Montreal Lisbon

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Montreal to Lisbon, Europe’s beacon by the sea

From the food to the architecture, hotels to cultural history, we found out why the Portuguese capital is one of the top travel destinations in the world.

Portugal has been calling for a long time — especially Lisbon, for so many reasons.

It’s ironic but entirely appropriate that the very place that spearheaded Europe’s era of colonial exploration has become a powerful magnet for tourism. The city shares the kind of old-world charm and urban bustle you’ll find in other cities, but its unique cultural touchstones — from the seafood-centred cuisine to the still-vibrant traditional fado music to the peculiarities of the Portuguese language — set it apart from other European destinations like Barcelona, Rome and Paris.

Montreal Lisbon pink street
The pink street in Lisbon. Photo by Diego Grandi

Sites like the Belém Tower, Monument of the Discoveries and the Praça do Comércio plaza by the Tagus River give the city the historical grandeur you’ll find in any European capital, but a large part of what gives Lisbon that essential authentic quality is its uniform 18th century architecture. A sea of rust-coloured roofs is immediately visible as your plane is making its descent, and from dozens of rooftop restaurants and bars and tourist go-tos like the Castelo de São Jorge, which offers a brilliant view of the city — particularly at sunset. Exteriors painted in a range of pastels, as well as decorative tiles, enhance the city’s tropical personality, and lend a little calm as you’re climbing its chaotically organized cobblestone streets. Walking is often faster than driving, though tired legs can fall back on the city’s cute yellow trams, and the subway offers easy access from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Or museum to museum — the Calouste Gulbenkian and the MAAT museums are highly recommended, as is the Oceanário de Lisboa aquarium.

Montreal Solar 31 Lisbon
Solar 31 (Montreal to Lisbon, Europe’s beacon by the sea)

Lisbon’s relative affordability has helped to make it a top draw for millennials, who flock to the rowdy nightlife hubs of the Bairro Alto and Cais do Sodre neighbourhoods, full of bars, fado restaurants and street art. Cais do Sodre is where the famous Pink Street (aka Rua Nova do Carvalho) is located, as well as the original TimeOut Market, an upscale food hall with a wide array of cuisines, including many Portuguese classics like arroz de Marisco (seafood rice), albeit with an auteurist touch. The shops, artist studios, bars, restaurants and cafés of the LX Factory make the Alcantara neighbourhood a nice attraction for a late afternoon stroll, much like the chic Príncipe Real district, with its 18th century mansions, central garden and the bar/restaurant Gin Lovers, located in an old palace that also houses merchant tables and minimal boutiques.

four seasons ritz hotel lisbon
Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon

Another mixed-used address worth visiting is JNcQUOI, a “jewel box” restaurant with a lovely and lively circular bar downstairs. Located in an old theatre, the nightlife hotspot also features a menswear boutique, fitting in with the neighbouring designer stores that dot Avienda de la Liberdade — a massive Parisian-style mega-boulevard.

four seasons ritz hotel lisbon
Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon

Just beyond the top of Liberdade is Lisbon’s Four Seasons Hotel Ritz. Though it was acquired by the Canadian Four Seasons company in 1997, the hotel has proudly retained the old branding — including a massive neon RITZ sign on the roof — uniting two giants of luxury accommodation, and it shows. Though dating back to the 1950s, the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz is the most modern five-star in Lisbon, with its first six floors having been renovated during the pandemic. Everything about the hotel is top-shelf: the art deco meets Louis XVI aesthetic of the lobby, the sprawling solarium gym on the 11th floor, surrounded by an outdoor running track with excellent city views, the Varanda restaurant’s mind-blowing French/Portuguese/Japanese weekend brunch (the most unpretentiously upscale all-you-can-eat buffet experience you’re likely to have in Portugal), the full-service Guerlain spa AND Guerlain-branded afternoon tea service. From the service to the food to the decor to the functionality of the room, every exchange, every bite, every experience hit a pretty much perfect note.

CURA lisbon four seasons ritz hotel
CURA at the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon

None more so than CURA, the Michelin-star restaurant adjoining the hotel. In a warm and elegant dining room with an open kitchen, casually uniformed waiters present and explain a series of contemporary haute cuisine creations by chef Pedro Pena. The three tasting menus are Meia Cura, Origens (a reduced version of the Meia Cura focusing on dishes that nod to regional traditions, with fish, seafood and bread at the forefront) and the vegetarian Raízes. Every morsel exhibited fine-dining finesse, particularly CURA’s signature dish (a tasting menu mainstay) of piled squid slivers with halved hazelnuts, roasted seaweed butter, Bergamot and Oscietra caviar.

Ramiro Lisbon
Cervejario Ramiro

Of course it wouldn’t be a Portuguese trip without digging into vast quantities of seafood and garlic butter alongside the locals. Myriad Lisbon restaurants offer this experience, among them the modest yet refined dinner spot Solar 31, which serves the spectrum of shellfish, squid and octopus as well as white fish, with as wide a range of wines (sampling vinho verde and port are a must in Portugal), as well as the internationally famous (thanks to Anthony Bourdain) Cervejario Ramiro. Ramiro is a casual go-to for people in the mood to unpeel king prawns, dig into giant crabs (like the monstrous creatures in the tanks that line the restaurant’s windows), sop up the garlic butter with a basketful of already buttered and lightly toasted bread and wash it all down with beer. And natas.

Montreal Lisbon
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. Trabantos/Shutterstock (Montreal to Lisbon, Europe’s beacon by the sea)

All the tourism guides will tell you to seek out the famous Portuguese egg tart — which, ideally, is a more gooey than springy, more flaky than mushy — at the place where they’re thought to have originated, the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém by the Jéronimos monastery. Unlike “Portuguese chicken,” which is not really a thing in Lisbon, the famous dessert known as pastel de nata is everywhere.

And obrigada for that. ■

Nonstop flights from Montreal to Lisbon are offered by Air Canada, Air Transat and TAP Air Portugal. This article was originally published in the December issue of Cult MTL.

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