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I’ve heard the word, ‘Lisbon’ so many times, but I’ve never got around to seeing it for myself then finally, I get the opportunity to go! Lisbon has risen from more simple beginnings as a suggested destination to visit, to being voted one of the best cities in the world. Did you know that it is one of the world’s oldest cities, pre-dating the likes of London, Rome, and Paris by hundreds of years? You can feel its antiquity clinging to every corner, especially in the district of Alfama. This makes Lisbon a veritable banquet for history-hungry visitors. It was very nearly completely destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1755 but was thankfully patched together and revived.
Also, it makes a perfect budget weekend break as the favourable exchange rate means your currency goes a long, long way. The post-Brexit slump initially hit travellers to Portugal along with the rest of the Eurozone, but sterling has recovered much of its lost ground since then. Even without the pound’s resurgence, the cost of living in Portugal is famously good value compared to its European neighbours. Portugal offers excellent value, including hotels, restaurants, and leisure activities, to name but a few. Lisbon is as proud as punch of its role in the Age of Discovery, with the city being the starting place for dozens of exploratory voyages around the globe, including Vasco da Gama’s expedition to India in 1497. Padrão dos Descobrimento, a large monument on the north bank of the Tagus, celebrates this: it features statues of early navigators peering out to sea, led by Henry the Navigator.
Lisbon also offers more sun than anywhere else in Europe. Perched on Europe’s western edge, Lisbon is the continent’s sunniest capital, boasting an average of 2,799 hours of sunshine a year, pipping Athens, which has 2,771 hours a year – lots more opportunity to enjoy the sunshine while browsing and resting – a surely a true example of, ‘This is the life’! A perfect season in which to visit Lisbon is during the springtime. It throws off the dull light of winter with abandon, allowing brighter, whiter, sharper rays with the promise of summer to embellish its tiled facades; the green and yellow, blue on blue azulejos that symbolise this city. There is plenty of spring blossom on the trees everywhere, the delicate pinky white blossom of the almond trees, the bold yellow mimosa and the purple jacaranda trees that brighten the whole city with colourful hues of petals everywhere.
The city still supports century-old wooden trams and iron funiculars that lurch up and down the narrow streets. Just watching them trundle along is a joy, while the metal tracks cutting into winding cobbled streets is exemplary of Lisbon’s nostalgic character. They offer a special photographic opportunity for visitors to take a postcard photo of Lisbon, with an iconic yellow (occasionally graffiti’d) tram. And, talking about transport, Lisbon airport is only 6.2km from the city centre, which means only a 20-minute metro ride or perhaps even a private chauffeur-driven trip to the hotel.
What to see?
Want to know what to do in Lisbon? Whether you’re just spending 48 hours or want to sample the best Lisbon restaurants on a longer stay here, you’ll find the top Lisbon attractions, along with some insider tips on the essential things to see that many visitors miss. There are several places well worth visiting – these include the beautiful cobbled street of Alfama, Belém Tower, Jerónimos Monastery, Tram 28, Igreja de São Vicente de Fora and Monument to the Discoveries. There is, even more, to discover with the Lisbon Card – it looks like a credit card and allows visitors to save time and money during their stay. This card is the easiest way to make your trip cheaper, easier, more convenient and certainly more memorable. The Lisbon Card is ideal for visitors looking to get the most out of their Portuguese romp. Lisbon Card holders can take advantage of many things, which you can check out in more detail on their website here.
If you don’t know where to start on your list of things to see in Lisbon, then this is a great suggestion. A trip to the capital should take in the Torre de Belém known as Belém Tower, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of Portugal’s most famous monuments. The Gothic tower was built to guard the entrance to the harbour and has some fine examples of Portuguese stonework dating from the 1500s.
This must be one of the mandatory things to see in Lisbon during your stay. Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, laid the foundation stone for the first church of St Vincent outside the then city walls – hardly a month after taking Lisbon from the Moors in 1147. He was fulfilling a vow to construct Christian houses of worship on the sites where Portuguese soldiers and northern European crusaders lay buried. The big draw is the cloisters, richly decorated with early 18th-century tile panels, some illustrating La Fontaine Fables. Inside there is the royal pantheon of the Braganza family, the last dynasty to rule Portugal. The figure of a weeping woman kneels before the twin tombs of Dom Carlos I and Crown Prince Luís Filipe, shot by assassins in 1908.
The most charming way to tick off a few sights is the wooden tram 28, which rumbles through Lisbon’s prettiest and most historic streets. Starting at the foot of Bairro Alto, the vintage carriage trundles through the shopping districts of Baixa and Chiado before lurching and labouring past the churches and castles on the cobbled hills of the Alfama and Graça neighbourhoods. A great way to see a tour of the city itself.
One of Lisbon’s most emblematic squares is Praça do Comércio, better known by locals as Terreiro do Paço since it was once where the paço, or palace, used to stand before the earthquake in 1755. It boasts a reputation as one of the largest squares in Europe, paired with its beautiful symmetrical building, painted in yellow and white along with the impressive Rua Augusta Arch.
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Solar is the oldest and largest antique store in Portugal, and the world oldest antique tile dealer. It is now in the third generation of the Leitão family, trading from the 1940’s and has been in this location since 1957. The philosophy of Solar antiques is to share the knowledge about tiles as well as Portuguese decorative arts. Those used for the reconstruction of Lisbon after the earthquake are created to the myriads of patterns of the 19th century, not forgetting the great Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro with his Art Nouveau ones.
Monument of the Discoveries is a monument on the northern bank of the Tagus River estuary, in the civil parish of Santa Maria de Belém, Lisbon. Located along the river where ships departed to explore and trade with India and Orient, the monument celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery (or Age of Exploration) during the 15th and 16th centuries.
The aristocratic hill town to the west of the city is a Neverland of fairytale palaces, manicured floral gardens, and wild woodlands. The train to Sintra departs from Rossio station every 20 minutes, takes about 40 minutes and costs €2.15. You can read more about Sintra on here.
Where to eat?
Once you get the opportunity to visit Lisbon, their delicious custard tarts at Pasteis de Belém are world-famous and that’s why queues for the sweet, rich, perfectly crisp treats often stretch along the pavement. Only four men know the secret recipe, and it’s never been written down. These men, as is customary for royal sibling heirs, never travel in the same vehicle together, just in case there’s an accident resulting in multiple fatalities. How fascinating, right? Now, I really do need the secret recipe to make one at home.
Dining experiences are very personal and often subjective. With only three days in Lisbon and an endless list of restaurants, I was starting to feel exhausted at the thought of deciding where to eat next. Except for a handful of wine bars, this former bakery, complete with original oven and traditional signage, is now a casual eatery from Michelin-starred local chef Henrique Sá Pessoa. The menu combines Spanish-style tapas with “petiscos”, the Portuguese equivalent. Brass lights, marble tables, and red leather seating give the Lisbon restaurant a luxurious feel, despite its diminutive size.
Tapisco strikes the perfect balance for me, aptly characterising what I would define “modern” fine dining – excellent ingredients, creativity, and execution of dishes, served in a social, laid back and comfortable environment. The waiter is happy to point out some recommendations and I trust him to pick out some dishes to try. He serves a few tapas samples, including a mix of fatty and lean chunks of Tuna Tartare with avocado and wasabi caviar and a Bacalhau à Brás, which is a salted cod with potatoes, onions, and egg – a typical Portuguese dish.
Lastly time for some dessert, always save the last till best, I think. I’ve ordered a foamy smooth-textured chocolate mousse, topped with freshly grated chocolate and fleur de sel (sea salt) and with a final luxurious topping of olive oil caviar. In fact, the mousse itself has this very unique and fragrant Portuguese olive oil incorporated within – subtle, yet not too subtle, and lusciously laced throughout the dessert. I also can’t resist trying out the lemon ice cream with vermouth foam which tastes SO good.
Jose Avilliez has opened a unique restaurant. He is certainly Portugal’s most prolific chef, if not the most talented. A visit to one of the Avillez’s first gourmet bars was strongly recommended, housed in the old 19th-century São Luis Theatre in the chic Chiado district and I can’t think of a better stage for Avillez’s culinary theatrics. Built-in 1894 and renovated in 1928, the wood-panelled room now features beautiful art nouveau lighting, with frosted glass dividers and the bar’s name spelled out in lights above the counter.
We opted for the ‘The Epic Menu’, which makes a big entrance. Made of savoury, spicy, sharp, and sweet moments, each dish is a character you will not forget. In this saga, you will get a visit some old acquaintances and open the way to new feats. From the Mediterranean to the East, from the distant Americas to Portugal’s inland, embark on this adventure which runs up to around six courses. But you can also opt for à la carte if you are not a risk taker, or merely order a couple of mini snacks. Avillez’s dishes are mostly designed to be eaten with your hands – only one dish came with a fork, and most had no plates – enhancing the informal atmosphere of this buzzy, of-the-moment bar. Apologises for no images on this occasion, I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise but I gaurantee you it’s one of the highlight experience to try when you are next in town.
Four Seasons Lisbon, Hotel Ritz was built in 1959 by the Dictator Salazar to prove that Lisbon could do luxury as well as any other European capital. More than half a century later it is still setting the standard, managed now by the Four Seasons Hotel and Resort, and still renowned for the service for which they have always been famous. Attending to a colurful yet opulence interior at the Varanda restaurant. We opted for the signature tasting menu and started off with a glass of bubbly, Perrier-Jouët Rosé champagne.
The dining room is decked out in a similar style to the hotel’s lobby with a beautiful large floral arrangement at the centre table with two dazzling chandeliers showcasing a large cart filled with priceless champagne. The waiter presents a leather macron cover menu where the cuisine is mainly French but with some dishes inspired by traditional Portuguese cooking. Four satisfying courses are served, each paired with the best Portuguese wines, ranging from the classic Vinho Verde, Pinot Noir to the dessert wines like Madeira.
My particular favourite white wine was the Poco do Lobo Arinto, 1995 which is fully mature and wonderfully complex. It actually seems a bit fresher with air and warmth and some notes of dried pear. Every individual dish was cooked to perfection and the menu is frequently changed to adapt to seasonal choice.
My stomach now well and truly full, it’s time for some peppermint tea and to retreat to the suite for another Lisbon adventure. Stay with me a little longer as I have a separate article about my visit to Four Seasons Hotel Ritz, Lisbon.
Photos of me by Robert Morgan