Situated on the banks of the Rio Tejo, Portugal’s capital city offers a number of museums and galleries, an unpretentious atmosphere and a pleasant blend of architectural styles, making it a favourite with many visitors. It has somehow ended up much further down on the “to go” list as British travellers have started to associate Portugal with beach holidays along the Algarve rather than cultural city breaks, but Lisbon has beautiful architecture, brilliant museums and a good, friendly vibe.
WHEN TO GO
Go in late summer, when Lisbon is sultry, sexy and quiet, or in late spring for warm days, cool nights and mild manners all around.
WHAT TO SEE
Visit the Alfama district by tram. Jump on the Number 28, an ancient vehicle, wood-panelled on the inside, that grinds up the precipitous sloping streets, at its stop in Rua da Conceiçutildeo. It will take you up into the heights, past the Cathedral and the church of Sao Antònio (Saint Antony being Lisbon’s most prayed-to saint, since he was born on the site of this church and baptised in the cathedral). At the foot of the Alfama, a brand-new museum and performance space, the Casa do Fado e da Guitarra Portuguesa, has opened in a pink-painted former pumping station, and dozens of fado-themed of bars and restaurants (fado is Portugal’s very own urban folk music and Lisbon’s answer to the blues) have sprung up all over the bairro.
The Bairro Alto is a sleepy residential neighbourhood by day, low-key and discreet. By night, it transforms itself into an ebullient party zone where, on a weekend, it seems that the entire city has pitched up to drink, eat and dance until the early hours.
The Baixa is the busy commercial district laid out in a grid behind the Praça de Comèrcio.
Take a boat trip from the Praça, and you will pass the Alfama, a harmonious jumble of yellow, pink and blue-tiled walls and terracotta roofs crowned with the Castle of São Jorge. Up on the left, on a hill of its own, is the Bairro Alto, the Alfama’s rival in civilised decrepitude. Pass under the great Ponte 25 de Abril, which spans the river in a graceful scarlet arabesques and three of Lisbon’s finest sights come into view: the ice-cream turrets of the Jèronimos monastery, built to celebrate Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India; the Torre de Belèm, a defensive tower with Moorish spires and curlicues; and the impressive modern monolith known as the Padrao dos Descobrimentos, which depicts the great 15th-century explorer Prince Henry the Navigator standing on the prow of a ship, gazing out solemnly towards the open sea and the unknown lands beyond it.
The Chiado neighbourhood is a delightful outpost of 19th-century elegance, now thoroughly restored since a disastrous fire swept through its streets in 1988. It is proud of its opera house, its smart cafes such as A Brasileira, on the Rua Garrett, and its posh shops.
HISTORIC PUBLIC TRANSPORT
Lisbon makes a speciality of its historic modes of public transport: the tram, the cable car and the elevadores (lifts) which crank you up mechanically from one part of the city to another. Opposite the Casa Chineza stands the Elevador Santa Justa, a grey-painted filigree structure with a Gothic look.
Feira da Ladra is Lisbon’s most famous flea market, where piles of fascinating junk are laid out along the pavement
As a historic capital city, Lisbon has a long list of cultural and artistic sights, some of the high points being the Gulbenkian Foundation (www.gulbenkian.pt), the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (www.mnarteantiga-ipmuseus.pt) and the Centro Cultural de Belèm (www.ccb.pt), a temple of contemporary culture housed in a post-modern fortress by the river. (Take the little train from Cais do Sodrè station.) The Museu do Azulejos (tile museum) is a particular gem, and much more restful to the spirit than the kind of Important Art Museum in a foreign city that you enter with a heavy heart. But the best Lisbon sights of all are the streets and neighbourhoods, the cafès and bars and old-fashioned corner shops.
PRACA DE COMERCIO
There is no better architectural expression of the city’s maritime character than the Praça de Comèrcio, the great civic square of which three sides are walls of arches and colonnades and mustard-yellow facades, while the fourth side is open to the river and the sea.