves in neutrals and jewel tones, like emerald and cherry red, since 1925. When you’re ready for a fitting, the soft-spoken shopkeeper uses a wooden clip to expand the glove’s fingers, mists baby powder inside and then instructs you to prop your elbow on a small pillow so she can pull the glove over your hand.

A 10-minute walk away, Claus Porto (135 Rua da Misericórdia; 011-351-917-215-855) is the flagship of the 130-year-old brand based in the seaside town of Porto, north of Lisbon. Soaps, perfumes and lotions are hand-wrapped in exquisite artist-designed papers; any golden detailing is real gold.

For a pick-me-up of a different sort, stop into one—or both—of the city’s sweetest spots: Manteigaria (2 Rua do Loreto; 011-351-213-471-492; tarts, $1), where you can savor a tiny warm-from-the-oven pastéis de nata (a traditional Portuguese egg-custard tart) while you watch dozens more get made through a glass partition, or Landeau (103 Rua Rodrigues Faria; 011-351-917-278-939; cake slices, $3.80), where slices of dense chocolate cake are precise, thin and decadent.

Portuguese chef and restaurateur José Avillez is credited with enlivening Lisbon’s food scene. At his gilded Café Lisboa (23 Largo de São Carlos; 011-351-211-914-498; dinner for two, $43), flaked cod comes with onion, eggs and olives.

Príncipe Real

Leafy gardens, colorful 19th-century mansions and lots of shops make this neighborhood set back from the river pleasant for a stroll. Wonderfully cluttered with chandeliers and floral-patterned teacups, Cafe Tease (15 Rua Nova da Piedade; 011-351-914-447-383; cups of tea, $2) serves tea and “Nutella coffee” as well as cupcakes. Nearby, Solar (70 Rua Dom Pedro V; 011-351-213-465-522) stocks antique tiles from the 15th to the 20th centuries from houses and churches around Portugal; they cost anywhere from a few dollars to a few hundred. Two more shops worth a look are Embaixada (26 Praça do Príncipe Real; 011-351-965-309-154), with its modest collection of Portuguese brands housed in a grand 19th-century building, and 21 PR Concept Store (21 Praça do Príncipe Real; 011-351-213-469-421), where you’ll find brightly colored women’s clothing from the Portuguese women’s fashion label Meam (from $60), plus leather shoes, quirky jewelry and silk scarves.

Work up an appetite wandering through the surprisingly hidden 17-acre Botanical Garden (58 Rua da Escola Politecnica; 011-351-213-921-800; admission, $2.75), lush with ancient palms. You can’t go wrong at the intimate Taberna da Rua das Flores (103 Rua das Flores; 011-351-213-479-418; lunch for two, $22), where the door stays propped open on warm days. Salted cod is fundamental to Portuguese cooking—or, in the words of Maria da Encarnacao Mello of the Portugal National Tourist Office, “In Portugal, we like to say there are 365 ways to cook salt cod.” You can usually find a preparation here, but if not, order whatever fish is on the menu. On one recent afternoon, the strips of fried fish were so light they were prone to crumble when used to scoop up the delicious porridge-like side, just heavy enough on the garlic and topped with cilantro. Another option: Cevicheria (129 Rua Dom Pedro V; 011-315-218-038-815; lunch for two, $45), where a giant sponge sculpture of an octopus presides over a white dining room that serves four types of ceviche.

In the evening, you could spend an hour poring over the enormous illustrated drinks menu at the eclectic five-room Pavilhão Chinês (89 Rua Dom Pedro V; 011-351-213-424-729; drinks for two, $18). More antique shop than bar, the dimly lit space is cluttered with toy soldiers, miniature trains, soldiers’ helmets, oil paintings and more. Or meander to the bohemian Barrio Alto district—wedged between Príncipe Real and Chiado—whose many bars and fado clubs come to life after dark.


Seven miles west of downtown, the Belém district deserves a half day on its own. This is where history’s most famous explorers, such as Vasco da Gama, set off on voyages to India, Africa, Brazil and other places in search of gold, spices and various riches. Today a wide waterfront boulevard connects many monuments and museums dedicated to this maritime tradition.

The Manueline-style Belém Tower (Av. Brasilia; admission, $7, or buy a $13 joint ticket for Belém Tower and Monastery of Jerónimos in advance to skip the lines and save a little) once protected this harbor and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. You can climb its 93-step spiral staircase to gaze down at the white terrace that juts over the Tagus. A few minutes’ ramble away, À Margem (Doca do Bon Sucesso; 011-351-918-225-548; lunch for two, $26), a minimalist open-air restaurant facing the water, serves light fare, such as salads and fresh strawberry juice. You can watch sailboats and daysailers ply the water, just 30 feet away, set to the constant clink of delicate glasses. To soak up the sun, tiny outdoor stands a bit farther along the boulevard serve wine ($2) in plastic wine glasses that you can take away and sip while sitting by the water.

It’s impossible to miss the impressive Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Av. Brasilia; 011-351-213-031-950; admission, $4), a monument carved with the likenesses of Prince Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and 29 other greats. Inside, you can ride the elevator to the skinny viewing platform at the top to look out over the river. Cross the street via underground passage to explore the behemoth Monastery of Jerónimos (Praça do Imperio; admission, $11). Commissioned to celebrate da Gama’s discovery, in 1498, of a sea route to India, it has scalloped arches and columns carved with flowers.

If you plan to be in Belém come dinnertime, consider making a reservation for a table at Feitoria (Doca do Bom Sucesso; 011-351-210-400-200; dinner for two, $80), a one-Michelin-star restaurant with flawless service set back from—but still in sight of—the water. Chef João Rodrigues might start you off with two cubes of melon infused with hibiscus, followed by sautéed Algarve scarlet shrimp or sausage in the shape of Portugal in a broth. One of the meal’s many lovely details: olive oil from the Douro Valley served in a gleaming seashell.

Top off the evening with yet another custard tart (or two) dusted with cinnamon from the café Pastéis de Belém (Rua de Belém; 011-351-213-637-423; pastries, from $1.50), which started as a factory in 1837 and is still run by the same family. The blue-and-white dining room echoes with happy chatter—appealingly unpretentious, much like Lisbon itself.

The Algarve Coast

Claim your own stretch of pristine sand, only a 45-minute flight or two-and-a-half-hour drive from Lisbon.

Praia da Falésia, Albufeira
This nearly four-mile ribbon backed by bright orange cliffs unspools six miles east of the city of Albufeira.

Meia Praia, Lagos
Blue-green waters lap the wide shore, and a few good restaurants and bars line the beach itself.

Ilha de Tavira, Tavira
A boat will bring you from the historic town of Tavira to this quiet seven-mile island beach.

RCI® affiliated resorts near the featured destinations include:
Clube Albufeira Resort Algarve 2414

Palm-tree-lined grounds and adobe-style architecture. Estrada de Ferrerias, Albufeira
Member Review: “I loved the restaurant.”

Oura-View Beach Club 1441

It’s all about the bi-level swimming pool and poolside bar. Praia da Oura, Areias de São João, 8200-604 Albufeira
Member Review: “Our apartment was very spacious with a full kitchen.”

Balaia Park 2731

You can unwind at the full-service health club with Turkish baths. Quinta da Semina, Balaia, 8200-912 Albufeira
Member Review: “Friendly and helpful staff.”

Ponta Grande Resort 7653

A collection of private townhomes with a French-country feel that sleep up to six. São Rafael, 8200-385 Albufeira
Member Review: “Great local transportation available.”

Hotel Apartamento Vila Gale Atlantico 2172

Just 900 feet from Gale Beach, with studio, one- and two-bedroom units. Praia da Gale, Apartado 108, Albufeira
Member Review: “Clean and well maintained.”

Oasis Village 1145

There are sculpture gardens on-site and shopping, restaurants and a marina within walking distance. Caminho do Lago, 8125-423 Vilamoura
Member Review: “Quiet and peaceful location.”

Turism Estrela Do Vau Beach Resort Hotel C743

Children can enjoy the outdoor playground and kids-only pool. Vau, 8500-308 Portimão
Member Review: “Very nice beach area.”

RCI® Tip

To help plan your Portugal activities and airport transfers, visit City Discovery,** available for RCI® Subscribing Members. For more information, log on to RCI.com and choose Destination Activities & More in the “Air, Car, Cruise & More” drop-down menu.

For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.
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Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Lisbon and the Algarve include:
Hotel Valverde

A quiet 25-room property with a heated outdoor pool, a restaurant that hosts fado dinners on Tuesday and Saturday nights and a plum spot on Lisbon’s main boulevard. 164 Av. da Liberdade, Lisbon; 011-351-210-940-300; valverdehotel.com; doubles from $242 a night

Vila Valverde

In the Algarve, this modern hotel has 15 streamlined rooms, indoor and outdoor pools, and sun beds. It’s near the beach up an olive-tree-lined driveway. Estrada da Praia da Luz, Valverde, Lagos; 011-351-282-790-790; vilavalverde.com; doubles from $150 a night

  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • **Many of the products and services available in this program are provided by third party guides, vendors, and service providers (“Third Parties”). RCI does not make any representations regarding the availability of or endorse any of the products or services provided by Third Parties. RCI expressly denies any liability for an individual’s engagement in any activity offered by or the use of any Third Parties. Additional fees, terms and conditions, and restrictions may apply and are subject to change as determined solely by the Third Parties.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Fall 2017