The capital of Portugal — city of the great 15th-century seafaring explorers — is very much the surprise package among Europe’s more popular destinations. Rising from the banks of the Tagus River as it opens to the Atlantic, it is one of those rare gems: a city offering a wealth of places to see and things to do within striking distance of ocean beaches.
Built on and around seven hills, Lisbon is a visually heady mix of historic and contemporary, jumbled streets and grander boulevards, rattling trams and quirky funiculars, all acting as a backdrop to a vibrant cafe and restaurant scene, buzzing nightlife, unique cultural attractions and, not least, to Fado, the haunting music that echoes the soul of a nation.
There is plenty of history in plain sight, but most historic of all is the Moorish Castle of Saint George perched atop the city’s oldest neighbourhood of Alfama. The views from its walls are simply superb. With its winding medieval streets, Alfama is worth discovery in its own right. Get there on the rattling wooden Tram 28. Running along one of only three remaining tram lines, its route takes in many of central Lisbon’s points of interest.
Then head down to Belem with its host of cultural attractions including the World Heritage-listed Jeronimos Monastery — resting place of explorer Vasco da Gama — the 15th-century Belem Tower, the striking Monument to the Discoveries, and the Gulbenkian Museum.
Eat and Drink
The Portuguese love to eat out, and that means a thriving and often surprisingly economical dining scene. There are restaurants all over Lisbon offering Portuguese and international cuisine, from good, honest local fare (think piri piri chicken, pork with clams, barbecued meats) to gourmet fine dining.
The greatest concentration of good restaurants is in the Bairro Alto district, which is also the place for lots of buzzing bars. For arguably the best of those iconic Portuguese custard tarts, try Pasteis de Belem (Rua Belem 84). Don’t forget to catch a Fado performance with dinner or in a Fado club, either in Bairro Alto or Alfama.
Where to Stay
National capital, major international centre of commerce, prime tourism destination – it is a combination that means plenty of places to stay, whether it’s a well-known brand hotel, more boutique accommodation or even a Portuguese Pousada – upmarket rooms in an historic property.
Hotel costs in Lisbon (and other costs for that matter) tend to be more reasonable than in other major European capitals, so you might be pleasantly surprised when comparing rates.
Don’t forget self-contained accommodation for greater flexibility – there are good options in historic Alfama. For ease of sightseeing, staying close to the Tram 28 route could be useful.
Lisbon has its share of urban shopping malls and department stores (Colombo and the waterfront Centro Vasco da Gama, for example) but you will find more of a shopping adventure in the Principe Real, Baixa and Bairro Alto districts, with everything from new independent retailers and designers (Rua Dom Pedro V) to quirky stores run by the same families for generations (Rua Augusta).
Chiado is the biggest shopping district in Lisbon boasting high-street brands as well as fine jewellery and what is reputed to be the world’s oldest bookstore, Livraria Bertrand, founded in 1732. For international luxury brands (as well as beautiful Portuguese shoes), head to the Avenida da Liberdade.
Lisbon Like a Local
In the grand European tradition, the locals eat late – and that means dinner rarely gets under way before 9pm. When you sit down it is inevitable your waiter, unsolicited, will bring to your table a selection of pre-dinner starters: fresh bread and various spreads, maybe olives. Yes, it’s welcoming, but it’s not free. In other words, it’s not impolite to ignore it. Have a nibble and you will find the charge added to your bill.