“Saude!” I raise a plastic shot glass to a flat-capped, sun-weathered face to my left and knock back a shot of sweet cherry brandy in the morning sun trap of Largo de Sao Domingos tucked behind Lisbon’s grand Rossio Square. In hole-in-the-wall institution, A Ginjinha, a cheery Portuguese chap stands before rows of illustrated Espinheira bottles as he lines up shot glasses, meticulously pours out syrupy ginjinha and plops in a liqueur-soaked Morello cherry from the jar on the counter into the glasses of those who are brave enough.
Our weekend in Lisbon is a cherry-liqueur-fuelled join-the-dots of the terracotta roofed city’s best drinking huts, tinned sardine shops and traditional restaurants.
We grab our second ginjinha shot before noon at Ginjinha Sem Rival and wander through cobbled streets to queue for the infamous No.28 tram at Praça do Martim Moniz. We manage to catch the Coca Cola tram that drags us up steep streets lined with pretty tiled balconies brimming with hanging plants, the charm of dilapidated buildings accentuated by the all-year-round sunshine. The tram rattles onwards past bright white Sé Cathedral and up to Santa Luzia viewpoint to take in the city’s patchwork of terracotta roofs and blue waters of the Tagus River.
We stay on board until Largo das Belas Artes and walk to former fishing tackle shop Sol e Pesca, where tinned fish is given its full glory in glass display cabinets. We sit on colourful play-school style chairs amongst fishing rods and fisherman’s paraphernalia in a nod to the bar’s former life and try meaty mackerel in olive oil with fresh lemon and sardines in a rich herb and tomato sauce.
Once we decide on our fish of choice, we head to Conserveira de Lisboa where hundreds of technicoloured tins cry out for our attention and poke us to take them back in our luggage. Lisbon is a gift-buying paradise – the nearby Chiado branch of A Vida Portuguesa packs unique Portuguese products into the original wooden cabinets of former perfume factory David & David. We fill our baskets with kitsch kitchen items, olive oils and soaps, all with retro packaging, in a wallet-friendly one-stop souvenir shop.
Time for a late lunch at Taberna da Rua das Flores – it’s worth every minute of the inevitable wait for one of the handful of wooden tables in the narrow room. A large antique mirror expands the space, cutlery is stacked for service on the marble counter and a short menu is scribbled on a blackboard, tavern-style. Our souls are warmed with clear chicken macaroni soup, we get a taste of the local seafood with white fish on sticky seaweed rice, and we dig teaspoons into little jars of velvety chocolate mousse with sea salt and olive oil.
Simple, well-executed dishes such as this are what Lisbon is all about, as we witness in wonderfully chaotic seafood restaurant, Ramiro. We are lead upstairs through a warren of rowdy rooms packed with white paper tablecloth topped wooden tables (ask to sit downstairs next to the seafood tanks for a better atmosphere). We are brusquely asked what we want, and end up with a table full of terracotta ramekins of prawns bubbling in garlic butter, and rare pieces of steak in crusty rolls.
On our second night we opt for more sophisticated establishments. Though we are the first to arrive, the dramatically lit contemporary bar at Tabik is already buzzing with brace-clad tall, dark and handsomes shaking cocktail ingredients in preparation for the Saturday night buzz. Our pick of the cocktails is refreshing Ephemere that combines St. German liqueur with Bombay Sapphire gin, lemon juice and homemade lemongrass syrup. (Next time I’ll sit up at one of the chunky black bar stools to get closer in on the action.)
We move on and switch contemporary for retro interiors at local chef José Avillez’s theatrical Mini Bar restaurant for El Bulli-style olives that burst in our mouths, tiny beef tartare cones that melt onto the tongue and dark chocolate mousse cones sprinkled with Fleur de Sel and pink peppercorns that we dip into cocoa nibs.
Not quite full, we struggle up the steep cobbled streets in Barrio Alto and duck into traditional taberna A Primavera Do Jerónimo for dinner round two. Our greeting is hearty and rustic, with carafes of wine plonked on the table along with crusty bread rolls, mimosa butter and sardine paste, so that unfortunately when our steaming soupy fish rice and flaky oven-baked cod dishes arrive we are barely able to touch the surface.
After all that food, the next morning calls for strong coffee, and we check out a local guide that points us to Fábrica Coffee Roasters. Freshly baked flaky pastel de nata accompany our strong and creamy flat whites. I sidle up to chat to a young and hip Portuguese guy in a violet ‘kaffee’ t-shirt who is meticulously sifting through coffee beans as they spin round in the roaster to make the house blend of Brazilian and Ethiopian beans.
We grab another pastel de nata to go (they’re that good) and head back to pack, not forgetting one more shot of ginjinha in a pretty pagoda on the edge of a typical tree-lined Lisbon square.
Lisbon top 10 places to eat and drink
For cherry ginja shots: A Ginjinha
For coffee: Fabrica Coffee Roasters
For hot chocolate and cake: Landeau Chocolate
For hot chocolate and coffee next to the Botanical Gardens: Claudio Corallo cioccolato e caffè
For cocktails: Tabik
For tinned fish: Sol e Pesca
For a hearty lunch: Taberna da Rua das Flores
For a traditional no-frills dinner: Cervejaria Ramiro
For a fancy dinner and drinks: Mini Bar
For a traditional taberna dinner: A Primavera Do Jerónimo