From the top of the hill – it doesn’t really matter which one, there are more than enough to share around – the Portuguese capital looks devastatingly winsome. Lisbon is, beyond any reasonable doubt, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, sidling alongside the widest stretch of the River Tagus as it reaches its crescendo into the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s a remarkably easy city to love – traffic rarely seems overbearing, ubiquitous mosaic-tiled pavements make it feel like you’re walking along priceless treasures and there’s a mild-mannered friendliness that’s noticeably absent from most capitals. It’s also, by Western European standards, remarkably inexpensive.
But Lisbon is more than a pretty one-trick pony. It shifts in character quite dramatically from area to area. Café-packed Chiado area feels chic without being posey. Bairro Alto comes alive with a hedonistic roar at night. Historic Belém has the Portuguese Golden Age honeypots in the form of the Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery. The Park Of Nations, on the once-bleak Expo 98 site, provides a textbook example of how to keep life in such a place once the Expo has gone – all highly strollable gardens, an excellent aquarium and innovative architecture.
That sense that you’ll remain eternally fond of Lisbon gets increasingly hard to shake.
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A comfortable bed
Few Lisbon hotels are as gorgeously atmospheric as the York House (00 351 21 396 24 35). Secluded inside a converted convent, with an adorable garden terrace and just enough period features to keep the modern fittings interesting, it has rooms available for from 99 euros.
The small-but-elegant Bairro Alto Hotel (00 351 21 340 8288) makes up for surprisingly small rooms with a magnificent rooftop terrace with views out over the city and river, and a service ethic that really shines through. Doubles from 205 euros.
The city’s best bargain, however, is the Portugal Ways Bairro Alto Apartments (00 351 911 999 010). With full kitchens, quality-but-homely furnishings and plenty of space, they’re available for from 36 euros a night.
Find your feet
The hilltop Castle of São Jorge (00 351 21 880 0620) dates back to the Moorish occupation of in the 11th and 12th centuries, although much of the current complex is a result of extensive 20th century restoration and rebuilding. The views from the top are swoony, however, and wandering around the interconnecting citadel ramparts and gardens is hugely enjoyable. From there, head downhill into the maze-like, medieval Alfama District, where getting lost amongst the crumbling old homes and narrow lanes is both easy and highly desirable.
Eventually, you’ll probably end up at the grand but oddly empty-feeling riverside square, Praça do Comércio. This is the starting point for Lisbon Walker’s (00 351 218 861 840) fabulously informative 15 euro walking tours. The Revelations tour takes in the horror of the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the city, the modernist grid-like rebuilding and oddities such as the Elevador de Santa Justa. This Gustave Eiffel-influenced, somewhat surreal-looking lift links the centre with the higher Bairro Alto district.
Meet the locals
Lisbon’s generally a undemonstrative city, but that goes out of the window when football’s concerned. The two big teams are Benfica and Sporting Lisbon and their games are surprisingly accessible. Tickets for league games cost from 15 euros, with Benfica playing at the Estadio Da Luz, host venue of the 2014 Champions League final.
Book a table
For the astonishing building alone – you’ll walk through a Moorish courtyard and climb painted tile-lined stairs before getting to the restaurant – the Casa Do Alentejo (00 351 21 340 5140) is worth ducking into. The food showcases the rustic Alentejo region, with simple dishes such as the 13 euro pluck-off-the-bone lamb stew.
José Avillez is Lisbon’s star chef, and his Belcanto restaurant (00 351 21 342 0607) in well-heeled Chiado serves up atypically inventive Portuguese fare such as slightly smoked beef loin with rosemary, bone marrow and garlic puree for 42 euros.
Around 50% of the world’s cork comes from Portugal, and the gallery-esque Cork and Co (00 351 21 609 0231) in Bairro Alto shows just what you can do with it. That stretches from table placemats and iPhone cases to umbrellas and drums.
A Arte Da Terra (00 351 212 745 975 is inside the former stable of the cathedral – check out the cobblestone floor and vaulted roof. It’s a good place for souvenir-ish ceramics, cutesy figurines, woolly slippers and colourful scarves.
What to avoid
Be wary of anything that looks close on a map – Lisbon’s hills can make 2D distances deceptive. For similar reasons, impractical shoes will make relatively short walks feel like calamitous mountaineering expeditions.
Inexplicably underpublicised and utterly wonderful, the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (00 351 21 810 0340) is devoted to Portugal’s signature art form, the azulejo tile paintings. Beautiful examples have been sourced from churches and palaces around the country. Displays show the techniques used to make them and the historical progression of styles through simple geometric patterns to ambitious figurative storytelling. But the old chapel the museum winds around is just astonishing – paintings and gilded frippery take over the higher levels, while huge blue and white azulejo-covered walls are packed with narrative detail.
This guide was researched in May 2014, and originally published in The National.
All content copyright David Whitley.