As of 9th January 2022, fully vaccinated passengers no longer need a pre-departure test two days before travelling to the UK – and don’t have to isolate upon arrival. For many, that means holidays are back on the horizon.
Mainland Portugal is proving popular, thanks to its close proximity to England and (relatively) straightforward entry requirements.
Lisbon offers world-class plonk, a burgeoning food scene and breathtaking architecture. If you’re desperate for a quick city break and some beach time, it’s tough to imagine somewhere better.
I spent a month hunting down the best things to do during Covid, then squeezed them into this packed itinerary. So do your research, order a test, get some watertight insurance… then away you go!
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.
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.
Want to relax? Book a bougie brunch at one of Dear Breakfast‘s stylish outposts. We can highly recommend the Healthy Rancheros, Detox Juice and anything from the pancake menu. What a place.
Follow up with a cosseting spa sesh at Inspira hotel. We love its natural and organic healing nook, ReTREAT SPA – complete with a jacuzzi and steam baths. Disappear for a few hours to enjoy a full body exfoliation, preparing the body for a nourishing massage and facial to restore some balance.
Live like a Lisboan: End your day at hipster shopping haven LX Factory (think Hackney Wick, with tons of shops, restaurants and bars). Check out Ler Devagar bookshop (heaven) then grab dessert at Landeau: home of Insta-famous chocolate cake Bruce Bogtrotter couldn’t hope to finish.
I base my holidays around meals…
Then don’t miss Michelin-starred 100 Maneiras. This Bosnian-inspired restaurant is so special, you’ll still find yourself thinking about it (and talking about it, to anyone who’ll listen) months later.
Surprises await with every tasting course, so we won’t spoil it – but rest assured if you like adventurous flavour combinations, theatrical presentation, passionate staff and a moody setting, you’ll adore this. Perfect for a special occasion, this is fine dining like you’ve never known before.
More casual, but just as delicious, is Mexican Gastrobar Carnal. As the name might suggest, the menu is meat-heavy – this isn’t the place to treat your vegan friends. Try fried tortillas with lard, followed by rib-stuffed corn patties and fried prawn tacos. Suckling pig confit shouldn’t be missed, but do save room for Grandmother’s Mexican flan.
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.
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.
Try fried tortillas with lard, followed by rib-stuffed corn patties and fried prawn tacos...
Another stand-out option is O Frade. Carlos Afonso whips up duck rice, delicate beef tartare, pork pies and rabbit salad, making the magic happen for a handful of seats around the kitchen.
Finish an evening at Chapito A Mesa, a curious performance art space turned restaurant. You’ll love the irreverent, circus-style bric a brac, and the jaw-dropping views of the Tagus river.
If Michelin starred taster menus get you going, book PLANO, where Chef Vítor Adão shows respect for tradition and the Portuguese land through a beautifully personal menu. Five ‘moments’ are just 50 Euros. Lisbon’s cheap prices (yet total dedication to quality) will never fail to make you smile.
Pull on your comfiest trainers (this is one hilly city) and stomp around Chiado and Bairro Alto. Grab a pic for the ‘gram on Pink Street, then order sardines on toast. I love Sol E Pesca or 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. 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.
IBAL owner Ágata’s latest restaurant LOOP opened last summer, creating colourful salads and healthy desserts that won’t bore Lisboans to tears. Be sure to toast your angelic lunch choices with an epic Bees Knees cocktail.
Led by a powerful team of women, Dr Bernard Boa Vista shouldn’t be missed at dinner time (nor its beachfront sister sites in sleepy Caparica – but more on those later). You’ll love charismatic owner Gregory Bernard’s flair for quirky, retro design and honest service. We adore the pumpkin gnocchi, washed down with natural wine.
Things to do
Book a sunset sail, then 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.
For an immediate boost, you can rely on Amplify fitness club’s unique programme of sessions: thumping spin classes, hip hop yoga and gruelling bootcamp drills will leave you raring to go. The energetic atmosphere (and endorphin rush) is addictive. Impossibly toned and friendly instructors buzz around in lycra, handing out free smoothies and pep talks.
Live like a Lisboan: Pamper yourself with on OPI GelColor Mani Pedi at The Manipedi Nail Spa. The nail technicians are super kind, speak excellent English and can’t do enough to make your visit thoroughly relaxing.
Explore the beaches on the other side of the iconic 25 de Abril suspension bridge, starting with kitsch Costa da Caparica. The promenade boasts a 10km running track, and a smattering of snack bars enjoy a blazing sunset every night.
Dr Bernard’s disco ball literally lights up the pavement, creating a tiny dance floor 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) and Oficio 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. 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 driving you to the best spot to suit your ability.
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.
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.
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 the design lover’s dream: Casa Chafariz
Antique shops, art galleries, fashionable restaurants and the Museum of Antique Arts sit moments from Casa Chafariz – the perfect digs for anyone creative. Wait until you see inside: five stunning apartments spread across four floors, each facing a beautiful square with a view of Chafariz da Esperança, a public fountain built in 1760.
Free Wifi and a fully equipped kitchen make these apartments practical places to stay, some housing up to six people with ease. We adore the exposed wooden beams, marble countertops and clean colour ways – oh so soothing after a day of busy streets and schedules. Just 10 minutes walking will bring you to the heart of Chiado, and you’re eight minutes from Praça do Comércio tram stop.
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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