I didn’t know what to expect from Lisbon before going; most holidaymakers seemed to prefer the coasts or islands rather than the capital city. However Lisbon’s been garnering a reputation as a undiscovered Mediterranean gem, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. From it’s countless churches amidst the hills, it’s Mediterranean cuisine and sandy beaches, to the cultural hubs and peaceful oases amidst the sun-soaked urbanity, the city is ripe for visits rediscovery.
Some of the travel guides for Lisbon could do with a bit of an update, and there are some great photos to show. So, here is a district by district mini-guide of the city that’s been described as the new Berlin, the new Barcelona and the Mediterranean Williamsburg.
Getting around Lisbon is mostly pretty easy, it’s not that big so you can do a lot of it on foot. However, it is deceptively hilly, so even short distances can end up facilitating numerous stops for refreshment. Rather than getting a tour on the tram, which is slow, rickety and generally crammed to the rafters, try a TukTuk Tour. These little single engine vehicles will take you around the main sights, with a personalised tour guide, personal space unimpacted. If you do want to take the tram, or perhaps the metro or train, get a Viva Viagem card from ticket machines at Metro stations and top it up; it’s like a paper Oyster card, except it only costs €0.50 instead of £5!
The quaint alleys of Alfama, wind up the hill to the castle; a warren of little bars and restaurants that almost without exception put on shows of the plaintive Portuguese traditional music, fado. Never partake fado undiluted; let it waft over you from a distance and lull you into somber state of somnambulism. And then go do something else much more fun and interesting, rather than being lured into a dark dungeon of dispair and subpar food. Instead, go to places like the rooftop bar atop the Hotel Memmo Alfama. Try the brunch at the Pois Cafe, and visit the Sé de Lisboa Cathedral, which is beautiful and surrounded by cute little restaurants with inivative food, and nary a whisper of fado to be heard.
Chiado is a strange little district, between the touristy shopping area of Baixo and the nightlife centre of Bairro Alto. But for all it’s liminal nature, it does have a few gems amid the rough. Coffee Grill presents a fusion of local and Asian foods, coffees and cocktails, though their espresso martini was bizarrely chocolatey. What they lack though, are samples of Portugal’s growing craft beer industry. For that you’d need to go up the hill to the Duque Brewpub. This little bar has a large, rotating selection of excellent draught and bottled craft beers, as well as small plates. It’s an excellent little place for beer lovers, especially those who want something different to the ever-present Sagres or Superbock.
Another innovative location is the Palácia Chiado, a refurbished palace that now hosts and combines a variety of little sub-restaurants in it’s glamourous halls. On entry you are provided with a rechargeable card, and you can then meander, choose from an assortment of different foods and dining rooms, paying only when you leave. Even if you just want a wander around, you can then just return your unused card to exit.
If you ask any Lisboeta, especially those of an age disinterested in fado, where’s cool to go out in, they will invariably answer: Bairro Alto. Up and down the hill, and in its little cross alleyways, are countless bars and restaurants. A hive of estivation, especially from 10pm onwards, as locals like to go out late. A particular highlight is Grapes & Bites, a friendly wine-focused restaurant, which impressed at every level. The food, wine and service were easily the best experienced in a week of restaurant hopping. Easily the best bar though, with one of the best views, was to be found in a most unusual location. Park sits atop a multi-story carpark, unadvertised though hugely popular. This little retreat is the perfect summertime watering hole, filled with the hippest of locals, soaking up sun, sights and spiced-up sangria.
Belém is Lisbon’s cultural centre, on the outskirts of the city. However, don’t fall into the trap of trying to take the tram there, unless you like standing for 40 minutes in a hot, sweaty, metal box. Instead, hop on an air-conditioned train at Cais do Sodre, sit comfortably for 10 minutes, and hop off three stops later. Stress-free, fast and cheap. Once you’re there, you’ll be spoilt for choice: The botanical gardens, the contemporary art museum, the archaeological museum, and others. But what you absolutely must visit is Jerónimos Monastery, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with the nearby Tower of Belém. The monastery is a 500 year old, grandly beautiful island of calm, and no visit to Lisbon should miss it out. While in the area, check out the view from the top of the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, the Monument to the Discoveries, for sights from the Atlantic in the west, to the twin of the Golden Gate Bridge in the East, the 25 de Abril Bridge.
If you have the time, and if the weather’s right you should make the time, take that same train past Belém to the coastal village of Cascais. Relax on a sun lounger on the Praia da Rainha beach and soak up the sun. Relax to chilled tunes and occasionally dip into the refreshingly chilly Atlantic Ocean amidst the fishes. It’s too touristy a village for fine dining, or shopping, but that’s not what this is about; you deserve to relax after walking up and down Lisbon’s seemingly endless hills in this sheltered inlet.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of this wonderful city, there is so much more to say about the relaxed, friendly people, the tasty foods and, as noted elsewhere, the thriving artisanal scene of the LX Factory. But as I hope we’ve shown, in words and images, Lisbon is well worth a visit, and a re-visit.