Intriguing alleys, hill-top lookout points, vintage trams and tasty pastries; Sarah Baxter sets out to explore Portugal’s historic capital and finds a bargain European break...
Where? Central west Portugal
Why? Atmospheric ambling, vintage trams, sunshine, seafood, great pastries and great prices
When? Year round; weather best Apr-Oct
That you can sit in a glorious, slightly touristy Art Deco café on a chic central street and still pay only 60 cents for an espresso is just one of the many marvellous things about Lisbon. The Portuguese capital, spread over a series of hills on the banks of the wide Rio Tejo, manages to be historically fascinating, scenically splendid, culturally well endowed – and a bargain to boot.
Lisbon was once one of Europe’s richest capitals: in the 15th-century, renowned explorers set sail from her docks, creating trade routes and expanding the Portuguese empire. However, this good fortune didn’t last, and completely ran out on 1 November 1755, when a powerful earthquake, subsequent tsunami and resulting fires destroyed around 85% of the city, and killed up to 90,000 people. Much of today’s Lisbon dates from after this seismic shift, most notably the grand gridded streets and wide praças (squares) of downtown Baixa and classy Chiado.
The surrounding neighbourhoods aren’t nearly so ordered – which is what makes them so interesting to explore. The Alfama, east of Baixa, is the most atmospheric area. This dishevelled Moorish maze, tumbling down from the Castelo, is the city’s oldest district, having withstood the 1755 shake. Its tightly packed houses and alleyways are crumbling and graffiti-covered, but wonderful to wander (or scale by tram). This is also where many of the city’s fado bars are found – a night listening to mournful gypsy-folk is a must.
The Bairro Alto, north-west of Baixa, is another architectural higgle-piggle of sloping streets and narrow lanes lined with pastelarias (cake shops), cafés and restaurants. It’s also the place to drink Sagres beer and port wine until the wee hours. Luckily, low Portuguese prices make boozy all-nighters a more affordable affair.
Lisbon does have tick-off sights: Belém’s monastery, the stolid Sé (cathedral), and excellent museums. However, the real pleasure is in the ambling, and enjoying a few proper Portuguese experiences... First, embrace the excellent coffee – though be sure to use the right lingo: locals say bica, never espresso. Second, gorge on cakes – thanks to the thrifty nuns (who used egg whites to starch their habits and didn’t want to waste the yolks) – Portugal has a glut of rich and delicious pastries: enjoy! Next, work off all that custard and cream by hiking up to one of the many miradouro – lookouts. And finally, learn to love ginjinha. This sweet cherry brandy was invented by Friar Espinheira in 1840 and has been enjoyed by Lisboêtas ever since. A shot will round off your day or fuel your party, depending on your take. Saúde!
Top tip: Be couvert alert! In restaurants you will be brought unordered couverts (bread, fish paste, olives, cheese). These are not free! If you don’t want to pay for them, send them back.
The best way to spend a long weekend in the Portuguese capital
The classic start is a ride on Tram 28. This route is serviced by vintage yellow streetcars that clatter up to the hilltop Castelo de São Jorge – the most atmospheric tour you’ll find for €2.85 (less with travelcard). Ride early to avoid the crowds. Disembark for a bica (espresso) and pastry from a pastelaria. Then visit the Moorish castle (€7.50), which offers great views, as does nearby Miradouro de Santa Luzia – one of the city’s many terraced lookouts.
Next, head downhill into the Alfama. In this crumbly warren, streets twist into alleys that twist into squeeze-belly lanes; washing dangles, sardines grill. Eventually you’ll end up by the river, or escape via Rua de São João da Praça emerging by the Romanesque Sé (free). Cut down to the arcaded riverfront Praça do Comércio then north into downtown Baixa. You could wend your own way towards Rossio, up to Chiado and into the Bairro Alto, recommended, however, is a walk with local tripbod.com guide Alex; her foodie tour ends at the Barrio Alto winehouse Grapes & Bites for yummy port, cheese and meat tasting. Stay in the Bairro Alto for as long as you can – this is the district that parties all night.
Start with a Portuguese pick-me-up in the riverside suburb of Belém (25 minutes from Praça do Comércio on Tram 15). Here, the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém has been serving pastéis de nata (custard tarts) since 1837. Touristy but worth it – and a snip at €1 each.
Stay in Belém to admire the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a Manueline wedding-cake of a building, home to the tomb of Vasco da Gama (church free; cloister €7).
Continue to the 16th-century Torre de Belém, an equally frilly tower that once stood mid-river; climb up for views (€5) then ride Tram 15 back east, stopping at the Museu do Oriente en route (€5; free on Friday evenings).
To buy picnic provisions, hop off at the cavernous Mercado da Ribeira. Just behind the market sits the Elevador da Bica, a fun funicular that’s heaved locals uphill since 1892. At the top, you’re back in the Barrio Alto; find a spot for lunch and city-gaze from the miradouro.
Spend the afternoon browsing side-streets then dine at Chapitô à Mesa (Costa do Castelo), a bar-restaurant-theatre-circus with great views and live performances.
North-west of Lisbon is the hilltop town of Sintra, once the country retreat of the Portuguese royals. It’s an easy day-trip: trains from Lisbon’s Rossio station take 45 minutes (singles €2.15); in Sintra, the easiest way to get around is Bus 434, which loops between the sights.
The most colourful of Sintra’s historic houses is the mid-19th-century Palácio da Pena (€13.50); its interior is exactly as the royal family left it in 1910. Take the footpath behind Pena to climb to Cruz Alta (529m), Sintra’s highest point. Other highlights include the ruins of Castelo dos Mouros (€7), the extravagant Quinta da Regaleira (€6) and the Gothic Palácio Nacional (€9).
Back in Lisbon, take a cruise on the Rio Tejo (€12) or ride the ferry from Cais do Sodré to Cacilhas (singles €1.20), for views of the city, the Ponte 25 de Abril and Portugal’s own Christ the Redeemer.
Finally, check out the Museu do Fado (€5) for the lowdown on Portugal’s melancholic music, heading to Mesa de Frades (Rua dos Remédios) to hear it live.
When to go: Lisbon is one of Europe’s sunniest capitals, and a cool Atlantic breeze takes the edge of summer highs, making visits pleasant April-October (average temps are 20-28°C). Some bars and shops close July-August, when locals go on holiday. Winters are usually mild.
Getting there: easyJet flies direct to Lisbon from Gatwick, Luton, Liverpool, Bristol and Edinburgh. Flight time is around 2.5 hours; one-way fares start from £30.
Getting around: Lisbon is arranged over several hills – the main areas are fun to explore on foot, just expect ups and downs. Vintage trams, a Metro system and buses ease the effort; prices vary depending on how you pay. A single-ride tram ticket bought onboard costs €2.85; paid for by top-up-able ‘zapping’ card, it costs €1.25. To book a Lisbon & Port Wine Tasting trip, go to tripbod.com; tours, including great food and wines, cost £63.50pp.
Where to stay: Local apartment-rental site housetrip.com has a range of great-value options in Lisbon. The author stayed in Dianka’s fresh, bright, characterful flat, excellently located in Baixa; it sleeps six and costs from £71 a night.
Where to eat: Avoid the touristy places on Rua das Portas de Santo Antão. Entra (Rua do Açucar) serves good local food. Struggling veggies should try Green Room (Rua do Cais do Sodré). Atmospheric old-school cafés abound: try Panificação Reunida de São Roque (Rua Dom Pedro) and A Brasileira (Rua Garrett).
Best bargain: ViniPortugal, tucked under the arches of Terreiro do Paço square, offers regional wine tastings – for free! Open Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-7pm.