When I traveled to Lisbon in December, I wasn’t sure what to expect by way of holiday cheer. Would there be enough things to do in Lisbon at Christmastime? I’m pleased to report that the answer is a resounding yes! Elegant strings of lights glinted off the city’s renowned tile walkways, colorful window displays beckoned shoppers, and decorated trees illuminated public squares. Lisbon’s Christmas markets were overflowing with smoked sausages and wonderfully stinky cheese, while hot sangria replaced the standard mulled wine. Plus, the pleasant weather made it possible to stay outside for hours enjoying the festive atmosphere. If you are looking for a non-traditional European Christmas destination, you might want to give Portugal a try!
Lisbon’s Christmas Market, or Mercado de Natal, is held inside Campo Pequeno, a lovely red-brick bullfighting arena that was opened in 1890. Several dozen artisans and vendors set up tables around the floor and visitors can browse at their leisure. I bought some wine and cheese, of course, and regretted not having more room in my suitcase for a few pieces of pottery. This neat event is unfortunately a one-off, held either the last weekend in November or first weekend in December. Daily tickets cost a nominal €2 each.
If you miss the Mercado de Natal, you might still be able to catch the Mercado de Baxia. Once a month, tents are set up in Praca da Figueira and a glorious food market takes over. The event has a Christmasy air in November and December when local artisans also sell their wares. I loved browsing with a cup of hot sangria in hand!
Don’t worry if your visit to Lisbon doesn’t coincide with either of these markets. You’ll still find plenty of treats to put you in the holiday spirit. One such treat is ginja, a sweet-and-tart cherry liqueur that owes its origins to Francisco Espinheira, a Galician friar who made creative use of the local Portuguese cherries. The potent drink was first sold commercially in Lisbon at A Ginjinha bar in the Rossio over 170 years ago. Join the crowd outside for a shot or two and you’ll soon be a festive mood!
Another centuries-old Lisbon specialty is the egg custard tart. In the 1830s, after a revolution resulted in the closure of monasteries, an out-of-work monk began selling homemade pastries to make ends meet. He operated out of a shop next to a sugar refinery in the Lisbon suburb of Belem. The venture was so successful that the bakery Pasteis de Belem was officially opened in 1837. The recipe for the famous tarts has remained a closely guarded secret ever since, known only to the shop’s master bakers. Whatever’s inside, you won’t be able to have just one!
Would you like to celebrate Christmas in Lisbon, Portugal?