A walk through the Portuguese capital’s coolest districts, chasing rays across the Tagus River and paying respects at a shellfish shrine
So, we had a mere 24 hours left in Lisbon before we were due to depart for Madrid. What to do? Where to go?
With two top-notch insider tours under our belt on this, our inaugural visit to the Portuguese capital, the first focusing on off-the-tourist-grid locales around town and the second, a food walk, it was time to strike out on our own.
Take a look at where we went.
Chiado, Alfama, Baixa and Bairro Ailto are among the coolest ‘hoods in the city, where Lisboêtas congregate for different reasons – to shop, stroll, caffeinate, mingle, imbibe or dine.
We started out in bohemian Chiado and Baixa.
We wandered into the cobblestoned streets of a peaceful neighbourhood that looked a little rundown but seemed as if it was one of the last authentic inner-city locales, into which few travellers venture.
There are no tourist attractions to speak of, but it offered us a brief glimpse into the day-to-day life of Lisbon’s working-class and ethnic communities.
One of the most interesting districts is Alfama, which seems like a favourite romantic haunt for couples and for good reason, where we ambled through quiet, hilly backstreets and pored over fascinating street art to the tune of a jazz musician busker.
In Bairro Ailto, where you can find interesting outdoor restaurants, bars and cafes which – by night – spill over with a curious mixed crowd of Erasmus students, alternative types and hipsters, we happened upon a group of young choir singers rehearsing outside the National Conservatory.
This district has such a high hipness factor; it even bears its own hashtag – #bemorebarrio, that you might see on store windows.
Across the road is the attractive little store-cum-wine bar Conserveira da Trindade (Rua Nova da Trindade 11), where we picked up some canned cool.
Tinned Portuguese fish, now enveloped in gorgeous retro wrapping, has made a major comeback in recent years, kicking fresh life into this once-booming industry.
One of the most flavoursome on offer was a tuna with spicy chilli and a slender layer of Portuguese presunto, or cured ham.
We also selected a piece of shrink-wrapped cured tuna that the Portuguese slice thinly and serve on toasted bread as petiscos, or tapas.
If you want to save some coin and don’t care about fancy packaging, take Célia’s tip and purchase tinned fish from one of the simple delis where locals shop.
Lisbon’s ubiquitous yellow trams – none of which we actually rode on this trip – and their terminals are irresistibly photogenic.
Crossing the Tagus to Cacilhas
Carlo was set on crossing over the Tagus River to capture the Lisbon cityscape from afar, so we ran back to our hotel to pick up his camera tripod and jumped into the Metro to reach the area of Cais do Sodré, on the northern banks of Lisbon.
There, we headed to the Cais do Sodré ferry terminal, connected to the train and Metro station, along with dozens of commuters who were heading across the river at the end of a day’s work to their homes in suburbs on the southern side.
Our culinary walk guide Célia Pedroso had suggested we sail over to the suburb of Cacilhas, taking one of the frequent ferries, for some of the best views of Lisbon.
We bought our tickets – around six euros for two return trips charged to our Via Viagem public transport cards – and hopped onto the next ferry to Cacilhas just as the sun was starting to set behind the 25 de Abril suspension bridge and across the slow-flowing waters of the river.
Our fellow ferry passengers were used to the show, so found it quite amusing that Carlo had thrust his head and camera out of one of the windows in a bid to snare the hues of the sunset, ranging from pale yellows to a blazing, burnt orange.
As if on cue, a beautiful old-school wooden sailboat languorously glided in front of the ferry and Carlo’s wide-angle lens, delivering the money shot.
Seated next to a lady in her mid-40s, who looked content as she headed home, I asked her where we could take the bus from Cacilhas to Cristo Rei, the statue that dictator António Salazar ordered be built to resemble Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer, though on a smaller scale.
With a kind smile and chuffed at the opportunity to practice her English, she thought about it and started to explain.
When she couldn’t come up with the words in her non-native tongue, a kindly gentleman sitting opposite helped out. She also tipped us on where’s a good place to eat seafood at the port.
The Portuguese are nothing if not generous and warm-hearted.
In just 20 minutes, we had arrived at Cacilhas and alighted the ferry, moving with the crowd that was quickly dispersing in different directions, some toward waiting family members to collect them, others scurrying to make their bus in time.
Our ferry friend scooped us up, informing her waiting husband as we passed by him and directed us all the way to our bus stop, where she checked the timetable and made sure we were aware of the last bus returning to the bus and ferry terminal.
Looking around the dock, it seemed as if it had an appealing pictorial tale to tell, so we decided to stick around there instead and soak in the atmosphere.
Love on a jetty
At the end of one pier, a group of four elderly men were sharing a wooden bench, chatting and whiling away the warm early November evening, watching the ferries come and go, disgorging dwindling numbers of city workers.
One of them, who was standing, grinned and said something to me in Portuguese, mistaking me for a local as many others had, as if to welcome us to his side of the Tagus.
A teenage couple sat on a graffiti-ridden light-house, entwined in an embrace, oblivious to anyone else around them but in their own world of choice words and knowing glances.
We walked back along the dock past the fish joints to the other side, for an unobstructed view of the bridge as the last vestiges of sunlight started to disappear.
Carlo set up his tripod on a jetty beside a row of what seemed like abandoned warehouses, so he could shoot the illuminated bridge and Lisbon, as the city lit up.
The Castelo de São Jorge, Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and Torre de Belém glowed in brilliant blue.
The location was a little eerie at this time of night and I flinched slightly when a couple of people approached the jetty, until I realised it was another couple simply wishing to take in the views.
Unfailing romantics, they are, like the Italians and Greeks, I thought. When there’s love, who really gives a damn if money is tight.
A boy, no more than 16, was also seated nearby, on one corner of the jetty, having parked his bike. Solemn-faced but not unhappy, he was silently lost in his thoughts, and I wondered what he was thinking.
Giving thanks to seafood god Ramiro
Back on “our” side of the river, we returned to the hotel and, famished, we dropped the camera gear and headed out for dinner, determined to take up the number one seafood recommendation of our jeep tour guide Tiago.
When we asked the hotel front office manager for directions to Cervejaria Ramiro, he was hesitant, saying that the Intendente locale is a little rough, as in it attracts ladies who engage in the world’s oldest profession and the riff-raff that goes along with the trade.
He offered some alternatives but, by the time we reached the Metro station at Marques de Pombal, we were set on reaching the seafood and beer spot.
To be honest, I was a little hesitant myself, after checking TripAdvisor and seeing that the restaurant has become a huge tourist must-do after Anthony Bourdain popped in there a few years back and delivered a raving verdict.
Intendente was a short train ride away and, walking up the stairs to street level, it was apparent that this ‘hood was one where you should keep your wits about you, but it certainly didn’t feel dangerous.
We walked into a miscellaneous goods store to check we were headed the right way and the friendly Indian proprietor walked us to his doorway and pointed towards a queue of people 200m down the road.
Apparently, there’s always a queue at Ramiro, no matter the night of the week, as you can’t book a table. So, we hopped into the line of equally hungry diners, who were mostly locals, with a smattering of fellow travellers.
A little under half an hour later, we had arrived at the holy grail of seafood, the entrance to what we soon realised is a temple for shellfish devotees.
We were quickly ushered in and sat at a table for two close to the kitchen, with menus at the ready. The place was a hive of frenzied energy.
Looking around the room, it’s clear to see that Ramiro’s proprietors don’t particularly care for interior design, and they don’t need to. Surely, the place hasn’t changed since it opened in 1956 as a beer house, except for the menus on tablets. But that’s just one reason we loved it.
Encountering a legend
Within a couple of minutes, we discovered we had landed the world’s waiter jackpot and his name is Acacio. He may be lean, but he’s worth more than his weight in gold.
For the uninitiated, his demeanour may, at first seem a little serious. He’s dead serious about his profession, sure, and we’re certain he’s been working there since forever, but he’s a downright hoot.
Darting between tables like a mosquito with a cow lick, he deftly delivered dishes with the aplomb and precision of a ballet dancer, in a manner slightly reminiscent of Jerry Lewis.
Entertaining, energetic and with a performance that is unmatched, Acacio makes sure everything runs like clockwork.
All the while, Acacio seemed to be talking constantly – either to the Ramiro faithful or himself. This guy adores his job. And we’re convinced his body produces speed.
We exchanged chuckles with a large extended Portuguese family sitting across from us, who were digging into lobsters, freshly plucked from tanks lining the window display.
Poring through the menu wide-eyed, deciding was damn tough. The razor clams over which the Portuguese clamour had long run out. Acacio actually had to tell us “whoa, you’ve ordered plenty”.
Before we knew it, our dishes had arrived: glorious, succulent Atlantic oysters, mussels in garlic (into which we dipped grilled, garlic-laced bread), bright red giant tiger prawns with their eggs, and rock crab on the half shell filled to the brim with tender meat and – incredibly – a huge amount of crab roe, a restaurant rarity unless you want to pay an arm and a leg.
Each dish was served purely and simply (without blasphemous sauces) – raw, grilled or boiled. To say we were floored by the flavours is an understatement.
Carlo and I have each had our share of pretty amazing seafood at various locations – Australia, Venezuela, Italy and Greece – but Ramiro had just blasted them all out of the water.
We had just died and descended to shellfish heaven. And at a decent price. Our bill came to just under 100 euros, including a couple of beers.
We had just found the best reason for a foodie to return to Lisbon, even if for just one meal. Michelin, we really don’t give a damn!
But only as long as Acacio – the legend, the dream deliverer, an unwitting hero and comedian – is waiting on you.