If Wallace and Gromit ever left the UK, this is how they'd tour round Lisbon. Forget the Wensleydale, though - this chic city is more interested in coffee, caipirinhas and custard tarts
If you’re looking for a quirky weekend break with almost guaranteed sunshine and a short flight into the bargain, look no further than Lisbon
. There’s nothing to be done about the disastrous Euro/pound conversion rate, but with great – inexpensive – places to stay and a host of unusual ways to see the city, it’s still a great weekender destination.
With seven steep hills, Lisbon is a pretty exhausting place to explore without a bit of help – no wonder the police here are all on Segways. With the options ranging from yellow trams, rattling funiculars, golf buggies and go carts, plus my choice of motorbike and sidecar, there are a lot of ways to get around without getting your hiking boots out.
My driver Joao picks me up in front of my hotel in the centre of the city and, once I’ve strapped on my helmet and got comfortable in the navy blue 1950s sidecar, starts the tour in the old town. Being so low to the ground, I’m getting a great feeling for the city’s cobbles and every tram line brings a new cheap thrill. But it’s not bad – there’s plenty of space, and Lisbon’s traffic is surprisingly friendly, unstressed and thin on the ground.
We zoom around the narrow cobbled streets and up the steepest hill to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, with a panoramic view of the red-rooved city and a leafy park to wander around. Stopping for a coffee in a little bar, we continue on before dropping down into the Alfama district, almost untouched by tourists, where we squeeze down the narrowest streets and watch laundry flutter above us. It feels like a taste of everyday Lisbon, with a real air of tradition. Turning the corner back to the centre of the city, we pass Joao’s favourite shop, Conserveira de Lisboa, which sells everything under the sun, as long as it’s in a tin. It’s refreshing to have a tour without a running commentary – the engine is a bit too loud for that – but if there is anything worth mentioning, Joao does stop and point it out.
After all those cobbles, it’s a relief to be speeding out of the city to Lisbon’s most elegant riverside suburb, Belém. We’re finally on a tarmacked road, which does get me thinking: if you go too fast, is there any chance that the motorbike and sidecar can separate from each other? Joao shakes his head. 'That only happens in cartoons,' he says. Thank goodness for that.
Belém is a must-see for any weekender in Lisbon, just 15 minutes from the centre. It feels like a seaside suburb but is actually on the banks of the river Tagus, with a great promenade taking you along past the monuments celebrating Lisbon’s great explorers, Magellan and Vasco da Gama among them. The Torre de Belém, an old watchtower and former prison attached to the land by a footbridge and the 1960s-built Padrao dos Descobriamentos, a white limestone ship-shaped monument with its cast of explorers onboard, are both worth a visit. Those explorers have left their mark on Lisbon today, with its cosmopolitan influences from South America to Asia, and a new museum, the Museu do Oriente (Avenida de Brasília), opened at the end of 2008 in between Belém and the city, showcasing the best artefacts and exhibitions from Lisbon’s former colonies. And the popularity of caipirinhas in the city’s bars shows that that Brazilian cultural link is still as strong as ever.
All this travelling and talk of travel is getting exhausting, so we stop to refuel at Belém’s famous pastry shop, Pastéis de Belém (Rua de Belém 84-92), for a taste of Lisbon’s legendary custard tarts. All the city’s bakeries make them to their own recipe, but this one is universally acknowledged to be the best, and has queues out of the door for takeaway pastries, not to mention 6,000 seats inside for those staying for coffee too. Topped with cinnamon and icing sugar and eaten with another espresso, it’s not surprising that their pastries sell at a rate of 20,000 a day – and I nab a box of six to take home with me. It’s a sweet note to end on.
- Sidecar tours of Lisbon cost €95 for two people or €65 for one.
- The 3-star Hotel Tejo is central and chic. Doubles cost €87-128 per night including breakfast.
- For budget travellers, the Living Lounge Hostel is a boutique hostel owned by artists and very chic and friendly. Dorm beds cost €18 and double rooms cost €25 per person, breakfast included.
- Celebrate the city’s old colonial links with a Goan curry at Calcuta, Rua do Norte 17, Bairro Alto. It’s inexpensive and there’s no flock wallpaper in sight. A meal plus wine costs around €18 per person.
- Or try traditional family-run Portuguese restaurant Farta Brutos, Trav da Espera 20, Bairro Alto, for hearty fare, port aperitifs, Portuguese wine and a groaning sweet trolley. A three-course meal with aperitif and wine costs around €41.20.
Bars & clubs
- The streets of Bairro Alto are your best bet for small local bars and cocktails from €4.
- Lux, Avenida Infanta D, down by the harbour, is the city’s superclub, with eclectic music, and superior design. Entry costs about €12.
- easyJet flies to Lisbon from £53.92 return from London Gatwick and various other airports across the UK.