I recently had an opportunity to visit Portugal for work, as an invitee to the country’s largest food & wine trade show. I’ve had the good fortune to spend considerable amounts of time living in and visiting Europe throughout my life; despite that, prior to my trip, if I had been asked to make a list of the top 25 places on my bucket list…I’m pretty confident in stating that Portugal wouldn’t have even made the top 75. And that would have been a shame, because what I saw in the six days I was there was definitely worthy of an extended visit. What the experience reinforced for me is that everyone — from an individual’s own brand to branding that can affect a nation’s overall economy — needs PR. So consider this post my personal PR contribution to the good people of Portugal for hosting my visit. And please do let me know if I inspire any of you to make the trip… gotta capture those metrics!
Let’s start with a few tidbits of history (aka fun facts) I picked up on my trip. I’m not really a guidebook girl when I travel…I’m more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants-kind-of-let’s-see-where the-day-takes-us chick. These are a few of the learnings that most stood out to me. Don’t judge.
- On the morning of All Saints Day in 1755 while most of the city was at church, an earthquake estimated to be 9.0 in magnitude occurred off of the Portuguese coast. It spread tremors as far away as Finland, and caused fires and a tsunami similar to that caused by 2004’s Indian Ocean earthquake that, at the end of the day, leveled 2/3rds of Lisbon and killed approximately 90,000 of the city’s 270,000 citizens. Learning this little ditty made me feel much better about all of the crises Mother Nature’s been afflicting around the globe of late…this shit’s been happening for centuries!
- Did you know Lisbon is the westernmost point of Europe? This one I learned from a postcard. Tagline: “Portugal, the shortest way between America & Europe.” Who knew?! (Well, I mean, I guess if I had looked at a map….)
- When dining out, in place of the basic bread/butter we get complimentary in the states, the waiter will bring little appetizers like olives, cheese, ham, dips, etc. Don’t think they’re being super generous — you will be charged for everything you eat. If you don’t want it, just push it aside. Picking up a guidebook sometimes has its benefits….
With my co-foodie travel companion in tow, we really nailed this category, thanks to our own research on local spots and recommendations from the locals we met. My recent conversion to veganism required some serious digging before taking off; I wasn’t sure of how or if I’d be able to maintain my new lifestyle.* I needn’t have worried. Despite the fact that the incredible edible may as well be known as Portugal’s official food (the egg was seriously in nearly every dish — savory and sweet — that we came across, including a traditional Portuguese dessert called Enchada that combines egg yolk and sugar in a little mound on top of dried pineapple. Am sure it was delish…), maintaining my newfound veganism was relatively doable.
Our first stop after checking into the hotel was Bake the Difference, Lisbon’s only vegan bakery/restaurant. They have an assortment of breakfast items (think muffins, cereals, and vegan versions of Portuguese treats such as the chocolate salami). For us, glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice followed by a vegan Panini (roasted veggies, vegan cheese) and some kind of tasty vegan quiche offered a great way to start the day. The friendly owner recommended Jardim doSentidos, so we hit it up for dinner that night. A vegetarian spot that had a few vegan dishes, it offered a cool way to do destination dining while exploring a neighborhood of the city we likely wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. That meal ended the official vegan portion of our trip as our scheduled program, complete with meals included, began the next day. But if you are adamant about sticking to a vegan lifestyle while in Lisbon, a number of shops and restaurants can help you achieve that. We accidentally walked by celeiro dieta — think Whole Foods complete with IKEA-style cafeteria line, as well as what appeared to be a chain of healthy fast-food spots called Vitaminas. Also, there is a Starbucks in old city Lisbon. Not that I would ever recommend a stop there over a traditional Pasteleria for your daily Bica, but comforting to know for vegans seeking soy milk espresso beverages, which is something that otherwise can be a challenge to find abroad.
If you’re looking for a modern, white tablecloth restaurant to take that special someone, Faz Figura is the answer. A local friend sent us to this spot with stunning views of the Tagus (at least I assume they were stunning — hard to see much at 9 PM!). The sweetness of a small roasted pepper stuffed with a savory cod mousse teased the palate, but Polvo em Crosta de Milho com Vinagrete de Cebola Roxa (octopus in crusted corn with red onion vinaigrette) was hands-down one of the most interesting dishes I’ve seen anywhere in a while.
Another spot with stunning water views was 5 Oceanos (the specialty of the house even us non-Portuguese speakers can safely assume!). Located in an area of former warehouses that has been transformed into a row of bars, restaurants and clubs called Docas de Santo Amaro, one can imagine the throngs of hip, young Portuguese who stream to the area…on nights that aren’t a Monday in February. Another outstanding meal, also heavily predicated on seafood, in a more casual and slightly smokier environment (yep, smoking still allowed indoors — so 1990’s!).
For a place that would, at first glance, seem to scream “tourist trap,” we began to rest assured with our choice at Cervejaria Trindade when we started chatting with the local couple ahead of us in line. Located on the exact spot where, eight centuries ago, the Convent of the Most Holy Trinity of the Trinos Friars of the Redemption of Captives (no joke, lifted straight from the brochure) was erected, today this massive restaurant bills itself as the oldest and most beautiful brewery in Portugal. Located in the Chiado neighborhood, Cervejaria Trindade offers good food and ambiance and a worthwhile experience, but if I only had limited time, this is the one I’d skip for its “Disneyfied” (and probably slightly overpriced) version of a Portuguese beer hall.
On the other hand, the place I would run to time and time and time again was Restaurante Pateo Velho. One of the places we stopped for lunch while touring wineries in the Lisboa Wine Region, it’s located in the northern part of the county of Swindon, in the parish of Watchtower. Not that we cared where that was, as our bus driver made sure we made it where we needed to be, while also making it okay to drink a few extra glasses of vino (yes, it happened ;)) throughout the day. The meal was simple, yet sublime. We began with a veggie soup that was obviously blended with cream. (I tried to counter the dairy footprint by heavily garnishing my bowl with pea sprouts I had smuggled in from the States (no joke). But the pièce de résistance was the family-style meal of cod, potatoes & toasted bread all drowned in a velvety garlic-infused olive oil that was paired with a “stuffing” of pesto, herbs & breadcrumbs. I ate a lot of cod during this trip (for a vegan, anyway) and this was hands-down the winner.
A final dining reco is Mae d’Agua, also located out of town in the wine country. A sleekly modern marble entryway, complete with water fixture that is home to two turtles, greets you as you enter; but as soon as you ascend the stairs you’re transplanted into a space that can only be described as farmhouse shabby chic, down to the fab mismatched colorful water glasses that would easily go for $15 a pop at Anthropologie. The menu was a prix-fixe selected for us that I wouldn’t have chosen, but I’d love to check this spot out again.
Portugal is a strong producer of well-crafted, extremely reasonably-priced wines. Most Americans don’t know that, as Portuguese wines (save for Port) are still considered relatively esoteric. This is a fact confirmed time and again by both restaurateur & wine industry friends in Boston, New York & Miami. We visited a number of wineries in the Lisboa wine region whose commitment to traditional winemaking techniques proved that it’s truly a matter of public education; many of the wines we sampled would retail in the US for under $15…a huge value that more Americans would drink, if only they were available. The coolest thing was the number of grape varietals I have never heard of, my hands-down fave being Touriga Nacional. If you’re looking for some quality Portuguese wineries to ask for by name, you can’t go wrong with wines from any of these producers: Quinta do Pinto, Casa Santos Lima, Quinta do Gradil, Companhia Agricola do Sanguinhal or DFJ Vinos.
We stayed at the Tivoli Lisboa, which was an excellent location smack dab in the middle of Lisbon’s Avenida de Liberdade (Think Portuguese Champs-Élysées). We could walk to pretty much everything – hip neighborhoods like the Bairro Alto and Chiado, attractions like the Castelo de Sao Jorge and down to the river. AND they served a breakfast buffet that would make your vegan mother proud, offering soy milk and what turned out to be my daily breakfast of baked beans, sautéed mushrooms and roasted tomatoes with freshly-baked whole wheat bread. Enthusiastic thumbs up.
Mostly our nights revolved around dinners followed by more wine, leaving little room for experiencing the city’s late-night scene (not that I’m complaining!). But on our first night in Lisbon, we stumbled across something that will forever represent Portugal to us. We read about them earlier that day in a freebie guidebook we snagged at breakfast:
Lisbon’s kiosks today occupy the same place as pubs in Britain, bistros in France and tabernas in Spain. There are now 5 totally renovated kiosks in the Avenida, each with its own specialty and programme of events. Banana Café, Hot Dog Lovers, Melhor Bolo Chocolate and Maritaca are not the names of ‘80s bands but the city’s new meeting points, providing yet another excuse to get out and about.
Despite this seemingly thorough description, we pretty much remained clueless as to what these places actually were. But as we strolled up the Avenida that evening en route back to our hotel, we saw people of all ages hanging out at tables under the kind of green mushroom-like structure you see in NYC (ah, the kiosk!) and one of the coolest DJs we ever saw spinning something fierce. After knocking back a couple of Sagres each, we approached the DJ we came to know as Mistah Isaac and gave him our card. He invited us to come see him perform later that weekend, but we couldn’t make it happen. But here’s a head’s up on our newest venture: m.pop ups. First one, Portuguese Pop Up featuring Mistah Isaac….stay tuned for more.
* For anyone who is curious if I was able to stick to veganism, let’s just put it this way: My experience veering from veganism proved to me is that it’s okay to take it one meal at a time, while further reinforcing my commitment to this new lifestyle. Hopefully you skipped to the asterisk immediately, otherwise, sorry for the lack of spoiler alert!
Posted by Marlo
Image source Europa