Portugal’s first and capital city, Lisbon, is a perfect marriage between the dynamic and the refined.
When I visited last September, the summer months dwindling to an end, the city positively radiated. Peppered by saccharine shades of pink and yellow, it’s a city of Latin fairy tale proportions helmed by it’s seven steep hills where century-old trams trundle and you’ll find the nocturnal natives partying in some of the more hedonistic districts.
Antonio Mexia, minister of Portugal, stated that “Lisbon is undergoing a tourism boom” following on from the economic crisis that besmirched it’s sun-kissed streets and it’s true; Lisbon responded to the crisis with creativeness and passion, breathing a new life into the city with its reincarnation of London’s Village Underground and more recently, the €20m Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology overlooking the River Tagus.
Instead of modernism over-riding the city however, these forward-thinking initiatives are constantly in second place to the more traditional aspects of Portuguese culture whether it’s the azulejo-drenched architecture or the family-owned seafood restaurants on every corner or the snippets of Fado music that seem to find you in the remotest of places, Lisbon is a city that gracefully keeps to its roots. So with all things considered, here’s our travellers guide on how to make the best out of the city.
Where to… rest your head
I recommend, The Independente Hostel & Suites, Lookout Lisbon Hostel, Caso De Principe, Brown’s Central Hotel.
Where to… see the sights
You can catch one of Lisbon’s famous trams to the province of Belem, which is home to some of the city’s biggest attractions. Jeronimo’s Monastery, built to celebrate Vasco da Gama’s ‘discovery’ of India, is quite simply, a gothic masterpiece with intricately designed cloisters and Luís de Camões’ tomb within its walls. Belem Tower is close by, sat on the impressive waterfront and when you’re done soaking up the history, make sure you venture to Pasteis de Belem, the cities iconic custard tart bakery built in 1837, for a pastel de nata; expect queues down the street.
The absolute pinnacle of culture in the city, the Gulbenkian undoubtedly has one of Europe’s grandest collections of work. Set amongst ancient Chinese porcelain, indoor and outdoor auditoriums and paintings by Rembrandt and Monet, the museum is an ongoing legacy of the art collector, Calouste Gulbenkian.
Ok, so this isn’t technically in Lisbon, but a train ride to the royal town of Sintra is a must if you’re staying for more than a couple of days. Catch a train from Rossio station for €2.15 and 40 minutes later find yourself in a page torn from a fairy tale. The main focal point, Pena Palace, a resplendent pastel-hued, castle is in competition with other attractions which include the Castle of the Moors, set on top of a dewy, fern-ridden forest and the exotically, palatial Monserrate Palace placed within beautifully, manicured gardens. You’ll never want to leave.
Where to… intoxicate yourself
A never-ending party which spills out onto the streets of Lisbon, the district of Bairro Alto turns into a full-on fiesta past 8pm. You have to walk up some pretty steep hills to reach the area but once you’re there, it’s hard not to get caught up in the self-described ‘bohemian’ district. You’ll find most people wandering around the streets with a plastic cup brimming with rum and mint goodness from The Mojito Company, failing that, if you’re looking for somewhere to sit down, the ever-popular Mahjong is a treat or walk a little further to Park Bar, set on the roof of a car park. Don’t avoid the Irish pubs either, they tend to throw some surprising little shots into your pint of beer.
Arguably, one of Portugal’s most famous venues, Lux is partly-owned by John Malkovich, has welcomed guests including Cameron Diaz and Prince and has a breezy rooftop terrace which overlooks the harbour. As you can imagine, a venue of such high calibre is pretty rammed and the revellers don’t normally flock in until gone 2am. Expect highly-selective doormen but once inside, some of the best cutting-edge techno alongside exquisite decor.
Cais Do Sodre
I came across this region by pure chance; lost and desperately looking for an off-licence, my head was turned by a whole street painted shocking pink. Insightfully dubbed ‘Pink Street’, this strip is home to a more rowdier crowd and the rough and ready dwellings of MusicBox, a club set under a bridge. Previously dominated by strip clubs, you can catch some of the area’s seedier history by stepping into Pensão Amor, a cool bar with a penchant for disco music.
Where to… stuff your face
The Portuguese are famed for their seafood, so expect tascas serving the freshest fish at every turn. Lisbon’s a fairly cheap place to visit but it doesn’t mean you have to blow your money at the fanciest of restaurants; the best way to get the authentic experience is by dining with the locals. Ramiro is great for all your shrimp needs, the world-cuisine inspired Os Tibetanos is 100% vegetarian, the Decadente (situated in the Independente Hostel) supplies deliciously interesting dishes and great cocktails and for all the burger fiends out there, Ground Burger’s ‘ChilliCheese’ is a must. Definitely pop into A Ginjinha too, it serves up Portugal’s prized cherry liquor and believe it or not, contributes massively to the cultural heritage of Lisbon.
Where to… dig the vibes
Personally, if there’s one thing I enjoy consuming most in another city, it has to be the street art on display. My hostel was right next to a huge horse mural by the street artist, Aryz, but it’s probably the work of anti-establishment, Vhils, which is the most celebrated. The Fábrica Braço de Prata has his most condensed set of work.
LX Factory is also really cool and perhaps best delineates how the city is changing its pace. You can pick up some seriously good street food here and the Sunday market is great for all your vintage needs. Alternatively, some of you may crave the breeze of the sea, so look into catching a train to the nearby beach resorts of Cascais or Estoril.
For me, I got the best out of Lisbon by wandering into the unknown. Rossio Square is really great for people watching and where I found a DJ blasting Unknown Mortal Orchestra inside the National Theatre D. Maria II. If you venture nearer to the harbour, there’s some really decent bars and eateries alongside potentially the best public loo you’ll ever step foot in. The Sexiest WC On Earth (yep, that’s its official name) costs €1 to get in but it’s worth it for this holy grail of toilets; you get to choose your own Renova roll in a variation of colours and the communal sink is a huge, yellow sculpture of a bog roll. Either I’m easily impressed or this is the future, guys.