It takes no more than two hours on a flight from London to Lisbon. So if you’re strapped for time, spending 48 hours exploring on foot is just enough to see the cultural and historical wonders on offer.
For the best possible view of the sprawling city, follow the tram tracks to the Alfama – the old Moorish quarter which stands on the tallest of Lisbon’s hills.
Spared in the devastating 1755 earthquake, this is the oldest area of the city where crumbling houses in a vibrant array of colour palettes fight for space in narrow laneways. Here you can explore hidden, quaint cafes and dimly lit taverns all the while learning about how the haunting sounds of Portuguese Fado music also originated in this area.
Walking the steep steps, explore the beauty of the living quarters where flower-laden iron balconies and intrinsically tiled walls can be seen mixed with artistic graffiti and thought-provoking photography.
Stop for a lunch at one of the local restaurants decorated by festive flags before climbing the steep hill up to Lisbon’s historic castle. The winding cobblestoned alleyways stretch from the River Tagus up to the Castelo de São Jorge providing Lisbon wanderers with perfect miradouros or viewpoints over a jumble of Moorish-inspired rooftops and the stretching red suspension bridge. If you think your feet can’t make it to the castle, the quaint yellow tram number 28 runs through the heart of the district navigating tight bends and steep inclines.
Make sure you catch the sunset over the River Tagus at Castelo de São Jorgeas where the ancient city of Lisbon spreads out before you. If you don’t mind climbing the steep steps of the towering forts, the view will be especially worth it. Castle courtyards and 18 towers provide differing sights of the city, its river and its red rooftops towards the hills of Arábida. Incorporating Visigoth, Moorish and Christian occupation, the Castle of St George stems to beyond Romanian time. Maps dotted around the castle’s gardens, squares and spectacular ruins help visitors understand the tumultuous history of the royal bastion that managed to survive the great earthquake of Lisbon.
No matter the length of stay you’re planning in Lisbon, it is important to see a Fado show during or after dinner in the Baixa district. Most of the performances are free, if you know where to go. A local may point you in the right direction, or google is also a good tool. FadoCantado is sung in the oldest parts of the city in taverns, dimly-lit restaurants or Fado houses.
An example is restaurant A Baiuca located in the Baixa district of Lisbon. In this small tavern, one usually elderly Portuguese man will sit up the front of the establishment accompanied by an old, intrinsically decorated guitar. This normally occurs at approximately 11pm at night once the diners have finished their meals. He may have a band accompanying him in anticipation of projecting his songs of loneliness and longing, of love affairs, bullfighting and the miseries of life. Although melancholy, his music will work to create an authentic Portuguese dining experience.
After a hearty Portuguese breakfast in the Bairro Alto district, look into attending a free walking tour. Most of them begin at approximately 10 or 10.30am in the Baixa district opposite to Alfama. Tour guides will tell you in detail about how Baixa was completely rebuilt after the devastating Great Earthquake of 1755. The tour will take you to Rossio Square and Chiado where you can learn about the Carnation Revolution, The Portuguese Inquisition and the Salazar Dictatorship.
After two-and-a-half hours the tour will end in the Alfama district at the São Pedro de Alcântara viewpoint, followed by an exploration of the Saturday flea markets. Otherwise known as the Feira da Ladra and held every Saturday in Alfama, the market incorporates Lisbon’s best artists and designers selling photography and paintings to junk and antiques.
Following a relaxing wander of the markets,take a half an hour walk along the harbour filled with graffitied wall art from Rossio Square to the Belem district. Lying along the banks of the River Tejo, Belem is the point where voyages of trade in the 14th century arrived and departed from. Standing on the estuary banks as a form of ancient protection for Lisbon, the Belem Tower is one tourist attraction to check out, while the looming Jeronimos Monastery or the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos also proves interesting to historians.
After a dash of history, walk along the Belem waterfront to the AntigaConfeitaria de Belem for Lisbon’s world-famous egg custard tarts. Outside the blue and white tiled 1800’s bakery and sugar mill, tourists and locals line up around the block for a taste of Lisbon’s sweetness. But have patience because the wait will be worth it when the sugary custard melts slowly in your mouth. Try a coffee or two, then explore the back rooms where glass windows display how the tarts are made as bakers work to sell an average of 20,000 custard parcels a day.
Quiet during the day, the bohemian area of Bairro Alto becomes a cultural mecca for dinner and drinking in the evenings. Dating back to the 16th century, the area once was frequented by talented artists and writers. The artistic atmosphere still lingers with spectacular wall art, graffitied facades and bohemian bars hidden among the towering apartment blocks.
Although the famous nightlife of the Bairro Alto attracts a barrage of tourists and locals, the vibrant place is not one to avoid. The grid of steep streets packed with international restaurants, fado houses and local bars sees people of all ages and backgrounds spilling out on to the cobblestones to interact and merrily drink. If you’re one for a quiet drink, there are bars dotted around such as the Rua da Barroca where one can cosily sit and not have to worry about shouting when having a conversation.
If you happen to wake up without a hangover, LX Factory market in Alcantara beckons on a Sunday morning. Running on Sundays from 11am to 5pm, the markets sit within a group of abandoned 19th century warehouses and factories accessible on foot or via train. From second-hand articles to original crafts, stall holders offer relics and vintage finds, natural products, second-hand parts or original creations.
From the markets it is easy to take a train and bus to the Christ the King statue – an enormous monument to Christ which towers over the River Tagus. Inspired by the famous statue in Rio de Janeiro, the 25 metre statue stands as a tribute to God for having spared Portugal and Lisbon during World War II. To reach it, take the ferry from Cais do Sodre Station across the river to Cacilhas, from where the number 101 buscan take you up the winding and steep cobblestoned streets to the monument.
The inexpensive ferry crossing is an experience in itself, as it is a great way to admire Lisbon’s setting and skyline. If it isn’t raining, it is possible to get a differing view from the top of the 82 metre high pedestal of which the statue stands upon. You will be able to spot the St George Castle towering above the rest of hilly Lisbon, its mighty squares and its jungle of red and white rooftops – a perfect end to 48 hours in Portugal’s intriguing capital city.