With gourmet food, great wine and glorious sights, it’s time to get lost in the Portuguese capital, says Anna McNay
Sprawling across seven hills with spectacular views of the Tagus estuary, Lisbon – Europe’s westernmost capital city – isn’t simply a gorgeous destination, but a historic one, too.
Antiquated trams and funiculars link the city – a ride through some of its finest districts on tram 28 is an enjoyable sightseeing tour – but the best way to see Lisbon and explore is to wander its labyrinthine cobbled alleyways, dotted with tiny bars and cafes.
Available from tourist offices, the Lisboa Card offers unlimited travel for one, two or three days on the city’s buses, trams, metro and funiculars, as well as on the train to Cascais. You also get free or discounted entry to many museums, monuments and places of interest.
I stayed in the boutique hotel As Janelas Verdes, a converted 18th-century townhouse with a quiet walled patio where you can enjoy breakfast.
The hotel lies to the west of the city centre, near to the waterfront warehouses and upmarket cafes of Cais do Sodré. Here, you can take a ferry trip to the little port of Cacilhas or a 30-minute train ride along the coast to the resorts of Cascais and Estoril.
Opting to stay in town, I took the Elevador da Bica funicular towards Bairro Alto, one of the central parts of the city. Built in 1884, the city’s funicular system was originally powered by
water. Classified as a national monument in 2002, nowadays it’s run on electric.
Walking through the district, I peeked into the Igreja de São Roque. Decorated in gold and marble, this church has exquisite examples of traditional azulejos (glazed ceramic tilework), first introduced to Portugal by the Moors five centuries ago.
Just round the corner is Praça Dom Pedro IV (commonly known as Rossio), the city’s medieval main square. Once home to bullfighting and military parades, it’s a good place to stop for a mid-morning coffee. While there, you can admire the impressive fountain.
Tram 28 from the nearby Martim Moniz leads you up to Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest quarter, and Castelo de São Jorge, the Moorish castle that overlooks the city. Sweeping panoramics aside, don’t miss the camera obscura inside the castle’s Torre de Ulisses, which projects views of the city on to its walls.
Lightly grilled sardines served with a drizzle of olive oil and salad made a delicious lunch at Chapitô à Mesa, a quirky circus school-cum-cafe that’s a couple of minutes down the hill.
And returning to the hotel after an afternoon of exploring, a glass of excellent (and very affordable) Portuguese wine was an ideal aperitif to an evening of traditional, soulful fado music in O Senhor Vinho, just a short walk away.
I made an early start to visit the colourful market stalls at the Mercado da Ribeira. At the new pavilion, you can try offerings from some of the city’s best (in many cases, Michelin-starred) chefs, prepared fresh and sold cheaply.
A platter of cold meats, including porco preto (ham from the Iberian black pig), followed by cocido a la Portuguesa, a rich, meaty stew, was a good choice.
I took a 15-minute ride on tram 15 to historic Belém, south- west of the city centre. There, you can get a 45-minute circular Yellow Bus hop-on, hop-off minibus tour that takes you around the sites.
The Torré de Belém is the city’s most recognisable emblem – albeit that title is now closely contested by Vasco da Gama Bridge, which was named after the explorer who was the first European to reach India by sea in 1497.
Belém’s Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built to ensure his safe return and it’s well worth the visit to see the monastery’s intricate ceiling carvings. Stop off at Pastéis de Belém for a pastel de nata, Lisbon’s traditional custard tart.
A mixture of the ancient and modern, with delicious food, great-value wine and a pleasant climate, Lisbon is a charming city that runs at a different pace from many other capitals. A few days here left me feeling like I’d had a much longer break.
* For further information on Lisbon, see visitlisboa.com or visitportugal.com.