Since 19th July, double-vaxxed Brits haven’t had to quarantine upon return from Amber list countries. Proving popular is mainland Portugal, where you’ll find near-constant sunshine and Europe’s best surf.
Its capital, Lisbon, offers world-class plonk, a burgeoning food scene and breathtaking architecture. Flights take just 2.5 hours from London, and the drive to central hotels just 20 minutes (Blacklane transfers never fail us). If you’re desperate for a quick city break and some beach time, it’s tough to imagine somewhere more suited.
I spent a month hunting down the best things to do during Covid, then squeezed them into this packed itinerary. So, check the latest travel guidelines, order your tests, then get some watertight insurance. All set? Read on, relax and enjoy…
You made it! Don’t Lisbon’s magnificent hillsides and sun-dappled cobbles feel a million miles from the UK’s rain-sodden pub terraces? Castle ruins, laundry-strewn alleyways and hidden courtyards sit pretty under forever-blue skies. The streets come to life as traders flog gems at flea markets, locals sink shots of Ginjinha, and the haunting peal of Fado music travels across the breeze.
The Covid need-to-know: Local rules are assessed and updated every Thursday. At the time of writing, tourists need a negative PCR or rapid antigen test result in the 48 hours prior to hotel check in (this can be done at reception, and many provide them free of charge). Same goes for eating indoors at restaurants. Buy a couple of tests for next to nothing at any Lisbon pharmacy, in case you’re asked to take one.
You can expect a warm welcome following a tough year of restrictions, but keep on top of the ever-changing rules to avoid disappointment. Pre-3.30pm on weekends (when indoor pursuits are allowed), it makes sense to hit museums and shops you’re desperate to see. Then, plan outdoor activities for cooler evenings. You’ll hardly notice you’re jumping through Covid hoops, wandering around glorious gardens or sinking vino on sun-soaked terraces ’til curfew (11pm).
There are tourists around, but the crowds are nothing like usual, as different countries cycle through varying stages of their vaccine rollout. Take advantage of quieter streets with a bike tour to help you get your bearings. Lisbon’s built on seven hills, so you might assume it’s a hellish experience – but quite the opposite.
Lisbon Bike Tour offers a seamless service, meeting you at the top of the stunning Parque Eduardo VII, in the fancy part of town (arrive early and have a wander around the magnificent gardens). Here you jump on an electric bike, freewheeling downhill for three hours with an expert guide to point out iconic landmarks before finishing in historic Belém.
What should I see?
The bike tour ends by the imposing Tower of Belém, the sail-shaped Discoveries Monument and the gothic Jerónimos Monastery, all near the stunning Tagus river. Before checking them out, revive yourself with a cup of coffee and an egg tart at the famed Pastéis de Belém. It’s the true birthplace of the city’s famed pastel de nata – the original, and in my humble opinion, the best.
As you’re already there, spend the rest of the afternoon checking out the museum district. The MAAT Museum offers dozens of quirky exhibitions (free on the first Sunday of the month). The building itself is a work of art; a glittering, stingray-like structure doubling up as a walkway, seating area and viewpoint.
Brave the walk over a motorway bridge to find Rapture, Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei’s latest exhibition, at the Cordoaria. This expansive and thought-provoking collection of video footage, sculpture and pottery explores the plight of the refugee.
A stand-out dinner option just ten minutes walk away is O Frade. Talented local celeb Carlos Afonso has earned the nickname ‘Chef Sexy’ (and upon meeting him fresh from his morning surf, can confirm).
Feast on duck rice (too good), delicate beef tartare, pork pies and rabbit salad, watching the magic happen from a handful of seats around the kitchen.
So – start early. Finish your evening at Chapito A Mesa, a curious performance art space turned restaurant. You’ll love the irreverent, circus-style bric a brac, and the unexpectedly jaw-dropping views of the Tagus river.
Live like a Lisboan: A gorgeous evening pit stop is Monsanto viewpoint, surrounded by greenery. Look out for an abandoned luxury restaurant building now covered in graffiti, where the coolest residents rock up with a few beers to cheer the sun as it disappears.
Hipster shopping and partying haven LX Factory (think Hackney Wick, with tons of shops, restaurants and bars) is a good place for a nightcap. Find some room for a slice of cake at Landeau – home of Insta-famous chocolate cake Bruce Bogtrotter couldn’t hope to finish.
Pull on your comfiest trainers (this is one hilly city) and stomp around Chiado and Bairro Alto. Grab a pic for the ‘gram on buzzy Pink Street, then order sardines on toast. I love Sol E Pesca or delightfully kitsch Conserveira De Lisboa. Try to nab a table at lauded local tavern Taberna Rua Das Flores, (easiest outside of regular meal times) but if you’re unsuccessful, the forever excellent Time Out market is close by.
Where should I explore?
Walk off lunch with a 20 minute trek to neighbouring Principe Real, a haven for design lovers. Reserve a full hour for Embaixada, a beyond gorgeous concept store teeming with shiny new things you’ll want to bring home. Nearby you’ll find, Banema Studio celebrating architecture, while Sokyo houses contemporary ceramics.
Time for a sit down and an ice cream. It’s worth every step of the ten minute walk to Italian gelateria Nannarella. Plump for two scoops of Basil flavour (trust me on this one). Wander back to the pretty Jardim Botanico de Lisboa, then check out the Made In Situ gallery, focusing on natural materials. Mid 20th Century Modern mecca Lx Lapa can’t be missed, a literal palace housing unusual furniture, art and plants for sale.
Fancy a quick bite? Organic, wood-fired pizza is found nearby at In Bocca Al Lupo – try gluten-free and vegan-friendly favourites on wafer-thin crusts. We loved courgette salad followed by the Napoletana, washed down with organic wines and sangria.
I’m worn out already…
Book a sunset sail, where you can lie back and check out the sights. Lisbon Sail offers two hour adventures along the sparkling Tagus, where you’ll score spectacular views as experienced skippers explain the history of Portugal’s capital city (and dish out cured ham and cheese). Bring a jumper, as it gets windy.
End the day with a quiet walk through the Sao Jorge area; cobbled streets wind up to the incredibly beautiful castle walls, making it feel as though you’re stepping back in time. Want to stay here forever? Book in at the Casa Saint Jorge for a unique sleepover, directly next to the castle.
Live like a Lisboan: No one should have to work on holiday, but if needs must (or like me, you’ve become one of those abhorrently smug digital nomad types), Liberdade 229 is a solid co-working spot amid the sights.
Explore the amazing beaches on the other side of the iconic 25 de Abril suspension bridge, starting with delightfully kitsch Costa da Caparica. The promenade boasts a 10km running track, and a smattering of snack bars enjoy a blazing sunset every night.
O Barbas peddles out of this world seafood, while trendy Dr Bernard’s disco ball literally lights up the pavement, creating an adorable tiny dancefloor where you can dance with your ice cream. Keep an eye out for star chef residencies – the team behind the unmissable art exhibition-cum-dining experience The Art Gate (currently closed) made stellar Mexican snacks during my visit.
Palms is the place for frozen margs and a proper boogie, so long as you’re wearing your mask. Unless of course you’re testing positive for racism or homophobia – then, as per the rules on the board, you’d better self-isolate.
Live like a Lisboan: A quick taxi along the rugged coast brings you to Praia do Castelo, where you’ll find Praia Irmao beach bar. Three siblings melded their love of bohemian design, excellent music and really good pizza to set up this beautiful spot. You can rent day beds, grab an iced coffee at the beach bar or reserve a restaurant table for a long night of live music and a truly epic sunset. Get the Stracciatella pizza, Pork Disco Ball and a lime-infused Ginny cocktail.
What about the surfing?
Time To Surf school in Caparica will help you perfect your technique. A talented team of instructors check the conditions each day, before picking you up in their sunshine yellow van and driving you to the best spot to suit your ability (probably Praia da Mata, where the surf is a little more friendly).
Once on the beach you’ll get suited up, then walked through the theory of surfing. Yoga-like stretches and breathing techniques loosen creaky bones, before you lie your board flat on the sand and show your instructor your pop up. We learned with veteran surfer Mauro – total babe.
Following a few tweaks, it’s time to jump in the water and catch some waves. Warning: once you’ve managed to stand up a few times, the buzz is highly addictive. If you managed to convince your boss you can ‘Work From Anywhere’ during Covid, rent a place by the water for a week or two and get on that board every sunrise.
Soon you’ll be in grave danger of moving to the coast, growing your hair and morphing into a person who says ‘gnarly’ without a hint of irony. Could rainy London commutes and astronomical rent become a laughable anecdote of life pre the C-word? In Lisbon, it feels like anything is possible…
Where to stay
Live like a movie star: Bairro Alto Hotel
Architect Souto de Moura achieved a near-impossible feat with BAH‘s decor: the worlds of irreverent bohemia and elegant sophistication unite without a snag. Pulling up in a taxi, one is reminded of a Wes Anderson movie, as impeccably professional staff in chic uniforms help with bags (and offer witty asides).
Polished, European chic is softened with quirky design touches in unexpectedly bright colours. You’ll adore the bedrooms, decked out with Le Labo products, Marshall dock stations and gorgeous writing desks (complete with a postcard to sit and pen to friends).
Memorable extras are everywhere, from the personal headphones and water bottles lent to gym go-ers, to the bedtime mini egg tarts, fresh from the bakery on the ground floor.
From check-in through to dinner, service is impeccable. A very special restaurant from a very special chef, London foodies will already be familiar with Nuno Mendes’ achingly cosmopolitan BAHR.
Start with drinks on the terrace, then try smoked goose barnacles on toast (delicious, promise) and Portuguese Carabineiro rice. Dessert is poached meringue with lemon leaf, or a heady combo of chocolate, vinegar and sweet potato. A superb stay from start to finish.
Live like a true local: The Lisboans
As if must-visit Prado restaurant and Prado Mercearia (grocery) weren’t exciting enough, founder Isaac decided to open some self-catered apartments as well. No prizes for guessing that these too are impossibly tasteful and modern.
Formerly an abandoned candied fruit and biscuit factory, the space has been extensively renovated to create the feel of an upscale Air BnB, but better. Nothing is too much trouble for the concierge, should you need one – but should you not, that’s fine too. Guests’ feeling of a home-from-home is undisturbed but for the arrival of pastries and orange juice each morning (and they can opt out of that minor interruption, too).
The Lisboans’ location is excellent (because of course it is), a coin toss from Time Out Market, the castle and a plethora of the city’s best restaurants. For a fuss-free slice of stylish central city life, this is your base.
Live like actual Royalty: Torel Palace
Fact: There’s a dearth of large outdoor swimming pools in central Lisbon. In-the-know travellers escape the city heat in Torel Palace‘s shady (and surprisingly large) gardens, taking occasional breaks from breaststroke to peruse the snack menu from their loungers.
Made up of two historic palaces and a mansion, the hotel’s regal connections sparked a ‘Kings and Queens of Portugal’ theme, rooms filled with antique furniture and vintage design flourish. Retreating here, moments from the most famous sights, feels like being let in on a massive secret.
Choose a ‘With View’ room to guarantee an epic sunset from your own private balcony. Then wander to the bar to check out the cheese cabinet (yep, cheese cabinet). What a place.
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