A mix of medieval and modern, Lisbon proudly exhibits the enduring legacy of its Moorish past alongside a thriving café scene and distinctive cuisine
Portugal’s laid-back capital has shaken off its image as Europe’s forgotten backwater and is a vibrant, multicultural and exciting city. Lounging across seven hills, Lisbon basks on the edge of one of the world’s biggest natural harbours, exuding a kind of lazy beauty. The city is a heady mix of medieval and modern, old world and new, where you are as likely to hear rhythmic Angolan beats as the mournful fado, and dancing the samba is part of the experience.
What to do
The Moorish fortifications of the Castelo de Sao Jorge (www.castelosaojorge.egeac.pt) mark the birthplace of Lisbon, the site of which dates back to the 6th century BC. Clamber along the castle walls before you explore the laid-back neighbourhoods cascading down the hillsides of Lisbon. In Alfama, the city’s oldest quarter, the cobbled streets are too narrow for cars and still conform to the Moorish street plan. Look for a small private lemon orchard at the end of Largo de Sao Miguel; it has a wonderful citrus-scented view across Lisbon. On weekday mornings make sure you check out the fish market on the Rua de São Pedro where fishwives sing their raucous songs.
No visit to Lisbon would be complete without listening to fado, Lisbon’s melancholy, yearning soundtrack. Try the atmospheric Clube de Fado (www.clube-de-fado.com) on Rua Sao Joao da Praca in Alfama.
Save your legs and ride one of the city’s three funiculars, the Elevado da Glória, up to explore the Bairro Alto (upper town). Stop at the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara gardens for great views and pop over the road to Portugal’s most famous wine bar at The Port Wine Institute (00 351 213 475 707), a dimly lit sanctuary with over 300 varieties of port by the glass.
Where to stay
The luxurious Lapa Palace on Rua do Pau da Bandeira 4, was built in 1870 and originally intended as a private palace for a nobleman. Try to get a room with a river or city view. For a characterful, boutique hotel try the 18th-century As Janelas Verdes on Rua das Janelas Verdes near the waterfront. If you prefer to escape the city bustle, Penha Longa, just a short taxi ride from the city centre is the ideal retreat, with a spa, golf course and acres of grounds in which to unwind.
Where to eat and drink
Slurping a strong bica (coffee) and munching on a pastel de nata (custard tart) in a café is to really experience Lisbon life, particularly in the famous Antiga Confeitaria de Bélem on Rua de Bélem.
To get an authentic taste of the city try bacalhau (salt cod), for which there are hundreds of recipes. You’re likely to find Portugal’s best fresh seafood in the capital – sardines feature, of course, and hearty bowls of caldeiradas (fish stew). There is fresh, local produce galore at Mercado da Ribeira, the city’s largest market in Cais do Sodré, open until 1pm every day except Sunday.
A Tasquinha d’Adelaide (00 351 213 962 239) on Rua do Patrocinio in the Bairro Alto is a cosy place serving traditional dishes like lulas grelhadas, grilled squid, bacalhau, and lamb with beans. The Casa da Comida (00 351 213 885 376) on Travessa de Amoreiras, near the Jardin de Las Amoreiras, is a gourmet choice with its imaginative take on traditional food and excellent wine list. Star spotters should make tracks to the trendy restaurant complex Bico do Sapato (00 351 218 810 320; www.bicadosapato.com) on Avenida Infante D Henrique, which is part-owned by actor John Malkovich.
Time running out?
Riding the rickety trams is very much part of the Lisbon experience and a great way to see the sights. Hop on to the number 28 for a round trip, which starts in Mouraria and rumbles past historic buildings and through the city’s prettiest streets.
The city was not built for cars and gets fiercely congested. Buy a Lisboa card from the tourist office for unlimited transport on the metro, tram and funicular railway systems.
Currency is the euro. Lisbon is within GMT and a two-hour 30-minute flight from London.
Lisbon Tourist Office: Rua do Arsenal 15 (00 351 210 312 700; www.visitlisboa.com). Contact the office for seasonal opening hours.
Journey to Portugal by José Saramago et al (The Harvill Press, £10.99). An intriguing account of the author’s experiences as he crosses his native land from north-east to south-west.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.