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Portugal: Food, Fado and Falling Face Over **** in Lisbon


A holiday in Lisbon, Portugal: The flight time from London Heathrow to Lisbon is two hours and 45 minutes. The city is very easy to navigate, and although it boasts numerous historic attractions, one could easily pass the time strolling along its charmingly paved streets, soaking in the ambiance. Come evening, there's no better experience than savouring a cocktail at one of the numerous rooftop bars offering the finest city views.


Lisbon, as the capital of Portugal, stands as one of Europe's ancient cities, preceding both Paris and Rome in its historical significance. Its captivating location and extensive, storied past provide a wealth of experiences for the intrepid traveller.

The increase in retirement migration, rumours of beautiful beaches and outstanding surfing, and (especially) Madonna's domestication in Sintra made me very curious about what Portugal, specifically Lisbon, could offer as a retirement bolt-hole. Other than the obvious: great weather, good food and low-cost living, some magic charm must be encouraging this snow-bird exodus.

As of 2022, over 32,000 UK residents live full-time, mainly in the Algarve, Lisbon, and Porto. Without a residential visa, a post-Brexit UK citizen can spend 90 days per six-month period in the country. There are, however, several other options for more extended stays:

1. Interested parties who earn a minimum of €1000 per month can apply for a D7 visa. This visa also gives you the right to live in Portugal. However, you'll be required to stay at least 16 months in the country during the first 2-year period. You must apply for this visa in the UK and provide proof of long-term accommodation and other documents.

2. Numerous individuals who intend to establish Portugal as their long-term residence opt for the Golden Visa program. This unique visa allows unrestricted living in the country and paves the way for Portuguese citizenship after five years. There is an annual seven-day residency requirement, all while enjoying access to education, healthcare, and social security benefits during your stay.

3. Another advantage that Portugal extends to its expatriate residents is the Non-Habitual Residency (NHR) status. This status grants a 10-year exemption for most of your foreign income from the Portuguese tax system.

With all this in mind and desperate to copy Madonna and all she does, my long-time friend and trusted travel partner, Beth, and I made a late-September trip to Lisbon to check things out. Full disclosure: Beth is a much better traveller than I am, and she did most of the planning for this trip. It is always a good thing to have friends with such skills. Complete disclosure: I did not inform Beth about my Madonna obsession, as she is much too cool to be interested in such shenanigans.

Like Rome, Lisbon is famously known for its seven hills. These hills, which comprise the topography of Portugal's capital city, help to create the mystique and myths that permeate the history and culture of Lisbon. I am confident that one or two Fado songs wax lyrically about these seven hills and death, because that is what Fado, the musical genre native to Portugal, is all about (more on that later). Whether traversing the city on foot, by tram or speeding through the narrow streets on a tuc tuc, reaching the summits of all seven peaks gives the tourist different but magnificent viewpoints of the glistening city of Lisbon.

A quick note regarding the glistening phenomenon in Lisbon: The glistening is caused by its renowned sidewalks and paving stones. Legend has it that in the 15th century, King Dom Manuel II ordered the streets to be paved with northern limestone tiles, ostensibly to enable his beloved rhinoceros, Ganga, to stroll through without muddying them. However, the truth is that the iconic Portuguese pavement emerged in the 19th century, evolving into one of the world's most beautiful examples of urban paving.

In these public spaces, the pavements are adorned with irregular limestone pieces arranged in intricate, endless decorative patterns. These tiles are predominantly white with black patterns, designed to reflect sunlight and maintain a cooler environment. This reflective quality bestows upon the city its characteristic shimmer when the sun is at its zenith.

Tourists beware! Walking on these exquisite pavements can be challenging, especially for those wearing high-heeled shoes. The tiles are notably slippery, and rain is not the only culprit; even in sweltering heat and direct sunlight, maintaining your balance in shoes lacking a sturdy grip can be precarious. Had it not been for my friend, I would have fallen over many times!

On our first day in Lisbon, Beth had arranged for us to take a walking tour through New Europe Tours. ( We met our lovely guide, Bruno, in Praça Luis De Camões, and in about two hours, we covered most of the seven hills of Lisbon. I did in exceptionally slippery shoes!


Tradition thrives upon these seven hills, showcasing numerous establishments of historical significance and charm. You can visit various churches and monasteries, learn more about the Lisbon tiles and be captivated by the enchanting neighbourhoods, such as Baixa, Pombalina and Alfama.

São Roque Hill is near to Santa Catarina Hill,

nestled in the Bairro Alto district. São Roque

boasts one of the city's most captivating vantage points, the Mirador de São Pedro de Alcântara.

As the loftiest summit in the area, the pinnacle of São Roque Hill, situated within the Jardim de São Pedro de Alcântara, unveils some of the most breathtaking vistas of the capital, offering sweeping panoramas of the Mouraria slope and the imposing São Jorge Castle.

São Jorge Castle sits atop São Jorge Hill within the historic district of Alfama. The Alfama district of Lisbon showcases the city's Moorish influence with its narrow streets and whitewashed buildings.

Legend has it that this hill was where the settlement that eventually evolved into the city first took root, with its inaugural dwellings taking form. For many, São Jorge Hill has the best views over the city and the river. Though many believe the castle, which was originally a Moorish fortress, is a must-do, we avoided the crowds and sought similar vistas from other viewpoints.


São Vicente Hill also forms part of Alfama. You will find the Convento de São Vicente de Fora and the wonderful Mirador de Santa Luzia here. There are many examples of traditional Lisbon tiles, and Campo de Santa Clara hosts the Flea Market Fair on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Santo Andre Hill is a very romantic part of town, with good views and many tiled houses. Here, you will find the famous electric 28 tram. These Remodelado trams retain their original 1930's features, including polished wood interiors, brass dials and yellow paintwork. The 28 connects Martim Moniz Square with Campo Ourique and runs from 6 am and until 11 pm on the weekdays and 10:30 on the weekends. The trip takes on average 48 minutes to an hour.

Since only one of us wanted to go on the streetcar (that would be me), we opted for the much more concise circular Route Number 12, which, for some reason, that night was not circular, and instead deposited us in the Chiado area of Chagas Hill. An acceptable schedule change as we found a magical little restaurant where Beth and I enjoyed steak sliders, and mango and goat's cheese salads.

Within the Chagas Hill vicinity, you'll have the opportunity to explore the Convento do Carmo, the iconic Elevador de Santa Justa, and the historically rich districts of Rossio and Chiado. The Santa Justa Elevator, which has been in operation since approximately 1905, was constructed to link the lower streets of Baixa with the Largo do Carmo, making it the sole surviving urban lift in Lisbon. At the summit of this lift, you'll be rewarded with unparalleled vistas of São Jorge Castle and the city.

Finally, Sant' Ana Hill distinguishes itself with the Mirador de Torel, a hidden gem often overlooked by visitors to the city. It is situated near Campo Mártires da Pátria in the Santo António parish.


On our first night in Lisbon, we requested a restaurant recommendation from our hotel for dinner and a Fado show. The less said about the food that night, the better, but the Fado was great fun (though I am pretty sure Fado music isn't meant to be fun).

Fado is a traditional Portuguese music genre known for its melancholy. One of our tour guides told us that the Portuguese are the most depressed people in the world because they have nothing to look at but the sun and sea. He may have been full of crap, but something is going on with the Fado.

The term "Fado" translates to 'fate,' and it succinctly encapsulates the essence of this musical genre. Originating in the working-class neighbourhoods of Alfama, Fado found its voice in pubs, taverns, and 'half-door' houses. The songs of Fado serve as poignant narratives, vividly articulating the emotions that permeate everyday life. That is if your every day is extraordinarily depressing and you have no hope.

Accompanied by one or two guitarras, one or two violas, and a viola baixo, a male or female vocalist takes centre stage, often showing up to sing unannounced. Lyrically, Fado's songs revolve around themes of the sea, the hardships of life at sea, and the heartache of losing a loved one to the sea (perhaps there is a profound connection between the sea and sorrow, after all). There are also common themes of poverty, melancholy, fate, loss, and the stoic acceptance of enduring misery. All these intricate and raw emotions are beautifully encapsulated by the Portuguese term' saudade,' which conveys a profound longing and an awareness of an irrevocable, permanent loss and the emotional scars it leaves behind. Plus, the female vocalist always wears a shawl.

A Fado song could have been written about the saudade we felt about our dinner when we found that the pork cheeks we ordered were definitely not pork, and the much anticipated Vinho Verde was little more than a house blend. There is a Fado museum in Lisbon, but I feared if we visited and were exposed to any more Fado, I might have to take to my bed for the remainder of the trip.


Beth organised two excursions through; the first was the trip to Pena Palace and Madonna hunting in Sintra (she moved to Sintra in 2016). does not actually offer Madonna safaris; that plan was in my head alone. João, our driving guide for the day, collected us at the Vintage Hotel & Spa at 9 a.m. for the Sintra Day Tour. There are several palaces in and around Sintra, including the National Palace of Sintra, the Chalet and Garden of the Countess of Edla, the Convent of the Capuchos, and the Moorish Castle. João thought we might enjoy visiting the Park and Palace of Monserrat before heading to the top of Sintra Hill for our tour of the park and National Palace of Pena.

The Palace of Monserrat began in the 15th century as a hermitage dedicated to Our Lady of Monserrate, and a hospital apothecary garden. The site changed ownership, purposes, and physical shapes many times, attracting many foreign creatives of the Romantic Movement, including Lord Byron, who expressed his love for Monserrate in the poem "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage".

In 1846, Francis Cook, a British merchant and art enthusiast, acquired ownership of the Monserrate Estate and was bestowed the 1st Viscount of Monserrate. He initiated the construction of a palace that blended Gothic and Indian elements with Moorish Revival architecture. The house has an octagon-shaped central atrium, which the family and their guests had passed through on their way to the other sections, including the bedrooms on the floor above.

Monserrat is home to one of Portugal's most important botanical gardens. Here, you will find a notable collection of arboreal ferns sourced from Australia and New Zealand and greatly appreciated in 19th-century Europe. There is also a rose garden, a Mexican garden, and the first expansive lawn installed in Portugal.

Recently restored, the Staircase on the Scented Path repeats the decoration features on the balustrades on the terraces around the Palace, further connecting the house with the garden. The Staircase stands alongside a pathway flanked by pergolas ornamented with Wisteria and Jasmin, flowers with intense and highly pleasing aromas.

Further along the path, you will come across a false ruin designed by Francis Cook, created as a replacement for the original Chapel of Our Lady of Monserrate. The Chapel niche once contained, now removed, three Etruscan sarcophagi that served as garden ornaments. The ruin is now enchantingly engulfed by vegetation, bound up with the adjoining Australian rubber tree.

The Mexican Garden spans around 5,000 square metres. It is the warmest and driest area in the garden and features collections of warm-climate plants, including palms, yucca, agaves, and cycads. The Monserrate Rose Garden is exemplary of the Palace's British ownership history combined with Cook's international sensibilities. Not your usual rose garden, this one features exotic variations with intense aromas evocative of the Far East.

The Park and Palace of Monserrat are vast, and we dedicated a few hours to exploring the mansion and its gardens. Fortunately, a shuttle service is available to traverse the park for those who may prefer to avoid walking back to the house from the distant corners of the garden.

The National Palace of Pena sits high on top of the Sintra hills and gives the village its fairy-tale reputation. With its vibrant hues, the palace epitomises the essence of Romanticism, serves as a timeless testament to King Ferdinand II, and beckons the imagination of all who enter. The surrounding parkland creates an idyllic setting, often concealed beneath the misty shroud that defines the Sintra Hills.

King Ferdinand II restored the original 16th-century monastery building in the 19th century, then encircled it with architectural structures that appeal to the medieval imagery, such as the parapet paths, the lookout towers, an access tunnel and even its drawbridge. The palace incorporates architectural references displaying Manueline and Moorish influences that produce a surprising scenario recollecting "a thousand and one nights."

Within the park, embodying the essence of the romantic aesthetic along with a quest for exoticism and the unbridled beauty of nature, the king conceived winding pathways intended to lead visitors on a journey of exploration towards significant landmarks and to provide them with the finest vantage points for breathtaking views. Along these pathways, reflecting his passion for collecting, he introduced tree species from every corner of the globe, thus transforming the 85-hectare Park of Pena into the most significant arboretum in Portugal.

In 1910, the Palace of Pena was designated as a National Monument, and it holds the distinction of being the foremost attraction within the Cultural Landscape of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995.

After our morning at Montserrat, João drove us through Sintra and into the Park of Pena toward the palace along a one-way road system. Unfortunately for us, and every other single person who attempted to go to the palace at that time on that day, a silly tourist parked his rental in an inconvenient place, rendering the road impassable for the large coaches that carry the 800,000 people who visit the palace each year. After a significant wait for the traffic to clear, Beth and I opted to ascend the hill on foot. This choice allowed us to explore the garden paths King Ferdinand himself had designed, an opportunity we would have missed had we continued in the car.

We did not go into the palace; the queues were very long, and it was sweltering, but we did a dutiful once-around the parapet paths and took in the spectacular views, including that of the Moorish castle down below. By this time, traffic had cleared and our driver reached the visitors parking lot. We had much more to experience in this tour, so we had no time to explore Sintra or its many castles further. We also had no time to stalk Madonna, which might have been a good thing.


Our next stop was Cascais, a coastal resort town west of Lisbon. I have been interested in visiting Cascais, as there is a large British expatriate community, and it is good for surfing. Ronaldo apparently also lives in Cascais; however, everywhere we've travelled in Portugal, someone made it a point to show us Ronaldo's rumoured residence.

Our visit to Cascais was brief, and I may need to plan another trip to truly see what the community has to offer. We managed to have lunch on the Praça 5 de Outubro, had a gander at the 15th-century citadel, and then took a quick spin through the historic centre. Next time, I will spend time at the beach, have ice cream at Santini's, and take the train along the picturesque coastline between Cascais and Lisbon.

Setúbal and the Alentejo Region

Our second excursion, again booked through, was a wine-tasting tour and a visit to a tile factory in the Alentejo region. Portugal is famous for its tiles, and I, as a eager-to-learn ceramicist, was excited to see how it was done. I am also an eager-to-learn sommelier, but in this case I am more interested in drinking the wine, than learning about how it is made.

To get from Lisbon to our first stop in Setúbal, we needed to cross the Tagus River over the Ponte 25 de Abril, or the 25 of April Bridge. The suspension bridge linking Lisbon to Alameda, named initially after the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar but changed after the Carnation Revolution, has a total length of 7,470 feet, making it the 46th longest suspension bridge in the world. The bridge was constructed by United States Steel, which also built the Golden Gate Bridge over San Fransisco Bay. The two bridges bear a striking resemblance, though the Ponte 25 de Abril sits next to a towering statue of Jesus, and the Golden Gate Bridge does not.

Mercado do Livramento

The first stop on this trip was the Mercado do Livramento in Setúbal, less than an hour's drive from Lisbon. Located just outside Setúbal's historical centre, the imposing pink Mercado do Livramento, constructed in 1930, buzzes with nearly 350 fruits, vegetables, dried goods, baked goods, dairy products, meat and seafood vendors. The market's walls showcase exquisite examples of locally crafted tiles adorned with murals that depict the region's rich agricultural heritage.

Setúbal most famous food item is the cheese known as queijo de Azeitão. The cheese, only found in Setúbal, is made from raw sheep's milk thickened with an infusion of cardoon flowers, then shaped into wheels and cured for at least 20 days. The cheese is so rich and soft that it is often with a spoon rather than a knife. Setúbal, according to our tour guide, is also famous for its cuttlefish, statues of which artfully adorn the pavements and park benches of Setúbal.

Azulejos de Azeitão

Before an afternoon set aside for heavy drinking, we visited the Azulejos de Azeitão tile factory. They use traditional methods to produce original made-to-order tiles reflective of Hispano-Moorish, European, Islamic and Chinese designs. Here, we were treated to demonstrations of preparing the clay, pressing the tiles and then painting and glazing. Azulejos de Azeitão is a small but beautiful studio that produces thousands of tiles for domestic and international export each year. Their exquisite tile work is a feature of the Christian Louboutin Vermelho Hotel, in the coastal town of Melides; a place I will certainly explore during my next trip to Portugal.

Azulejos de Azeitão

The Vermelho Hotel in Melides, tiles by Azulejos de Azeitão

Azulejos tiles are as much a part of Portuguese culture and lend heavily to its aesthetic. Most commonly found in blue/white or yellow/blue/white combinations, these tiles do more than decorate the front of houses. The tiles often chronicle the stories of Portuguese navigators and their perilous sea voyages. Churches in Portugal often use the tiles to tell bible stories, while other churches will use stained glass. During our visit to Sesimbra Castle near Setúbal, we discovered the monastery, beautifully decorated with Azulejos tiles. Most curiously and without explanation, one tile story portrays a solitary leg with a walking stick. I would love to know what that yarn was all about!


I am a confessed non-foodie traveller, and I am fortunate that my travel companion in Lisbon was much better suited to planning and booking some food tourism.

After watching other people working hard at the tile factory, it was time for our tour to get down to the business of wine tasting. We went to two vineyards on our day excursion to Setúbal and the Alentejo Region; Jose Maria da Fonesca and Quinta de Catralvos. We enjoyed cellar tours and good wine tasting from both.

While eagerly avoiding the cuttlefish in Setúbal, I looked forward to trying Portugal’s cuisine emblem; cod. Since cod is a type of cold-water saltfish and not naturally found in the waters off Portugal, its status as their most popular choice may seem rather peculiar. Bacalhau, as it is known in Portugal, is cod fish that has been salted and dehydrated, stored and then rehydrated later for cooking. We tried a few different places but did not have much luck with the Bacalhau. I suppose your affection for the dish would depend on how much you like cod in the first place.

Canned sardines are the other staple fish of the Portuguese diet and are known playfully as 'Portuguese Gold'. Visitors to Lisbon can discover a vast array of artistically adorned sardine cans, with some dating back over a century. The beautifully arranged Fantastic World of Portuguese Sardine has 20 can-themed shops around Portugal, and a new branch in Times Square, New York City.

A novel souvenir from Lisbon is a can of sardines dated from the recipients birthday, though I think I might rather a pack of pastries than a gift of canned fish.

Ginjinha is the nation's favourite tipple, and an important gastro experience while in Lisbon. It is made by infusing sour cherries with grape pomace brandy with added sugar, cinnamon sticks and cloves. The drink is served as a shot, with a piece of fruit in the bottom of the cup. At some shops, you can have the ginjinha served in a chocolate shot glass. Extra yummy! Having opened in 1940, the most well known bar is A Ginjinha in Largo de São Domingos. Shots are served, then carried out into to square to imbibe.

Saving the best for last; the national sweet of Portugal is the Pastéis de Nata, and the most renowned place to enjoy these custard treats is the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém. This dish was much more to my liking than dehydrated cod or canned sardines! We enjoyed the Pastéis de Nata, along with a Duchess, which is a massive log of delicious creme-filled pastry, and a Caxas de Galinha, which is a pear-shaped croquette filled with chicken pate.

After strolling around Belém, stopping for a pastry and a coffee is an excellent treat. The Belém region of Lisbon is where you will find Belém Tower, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Make sure to spend a few minutes searching for the gargoyle of Ganga, King Dom Manuel II’s much-loved rhinoceros, on the side of the tower.

Also in Belém, you can find the Jerónimos Monastery, the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, the Monument to the Combatants of the Portuguese Colonial War, and the Monument of the Discoveries. However, the true highlights of Belém are the delectable pastries at the Antiga Confeitaria.

We travelled to Lisbon the final week of September, and had blissful, if not hotter than average temperatures. Our two excursions out of the city broke up the trip nicely and the walking tour we did early on helped us get familiar with the city so that we could get around easier. Beth, who I've mentioned is an excellent travel planner, finds Rick Steves guidebooks helpful and got a lot of information about Lisbon from his travel guides.

A highlight of the trip for me was having cocktails on the roof top bar at the Vintage Hotel and Spa. Accommodations in Portugal often feature rooftop bars with breathtaking city views, and unwinding on a breezy rooftop after a long day of walking on slippery pavements was a lovely treat. Our hotel also hosted a jazz trio performance on several evenings throughout our stay, providing delightful pre-dinner entertainment. The other highlight was, of course, having the company of Beth along with me on this journey.




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