Europe’s westernmost major city, Lisbon sits on seven hills rising from the northern banks of the Tagus River. Known for being a beautiful, historic city, Lisbon is also a vibrant and modern one, with plenty of cultural highlights amid picturesque, pastel-coloured surroundings.
Much of the city is seemingly frozen in time, but when you delve deeper, there is a foodie scene to rival any capital, street art on every corner and exciting nightclubs in abandoned warehouses along the waterfront. This balance between old and new is everywhere, from the Alfama district’s winding streets to the futuristic Parque das Nações. Traditional nightlife can be found in Bairro Alto’s many bars and fado clubs – a beautiful and poetic music akin to flamenco. Portugal’s capital is also a multicultural hotbed with native Lisboetas sharing space with Brazilians, Angolans and Mozambicans, among many more. Lisbon’s balmy year-round temperature combines beautifully with a truly hospitable populace, so book your flights to Lisbon to discover it for yourself.
The oldest and probably the most typical section of Lisbon, Alfama is a maze of winding streets and alleyways snaking up and down the hill. You will find blends of Roman, Moorish and medieval architecture, as this is the only section of the city that survived the 1755 earthquake, which decimated other neighbourhoods. Visit the Moorish castle, Castelo de São Jorge, or the gothic Sè Cathedral before heading to one of the many traditional taverns for Bacalhau (salted cod) or Arroz de Marisco (seafood rice).
Facing the river, the streets of Baixa (pronounced bye-sha) felt the full impact of the earthquake and consequent tsunami. Rebuilt in a grid system by the Marquês de Pombal, Baixa somewhat resembles Paris’s glorious boulevards, they house the city’s shopping district and business centre. Traditional shops and high street names can be found along the same strip, with specific streets containing shoemakers and goldsmiths, for example. You will also find the beautiful and grandiose Praça do Comércio here, where exhibitions and outdoor concerts are held throughout the year.
During the day, Bairro Alto’s streets have a lethargic and residential feel, but come sundown they are alive with hip bars and sophisticated fado clubs. Locals and tourists mingle with ease and it has a friendly atmosphere throughout the night and into the early hours. Restaurants serving traditional grilled sardines and seafood can be found in abundance, west of Rua da Misericórdia. Be aware, some of the streets are fairly steep, so perhaps leave your stilettos at the hotel. Don’t miss a trip up the hill on the famous Gloria Funicular, which will make your journey all the easier.
Once one of Lisbon’s seedier neighbourhoods, Cais do Sodré is now a hip and fashionable place to see and be seen. Since its transformation in 2011, the area has seen many cafés, boutiques, bars and foodie haunts pop up. Instead of houses of ill repute, there are burlesque clubs and lots of live music venues. See up and coming fado singers, go on a bar crawl and see a different side to Lisbon’s club scene. Some even say it has taken over from Bairro Alto as Lisbon’s most happening nightlife district.
Six kilometres along the coast toward the Atlantic Ocean’s enticing thrall, Belém is a neighbourhood with a remarkable maritime history, some impressive museums and an eye-catching riverfront. Vacso da Gama, the Portuguese explorer who found a passage to India, is interred at the massive Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. Nearby is the world-famous Pastéis de Belém, where you can get some of the best egg custard pastries in Portugal. Walk down the front to visit the fortified 16th century Belém Tower, just past the Monument to the Discoveries.
The Park of Nations was built for the 1998 Lisbon Expo, but is still a popular area for weekend jaunts outside of the city. Its main attraction is the largest Oceanarium in Europe, which inside its ultra-modern walls, sharks, rays, barracudas and even a large sunfish reside. This, alongside cafés, restaurants, water gardens, a cable car and the park is a great way to enjoy the sunshine. At night it is regarded as one of the best places for a night out, with many bars and clubs for the modern visitor. If Alfama is the antiquarian side of Lisbon, then this is its futuristic.
Take a train along the riverfront to Estoril and Cascais and you will find some spellbinding spots waiting for you. Estoril has a selection of pleasant beaches, like Praia da Torre and Praia de Carcavelos, but be aware they become very busy at the weekend when all of Lisbon descends en masse. A bit further along, Cascais is beautiful red-tiled town popular with the Portuguese Royal family, with great beaches, a popular marina and a pedestrianised old town complete with upmarket boutiques. After dark, the local bars come alive and stay open well into the small hours.
Sintra was the summer residence of Portugal’s noble families for centuries, it is easy to see why – verdant valleys and undulating mist-soaked peaks make up some of the most beautiful landscapes in western Portugal. The fairy tale almost Disneyesque architecture brings day-trippers from all over the world, especially to the stunning Palácio da Pena. Visit the beautiful Monserrate Palace or the quirky Quinta da Regaleira – which was created by Italian architect Luigi Manini – where you will also find the mystical Initiation Wells. It is best to go during the week over the summer months, to avoid the crowds.