Bathed in a beautiful, mellow light and a highly agreeable climate year-round, photogenically historic, but with 21st century entertainment options, walkably compact, relaxed and cheap – even the gorgeous, atmospheric five-star York House (www.yorkhouse.com) is only £100 a night.
Yep, there are definitely worse places to spend the weekend than the Portuguese capital – yet as city break destinations go it’s still surprisingly overlooked.
Take a view
First of all, pick up a Lisboacard (www.askmelisboa.com) – costing €13.50, €23 or €28 for 24, 48 or 72 hours respectively, this’ll get you discounts and freebies for museums, sightseeing, shops, restaurants as well as public transport. Then, get your bearings, go downtown and head up Lisbon’s highest hill to the Castelo de São Jorge, a partially restored fortress dating back to 138BC and perfect miradouro (lookout point). From here, you’ll have views over the whole city, one of the most important on the planet back in the 15th and 16th centuries, when it was a major trading port and point of departure for the world’s maritime explorers. A stroll back down through the Moorish-influenced Alfama district takes you through the oldest part of Lisbon to Baixa, which was equally labyrinthine until levelled by a massive earthquake in 1755. Fortunately, the rebuilders did a fine job, with the impressive Arco Triunfal Praça and elegant arcades of Praça do Comercio as testament. Stop for a coffee here at Café Martinho da Arcada, former haunt of beloved Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, or continue west to Chiado, where the A Brasileira café on Rua Garrett has a similar claim as a hangout for various politicians and intellectuals of the 20th century.
Any port in a storm
The Bairro Alto is a great example of the kind of drinking experience that Europe does so well – a maze of narrow cobbled streets lined with tiny bars, cafés and restaurants out of which merrily gorgeous people spill amiably until the small hours and beyond. The vibe extends into neighbouring Bica and Príncipe Real, where the museum-cum-cocktail bar Pavilhão Chinês (Chinese Pavilion, if you can’t face tackling the Portuguese) is worth a visit to marvel at the lunatic decor alone. Clubs are concentrated along the Av. 24 de Julio or in the riverfront area of Alcântara, while Santa Apolónia is home to the überfashionable Lux Fragil (www.luxfragil.com). To punctuate the bar-hopping with some Portuguese cuisine, book in advance for Pap’Açorda at 57-59 Rua da Atalaia (named after the local specialty of garlicky, bready mush with prawns – much nicer than it sounds). For traditional entertainment, head to the Clube de Fado on Rua São João da Praça (www.clube-de-fado.com), where dinner comes accompanied by live performances of fado, the heart-breakingly melancholic music typical of Lisbon. Oh, and don’t forget to try the drink that made Portugal famous – head to the Port Wine Institute on Rua de São Pedro de Alcântara to sip a few vintages that are older than you are (affordable by the glass, if not by the bottle).
WORTH A LOOK
It may be a short tram-ride out of the centre, but Belém is a pretty essential part of your visit, with two Unesco World Heritage sites within a short walk of each other: the riverfront Torre de Belem and the 15th century Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a masterpiece of the weird, late gothic Portuguese architectural style known as Manueline. It’d also be a minor crime not to try Belém’s revered custard tarts at Antiga Confeitaria dos Pastéis.
From Belem, take a train out to the seaside village where Portuguese royal family used to host the rest of Europe’s monarchs at their palatial Summer Residence to take their minds off World War II.
Go for: The perfect city break city
But watch out for: Slight lack of budget accommodation
Check out: www.visitlisboa.com