Portugal’s thrilling capital, Lisbon moves to its own beat. It’s a jumble of ochre-coloured villas, steep gradients, tree-shaded squares and sudden, mesmerising views of the river. It’s also one of the best-value city breaks in Europe.
Few cities mix drama with intimacy like Lisbon. Most capitals are so grand and self important that they make it difficult for us to find a way into their soul. Not so in Portugal’s lovingly chaotic – and charming – first city.
And nowhere is this anti-capital charm more evident than in the ancient heart of the city, the Alfama (main pic, above). Once the very poorest neighbourhood, this atmospheric enclave is home to some of the best restaurants and most welcoming bars in the whole capital. A tight lattice of twisting lanes crawling uphill towards the castle of St George, life in the Alfama still has an timeless, otherworldly air to it. Laundry wafts on lines between houses packed like sardines (suitably enough) into the wafer-thin streets. Women (and men) gossip in grocers’ shops, and cats prowl the alleyways. It’s tremendous. Even more so as evening falls. Come for one drink, prepare to stay all night.
On the other side of the city, the gradients are still in evidence (this is not a city, it’s an open-air cardio-workout), but streets are grid-like and sinewy. The Bairro Alta is a parade of bar lined streets, restaurants whose al fresco tables line the cobbles, cellar clubs whose Latin beats subtly soundtrack the night air. Try a Fado evening – the soul of Portuguese music, dripping with nostalgia and wistfulness, a good Fado performer will have you blubbing into your handkerchief even if you can’t understand a word they’re singing.
When in Lisbon, always ask for “Petiscos” not Tapas – unless you want to spark an international culinary incident, that is. And, if you’re out partying in the Bario district, you’ll stumble upon the bifanas caravans -their ad-hoc BBQs, mostly made of converted metal drums, are filled with blazing charcoal, on which sizzle seasoned skewers of pork, shrimps and salt cod. If you’re really lucky, you’ll even see a sign proclaiming: Há caracóis: “We have snails!”
Down in the heart of the city, where the hills give way to mercifully flat ruler-straight boulevards, you’ll find venerable old department stores, design boutiques and fabulous patisseries. All roads inevitably lead to the grand central square the Comercio Plaza – and it’s here where, finally, you realise: yes, you are in a grand European capital after all. This waterside public plaza is built on a noble and opulent scale, but, as it overlooks the glinting river Tagus, offers a welcome blast of fresh air and a reminder that this seductive city owes its rich and complex character to the many journeys that have started, and ended, right here.
Shopping in Lisbon can be a refreshingly chainstore-free experience. Ulisses is the smallest shop in the city. It’s like walking into an enchanted wardrobe, lined with exquisite hand-made gloves. A real treasure. (R. do Carmo 87-A) Paris em Lisboa (R. Garrett) is the place for Portuguese linens and just general gorgeousness, and Embaixada (Ribeiro da Cunha) has arts and crafts – and women’s fashions – sewn up. Men should head to Up! Town Lisboa for the most colourful shirts this side of the Caribbean (R. da Misericórdia 68). Of course, you don’t want to leave without sampling a custard tart or three. You could head to Belem, where they were invented, but there are usually queues snaking out the door here (Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, 84-92 rua de Belem), so try Manteigaria, Rua do Loreto 2, instead. They’re every bit as good here.
The Lisbon Riviera is a seductive slice of coastline snaking west into the Atlantic. Here, a succession of stylish resorts attracts the country’s great and good – you could be rubbing suntanned shoulders with footballers or soap stars! Travel further to the sea, and the beaches get ever more dramatic – until, at Cascais, you’ll have those wide Atlantic horizons (nearby Cape St Vincent is Europe’s most westerly mainland point – go for the sunsets) to stretch out on. The fairytale woodland palaces of Sintra add a suitably dramatic flourish to a reassuringly otherworldly coast.
Cultural fixes don’t come better then the Gulbenkian. Two Art Collections surrounded by a magnificent Garden in the centre (well, just north) of Lisbon. A simple, unassuming modernist building, it’s home for treasures from around the world: exquisite Persian rugs, masterpieces of Western art, and antiquities from Greece, Rome and Egypt. Well worth an afternoon’s wander. Or take a wander along the waterfront to the impressive new MAAT – part sinuous and shimmering new museum, part buffed-up old power station (think Tate Modern) that’s home to all things art, architecture and tech. Climb ontop of the building (you can!), for terrific river views.
Take a Fado tour with a difference, in Alfama, with Rita the Fadista. Rita will guide you through the streets where Portugal’s answer to soul music began. Then you’ll finish the evening off in a cosy neighbourhood bar, enjoying tapas and glass or two of Vinho Verde (a light, effervescent Portuguese wine) as Rita shares the stories, and the songs, that are sure to capture your heart.
Visit the Time Out Market – a huge food hall, rammed with the very best made-in-Portugal delicacies: you simply wander around, taking a plate here, a glass there, and find a seat at one of the huge communal tables for a lunch that showcases the work of the city’s finest chefs, wine-makers, cheese and meat producers and (of course) custard tart bakers! Great for gifts too.
Want to take a tour? Jump on tram 28. This trundling yellow trolley car passes through the popular tourist districts of Graca, Alfama, Baixa and Estrela. Past the grand Cathedral, up through the hills of the city, taking in great views over the orange-tiled houses and out to the blue river. A word of warning though – go first thing in the morning, as it gets very busy.
Stay at: Guincho, Cascais.