One of Lisbon's most unique areas is across the river. | RossHelen/Shutterstock
One of Lisbon's most unique areas is across the river. | RossHelen/Shutterstock
Travel

Go Off the Tourist Path For Good Food and Good Vibes in Lisbon

Gone are the days when Portugal topped our list of overlooked countries to visit. You’ve undoubtedly seen its freakishly beautiful beaches and vineyards on the ol’ Instagram; you may even be planning your road trip along the Algarve as we speak. 

Portugal’s capital bears the brunt of its tourism (though we’re big fans of Porto ourselves). The camera loves Lisbon, with its classy architecture and museums, bustling plazas, and food markets. Many of the city’s older neighborhoods have undergone dramatic revitalization, and now rock lively bars, luxury boutiques, and dreamy Airbnbs.

Yet, as with life, change brings some bad with the good. Long-time residents decry that revitalization and home-sharing are not only leading to over-tourism, but paving over much of the history and culture that made Lisbon so charming to visit in the first place. And true, you probably aren’t flying all the way to Europe to eat in a restaurant that looks like Los Angeles.

Enter Almada, one of Lisbon’s most underrated areas. Take a 10-minute ferry ride across the Tagus and you’ll be greeted at the dock by grandmas in cheerful floral dresses, enticing you with fresh fruits and veggies grown on their plots further inland. Most visitors come over in the late afternoon and catch the 101 bus up to the famed Jesus statue, known as Cristo Rei. Maybe they stick around for dinner... more likely they head back to their Airbnb. 

But it’s well worth going off the tourist path and lingering in Almada. Technically its own municipality, Almada has a down-to-earth neighborhood vibe populated by an older, working-class bunch of locals. Spend a day ducking into humble shops specializing in cheese, wine, bread, and delicious barbeque chicken. And with four distinct areas to explore -- Cacilhas, Cova da Piedade, Almada Velho, and Bairro Pombal -- there’s plenty of things to do in Almada between meals.

Cristo-Rei
Cristo Rei is Almada’s biggest attraction, but there’s so much more to explore | Ingus Kruklitis/Shutterstock

Go straight to seafood heaven in Cacilhas

For a Lisbonite, Almada immediately brings one thing to mind -- eating seafood along the waterfront in Cacilhas. The neighborhood is a direct link to Lisbon’s shipbuilding, seagoing past (the nearby Lisnave shipyards were once the country’s biggest employer). Located just off Cacilhas’ ferry wharf, the pedestrian-only Rua Candido dos Reis is lined with seafood restaurants, known as marisqueira. You’ll find multi-generational Portuguese families and couples dining in the area, often with a primo view of Lisbon across the river. 

There’s something to suit most budgets, from simple neon-lit rooms with laminated menus, to elegant white-tablecloth joints with wall-to-wall seafood on display. The majority are family-owned, serving honest food in huge portions. Grab a table and order a cataplana de marisco, a traditional Portugeuse dish in which shellfish like clams, shrimp, and mussels are cooked in a copper pan (cataplana) along with onions, garlic, and peppers.

Mercado da Romeira
The seafood here is ridiculously fresh | Mercado da Romeira

In season sardinhas assadas (sardines cooked on an outside grill) are plentiful. Polvo is another local favorite: octopus served whole, or grilled and cut into pieces and eaten as a salad. To really mix things up, choose a prato de frutos do mar (a seafood platter). 

If you’re less adventurous, go for the usual suspects like shrimp, crab, mussels, and clams -- but you must try percebes at least once. These weird-looking, tube-like shellfish are also known as gooseneck barnacles. It takes a bit of work to eat them but they’re totally worth it (and they Instagram well).

But there is waaaay more to eat beyond seafood 

Head to the Cova da Piedade neighborhood and eat your way through the Mercado da Romeira, a former cork factory that was abandoned for 60 years. Set in a gritty stretch of warehouses, it’s like a smaller version of Lisbon’s uber-popular Time Out Market, but for locals. Half a dozen outlets offer everything from traditional Portuguese fare to American smoked ribs (maybe skip these) to vegetarian and vegan delights made from produce grown by the owner’s parents.

Mercado da Romeira
Inside the Mercado da Romeira | Mercado da Romeira

Build up your strength with secretos de porco preto grelhados (a plate of thinly sliced, succulent grilled Ibreian pork) and a glass of Portuguese wine. Or tuck into a beer and petiscos -- battered and fried snacks with bacalhau (cod), shrimp, ham, and other fillings, or caracol (snails) when they’re in season. There’s live music most nights and on weekend afternoons to help you dance off your food coma.

Scope out some local street art

A few blocks from the Mercado da Romeira, impressive street art by Portuguese artists decorates warehouse walls and pays tribute to the area’s naval history. In one gigantic piece, a little girl holds a Transtejo ferry in her hand. On another wall, a glittering whale breaks the surface of the water. A piece by local artist Vaso Maio depicts a smiling fisherman patiently waiting for a catch, his trusty canine by his side. 

The majority of these buildings are empty, but like the Mercado da Romeira, some have been converted to cater to younger Lisbonites moving to the area. Gentrification is beginning south of the river, albeit slowly.

Mercado da Romeira
A mural by local artist @vascomaio | Mercado da Romeira

Check out one of Europe’s most affordable museums

The Cova da Piedade neighborhood was once a big hit with the royals -- King Dom Carlos I came to hunt on his lands here, while his wife, Amélie of Orléans, bathed in the natural springs. Sadly, the natural springs are no more, and the once extensive grounds have been replaced by two- and three- story apartment blocks. But the area houses the Almada City Museum, where temporary exhibits range from the history of the 10th century Arab invasions to the glory days of Portuguese rock’n’roll. Entry will cost you less than a buck.

Casa da Cerca - Centro de Arte Contemporânea
In Old Almada, take in gorgeous views in the garden of a historic museum | Casa da Cerca - Centro de Arte Contemporânea

Next, catch the metro up to the oldest part of Almada, aptly named Almada Velha (Old Almada). Hop off at Gil Vicente and head to Casa da Cerca. Originally the house of a quinta (farm) of the same name, the main building is believed to date to the 17th or 18th century. Today you’ll find contemporary art exhibitions in its rooms. There’s also a chapel decorated with Biblical scenes made from azulejo (Portuguese tiles). And, Alice in Wonderland style, an unmarked door off of reception leads to a gorgeous garden, botanical drawing center, and some of the best views of the Tagus. 

Indulge in retail therapy in a historical garden

On Fridays, browse the treasures on offer at local prices (read: super affordable) at the Fiera da Ladra (Flea Market) in Jardim da Cova da Piedade. This lovely public garden has a brutal history: liberal constitutionalists fought conservative absolutists in the Portuguese Civil War here on July 23, 1833. The former won and a bandstand honors their victory. And just one century earlier, bullfights were held regularly in the same spot. Just something to think about as you haggle for souvenirs.

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Lisa Morrow is a Sydney-born sociologist, travel and opinion/personal essay writer. She splits her time between Lisbon and Istanbul, has written three books on Turkey and produced an audio walking tour of Kadıköy. She loves travel and red wine, and is slowly drinking her way through Portugal’s excellent selections. You can learn more on her website Inside Out In Istanbul, FacebookTwitter and Instagram.