Hills, pasteis and ginjinha: The many charms of lovely Lisbon
Sorry Barcelona, I think you may have lost your place as my favourite city in Europe. After seeing some fabulous Insta-photos of Lisbon over the past year, I finally booked a break in the Portuguese capital. Outside peak times, you can get incredibly cheap flights to Lisbon with Easyjet and Ryanair, while hotels in Lisbon offer very good value compared to most Western European capitals.
Lisbon is a compact city, spread across seven hills overlooking the River Tejo. As a result, you’ll find many stairs, elevators and funinculars to help you get up and down the different levels. Many tourists opt to stay in the neighbouring old districts of Baixa or Rossio. We used Air BnB to find a three-bedroom apartment in the Mouraria region, with two balconies giving views of the Castello and Martim. We were just one flight of stairs away from Praça Martim Moniz, where we could pick up the historic 28 tram and or it was a few minutes walk to the lovely Rossio square.
During your time in Lisbon, you’ll expect to rely on various modes of transport to get you up and down the many hills. We rode the Ascensor da Gloria, a funicular railway line which connects Restauradores Square with the Bairro Alto. It was a tight squeeze on the tram car as it climbed the steep slope, passing by the houses and street art. Just near the car stop is the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, a small park with great views of Lisbon. A short walk in the neighbouring Chiado district are the stunning ruins of the Convento do Carmo (Carmo Convent). Built in 1389, it was significantly damaged by the 1755 earthquake. Today, what’s left of the Convent – walls, columns and other monuments – is open to the public as a museum. Meanwhile, not far from the Convento is the Elevador de Santa Justa, an neo-Gothic street elevator built in 1902 connecting the lower streets with Carmo. Unfortunately, when I was visiting it was partially covered in scaffolding for maintenance so I didn’t get to see the full beauty of the designs.
Taking the Elevador down to the lower level, you are greeted by the old shopping district of Baixa, with lovely little stores, some dating back the 19th century, specialising in goods such as buttons or tinned fish. At the far south of the district is the Praça do Comércio, a striking plaza featuring waterside views, open-air cafes, 18th century arcades and monuments. We headed to a riverside pop-up bar in a moored boat, where we pulled up a deckchair and drank very strong Mojitos while enjoying the breeze and the views.
The food is Lisbon was fabulous overall. We mixed it up with guidebook recommendations or popping in interesting venues on spec as we walked around. I thoroughly recommend the Casa do Alentajo, a restaurant in an amazing Moorish house. It’s entrance on the Rua das Portas de Santo Antão (just off Rossio square) is easy to miss, but once you step inside you are welcomed by a courtyard with balconies, fountains and marble staircases. Heading up to the dining room upstairs, the walls are covered with traditional blue and white ‘azulejo’ tiling which I couldn’t take my eyes off it was so beautiful. We had a lovely meal of fish and vegetables – traditional, hearty portions of Portuguese comfort food.
One must do in Lisbon is to try Ginjinha at one of the old traditional ginjinha bars, many of which have been serving the sour cherry liqueur for over a century. We sipped a shot of ginjinha for €1 and soaked up the atmosphere at the tiny, old open street bar A Ginjinha at Praça Dom Pedro, in between Martin Moniz and Rossio.
When it comes to nightlife you’re spoiled for choice. Lisbon is home to many rooftop bars, including the Sky Bar at the Tivoli Hotel in Rato with a stunning terrace with great views and cocktails (open Apr-Sep). Another great sky-high drinking venue is the Rossio rooftop bar and restaurant on the 7th floor of the Altis Avendia Hotel. We also popped into a hidden speakeasy Red Frog on Avenida da Liberdade, which brings a New York vibe with its slick leather and velvet seating and funky soundtrack. I loved the Red Potion cocktail (Plantation grand reserve rum with pineapple infusion, Zombie Potion #13, Red berries and Plantation original dark overproof rum). For those looking for music, head to the backstreets of Cais do Sodre with plenty of boho bars, hipster restaurants and live music venues. A lot of Lisbon venues offer Fado music experiences. However, Povo in Rua Nova de Carvalho is recommended as one of the few offering authentic Fado (Portuguese folk). We popped our heads in and managed to listen to some music during an ill-fated attempt to get a table at the busy venue, but eventually gave up so it’s worth reserving or arriving early. A few doors down is Bar da Velha Senhora, a fun late night bar styled like a burlesque club, where we stopped in for some drinks and cabaret entertainment.
One popular excursion just 10 minutes by train is the riverside suburb of Belém – where Portugal’s famous maritime history is celebrated. We started our day at the free Museu Coleção Berardo – a museum of modern and contemporary art which includes work from Warhol, Pollock, Miro and Lichtenstein and is a good place to spend a couple of hours. Meanwhile, the long stretch of waterside features two notable landmarks. The Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) is a modern monument built in 1960 to celebrate the country’s Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries. The 170ft sculpture features statues of seafaring luminaries such as Ferdinand Magellan and Henry the Navigator and a very windy viewpoint at the top giving 360 degree views. Further west is the Belém Tower, a 16th century fortified tower on the banks of the River Tejo, which you can go inside and enjoy more great views. Belém is famous for being home to the best Pasteis de Nata, otherwise known as egg custard tarts. I had already tried the tarts at various cafés around town, but queuing up to buy them from the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem was a quintessential Lisbon experience. The historic bakery has been making the original Pastéis de Belem since 1837 using the original recipe by monks from the nearby Jerónimos Monastery who invented them before the 18th century. If you’re looking for something more substantial, there’s a great choice of open-air restaurants with views over the parks on Rua Vieira Portuense.
For those seeking some beach life, jump on a 40 minute train from Cais do Sodré to the seaside suburb of Cascais. The old town features lots of winding lanes full of boutiques, restaurants and bars to keep your entertained when you’re not on the sands. We spent a relaxing afternoon soaking up the sun and making frequent visits to the nearby beach bars for cocktails and ice cream.
Overall, Lisbon is one of those rare European cities which offers great nightlife, the beach and lots of culture and history. In comparison to many other European capitals, you’ll probably find it edgier, cooler and a lot better value. Just bring some comfortable shoes! I can’t wait to go back.
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