Exploring a city built on hills and dancing the night away can take its toll on just about anyone. But I can assure you the pain is worth every minute spent in beautiful, seductive Lisbon
Lisbon holds a special place in my heart for one very good reason. It was here that I proposed to my then partner Deborah who I later married in the beautiful Tuscan hilltop town of Barga in Italy. But it was also the location where I began to appreciate the wonderful art form of Latin dance, with its passion, skill and enthralling sex appeal. For the serious and not so serious dancers among us, it is an absolute eye opener and delight to witness couples move with a fusion of energy and elegance that leaves the throat dry and the heart pounding with envy and admiration.
Undoubtedly Brazilian influences have been the tour de force behind the upsurge in Latin dance in Portugal along with its food, television and cinema, making Portugal a more seducing and cosmopolitan country; one that can rival its neighbours in hospitality, culture and diversity. Lisbon also has more to offer than just swooning across dance floors: it is a city that has risen from the ashes on more than one occasion, and still remains as beautiful as the dawning of a new day, its wonderful architecture and character deserving of its ancient culture and dynamic history.
Chiado - the sophisticated and trendy district
Chiado is where the well-heeled like to seen, with beckoning stylish boutiques which are graced with the names of Hermes, Cartier and Gucci; atmospheric cafés and bars; and chic hotels and jewellery shops. It is rated alongside 5th Avenue NY as one of the world's top ten districts to shop in, or at least be seen in.
There is only one terrace to sit on in this area if you’re serious about maintaining your image: The Brasileira Café's (Rua Garrett 120; Tel: 213 469 541). This café has always attracted an intellectual clientele; the poet Fernando Pessoa whose bronze statue occupies one of the outside tables frequented the establishment. It was here while having coffee and a cigarette that I was made aware of a bizarre Portuguese custom - leaving your cigarettes on a table is an invite to one and all to ask permission to take one. Surely a sure-fire way of giving up! Sharing the same small block as the café you will find Hotel Borges, a small hotel that was sadly lacking in comfort and style the last time that I stayed, but it has apparently been updated. However it is, without doubt, in an outstanding location and the prices are very affordable; it is only for this reason that I would recommend it - a double room is priced from 76 euros p/n.
Or treat yourself to a little bit of luxury and book into the Hotel do Chiado, a magnificent 4-star establishment occupying the top floors of the historical building the 'Armazéns do Chiado' providing supreme views of Lisbon from its terrace. The elegant design and very tasteful furnishings of the rooms and public areas ensure a very comfortable stay. The service is first class and, once again, the location is outstanding and is within easy walking distance to just about everywhere. A double room will cost from 190 euros p/n.
Bairro Alto is Chiado's neighbouring quarter, a maze of small narrow streets that during daylight hours is festooned in laundry and the shuttered shop and café fronts portray an abundance of graffiti; really not much to look at. But at night, the area takes on a surreal transformation. Young and old meet in the mild evenings on the cobbled streets before visiting the amazing array of restaurants which are superb and are usually Fado (destiny) houses. These are Portuguese folk style eateries, that incorporate the Fado songs and, of course, great food and fine port. It is said that a Fado is not successful if it does not leave its audience close to tears. Family gatherings, some of humongous size, gather to be fed, entertained and cry. The visitor on the other hand, sits back and devours all that is served by way of food and custom.
Café Luso (Travessa Queimada 10; Tel: 21 342 22 81) is perhaps Lisbon's, if not Portugal's most famous Fado house and serves an excellent range of local dishes and delicious wines and ports. Late evening dining (22.00 - 02.00) is highly recommended. It is then that the Fado begins and beautiful cuisine is savoured in Luso's seducing ambience as the night caresses the early hours.
Canto do Camoes (Travessa da Espera 38; Tel: 21 346 54 64) is my favourite Bairro Fado restaurant. Açorda seafood, clams, monkfish rice, cod with cream, grilled fish, baked cod or beef and pork Alentejo, fine ports and brandy adorn its menu. A healthy portion of Lisbon’s great Fado singers is also guaranteed. Three courses cost around 20 euros and booking is recommended.
Afterwards the world is your oyster or, to be more precise, Bairro Alto is your oyster especially when it comes to dance. Here you will find all that is great about Latin and contemporary dance in Lisbon - small intimate clubs, chic bars and cafés provide the best in music, disco Latino, African, salsa, samba, soul and tango. You will be mesmerised by the talented moves of young and old as they cruise across the floors, embracing and tantalising their partners with amorous and seductive caresses and turns. It is like watching matadors size up their enemy, teasing and provoking and then moving elegantly, in for the kill. Club Carib (Rua Atalaia, 78) is a great spot to kick off in as it opens earlier than other bars, offering great sounds in Latin and soul.
The Cohiba Bar (Rua do Norte 121) is Cuban and provides slick sounds and up tempo beats that bring out the best in Merengue and Salsa. Or drop into Portas Largas (Rua da Atalaia, 105) which offers a fantastic atmosphere for the chic, trendy and flamboyant with soulful samba and disco Latino sounds. And, when you get tired of dancing and just need that laidback conversation to unwind, give Targus (Rua do Diário de Notícias, 40b) a visit, it's a great bar with interesting clients, good beer and background music. But the best way to indulge in the music and dance is to walk the small streets and listen and, when it’s literally music to your ears, give the establishment a try.
If you want elegance and class beside your playground then book the Bairro Alto Hotel. This 5-star boutique dream was originally built in 1770 and now incorporates the award winning restaurant, Floros. It has excellent facilities, with a well-being centre and gym. The rooms are large and sumptuous and the décor modern. The front of house is professional and personal and the service throughout the hotel is what you would expect of an establishment of such calibre.
Alfama has been described as a village within a city and you will appreciate how true these words are when you climb the hilly cobbled roads to this beautiful area. White washed houses, medieval alleys, churches and Fado houses abound. Even though it is a residential area it is a photographer’s paradise with exceptional and unique views of Lisbon and a walker’s heaven. It also has some of the best restaurants in Lisbon and their prices can be as much as 50% less as they are in Bairro Alto. Mesa de Frades (Rua Dos Remédios, 139-A; Tel: 21 887 1452) is a beautiful, intimate restaurant and is all that is wonderful about Lisbon - small, quaint and serving the best in local produce from the rich land and sea, tantalising taste buds with earthy flavours and warming sauces. Three courses are as little as 18 euros.
Situated high up in Alfama is Castelo de Sao Jorge, (St. George’s Castle). It can be seen from just about anywhere in Lisbon. It is a mammoth structure with imposing ramparts and dates back to the 6th century where once the Moors held court; it was eventually dedicated to England’s patron saint for their part in the crusades and liberating it from the Moorish invaders. In fact, St, George is a bit of a celeb here, with statues of him just about as common as the marble bulls that festoon the pavements all over the city.
Baixa (downtown) is the large pedestrian and commercial quarter that flows from the fashionable Rossio Square via Rua Augusta to the river front and the impressive Praco do Comercio, where the old Royal Palace is situated, and Marina quarter. It offers fantastic shopping and relaxed evenings in some of the quarter’s great restaurants and cafés. You cannot go wrong by booking a room at Lisbon's newest, trendy 4-star hotel, the Internacional Design Hotel, located overlooking Rossio Square with its four themed floors, outstanding chic rooms and marvellous service, ensures a very enjoyable and relaxing stay. A double room costs from 98 euro p/n. It is from this central district that all others are accessible, be it all up hill. From here Bairro Alto can be accessed by taking the Santa Justa Elevator; not unlike Paris’s Eiffel Tower it is Lisbon’s favourite landmark.
How to get around
The best way to navigate and appreciate this beautiful city is by taking the tram. These rickety, but charming engineering pieces are as reliable as the setting sun and as cheap as chips, as are the taxis. But no matter how you intend to move around the town remember to save some moves for your nights on the dance floor.