An urban feast of contradictions

LISBON is a city of quiet contradictions.

Once overlooked as a tourist destination, the Portuguese capital now holds rising star status.

Its narrow cobbled streets and steep hills, once the domain of spice traders and intrepid explorers, now welcomes a new age of discovery. Boasting 2,800 hours of sunshine a year; 14 UNESCO World Heritage monuments, eight eclectic Bairros and a coastline of sandy beaches, palaces, cliffs and casinos; Lisbon’s cultural and geographical diversity isn’t simply a recommendation — it’s the star attraction.

Although small in stature, the city’s “must-see” list is extensive. With that, a central location such as Baixa (downtown Lisbon) makes an ideal base.

The district, defined by broad squares, quaint shop fronts and pedestrian streets was rebuilt after the great earthquake of 1755 and remains Europe’s first great example of urban planning.

The elegant Rossio Square embodies the delicious paradox of Lisboeta architecture; the neoclassical Dona Maria II National Theatre, baroque fountains and old-school ginjinha taverns (selling local Morello cherry brandy), form a unique visual landscape.

Anchoring this stylish anarchy is the Avenida da Liberdade — an upscale thoroughfare modelled on 19th-century Parisian boulevards. Cobbled with traditional Portuguese mosaic pavement, the 90-metre-wide avenue is home to luxury fashion brands, theatres and hotels; while tucked behind its façade are hidden architectural gems flanked by unpretentious neighbourhood restaurants.

Solar Dos Presuntos (00351-213424253; www.solardospresuntos.com) has been a local haunt for 35 years attracting actors, politicians, celebrities and footballers with its friendly service, familial feel and endless fish menu. Choose lobster from the tank or indulge in local specialities like salt cod, crayfish and seafood paella washed down with a cold glass of Albariño.

If fusion cuisine or a Michelin star provides more of a lure, the vertiginous Bairro Alto is a must. The medieval neighbourhood, defined by its colourful Pombaline- era buildings and long narrow streets, is located a two-minute cable car journey uphill from Baixa.

Take the Elevador da Glória past the impressive murals spun by graffiti artists and illustrators and disembark at the top of the hill.

The bohemian and down-at-heel feel is at odds with the salubrious Belcanto restaurant (00351-213420607; www.belcanto.pt)- serving unassuming traditional fare with an innovative twist; or 100 Maneiras (00351- 910307575; www.restaurante100maneiras.com), famed for its Estendal Do Bairro (Barrio laundry line) — a cod fish replica (complete with clothes pegs) — of those seen in the city’s medieval quarter.

Afterwards head out to one of the many tascas (bars), which discharge into de facto street parties.

The Barrio is also home to Lisbon’s Fado culture — a form of traditional music, not dissimilar to Ireland’s sean-nós, where songs of love, loss and despair, colloquially referred to as saudade or ‘longing’ are recited by a singer and guitarist. Top tip: Lisbonetas don’t eat in the Fado houses (strictly for tourists), but rather pay a visit around 11pm for a post-theatre drink. The most authentic Fado houses are to be found in the adjacent Alfama — Lisbon’s oldest district.

Conquered by the Romans, Visigoths and eventually the Moors, who named the area after its hot springs, Alfama retains a picturesquely village feel; its original structures having survived the 1755 earthquake which almost decimated the city.

Crowning the charming laundry-clad alleyways is St George’s Castle, a 6th-century stronghold visible from all areas of Lisbon. More importantly, its tower and its surrounding millennial walls offer the best panoramic views of the city including the modernist 25 de Abril Bridge — the Golden Gate’s sister; and the imposing Cristo-Rei — a 341-foot monument inspired by Rio di Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue.

For a more gilded take on Portuguese history, a visit to Belém is a must. Located on the mouth of the Tagus river 6 kilometres from the city centre (take tram 15), Belém marked the starting point for many of the world’s greatest explorers. Prince Henry the Navigator, Bartholomeu Dias, Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama all set sail from its banks; with Christopher Columbus stopping here on his return from discovering the New World.

Two of its UNESCO World Heritage monuments: Belém Tower and the Jeronimos Monastery best symbolise The Age of Discovery and represent triumphs of Manueline and European Gothic architecture in their own right.

Aside from these sights, one of Belem’s biggest attractions is, without doubt, the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem — a 17th century café renowned for its legendary pastéis de nata (custard tarts). Since 1837, this bakery has assumed quasi-religious standing, serving on average 10,000 tarts a day to eager visitors and locals. The recipe remains a secret, having been passed down by local monks to five master pastry chefs. One thing we do know is that the treats are best served hot with a sprinkling of cinnamon or powdered sugar.

Equally sweet, is Lisbon’s position as one of Europe’s westernmost cities, a title which brings equal urban and seaside kudos.

Day trippers can take a short train journey to nearby Sintra — a mystical village known for its fairytale palaces, lush vegetation and aristocratic villas surrounded by cliffs and unspoiled beaches.

Equally close are the adjacent waterfront villages of Cascais and Estoril: one a quaint fishing town; the other a former playground of kings and 20th century European nobility known for its casino, golf courses and Formula One Grand Prix track.

Admittedly, it’s almost impossible to sum up Lisbon. At once homely and exotic; historic and contemporary; its crumbling edges and intangible buzz make the city’s glory days an authentic part of its present appeal. Maybe that’s the charm.

Flights

Daily non-stop flights operate with Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) from €170 return off-season. Average flight time 2 hrs 40 mins.

Getting Around

Buy a Lisboa Card (€18) for free and unlimited travel on selected transport lines; with entry into 26 museums, historic buildings and places of interest. Available at designated Turismo de Lisboa booths.

Accommodation

Keep it boutique at Lisbon’s 4-star Heritage Hotels group (res: 00351-213218200; www.heritage.pt). Heritage Avenida Liberdade, ensconced on the city’s premier shopping boulevard, is incomparably central; not unlike its Baixa neighbours: the Art Deco Hotel Britania and familial Hotel Lisboa Plaza. Prefer a more historic feel? Try As Janelas Verdes, part of an 18th century palace located on the banks of the Tagus or the enchanting Solar Do Castelo situated in the medieval Alfama district. Special offers on website bookings include free cable car tickets, complimentary golf green fees, transfers to and from the airport by Aerobus or Metro and access to the exclusive Silk club (terms apply).

When to Visit

Lisbon’s mild temperatures make it a year-round holiday destination. Expect an average 25C in the summer and 17C in the winter. Although August is a peak tourist time, it is also thin on locals who head off on vacation for the month. The tourist calendar remains plentiful but many of its restaurants remain closed.

Weblinks

Spotted by Locals — www.spottedbylocals.com/lisbon

Lisbon Lux — www.lisbonlux.com

Visit Lisboa — www.visitlisboa.com


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