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City life: Lisbon

Unashamedly optimistic, Lisbon radiates a confidence and self-assurance that sets it apart from other European cities, whether you encounter its hedonistic nightlife, go in search of grandiose ancient castles, or lie back on its bountiful beaches

City life: Lisbon
Image: Slawek Kozdras

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From the thunderous bells of the medieval Alfama district to the chuckling, child-filled shallows of the Cascais beaches, Lisbon is a destination for sightseers and sun-seekers alike. Set against a cerulean canvas of big Atlantic skies, this elegant medieval oil painting of a city lives in a sun-kissed Latin fairytale of timeworn traditions.

I’ve been a part-time resident of Lisbon for roughly half my life. In love with the city ever since I lumbered off the Madrid-Lisbon sleeper as a 17-year-old Interrailer, I was instantly charmed by the maritime magic of this off-the-radar, southern European capital.

The bygone heritage is best felt wandering through the central Baixa district. Traditional haberdashers, herbalists and tailors rub shoulders in the baroque city-centre streets standing at the foot of the hill-orbiting Medieval quarter, Alfama.

Up one of Lisbon’s loftiest inclines, the Moorish Alfama neighbourhood has dusk amber walls and dusty lanes swirling around the Arabic-cum-medieval castle that looms over the sea of terracotta rooftops below.Here, stout, apron-donning ladies gossip from balconies, across street-traversing washing lines. And pot-bellied, chain-smoking men fan dustbin barbecues on street corners, charring rows of sardines for punters to pick at.

From humble, peasant food to regal masonry, the imperial waterfront district of Belém was constructed by one of the most ostentatious colonial empires in history. Here, Portugal’s ‘Age of Discoveries’ (approximately 1340 to 1665) is celebrated in the form of a lavish monastery and glossy, marble, river-facing statues, which smile out like a set of bejewelled teeth between the lips of the electric-blue Tejo River below and soaring horizon above.

Today, however, overt excesses are channelled into frivolous nightlife. Always starting in the bar-filled cobbled lanes of boho Bairro Alto, libertine Lisbon peaks to the dawn chorus of Euro house on the sundeck of one of the city’s immense, river-facing warehouse clubs.

Should hangovers make sightseeing unbearable, go local and laze away the days on the city’s Atlantic coastline. Just a 30-minute drive from the city centre, wild beaches such as Guincho, Grande and Adraga sweep out along the north shore. The beaches are far enough away to be considered an escape but not too far you can’t be bothered — this blend makes Lisbon one of the best beach cities in Europe.

Sights

Jerónimos Monastery: The gleaming beacon of Lisbon’s colonial-era pomp. Built by Vasco da Gama (entombed here alongside an A to Z of Portugal’s historical movers and shakers), the monastery houses an ornate gothic chapel, church and adjoining cloisters.

Motorbike sidecar tour: The best way to tackle the seven steep hills of Lisbon is to go Wallace & Gromit-style and jump in a 1950s motorbike sidecar. The open-air, hour-long trip zips around town, from the regal Belem district at river level, to the hilltop, Moorish Alfama district. sidecartouring.co.pt

São Jorge Castle: The orange walls of this Moorish castle date back to the ninth century and loom over the city. Join the religious locals on a Sunday morning, post-mass pilgrimage to it through the sun-baked streets of ancient Alfama.

Belém Tower: The city’s iconic tower was the one-time guardian of Lisbon’s waterways. The gothic and Byzantine construction proudly stands over the mouth of the Tejo River and is filled with intricate, 15th-century Manueline decorative stonework, which tells the epic tales of the Portuguese Discoveries.

Estoril Coast: The city’s best beaches are along Lisbon’s northern shore. Hop on one of the free bikes available outside the train station at the sandy suburb of Cascais, and cycle along the Atlantic-sprayed coastal road towards the surf meccas of Praia Guincho and Grande.

Sintra: A magical town of floral gardens and fairytale palaces. Head to the eerie UNESCO Heritage Site Quinta da Regaleira, an estate where a Masonic labyrinth of underground tunnels and caves display carvings and statuettes taking visitors on a journey of death and resurrection.

Convento do Carmo: Look up to Lisbon’s lofty heavens through the wishbone vaults of this open-air gothic church — the roof of the city’s grandest church collapsed on a crowd of worshipers during the 1755 earthquake. All that remains today are the soaring arches and pillars, making it the perfect al fresco, sunny-day sightseeing spot.

Crono Project: For the past couple of summers, Lisbon’s municipal council has commissioned world-renowned graffiti artists to use the vacant, derelict buildings of the business district as their canvas — making Lisbon the current global hotspot for street art. Favourites include the cheeky cartoon characters by the Brazilian twins Os Gêmeos. Check their work out on Avenida Fontes Pereira de Melo.

Eat

£   Bonjardim: Dickie-bowed waiters shuffle under a wall of crispy-skinned chicken rotating on a spit, while diners nibble on carcasses over paper-tablecloth-covered tables. Order your chicken with chips, a pot of spicy piri-piri sauce and a bottle of Sagres lager. T: 00 351 21 342 4389.

££  A Picanha: A Brazilian barbecue joint where whole slabs of rump steak are grilled over flames before being sliced thinly and served with salad, beans and toasted manioc flour. Throw in a couple of barbecued chicken hearts for finger food and some potent caipirinhas, and you could be in Rio. T: 00 351 213 975 401.

£££ Largo: This cavernous former convent has a 30-metre-long fish-tank with dancing, luminous jellyfish. Try the cod marinated in port and soy sauce — it might just be the best plate of fish in town. largo.pt

Buy

Chiado and Avenida da Liberdade: These are Lisbon’s main High Street shopping zones. Look out for international brands such as Zara and Mango, sold at roughly half the price found in the UK.

Ana Salazar: ‘Body conscious’ is the description churned out by Vogue, Cosmo and Elle when describing the queen of the Lisbon fashion scene’s figure-hugging dresses — the flagship store is found on Rua do Carmo. anasalazar.net

Feira da Ladra, Campo de Santa Clara: Held every Tuesday and Saturday, this market is almost 1,000 years old. Its name roughly translates as ‘Thieves Market’, although in humdrum reality it sells a range of goods, from handmade crafts and CDs to books, clothes, antiques and furniture.

Baixa: An old-world feel is found inside this area’s many haberdasheries and fabric stores, overflowing with colourful trinkets and treats — a must for lovers of antiquated crafts and decor.

Like a local

Watch your step: Lisbon’s uneven cobbled streets are layered over seven steep hills and are better suited to walking boots than high heels. Ladies should do like the locals do and pop heels into handbags and wear comfy sandals around town.

Take a ride: A healthy, fun way to explore the seaside suburbs is on the free bikes available outside Cascais train station, although there are a limited number on offer. Alternatively, hire a bike from bikeiberia.com, from €18 (£15.15) for a day.

Travel card: The Lisboa Card gives free, unlimited travel on all buses, trams, funiculars, underground and suburban train routes. It also offers free admission to 26 museums, historic buildings and other sights. Buy one at any tourist office from €18.50 (£15.56) for 24 hours. askmelisboa.com

Sleep

£   Lisbon Lounge Hostel: A leading light in the new wave of trendy, lux hostels that are sweeping across Europe. Aimed at more than students and backpackers, this inner-city crash pad has an ultra-chic design feel — jazz-themed rooms (with vinyl and record player), indoor grass-floored chill-out areas and a chaise longue-lined reading space. lisbonloungehostel.com

££  LX Boutique Hotel: One of Lisbon’s chicest sleeps, where each floor is designed according to a Lisbon theme, such as fado (local music) and the city’s poets. Bag a river-facing room for French windows opening onto the Rio Tejo. lxboutique.pt

£££ Palácio Belmonte: Lisbon’s oldest palace is built into the exterior walls of São Jorge Castle, with just eight regal and unique suites. Blow the budget on the Bartolomeu de Gusmão Suite, which twists around the three floors of the old Moorish minaret to a private balcony with stellar views of the city’s ancient quarter. palaciobelmonte.com

After hours

Bairro Alto: Everyone starts their night out by bar-crawling through the cobbled, carnival streets of this bohemian hood. It doesn’t matter which of the kiosk-style bars you choose, as the real party is on the street — Rua da Atalaia is the main artery and worth a wander to start things off.

Mahjong: This rough-and-ready, all-concrete bar with table-football and fake cabbage lampshades is something of an institution for Bairro Alto warm-ups. Grab a minty mojito or plastic cup of icy lager and melt into cobbled mêlée outside. T: 00 351 21 342 1039.

Lux: Set in a dockland warehouse, one of Europe’s largest superclubs is an industrial sprawl of dance floors, oversized armchairs and sofas separated by neo-classic white pillars, all with Studio 54-style giant glitter balls looming overhead. Make your way to the river-facing rooftop balcony for sunrise cocktails. luxfragil.com

Did you know?

The raven is the city symbol. Legend has it when Saint Vincent’s remains were brought to Lisbon in 1173 by sea, the boat was piloted by ravens. Thereafter, ravens were kept in the cloisters of the Treasury until 1978.

ESSENTIALS

Getting There
British Airways flies from Heathrow. EasyJet flies from Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Gatwick and Luton. TAP departs from Heathrow, Manchester and Gatwick. ba.com   easyjet.com   flytap.com
Average flight time: 2h30m.

 

Getting Around
Lisbon is small, but as it’s built over seven hills, the rolling cobbled streets can make a walking tour feel like a hike. The city has a network of Metro services, buses and funiculars to get up those steep hills. There are frequent train services to Cascais, Estoril and Sintra from Cais do Sodré and Rossio station.

 

When to Go
Lisbon can be visited at any time. Any hint of winter is usually shaken off by late February, with temperatures around 12C, while Sahara-warmed winds keep things toasty, at around 19C, well into November. Summer is hot, averaging 24C; it’s best to stay in the beach ’burbs of Cascais or Estoril during this period.

 

Need to know
Visas: UK citizens don’t need a visa.
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.17.
International dial code: 00 351 21.
Time difference: GMT +1.

 

How to do it
Expedia has three-nights in three-star accommodation from £206 per person including flights. expedia.co.uk

 

More info
Pocket Rough Guide Lisbon. RRP: £7.99.
Hedonist Guide to Lisbon app. hg2lisbon.com

 

Published in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)