The Portuguese capital is something of an unsung hero of European city breaks. To overlook it though is to miss out on a gem of high culture, fine food and a distinctly chilled urban feel.
Its famous sons span Vasco da Gama to Cristiano Ronaldo, its cuisine is typified by barbecued seafood and waistline destroying custard pastries – and no less an icon than Madonna calls its capital “home”.
Portugal is understated in its charm and its premier city, Lisbon, blends faded grandeur with striking modern architecture, a chilled café culture with Michelin-starred dining, and trendy young locals with neighbourhoods that appear barely touched by the passing of time.
Why go now?
Lisbon is jam-packed with culture and history, a superb choice of places to eat and hotspots in which to party and, just a short journey away, charming coastal towns. The Portuguese capital also makes for one of Europe’s more affordable city breaks. September and October are two of the most pleasant months in which to visit – so get planning that early autumn getaway.
Airlines including BA (ba.com); TAP (flytap.com); easyJet (easyjet.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) fly from Gatwick, Heathrow and London City. Return fares in October start from around £100 return.
Flights arrive into the city’s Humberto Delgado Airport (Portela) Airport (ana.pt), just seven km from the city centre. Taxis cost around €20, although the Uber service in Lisbon is cheap and efficient. The airport is also served by several bus routes; the Metro’s Aeroporto–Saldanha line takes you to downtown Lisbon in about 20 minutes, and there are two shuttle buses (AeroBus follows a specific route; the Airport Shuttle will take passengers where they need to go). The Viva Viagem card (www.metrolisboa.pt) is a pre-paid electronic smartcard valid for use on buses, trams, metro, ferry and suburban trains.
The four-star Turim Almeda in the city’s Old Town has three nights in late September for £355 including breakfast through booking.com. If budget’s no barrier, try the 18th century seduction of Verride Palacio Santa Catarina (verridesc.pt) which has superior river view suites from £2700 (again for three nights). Lisbon also has a great choice of properties through Airbnb (airbnb.co.uk), or for a full package try Baldwins Travel (baldwinstravel.co.uk).
Getting your bearings
Built on seven hills and set on the River Tagus, the nucleus of the city is the flat area known as Baxia (“lower”) and, following the “great Lisbon earthquake” of 1755 was rebuilt on a grid system running north of the river. To its east you’ll find the ancient Alfama district, São Jorge Castle and Lisbon Cathedral, while to the west is Chiado and Barrio Alto – the place for Lisbon’s nightlife. With locals (withlocals.com) will match you with a resident for an introductory walking tour.
The best place to start your exploration of Lisbon is by heading up to São Jorge Castle. It’s one of the city’s most iconic symbols and a visit will also give you great views down to the River Tagus and across buildings of pastel colours and red-tiled roofs. It’s open from 9.00 am to 9.00 pm (times change in November) and the castle itself, together with the surrounding neighbourhood streets, means there’s enough here to keep you happily occupied for a whole morning or afternoon. It can be reached by bus (line 737) or on the iconic tram 28.
On two wheels
If you want to give those tourist feet a rest, try a Segway tour? Boost Urban Thrills (boostourism.rezdy.com) offer several options from a 60-minute “quickie” medieval tour (€30) to the two and a half-hour food tour (€60). You’ll get a full demonstration and have a chance before setting-off to hone your skills on a flat area with few pedestrians. The tours are escorted by a guide and have a further member of staff who follows behind to ensure everyone is accounted for and safe.
Out to lunch
LX Factory (lxfactory.com) is a former historical industrial complex that now houses an array of trendy boutiques, coffee shops, arty retailers and great places for a leisurely lunch. Located in Alcantara, a short taxi ride from the city centre, LX also hosts night time concerts, cultural events, exhibitions and occasions themed around food and drink.
When someone suggests you head to a multi-storey car park and into an even less salubrious lift in search of a trendy rooftop watering hole you’d be wise to think “wind-up” – we did! Park (Calcada do Combro 58; there’s no signage so best take a taxi) is, however, just that. The plush garden bar with views across the city is full of trendy locals and inquisitive visitors but the atmosphere is relaxed, the music chilled and as the sun sets you can see why this place makes those lists of “best bars”.
The first thing you need to know about dining in Lisbon is that no one eats early; the second is that the choice is both excellent and seemingly never-ending. Fish and meat tend to dominate menus however so this is possibly not the easiest of cities for vegetarians or vegans. Having said that the choice – from small, family-run backstreet eateries to swanky high-end – is impressive.
The Pastel de Nata (or Pasteis de Nata) is a custard tart dusted with cinnamon and is as much a part of the Portuguese culinary psyche as sardines and port. You’ll find them all over the city and the quality is generally good. However, for the real deal head to Pastéis de Belém (pasteisdebelem.pt), which began making the original recipe in 1837 and is still going strong. The famed bakery and café is something of a tourist Mecca so go early and, once you get there, bypass the shop at the front and head to one of the dining areas for a table. A word of warning to your waistline, these are seriously addictive!Out of town
Half an hour by train from the city is the coastal town of Cascais. Charming and traditional, it used to be the summer retreat of Portuguese nobility but is today an elegant blend of attractive 19th century architecture, lovely restaurants and relaxed bars nestled within cobbled streets that are also home to impressive mansions, museums and an imposing fort. In fact, such is the allure of Cascais it would make a perfect two-centre break if twinned with the Portuguese capital. The five-star Albatroz Hotel (thealbatrozcollection.com) in Cascais has rooms from €215 per night.