As a Portuguese American, nothing makes me happier than finding the deeply rooted soul of Portuguese culture. I don’t mean to knock the tourism industry, especially in Lisbon — in fact, I think that the infamously expensive fado houses, chic restaurants and bus tours are one of the strongest weapons that the Portuguese have to save their economy.
It is no lie, however, that the typical Portuguese citizen would not be able to afford the luxurious hospitality that awaits Lisbon-bound travelers. So before you book your leitão dinner, make sure you have a few of the below experiences, too:
1. Grab a drink in a small, tiny, grimy, hole-in-the-wall Bairro Alto bar.
I don’t mean the ones with the pretty outdoor seating with big umbrellas, or even the ones that serve food. I mean the ones that look like they’re someone’s closet. You’ll know you’re there when you find hanging tiles with snarky Portuguese sayings hanging side-by-side with racy alcohol advertisements. Bonus points if there is a tiny television in the corner of the room playing some sort of futbol game.
How to get there:
1. Take a cab to the Bairro Alto
2. Walk along the streets where the nice umbrella tables are
3. Take at least two turns into smaller alleys and step into whatever tiny bar is located there
The thing I love about these places include:
-How cheap they are (I mean, you could buy a bottle of wine for your whole crew for 5 euros)
-How quintessentially Portuguese they are (think the Portuguese version of a dive bar)
-How thrilled the owners are to have you. They’re not used to tourists, so their smiles are genuine, and you’re probably giving them more business than they’ve had all week.
Pat yourself on the back for supporting local business, and let’s move on to point #2.
2. Get your petiscos on at Pingo Doce (or any grocery store)
After spending 20 euros on a bottle of wine at a typical restaurant (a steal for us Americans), you’ll be shocked, and probably a little embarrassed, to see that you can buy the exact same bottle of wine for about 2.75 at the grocery store down the street. Wine here is cheaper than water, as is:
-Fresh bread (every grocery store has fresh bread available everyday — the good kind with the crispy crust and soft interior)
-Delicious cheese, delivered straight from your local farmers
-Olives like olives you’ve never tasted before in your life. Eat them and thank me later. Add some azeite, or olive oil (also remarkably cheap), for extra happiness.
It’s a rule of thumb to grocery shop abroad, as the locally grown stuff is the cheapest and will give you valuable details on the culture and dietary habits of the residents. It’s also worth noting that the appetizers put on your table at restaurants are *not* free, and you should take extra care to check the menu for prices before digging in. Often they’re reasonably priced anyway, but every once in a while they’re deceitfully expensive.
That being said, I could live off of wine, bread, cheese, and olives. So why save that just for the restaurant anyway?
3. Talk to cab drivers, especially the old ones
The cabbies of Lisbon are extremely proud of their city. I’ve been in cabs where the drivers sang fado to me, talked to me only in rhyme, and told me about every single building we passed. Cabbies know EVERYTHING about their home. Find an older cab driver who looks like he’s done more than a few rodeos, and you’ll be in for a great adventure, and will leave with some amazing recommendations. Be aware that the older cab drivers are less likely to speak English, so it would be best if you spoke Portuguese, or at the very least, very slow Spanish.
Though Lisbon is a city that reaches out to its tourists, don’t let their open arms limit your knowledge of the deeper personality within. Enjoy the sights, but make sure you get a good dose of local culture too. The difference will make you glad you did.