Among the European city break high-fliers, Lisbon coasts along — somewhat surprisingly — under the radar. Yet it’s as ornate as Rome, as ancient (almost) as Athens and as exuberant as Seville. The city is metaphorically — as well as literally — on the fringes of the continent while Mediterranean hotspots like Barcelona take all the glory.
For those in the know, the cosy capital is a spectacle of regal masonry — blinding white, and canvassed by a deep blue sky.
You can touch and feel the history everywhere — from the Medieval Castelo de São Jorge, overlooking the city like an omnipotent night-watchman, to the ancient cobbled streets of the Bairro Alto, where, it’s rumoured, residents are still in the habit of emptying the contents of their bedpans over rowdy revellers below.
Lisboetas — who call themselves alfacinhas (little lettuces) — have soaked up the flavours of every culture that has washed up on their Atlantic shore: an Arabic sweet tooth, a British gusto for port, Spanish pizazz in the kitchen and a sultry love of hedonism garnered from colonial Brazil.
More than just sex and samba, the colonies lavished the city with layers of pomp and bling, making it one of the most decadent imperial capitals in Europe. Up until the earthquake of 1755, that is, which heralded its demise into the relative obscurity in which it now finds itself.
Not that alfacinhas care. They seem to like living in the shadow of their A-list Latin neighbours — content for their home to remain one of Europe’s lesser-visited capitals. Yet it has culture, architecture, weather, food fresh from the ocean… and beaches. Just a 20-minute drive from the city centre you’ll find the palace-laden sandy suburbs of Cascais and Estoril. Just beyond lies Praia Guincho and Grande, where sprawling stretches of dusky sand are dotted with seafood shacks.
Fortified by the bracing Atlantic air, the people of Lisbon seem content with the simple things in life. While the rest of Europe huffs and puffs about economic ruin, the city plods along — as oblivious to the outside world as the world is to Lisbon.
Food glorious food
Lisbon’s understated gastronomic scene fits in well with its low-key, subtle sensibilities. Along cobbled lanes, behind hobbit-sized doorways, you’ll find a hearty staple of hole-in-the wall tavernas. And, to truly plug into the city’s culinary roots, this is where you should start. At joints such as Cervejaria Ramiro, walls are lined with the ubiquitous azulejo tiling, strip-lights crackle and rotund dickie bow-donning waiters point their chubby fingers at fish tanks filled with fearful crustaceans. Blend in by ordering local delicacy percebes (goose barnacles), washed down with icy Sagres lager.
For something less rough around the edges, Solar dos Nunes has all the robust charm of a spit-and-sawdust restaurant but in more refined surrounds. Copper pots and legs of ham hang from the ceiling in this cosy candle-lit restaurant, which serves the country fare of the Alentejo region: the ameijoas a alentejano (clam and pork stew) being a surf-and-turf favourite among the cheery regulars.
While homely food has its place in every Lisboeta’s heart, the city, with more than a few Michelin stars to its name, is beginning to get grander ideas. Long-standing star-holder, Tavares — hailed as Lisbon’s oldest restaurant — is the benchmark for traditional fine dining in the city. Here, Venetian mirrors, crystal chandeliers and platters of suckling pig create an aura of Old World opulence.
Meanwhile, on-the-go Lisboetas can’t get enough of Noori Sushi, a Brazilian sushi kiosk where a favourite is the hot filadelfia — a rice cone stuffed with deep-fried tuna, cream cheese and chilli. Popular too is Santini — a gelatoria famed for exporting tubs of pistachio ice cream to royal courts all over Europe.
Inevitably, the Spanish-inspired molecular gastronomy movement has seeped over the border, and to great success. Currently, Manifesto, is the talk of the town for quirky dishes such as prawn sausages and pig’s trotter samosas. Only slightly more conventional, a meal at converted convent Largo shouldn’t be missed by foodies, if only for the fantastic soy and port marinated cod.
Finally, nobody should leave Lisbon without downing a plate of the national dish: piri-piri chicken and chips. Bonjardim is the kind of spot where diners rip crispy-skinned legs and wings off the spit-roast carcass and scoff loudly at the Brazilian novela blaring out from the TV overhead. This is as quintessentially indigenous an experience as a fry-up at a UK greasy spoon. The humble and traditional no-frills style perfectly encapsulates this unpretentious city.
Cervejaria Ramiro: Av. Almirante Reis 1. T: 00 351 21 885 1024. www.cervejariaramiro.pt
Solar dos Nunes: Rua 205 Lusiadas 68-72. T: 00 351 21 364 7359. www.solardosnunes.com
Tavares: Rua da Misericórdia 3. T: 00 351 213 421 112. www.restaurantetavares.pt
Noori Sushi: Rua do Crucifixo 87. T: 00 351 918 639 287. www.noori.pt
Santini: Rua do Carmo 9. T: 00 351 213 468 431. www.santini.pt
Manifesto: Largo de Santos 9. T: 00 351 213 963 419.
Largo: Rua Serpa Pinto 10. T: 00 351 213 477 225. www.largo.pt
Bonjardim: Travessa de Santo Antão 11. T: 00 351 213 427 424.
Libertine Lisbon has a typical Latin love for late-night revelry. Whether an after-work suit or dreadlocked artisano, all tribes start their night with plastic cups of frothy lager in the balmy streets of the Bairro Alto neighbourhood. Given the street-party nature of the district, it doesn’t matter which bar you choose as most serve as little more than kiosks serving drinks to the perennial carnival outside. Rua da Atalia is where most of the action is. The boho crowd can be found in a cloud of (now decriminalised) reefer smoke outside Mahjong, or thronging around the table-football inside. The hipsters can be seen posing and preening further up the street in and around chapel-turned-club A Capela.
Rubbernecking socialites slink away from the masses to chic Silk — a rooftop members club (membership is free and available online) six floors above Bairro Alto with 360-degree views across the city. Also high on the list of places to see and be seen at is On the Rocks, an Atlantic-facing poolside glitz-and-glamour fest in the chi chi seaside suburb of Cascais.
Back in town, Kapital has for decades been the favourite hangout for those looking for Grey Goose and Kristal. But desanitised sister club Kremlin is far more fun — on my last visit I watched a drag queen and a midget getting awkwardly amorous. Owner Grupo K also runs Urban Beach, which hosts a daytime mix of pre- and after-party debauchery on a riverside sprawl of outdoor beanbags and deckchairs.
Lisbon’s underground creative scene has its HQ at Santiago Alquimista — an appropriately cavernous establishment burrowed deep into the Moorish foundations of the São Jorge Castle. Expect anything from Cuban salsa nights to karaoke. And all things new or cool in Lisbon’s music scene can be found at Music Box — a sweaty, under-archway den that hosts all manner of earnest emos, ravers and goths.
While locals tend to stick to their lager and sangria, Cinco Lounge is pushing the cocktail envelope. The Brit management is introducing locals to the concept of the mixologist and the bar even holds daily mixing lessons.
The night invariably ends for many locals with a dance on the roof terrace of Lux. The John Malkovich-owned ‘superclub’ is the place for dancing till dawn. Groups of Brits are banned from entry, so you’re best off staggering your entrance if out on the tiles with a posse.
Mahjong: Rua da Atalaia 3. T: 00 351 21 3421 039.
A Capela: Rua da Atalaia 45. T: 00 351 21 3470 072.
Silk: Rua da Misericórdia 14, 6th Floor. T: 00 351 91 300 9193. www.silk-club.com
On the Rocks: Farol Design Hotel, Cascais. T: 00 351 21 482 3490. www.farol.com.pt
Kapital: Avenida 24 de Julio 68. T: 00 351 213 95 7101. www.grupo-k.pt
Kremlin: Escadinhas da Praia 5. T: 00 351 21 395 7101.
Urban Beach: Rua da Cintura. T: 00 351 21 393 2930.
Santiago Alquimista: Rua de Santiago 19. T: 00 351 218 884 503. www.santiagoalquimista.com
Cinco Lounge: Rua Ruben António Leitão 17. T: 00 351 213 424 033. www.cincolounge.com
Lux: Av. Infante D. Henrique Armazém. T: 00 351 218 820 890
Pile of style
Lisbon isn’t one of Europe’s great shopping capitals, nor does it pretend to be. But what its boutiques lack by way of cutting-edge style they make up for on price, with leading brands going for around 30% less than in the UK.
In the Chiado district you’ll find high street names such as H&M, Benetton and Osklen. And along Avenida da Liberdade, glitzy brands like Armani, Massimo Dutti and Hugo Boss suddenly become a lot more affordable. Granted, the stores are modestly sized and the choice limited, but the prices are among the lowest in Europe.
Vintage vultures will also be right at home here. There’s an Old World feel inside many of Baixa’s haberdasheries and fabric stores, like fur vendor Luis S Fernandes, are cluttered with dusty old vintage treats and period fashions. A Outra Face da Lua on Rua da Assunção is one of the city’s gems for retro finds, as is charming gentlemen’s hat shop Chapelaria Azevedo Rua on Praça Dom Pedro IV. I always go gift shopping in one of the many garrafeiras (wine merchants) and delis such as Manuel Tavares in the surrounding Baixa quarter.
Lisbon’s fledgling fashion designers have started opening pop-up boutiques around the backstreets of bohemian Bairro Alto. Mao Mao, Agencia 117 and Fake Lisbon are where you’ll unearth the garb of its hipsters, although opening times are a loose concept — get used to seeing the ‘volta ja’ (back soon) sign in the window. Bairro Alto is also home to the queen of the city’s modest fashion scene, Ana Salazar. Her ‘body conscious’ — as Vogue calls it — designs are just the ticket to blend in with the capital’s fashionistas.
Open every Tuesday and Sunday and dating back centuries, the city’s premier market is the Feira da Ladra, which translates as ‘Thieves’ Market’ — a Portuguese equivalent of a car-boot sale where people come to buy and swap household junk. Foodies, meanwhile, should make for the Ribeira Market where you’ll find all manner of nose-to-tail goodies.
Luis S Fernandes: Rua da Conceição. T: 00 351 21 342 36 92
A Outra Face da Lua: Rua da Assunção 22 T: 00 351 218 863 430. www.aoutrafacedalua.com
Chapelaria Azevedo Rua: Praça D. Pedro IV 73. T: 00 351 213 427 511
Manuel Tavares: R. da Betesga 1. T: 00 351 213 424 209.
Mao Mao: Rua da Rosa 85. T: 00 351 213 460 656.
Agencia 117: Rua do Norte 117. T: 00 351 213 461 270.
Fake: Rua do Norte 113.
Ana Salazar: Rua do Carmo 87. T: 00 351 213 472 289.
Feira da Ladra: Campo de Santa Clara.
Ribeira Market: Rua da Ribeira Nova 18.
Top 10 local tips
01 In the summer, stay by the beach at Estoril and Cascais.
02 The best place for a drink with a view is in the shadow of the Castelo, overlooking the Rio Tejo and terracotta rooftops of the Moorish Alfama neighbourhood at Portas do Sol. www.portasdosol.biz
03 Ride the free bikes available outside Cascais Station along the sea-sprayed coastline from Cascais to Guincho.
04 Beat the heat by heading for the hills and the palatial, bucolic suburb of Sintra.
05 Lisbon’s hotels are cheap. Bag a room at a five-star palace like Hotel Bairro Alto for little more than £150 per night. www.bairroaltohotel.com
06 Heels are for the brave or stupid. The cobbled streets and many, many steep hills make hiking boots the most suitable footwear —or just pop your fancy shoes in your handbag, as many locals do.
07 To avoid looking like a tourist don’t even think about eating dinner before 9pm. Bars don’t get going until midnight. And clubs? There are queues to get into Lux and Kremlin well after dawn.
08 Don’t bother with the tourist-trap funiculars. Conquer the seven steep hills of Lisbon on a motorbike sidecar tour. www.sidecartouring.co.pt
09 Eat the city’s best pastel de nata (custard tart) at Pasteis de Belem. www.pasteisdebelem.pt
10 Try your hand at surfing on Praia Grande or Guincho.
Published in the May/June 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)