Lisbon: city of discovery

by Sarah.Seamarks

For those looking for a reasonably-priced city break, Lisbon has plenty to offer, with cultural highlights, beaches and (perhaps the best secret of all) an amazing campsite

It's always amazed me why more people don't consider Lisbon as a city break destination. While tourists flock to Barcelona, Venice and New York, Lisbon has never received quite the same attention, which is a shame because they are missing out.
Over the last couple of years easyJet has launched flights to the Portuguese capital from numerous regional UK airports, opening Lisbon up as an ideal spot for those who want to combine a city break with a beach holiday. Something else Lisbon has going for it is a large campsite right on the outskirts of the city, so if you are looking to keep costs down as the credit crunch bites, it's an ideal place for a summer holiday.
I'd visited Portugal several times but had never spent long in the capital. I usually just dashed through it in a bus or taxi en route to other parts of the country. But last summer we decided to take a camping trip there. The Camping Lisboa site is in a 36-hectare pine forest next to Monsanto Park on the edge of the city. It's only a short taxi ride from the airport or you can take a bus. We opted for a taxi and were surprised when it cost just €12 for a 15-minute journey.
The forest was huge and rather than being allocated a pitch, you can camp wherever you please. The further into the forest you go, the more peace and quiet you will get. We chose a spot quite a way in, where there were very few tents, and enjoyed the feeling of space and freedom. Usually you'll have someone else pitched on all four sides and hear every word they say and every movement, but not here. The only noise was the birds singing and the rustle of the leaves on the trees in the gentle breeze. While we were trying to find our perfect camping spot, we were lucky enough to see a red squirrel scampering up one of the pine trees, a rare treat.
As the site only cost just over €100 for two of us, for seven nights, I assumed we would probably need to pay for hot water, but the toilet and shower blocks were all free and were kept spotlessly clean, with no queues in the mornings, despite the size of the park.
The great thing about camping in a forest is your tent doesn't get too hot, as it's sheltered from the sun. Even though the temperatures reached 30°plus every day, we never woke up to stifling heat, and it was good for keeping food and drink cool too. The campsite had a huge outdoor swimming pool, and a separate shallow pool for children. These were open daily from 10am until 7pm, and there was also a bar, restaurant and shop. The shop wasn't very well stocked so we usually stopped off at a local supermarket on the way back each night to get supplies.
It was easy to get into Lisbon itself, and we caught bus 714 from outside the front of Camping Lisboa, which took us all the way into Praça Figueira in the centre of the city. The route also goes through Belém, so you can get off here if you want to visit the Belém tower, the famous Jerónimos monastery or indulge in one of the city's famous pastéis de Belém, a delicious custard tart made to a secret ancient recipe.
The Alfama district was an enchanting part of the city, with its jumble of medieval, cobbled streets winding up the hillside from the sea, finally reaching the Castelo de São Jorge (St George's castle) at the summit. This was one of the areas of the city that came off pretty much unscathed from the 1755 earthquake, so everywhere is still as it used to be hundreds of years ago.
We decided to walk up to the castle, although many people catch one of Lisbon's famous yellow trams. So many, in fact, some passengers were clinging on to the back of them, desperate to get a lift up the hill. It costs €5 to get into the grounds of the medieval castle, but it is certainly worth it, as you are rewarded with the best views of the city. We spent several hours here soaking up the sun and gazing down onto the bright red rooftops and the river Tagus below.
Most nights we would buy groceries at the supermarket and take them back to the campsite, along with a bottle of the local red wine, many of which cost as little as €2 and were superb. However, one night we decided to treat ourselves to a meal and headed back to the Alfama district. It is a very different place in the evenings, much livelier, with the sound of fado (Portuguese folk music) echoing through the narrow streets.
We found most of the restaurants had people outside trying to lure tourists in. If we stopped to browse for more than a couple of seconds menus were being thrust into our hands. We must have spent about an hour wandering the cobbled streets before we spotted a tiny little restaurant called Malmequer-Bemmequer, which was painted with bright yellow sunflowers. We were shocked as we were able to stand and look at the menu without anyone coming out to pounce on us and invite us inside.
The prices here were up to €5 cheaper than most of the other restaurants in the district, and it looked really nice so we decided to go inside. We weren't disappointed. The owner was very friendly and spoke excellent English, explaining what everything on the menu was. I enjoyed a delicious sole served with potatoes, salad and vegetables and my partner had a lovely sea bream, cooked to perfection. We finished the meal with some delicious Portuguese desserts and felt smug we'd come here rather than one of the more expensive, commercialised restaurants down the road.
The great thing about staying in Lisbon is you get the best of both worlds. Being on the coast if you fancy a day at the beach then it isn't far away. We caught the train from Cais do Sodré station to Cascais, just along the coast. It was a 30-minute journey and only cost €1.70 each way. A real bargain. The beaches were quite crowded, it being the height of summer, and the sea was very cold (after all, this is the Atlantic coast), but it was very welcome on such a hot day and didn't stop us going for a dip.
We found this holiday offered everything – peace and quiet, camping in pleasant surroundings, the chance to explore Lisbon's cultural highlights, and a couple of days spent relaxing on the beach - and all at prices that didn't break the bank.