Take a break in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon and you'll discover a impressive city that's awash with history.
Until all too recently the Portuguese capital of Lisbon was a place that suffered a serious PR problem. Lisbon was derided by some as a tumbledown, raffish and poverty ravaged place and Portugal itself was known as the ‘Poor Man of Europe’. It was not a major city break destination. Many locals, while still being proud of their vibrant and thrilling home, found it difficult to disagree with its critics. Today, Lisbon has undergone the kind of renaissance not seen since the 14th and 15th centuries, when the city was at the heart of an expansive empire that stretched its tentacles as far afield as Brazil and India and rivalled that of Spain and England, its big mercantile rivals.
The event credited with setting off this rejuvenation was the World Expo in 1998. World Expos can make or break a city. Luckily the event made Lisbon. Massive investment went into the Portuguese capital as the local authorities hauled the city into shape. Huge infrastructure projects were instigated such as a sweeping new bridge across the lifeblood River Tagus. The dilapidated old metro system was given a boost and then, most impressive of all, was the redevelopment of the Expo site out at the Parque das Nações (www.parquedasnacoes.pt). Today this is still very much the new leisure hub of Lisbon with restaurants, bars, one of the world’s biggest oceanariums, a cable car and shopping malls, not to mention lovely waterfront walkways and parks.
This modern golden age really began even earlier, in 1994, when Lisbon was proclaimed European City of Culture. Then the exposure continued, with the Portuguese capital hosting a number of big matches during the successful European Football Championships in 2004 and then the MTV Europe Music Awards swept into the city in 2005. These events turned the image of the Portuguese capital on its head and started to bring in a new wave of tourists. The arrival of the budget airlines helped propel this boom.
It is easy to see why visitors fall in love with the city. Lisbon is a deeply picturesque city that is spread across seven hills and hugs the banks of the wide River Tagus estuary. It has always attracted interest from further afield, friendly or otherwise, as far back as far back as 900BC, when the Phoenicians sailed up the Tagus. Its real Golden Age came, though, in the 14th and 15th centuries. This is when Portugal was a serious world power. Its explorers waved goodbye to the city not knowing if they would ever return as they set off across the world’s oceans. The rich legacy of these days can be seen in the waterfront suburb of Bélem where the proud Monument to the Discoveries now stands and the centuries seem to peel back at every turn.
Lisbon’s restaurants are also typical of a city that is vibrant, cosmopolitan and creative and has successfully managed to marry the historic with the modern, the traditional with the cutting edge. In little inns you can feast on hearty working man’s food like thick stews and broths, while on the waterfront chic eateries serve up perfectly grilled fish dishes. Then, of course, there are the famous custard pies of Belem, worth the tram trip out to the seaside suburb for alone.
Great restaurants too looks for include the Alcantara Café (www.alcantaracafe.com), a stylish favourite of the local cognoscenti, Bica do Sapato (www.bicadosapato.com), with its restaurant and sushi bar and York House (www.yorkhouselisboa.com), a lovely boutique hotel with a great restaurant where you can sit out on the terrace under the stars and really relax as you enjoy a host of Portuguese dishes.
This historic and eclectic city likes to express itself on the plate and its history is also mirrored here too with influences pervading from all across Europe and across from Africa too. Visiting Lisbon today you get the chance to experience a thoroughly modern city that in so many was wears its rich past firmly on its sleeve.
Where to stay
Corinthia Lisboa (www.corinthia.com)
It may have over 500 rooms, but this business hotel located in the financial district also boasts a lot to tempt leisure guests. The Malo Spa is one of the city’s best, a 32,000ft oasis where guests can really let their hair down and rejuvenate. It features 13 treatment rooms and a host of treatments from simple massages through to whole day programmes. Eating options include international fare at Sete Colinas and ‘live cooking’ at Tipico, a real gourmet treat. It may be a fair walk from the centre, but history is not far away as it is also housed next to an 18th-century aqueduct.
Heritage Avenida Liberdade (www.heritageavliberdade.com)
One of the city’s most stylish boutique hotels is handily located right at the heart of the city’s most glamorous thoroughfare, Avenida da Liberdade. This award winning 42-room retreat is seriously sexy and often looks more like a style bar than a hotel. Local movers and shakers like to see and be seen here and fashion magazines often do their shoots here too. Nice extra touches include a fitness room that comes complete with a jet pool, Molton Brown toiletries in guest bathrooms and free wifi.