We know I love a declarative Dili list — today’s is no exception.
Inspired by Australian writer and beauty entrepreneur Zoë Foster Blake’s My Best of Melbourne list, here’s My Things in Dili: the places, services and activities I love in this city.
Eating in Dili is so much fun. It’s not a cosmopolitan capital with an elite food scene like New York or London, but for a city of maybe 200,000 people, half living in poverty, which only really became a capital this century, it’s punching well above its weight, and we have enough choices to eat somewhere different every day for a year.
I love the excellent, elevated local foods at Dilicious and AHI MATAN, which serve indigenous ingredients in novel, creative ways. Both serve batar daan, the traditional Timorese corn porridge — delicious and hearty and warming. A classic Dili meal is a Saturday morning brunch on the beach, at one of the cafes at Areia Branca that put their chairs out in the sand beneath the acacia trees — order the avocado, mint and cucumber on toast at Beachside, with a cold coconut and a strong coffee. If I wanted to impress someone, I’d take them for refined Korean food at Nari’s, or for pricey but worth-it east African fare at Nha Casa, or if they’re a meat-eater, for Dili’s best steak at Prato. For a fuss-free dinner, go Everest Coffee House for cut-price Nepalese, or Little Pattaya for pretty good Thai with a very good ocean view. On that, visit the restaurant that’s actually called Ocean View and order the fried tofu appetiser — the best tofu I’ve eaten in this city, and I eat tofu every single day.
You can’t leave your neighbourhood without tripping over a coffee shop in Dili. I’d suggest getting into drinking espressos so you can visit more places in a single day. My favourite places are Cafe Atsabe, for the city’s best brew in a chic Scandi-lounge plant-filled room; Fatima Cafe, with art for sale and a view to the ocean if you drink upstairs, chic little local-flavours Aroma Cafe, and longstanding favourite Letefoho Specialty Coffee; all white tiles and fair trade and homemade banana bread. Another one with an open-air top floor with a view to the sea. For the experience more so than the quality of the coffee, an espresso outside at Pateo underneath the fans is a must.
Outside at Pateo is fun in the evenings — order the $6 Aperol spritz or a $1.50 can of beer from the cafe’s fridge. For cocktails, try Ponky’s tiki-style bar — pricier but good quality — or As’sis Restaurant in Metiaut, all heavy Portuguese wood and linen napkins and a nice caipirinha. Back to Nha Casa for good wine, or try Caz Bar for a Bintang with your feet in the sand at sunset. Most places will rustle you up a good gin and tonic — Castaway is an old classic, but it’s beloved for a reason, and again to Ponky’s for top-shelf spirits.
I find translating the exercise I like to do at home difficult in Dili. In Australia, I love a few laps jogged around the park, or a swim at the Brunswick Baths. But here, the days are hot and humid and the footpaths are cracked or non-existent, which makes running hard, and the pools are bizarrely expensive and extremely short, so a swim is more a special occasion treat than a chance to get my heart rate going. There are a few gyms, a weekend walking group, and a couple of yoga teachers here, and if you live in a fancy gated compound — one of the ones with names, not the walled cluster of seven houses I live in — you’ll usually have access to a gym and a pool. In general, it’s a morning run along Metiaut beach, a Horta Loop hike in the hills behind Dili, an occasional Ahimsakaya yoga class, and my friends play frisbee, futsal and basketball.
I am a woman who has SPF and DEET at the top of her beauty packing list: I am not generally the person to ask for beauty advice. But I do pay scrupulous attention to my eyebrows, and think Gisela at The Spa is not only the best threader in Dili in a runaway, but the person who’s done the very best work ever on my eyebrows in 15 years of having them shaped. She’s caring, careful, and diligent, speaks fluent English, Portuguese and Tetun, and will charge you just $15 for a quick head massage and the best brows of your life.
I’m a fiend for a massage and am spoilt for choice in Dili. For a gentler aromatherapy massage I go to Lorosae Concept, which is all heavy wood and soft amber lighting and gentle Balinese-flute music; truly relaxing. When I need to have knots pushed out I love a Thai massage, and the spa at Timor Thai restaurant (near the New Zealand Embassy) is my choice. Another way of soothing stress for me is a hair creme bath — a leave-in conditioner treatment and head massage at any hair salon; my favourite is Yomi Salon.
Dili is a good city for people who like being outdoors. Go for walks in the hills, watch the sunset over the bay, or go for a swim or a snorkel at Dolok Oan, the white-sand beach behind the statue of Jesus called Cristo Rei. Do all of that together in the Horta Loop hike — a 10km loop through the eucalyptus forest behind Dili’s east, which pops you out at Dolok Oan for a halftime swim before an optional ascent up to Cristo Rei and then down again for brunch on the beach. Beto Tasi in the city’s west is another excellent swimming beach.
Snorkelling or scuba diving are must-dos in a city bordered by pristine coral reefs, some of the most biodiverse in the world. I dive exclusively with Dreamers Dive Academy, who have my heart for both their friendly, professional and helpful service, and for the fact that they’re training Timorese dive instructors and guides. They’re $50 for one local dive or $85 for two — I love Dili Rock, on the city’s westernmost edge, or for a slightly higher price they can take you to the magnificent coral wall at K41.
Shopping is not an activity I really enjoy, and Dili is no exception — its malls and department stores (Timor Plaza, Jacinto) are either crowded and chaotic, or eerily, scarily vacant. Where I find exception is in the markets: fruit, plants, seconhand clothing, and traditional souvenirs.
Buy traditional hand-woven tais fabric from the Kirsty-Sword-founded Alola Foundation‘s shop, the sophisticated Things and Stories boutique, or from the sunny tais market in the middle of Farol. At Lecidere beachfront you’ll find small stalls selling woven baskets and tais souvenirs, often sold by the women who made them. The Lecidere Fruit Market is a classic for cheap produce, and the Taibessi Market — the city’s biggest — is a must-visit for quality local foods you can’t find anywhere else. Manuelana Market is another favourite for plants, secondhand clothes, and produce.
Secondhand clothes shopping is one of my favourite things to do in Dili — I visit the small cluster of stalls near my house frequently — and used to do big trips to the markets near the hospital or Maneulana regularly. Go frequently, take change, don’t haggle too much, and don’t expect too much, and you’ll have fun.
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