A beginner's guide to Lisbon

23 March 2016

Portugal's historic capital is beautiful, affordable, and full of great things to eat, drink and see. Sarah Illingworth shows us round this under-appreciated Southern European city.

Vintage trams on the streets of Lisbon. Credit: iStock.com Vintage trams on the streets of Lisbon. Credit: iStock.com

 

From lazy evenings spent drinking in plazas, watching sunsets, to partaking of the city's excellent food, art and entertainment, a visit to Lisbon is as rewarding as one to its more celebrated Northern counterpart, Porto.

Portugal's at times fraught historical bond with Morocco is instantly, aesthetically clear from the patterned tiles that adorn many buildings around Lisbon's centre. Similarly, the statue of Cristo-Rei holding court across the Tagus River speaks to the country’s strong connection with its ex-colony, Brazil: the monument is inspired by the famous Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio de Janeiro. A trip to Lisbon is not complete without spending time sitting by the Tagus, observing Cristo in the distance and basking in the sun.

The Cristo-Rei on the banks of the Tagus River, Lisbon. Credit: iStock.com The Cristo-Rei on the banks of the Tagus River, Lisbon. Credit: iStock.com

 

Tucked beside Basílica da Estrela in the Lapa district, Jardim da Estrela is another pretty spot to take a minute, perhaps while sipping a bica (espresso’s given name in Lisbon) at the park’s pond-side kiosk. It’s a short walk from here to Bairro Alto, where contemporary design stores coexist with those presenting antique and vintage finds - traditional snackbars and chic restaurants do the same. Happily, Pão de Canela straddles both categories. Bordering a small garden, the eatery is relaxed but cool and the food hits the mark.

Come nighttime, the Bairro’s streets fill with revellers. There’s no shortage of bars to choose from at street level, but it’s worth making the climb to Park, a rooftop establishment located atop a parking building. Popular with locals, Park offers great views of the city, and drinks and food to match. Alternatively, weave through the clubs and venues in Chiado and Santos - or, for a more traditional nightlife experience, visit one of Lisbon’s fado bars. While you're at it be sure to try Ginjinha, a cherry liqueur native to the capital.

In Alcântara, right below the 25 de Abril Bridge - so-called in commemoration of the 1974 Portuguese Carnation Revolution - the Docas (Docks) are often recommended for a sophisticated meal overlooking the water. But the LX Factory complex a short walk away is a worthy alternative, whether you’re looking for a meal or simply to window-shop the precinct's stylish boutiques. Also close is Box, an outdoor café and bar housed in a repurposed shipping container. There’s a plaza out front with go-karts for hire, making it a winner with kids. Good music, tasty cocktails (try the Pera Gin) and beanbags placate the grown-ups.

Castelo de São Jorge, Lisbon. Credit: iStock.com Castelo de São Jorge, Lisbon. Credit: iStock.com

 

On the other side of town, get lost in the cobbled streets of Alfama, winding your way up through the old Moorish quarter to the São Jorge Castle. Explore the age-old complex before relaxing with a glass of local wine while perched on the castle wall. Then head down the hill to Chapitô for a superb dining experience complemented by terracotta vistas, and the Tagus beyond. Or continue on to Santa Rita, a discreet bistro serving excellent local fare at a reasonable price.

An easy tram ride along the coast, Cascais is a small resort town around 30km west of central Lisbon. It's a little touristy, but its stunning beaches make the trip worthwhile. En route, pause in Belém to sample an original-recipe pastel de nata (traditional Portuguese egg tart pastry) from the renowned Pastéis de Belém, where they've been serving them since 1837. Enjoy the treats with a bica in-house, or al fresco in one of the nearby parks. A visit to the area is made complete with stops at Jerónimos Monastery and Belém Tower.

Pena National Palace, Sintra. Credit: iStock.com Pena National Palace, Sintra. Credit: iStock.com

 

Another exceptional day-trip is a visit to Sintra, a UNESCO heritage site that’s home to numerous Moorish castles. Guided tours of the area are available, although visitors are free to construct their own. The main port is Pena National Palace, a colourful castle that could backdrop a fairytale. Also visit Caldo Entornado, a recent entrant to Sintra’s food scene that may distract you from the town’s other attractions - and be sure to seek out a queijada, the eggy sweet treat synonymous with this part of Portugal.

Other tips:

*Time Out has transformed half of downtown's Mercado da Ribeira into a gastro foodcourt featuring stalls from top Lisbon eateries.

*The metro and bus systems are efficient and easy to use, but walkers: beware the hills. A comfortable pair of sneakers will prove a firm friend.

*In Bairro Alto, Copenhagen Coffee Lab serve up excellent craft coffee and wifi.

Sarah Illingworth

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and editor of the international politics and culture website impolitikal.com. Currently based in Manchester, she spends as much time as she can on the move. Find more on Sarah at sarahillingworth.com.