The four days I spent in Lisbon after my friend’s magical Portuguese wedding in the north was the first stretch of time since Charlie and I started dating that I explored a foreign city all by myself.
Solo travel has its perks and its drawbacks, so I was appropriately both looking forward to and dreading this stint of “me time.” But Lisbon turned out to be the perfect city to conquer on my own.
Like so many places in Europe, Lisbon is extremely walkable, with narrow, lovely white-stoned streets to wander and shop. It’s got the vibrant, yet quaint feel of San Sebastian, Rome’s sense of old world grandeur, and San Francisco’s trolleys, bridges, and steep sidewalks.
I spent most of my time in Lisbon zigzagging between the two hills that surround the tourist valley in city center, admiring colorful painted facades and 16th century tiles, and stopping every few blocks to put something delicious in my mouth.
My lovely AirBNB was located in Chiado (pronounced she-ah-do), right next to the pink street that houses much of Lisbon’s nightlife.
On my first night, my phone died and I had to find my way back to the apartment just from memory. It was helpful to remember the valley layout and that most places were only a 10-minute walk from my street near the water. But even after I managed to successfully follow the pink-brick road, I spent the next hour trying my key in every single door on the adjacent blocks. All part of the solo travel adventure!
After 24 hours of unguided and mishap riddled exploration, I was lucky to sync up with a Portuguese friend I’d gotten to know through my work with the Natural Gourmet Institute. Teresa showed me a whole other side of the city, both in the center of town, through her restaurant hidden gems, and by driving me around the southwest bank of Belém.
As an architect turned chef, she was also a tremendous source of fun facts about the food and scenery. Thanks to Teresa I learned that Lisboa’s soft pinks, blues and yellows—which might have been even more effective than a SAD lamp for my mood—were painted with minerals specific to the region, and served to ward off various bugs! She said this is why you sometimes find certain colors just around windows and doors, and why the color palette was more muted than Porto to the north. And, perhaps, also why I managed not to acquire 50 mosquito welts on my hands and legs like most other trips.
She also mentioned that the reason San Francisco has such a similar makeup of transportation is that the city’s trolleys were in fact made in Portugal, and the Golden Gate Bridge was built by the same engineer as Lisbon’s.
I am most grateful, though, for the pastry intel.
After having passed pastry shop upon pastry shop in Porto, lamenting my gluten-freedom and inability to partake, Teresa told me that most of the orange-hued treats inside were made from just eggs, sugar and almond flour.
When the nuns were hard on their luck, they turned to baking, using the only materials they had available to them. Eggs from backyard hens were sweetened and molded into various shapes, cooked for different periods of time at varying temperatures, and sold to unsuspecting patrons who appreciated the variety, ingenuity and deliciousness.
Having learned this disparagingly late in my trip, I only got to try one type, manjar dos deuses, which are made with pumpkin and tasted like a very dense, marzany financier.
For the rest of my sweets prior to this knowledge, I went to a dedicated gluten-free bakery that I found through my friend Jodi’s fabulous guide. It just so happened to be half a block from my AirBNB and my familiarity with it was another reason I managed to refind my lodging.
There, I got to try the famous Pastéis de Nata in gluten-free form. These custard cups cradled in puff pastry originated from the monastery in Belém, who later sold the recipe to the local sugar manufacturer. If you can eat gluten, I highly recommend stopping by Pastéis de Belém where you can try the original. Only a handful of people know the secret recipe, and the bakery sells 20,000 of them a day!
Read on for some of my other favorite things to eat, drink and see in Lisbon. I mostly avoided the tourist monuments and museums in favor of walking various neighborhoods, but if there’s any one activity I’d recommend you don’t miss, it’s the Oceanarium! The otters are worth the trip alone.
With health and hedonism,
THE BEST GLUTEN-FREE RESTAURANTS IN LISBON
Pinoquio – If you’re looking for a traditional meal of Portuguese seafood, this spot is the real deal. It’s around the corner from one of the main tourist pedestrian thoroughfares, but tucked away in the corner of a piazza. Many of my friends who passed along recommendations said to go to Ramiro. Teresa, my guide, assured me that Pinoquio was better. And after tasting the salt shrimp, whole crab, and clams, I have to assume she’s right! The crab body is stuffed with a dip made from all the excess bits and pieces of crab, and if you can’t eat bread, the house made potato chips are perfect for dipping.
Ultimo Porto – This was the second authentic fish meal I had with Teresa. The restaurant was right on the port, surrounded by shipping containers, with a grill outside the front door. Needless to say, I definitely would have never found it on my own! The grilled sardines were mouth wateringly tender and mild. She even showed me a technique for eating them quickly, while keeping as much of the heat inside the skin before each subsequent bite.
Cantina do Avillez – For those who want to splurge on a more upscale meal, chef Avillez is the biggest name in town. He owns 7 restaurants that all have a similar style, feel and price point (more on par with the rest of Europe). Even with all the hype, I very much enjoyed my meal at Cantina, especially since the menu was clearly labeled as GF. The spot prawns in curry were my favorite, followed by the steak tartar and mushroom risotto, so long as you don’t mind the dairy bloat that follows.
Heim Cafe – Brooklyn hipster influence has indeed found its way to Lisbon, if this little cafe is any indication. Usually in Europe it’s hard to find spots that serve a real breakfast, so I was surprised to discover that was not the case in Portugal. If you’re looking for a luxurious brunch or breakfast experience, order one of the breakfast sets at Haim cafe. The one I got came with a silky egg scramble, perfect bacon, and a platter of granola to follow. The pancakes also looked heavenly, though not GF. Be prepared to wait to get a table, and wait longer to place your order. Luckily I had a good book, and it was a very pleasant place to relax.
Mercearia da Mila – The recommendation for this neighborhood market came from a reader, and it turned out to be right next to Heim Cafe. I didn’t have a chance to taste anything (I was insanely full from my breakfast) but it looked like a fabulous place to grab lunch or a picnic for the road.
Time Out Market / Mercado da Ribeira – The queen of farmer’s markets and king of all food halls comes together in this warehouse on the waterfront. The prepared food side curates stalls from the best restaurants in the city and has a rotating row of chef-led counters. After so many days in Portugal I was craving something different, so I ended up getting noodles at the Thai booth. I wouldn’t necessary recommend that! Instead, try some of the chef curated meals, including GF piri piri chicken, or some of the delicious ceviche. It’s also a fabulous place to get a glass of wine and some sliced meats before dinner.
Pistola y Corazon – As I mentioned above, I found myself getting a little sick of Portuguese food and craving some more ethnic flavors to break up my days. Some friends of mine who also felt this way ended up at this taco shop one night. They raved about the homemade corn tortillas and said there were lots of gluten-free options.
Go Juu – This sushi spot is off the beaten path, but worth a visit for their impeccable fish. Yes, you might be thinking that this is another far cry from Portuguese cuisine and not worth seeking out in Lisbon. But you’d be wrong! There’s a robust Japanese population in Lisbon, which is no surprise since Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside Japan. Tuna is also one of Portugal’s biggest food exports, and most of it goes straight to Japan. The owner of Go Juu is one of these fish exporters. And from what I tasted, it seems like he also keeps some of the best cuts for himself. Best of all, you can go for a stroll in the park across the street (and/or the modern art museum) afterwards to work off your meal.
LxFactory (Pronounced L-Sheesh Factory)– On the west side of the city, en route to Belem, is a vibrant arts compound that I’d consider to be the Bushwick of Lisbon. It’s worth visiting if you’re interested in doing a little shopping and eating in a different artsy industrial backdrop. I loved the store June for home goods and tableware. There was also a great natural foods restaurant serving fresh juice, kombucha and plant-based fare.
Restaurante Darwin – By Belem is the Champalimaud Foundation, which is one of Portugal’s leading centers for cancer research. There is also this colorful, chic restaurant on site with beautiful port views, affordable prices and good food. It’s another spot I would have never found without Teresa. Sadly, I only had time to walk through, but I’d highly recommend for a meal or glass of wine if you’re visiting that side of the city.
Pastelaria Alcoa – One of the best pastry shops in city center, this spot was very knowledgable about gluten-free diets and easily pointed out the half of their offerings that fit the bill. Celiacs, it’s worth inquiring about cross-contamination. I tried manjar dos deuses and they were delicious.
Zarzuela – If you can’t eat the real thing, this dedicated gluten-free sweets shop is the best of both worlds. Their de Nata pastries were also vegan to boot. I regret not having returned to try some of the other pastries.
Topo Chiado – Adjacent to one of the best lookout points in the neighborhood of Chiado, this bar is an ideal venue for a sunset drink before dinner.
PARK Bar – At happy hour, you may have to push past a throng of hen parties to get to this rooftop bar on top of a parking garage. Enter through the garage and take the elevator to the top floor, where you’ll find overpriced cocktails, A+ people watching, and a killer view.
A Ginjinha – Don’t leave without trying the traditional cherry liquor! This is one of the oldest dispensaries in town, though I learned later that others serve the shot of liquor in a chocolate cup, which sounds preferable. The flavor was nice, but it was so sweet, I almost lost a flip flop to the sticky floors.
have you ever been to portugal? I’d love to know some more of your recommendations in the comments section!