Food, fado and fun in Portugal

By Birute Skurdenis
This article appears on page 20 of the October 2012 issue.
View from one of Lisbon’s miradouros.

by Birute Skurdenis, Oakland, Ca.

Portugal was not on my travel radar screen until a friend invited me and two others along on a trip. So in September-October 2011 the four of us traveled to Lisbon, Porto and the Douro Valley.

Starting in Lisbon

This was a self-catering trip all the way. We rented apartments in Lisbon and Porto and a house in the Douro Valley.

Our Lisbon apartment was in the Mercês neighborhood, close to the Rato Metro station; a 20-minute walk down through the hills took us into downtown. This residential neighborhood is on the northwestern edge of Old Lisbon, with 3- and 4-story apartment buildings on the downtown side and office blocks and larger apartment buildings above Rato.

We shared two adjoining apartments at Zuzabed City-Break Suites, one of the nicest vacation rentals I’ve experienced. Owner Luis Zuzarte, who owns several vacation rentals in different parts of town, provided a cell phone for local use programmed with his phone number. He made sure we understood that we could call him for any reason, whether we were lost or needed a restaurant recommendation or a morning taxi cab.

On our arrival, our refrigerator was already well stocked with bread, cold cuts, cheese, milk and fruit. Every morning, one of Luis’ assistants delivered fresh bread and sweet rolls and made sure we had enough pods for our coffee machine.

Each studio apartment slept two comfortably and cost €125 ($153) per night. I highly recommend Zuza­bed but would advise you to book well in advance, as these units fill up quickly. We booked five months before our trip and got one of his last available units.

City sights

We loved wandering around Lisbon. It is hilly once you leave Baixa (pronounced Buy-shah), the center of town, where most travelers stay, but it’s a walkable city, nonetheless. Sights of interest are clustered together, so we would often start our day by taking the Metro to the farthest chosen destination, then walk back to our apartment.

Folk dance festival in Lisbon’s Alfama district.

We enjoyed walking around the great shopping streets of Baixa and Chiado, getting lost in the maze-like streets of the old Alfama neighborhood and seeking out the miradouros (viewpoints), the parks and plazas on the hills with magnificent views of the city and the river.

We found the Metro to be very safe, clean and efficient. (Even with three line changes, we still made it home in less than 20 minutes.) Taxis are a bargain, and even traveling long distances (like to Belém) in one can be as inexpensive as taking public transport if there are several of you to share the cost.

Entertainment can be free, if you know where to look. We used both Rick Steves’ “Portugal” and Lonely Planet’s “Portugal” as our guides.

Rick Steves’ walking tour of Baixa directed us to a street scene of life-size statues dedicated to the tile layers of Lisbon in front of a church on Prata and Victoria. Constructed with light- and dark-colored cobbles, tile calçadas (pavements) form geometric patterns and pictures in the plazas and on sidewalks. They can be found everywhere in Lisbon.

Around Rua Augusta, the main street leading from the River Teju to Rossio Square, we discovered some street art. In the States, I consider graffiti to be an eyesore, but in Lisbon and Porto it was often insightful and funny, not just some unreadable moniker advertising the “artist.”

Strolling through the Alfama neighborhood on a Saturday, we explored the Feira da Ladra, or Thieves’ Market, several plazas filled with normal flea market junk but also souvenirs and CDs. This market is easily reached after a short walk uphill from the Santa Apolónia Metro station. However, we later found similar souvenirs in little shops tucked into side streets in other parts of Alfama, often for lower prices.

On Largo do Chafariz de Dentro, across from the Fado Museum, we encountered a free folkloric dance festival in full swing. Wandering higher up the hill, at one of the miradouros below the Castelo de São Jorge we ran into a group of jugglers from Chapitô Circus School practicing in the plaza. Chapitô (Costa do Costelo, 7) also serves tapas, dinner and drinks, but they had a private event on the evening we tried to dine there. (It is somewhat difficult to find because of a lack of street signs. Coming down from the castle, turn left at the intersection of Rua da Saudade and Rua de Santiago.)

Some guidebooks suggest giving the city’s castle a pass, but it does have amazing views and gives you a feel for Moorish Lisbon. There’s a restaurant on the grounds, and a large pride of peacocks roams freely there. If you’re going to visit the castle, I recommend an early start.

On a different day, I got there shortly after they opened and shared the grounds with only a dozen other visitors. By the time I left, in the late morning, the place was packed with tour bus loads and school groups.

The arts

While we fully intended to take in a dinner/concert featuring fado, that wonderful, yearning music so identified with Portugal, we got very lucky to be treated to a free performance.

Our apartment was up the street from Casa Amália, the house of Amália Rodrigues, one of the most famous fado singers in Portugal. She passed away in 1999, and the house is now a museum.

One evening, while we were relaxing on the balcony of our apartment after a day wandering Lisbon, we heard music down the street. As part of a festival to attract late-night shoppers to Rua São Bento, local businesses were sponsoring three nights of free fado from the balcony of Casa Amália.

A crowd of a hundred, which grew larger every night, filled the street while police redirected the busy traffic. The singers were young and old, and a number of songs had everyone in the crowd singing. Even though I didn’t understand much of what was sung, the music and obvious emotion of the crowd brought tears to my eyes.

Casa Amália also turned out to be a great landmark for our taxi drivers, who were mostly older. We just said, “Near Casa Amália,” and they would nod their heads.

If you are at all interested in interior design or fashion, I highly recommend the Museum of Design & Fashion (MUDE), near the bottom of Rua Augusta. The ground-floor exhibit offers a history of modern design through the present day, with everyday objects and couture clothing. Special exhibits, often geared to one designer or concept, are on the upper floors. Admission is free.


During our 7-day Lisbon stay, we made two day trips. A visit to Sintra, a half-hour train ride from Rossio Station in Lisbon, is a “must do.”

At Rossio, we made several attempts to use the ticket machines but were repeatedly stymied, so I suggest going straight to the ticket window to buy the €3.90 ($4.77) round-trip train ticket. When you debark in Sintra, the town center is to the left as you exit the station.

There is a tourist information office at the station, but we found it packed with people who had just gotten off the train, so we headed for the other office in town, one kilometer away, which had a lovely little gift shop.

Sintra’s Pena Palace.

There is a stop for the No. 434 bus to the palace and castle directly outside this office. The bus costs €5 and makes a nerve-racking ride up a country road so winding and narrow that I wondered how a vehicle that size was going to make it.

The bus makes a one-way circuit up to the castle and palace and back into town, so unless you want to take a long walk back down the road from the palace to the castle, get off and see the castle first and hop back on the bus to see the palace.

Sintra’s Pena Palace is fantastically ornate. The grounds include bathroom facilities and a small concession stand for snacks and drinks.

You can reach the nearby Moorish castle by walking downhill through the palace grounds on a path that starts midway between the Pena Gate and the castle. When we were there, that dirt path was unmarked.

At the bottom of this path there were small, castle-like duck houses, and on the other side of the road a path through the parking lot led to the entrance of the Moorish castle.

While the path on the Pena grounds is well graded, beware that the path on the castle grounds is full of tree roots waiting to trip you up.

The ruins of the Castle of the Moors, mostly battlement walls, are as stark as the palace is ornate. The walls are reminiscent of a narrow Great Wall of China.

At the time of our visit, the only bathroom facilities at the castle were at the gate, and the only nourishment was a beverage from the vending machines. They are in the process of building facilities and an interpretive center close to the castle.

Our other day trip was to Belém to visit its monastery, the Monument to the Discoveries and the tower. All are worth a visit, as is a stop at the Confeitaria de Belém (Rua de Belém, 84-92), daily selling thousands of their signature custard tarts called pastéis de nata. While this confeitaria is known for its nata, I found the tarts elsewhere to be just as good. However, the tarts here were sold warm, straight out of the oven.

Comments on cuisine

The food in Portugal was fantastic, and the portions in traditional restaurants tended to be large. We quickly learned to share appetizers and expect large entrée portions.

First-time travelers to Portugal should be warned about the appetizers that appear at your table before you order. They are not free.

In most cases, the bread, olives, cheese and meats we were served were reasonably priced, but sometimes they were outrageously overpriced. In one restaurant, we were told by other travelers who weren’t aware of the practice that they were charged €7 per person for bread, olives and a small piece of cheese.

If in doubt, it’s always wise to ask the price of the appetizers and whether that is the price per person or the price for the item. If we were hungry enough or if something on the plate looked especially good, and the price was reasonable, we often chowed down.

Among my favorites were Pork Alentejo, cubes of succulent pork mixed with clams in the shell, and Portuguese gazpacho soup.

We also took every opportunity to order fish and seafood — especially octopus — which were invariably good.

Dinner at neighborhood restaurants would usually run about €25 ($31) per person, including a bottle of wine split by the four of us.

Restaurant recommendations

One of my favorite restaurants in Lisbon was Café São Bento (212 Rua São Bento), located across the street from the Assembly of the Republic building. There’s not much choice here — steak in two sizes, with or without an egg on top. Fries or another starch come with the steak, and you can order salad or classics like creamed spinach as a side.

They had a good wine list, and dinner of four “small” steaks (more than enough, even for the 6'5" man in our party) with sides of salads and creamed spinach came to about €26 each. If this restaurant were in my neighborhood, I would be there regularly.

Since we often ate at the unfashionably early hour of 7:00, we usually had no problem getting a table. By the time we were ending our meal, the restaurant would usually be packed.

Another restaurant I would recommend is Assinatura (19A Rua do Vale Pereiro), offering upscale versions of Portuguese classics. We all got the 5-course tasting menu for €50 per person, with two of us adding the optional wine tasting for an additional €20, probably half the price of a similar meal in an equivalent restaurant in the US.

The meal included snails in batter; a good portion of oxtail with risotto; a white fish; a Portuguese cannoli; several amuse bouches, and a selection of breads.

In the Rossio Square area, don’t miss A Ginjinha, a hole in the wall on Tolerance Square tucked into the northeast corner of the square. Ginjinha, a sweet, cinnamon, cherry liqueur, may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s an easier quaff than the only other drink on the menu, aguardente, Portugal’s grape brandy.

Just up the street from A Ginjinha you’ll find the restaurant Bomjardim (Travessa de Santo Antão, 11), so noted for its world-famous piri piri chicken that the other restaurants on Santo Antão have barkers outside claiming, “We make delicious chicken, too.” While piri piri is a hot sauce, the chicken was piquant but not overly spicy, and it was delicious!

Portugal has remarkable wines, and, if you imbibe, you should definitely try the different varietals, since imports to the US are minuscule in number compared to what is produced locally. Our wine of choice was usually a Vinho Verde, a bright, tangy, slightly bubbly white. And don’t forget the ports. If you’re not traveling to Porto, try a port tasting at the Solar do Vinho do Porto (Rua São Pedro de Alcântara 45), an 18th-century manor house across from the Miradouro de São Pedro Alcântara.

The Portuguese we met seemed to really want visitors to enjoy their country. When locals found out where we were headed next, they would make suggestions on things to see or places to eat. In one Porto supermarket, we were trying to decide on what cheeses we were interested in in the deli case, and the young woman behind the meat counter came over to recommend her favorites.

Most of the people we encountered in Lisbon and Porto spoke some English. Unfortunately, the folks least likely to speak English were the cab drivers. I did try to learn a little Portuguese before the trip.

On the road

From Lisbon, we rented a car to drive to Porto and the Douro Valley. We reserved it through Europcar and picked it up at the airport because none of us was thrilled at the idea of driving in Lisbon.

Travel blogs are full of stories from people who were charged exorbitant fees for even the slightest bit of damage on their rental cars, so we accepted the full insurance package, but the rental agency didn’t even look at the car when we brought it back.

If you find yourself on toll roads, be aware of the Via Verde payment booths. Periodically, there are banks of toll booths on the road where you can either pick up or pay for a ticket. The ones on the far left are designed to work with an electronic payment system. If you wind up passing through one (as we did because we couldn’t pull over to the booths on the right because of traffic), you will be charged the maximum price of the entire toll route at the next booth. This was over €25.

As you get closer to the booths on the right, staffed booths are usually indicated by a tiny human-figure light above or to the side of the booth.

We chose to drive to Porto in order to stop at Óbidos, a quaint but touristy town about 100 kilometers from Lisbon. Unfortunately, we ignored our knowledge that many places were not open on Monday — including the church where we hoped to see the 17th-century paintings by Josefa de Óbidos. If I were to do this over again, I would take the train to Porto and rent a car for the Douro Valley or, better yet, forsake the car and take the train up along the Douro River, staying in Pinhão or Régua.

While the highways were fine, the country roads along the river were exhausting. Having a lot of experience driving California’s scenic, winding coastal Highway 1, I didn’t think driving in the Douro Valley would be a problem, but the roads made Highway 1 seem like a thruway.

Nestled into the steep hillsides, the narrow roads were extraordinarily windy, with little room for the cars, trucks and buses coming from the other direction. At blind curves, drivers beeped their horns to forewarn oncoming traffic.


I enjoyed Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, as much as Lisbon. We stayed in a self-catering apartment (No. 607353 on on the Ribeira, right on the Douro River. The agent, Fernando Almeida, made us feel very welcome, and he also arranged the rental of a home overlooking the Douro in the wine country.

A large azulejo, the traditional blue-and-white tilework that can be found throughout Portugal, covers the exterior of a church in downtown Porto.

The Porto location was excellent, with easy access to Old Porto and a view out our living room window of the river and the Port wine houses in Vila Nova de Gaia across the river.

I have one word of caution about staying on the Ribeira. One night, there was a gathering of hundreds of students on the Ribeira, and the carousing went on late into the night. Luckily, our bedrooms were fitted with soundproof double windows and air-conditioning; otherwise, there would have been no sleep till late that night.

Our two-bedroom, one-bath apartment cost €125 ($154) per night, a slightly discounted price because we were also renting the wine-country house from the same agent.

The Porto Walker Card is a great bargain. Available for €5 from any tourist information office, it offers discounts on tour buses, riverboat rides and a few restaurants and free entry to many museums. It’s a 24-hour card rather than a single-day card so you can start your day whenever you like.

There’s a slightly pricier Porto Card (€10.50) that includes public transportation, but since we were walkers, it would not have offered additional value. I recovered my cost with two museum entries.

Two on-and-off tourist bus lines (the Yellow and the Red) traverse Porto. We oriented ourselves by spending our first morning on the Yellow Bus, admiring the beautiful azulejos (tile paintings) on the sides of buildings.

Our “historical” bus route wound through downtown Porto to the outskirts of town, passing the modern Casa da Música and Serralves Park before returning to the center of town and Vila Nova de Gaia. Since this was the closest I’d ever been to this side of the Atlantic Ocean, we got off the bus to visit the beach at Foz do Douro, even though it was the coldest day of our Portugal visit.

A few more sights

Back in downtown Porto, the Torre dos Clérigos (Tower of the Clergy) offered a breathtaking climb to a breathtaking view of the city. It’s located across the street from Lello e Irmão bookshop, one of the most ornate bookstores I’ve ever seen. They don’t allow photos, but they do sell a bookmark with pictures of the shop.

They also have a good collection of dictionaries, cookbooks and a small but interesting collection of Portuguese writers translated into English. I picked up a copy of “The City and the Mountains” by Eça de Quierós, originally published in 1901. It was an easy, enjoyable read, satirizing city sophistication and country life through the story of a bachelor brought up in Paris who visits his family’s lands in the Douro Valley.

Next door to the bookstore, check out La Vida Portuguese, a 2-story shop with soaps, foods, stationery and nostalgic items from Portugal and other European countries.

Don’t miss the giant azulejos depicting historic events and harvest scenes in the lobby of the São Bento train depot. They cover all four walls, floor to ceiling. There’s also a well-priced little gift shop, on the left as you enter the train platform area, where I purchased a large rooster tablecloth for €8.

On Rua Santa Catarina, the main shopping street, stop for lunch at the elaborate, glass-and-gilt, early-20th-century Café Majestic (112 Rua Santa Catarina). Sure, it’s touristy and pricey, but their soups and sandwiches were good.

Two of us split a Francesinha — a croque-monsieur on steroids — a monstrous grilled sandwich of ham, steak and sausage covered in cheese and flavorful tomato-beer gravy, guaranteed to raise your cholesterol. I had a tuna sandwich and we all had large beers. Our bill for three came to around €35, with the Francesinha accounting for almost half the bill.

Close to the Ribeira are the beautiful Stock Exchange (Pálacio da Bolsa) and the Church of São Francisco. The Stock Exchange, which actually resembles a palace, is more of a Chamber of Commerce, a fraternal or upscale Rotary type of club whose members represent the larger businesses of Porto. Membership is prestigious.

You can see the building only as part of a tour group. I got there as they opened and wound up on a private tour. The tour was worthwhile, allowing me to hear the history of the building and see the beautiful woodwork and inlaid wood floors and the acoustically marvelous and ornate Arabian Room, which they still use for events and concerts.

Next door is the deconsecrated church of São Francisco. It was strange to see such ornateness connected with a religious order known for its dedication to simplicity, but, apparently, during its life as a church, the good businessmen and important people of the day used the church for the public display of their wealth by creating burial vaults and side altars.

There is a connected ossuary opposite the church, itself. Don’t miss the miscellaneous bones under the floor grate below Tomb No. 35.

Wine and art

A visit to the famous Port houses on the other side of the river is mandatory in Porto. We decided to visit Taylor’s (Rua do Choupelo, 250, Vila Nova de Gaia), which had a decent free tour that included a tasting of two of their less stellar ports, but it turned out to be at the very top of the hillside. I would recommend being lazy and trying one of the tasting rooms down by the river.

We tried a variety of ports, deciding that the 10-year tawnies were our favorites, with those made by Kopke and Graham’s leading the pack.

We were lucky to be in Porto during “Manobras no Porto,” a year-long series of events held to revitalize Porto’s historic center. In late September, an assortment of ingenuous concept-art installations popped up all over town.

These art events ranged from circles of colorful button-down shirts strung together to mimic daisies, flapping in the wind on a hillside, to modern dance duets in the Metro station.

Porto is also home to the Serralves Contemporary Art Museum, situated in a park on the western side of the city. Presenting art created since the 1960s, the museum has no permanent collection but hosts invited artists and group shows.

While we were there, the museum’s main exhibit was a show of interactive sculptures by Robert Morris, including teeter boards that you could balance on and a giant hollow wooden tube that you could stand inside and roll, like an old funhouse item.


In Porto we joined the tripeiros of Porto for a traditional plate of tripe at Dom Tonho (13 Cais da Ribeira), located on the mezzanine overlooking the Ribeira. “Tripeiro” is the nickname for Porto residents and is said to refer to a time when all the good meat went to the sailors or for export, leaving the locals with the lesser cuts.

The texture of tripe might be a turnoff for some because of its gelatinous consistency, but here it had a clean flavor and was cooked with white beans and a sauce that made me want to lick the bowl. Dinner for four with appetizers, salads and a bottle of wine cost a very reasonable €120 ($150).

Our favorite restaurant of the trip also was probably the most reasonably priced. The tiny, friendly Ora Viva (Rua Fonte Taurina, 83), one block up from the Ribeira, was welcoming, and for €16 each we feasted on salads, wine, bottled water and some of the best squid, cuttlefish and white fish we had yet eaten.

Think twice about asking directions to Ora Viva at other restaurants. Twice, waiters made up stories to get us into their restaurant or redirect us to sister restaurants.

For almost 40 years, Paris has been my favorite city. Lisbon and Porto now offer it serious competition for my affection.