A city of trams, tiles and iron funiculars, Lisbon remains a glorious European gem. It is one of the world’s oldest (and coincidentally friendliest) cities and has the honour of being the oldest capital in Western Europe. And this sense of history is ever-present. Positively buzzing and regularly drenched in sunlight, there is much to fall for in this city of design, food, beauty and style.
Lisbon is a labyrinth of steep alleys, secluded corners and stunning vantage points, which are best encountered during hours of aimless wandering. Explore central Baixa, an ancient district packed with tailors, cafes and galleries all occupying prime positions along Baroque streets. Then there’s Alfama, a slightly more eclectic neighbourhood watched over by cathedrals and the 7th Century St George’s Castle (which is well worth exploring). A patchwork of tile covered buildings, this area is incredibly photogenic. History lovers must make for Belém, which is full of monuments (such as Torre de Belém and the extravagant Mosteiro Dos Jerónimos) spared by the infamous 1755 earthquake. While here visit Pastéis de Belém for the best nata in town – they’re worth the wait!
You can also stroll in and out of museums – the Museu do Azulejo (dedicated entirely to tiles) and MUDE, Lisbon’s design museum, show just how creative and inspiring Portuguese artisans can be. If you’re getting a tad foot-sore (there are quite a few hills to battle) you can always jump on the 28 tram; a Lisbon icon that glides through the city taking the same picturesque, attraction-studded route it has for over a century.
The city has plenty of offer on the clothing, interiors and antiques front. Shoppers after something from independent Portuguese designers should wander around the Praça do Príncipe Real while those in search of international designers can amble down Avenida da Liberade, which holds antique markets on Saturdays. In town Typographia offers up playful yet elegant graphic shirts and modern jewellery can found at Atelier Plumb. D’orey is ideal for those after something truly Portuguese – their 17th and 18th century tiles are truly covetable. Mini by Luna is great for childrenswear while Muse offers more grown up fashion.
Lisbon is brimming with culinary delights. Of particular note is A Travessa. Found in an old monastery this dimly lit, perfectly ornate restaurant is full of weighty wooden tables, terracotta flooring, jazz tunes and vintage furnishings (which add charm and character). The ancient brick roof and well-trodden stone entrance give the venue gravitas while the cloisters act as a summer dining haven. The fare here is exceptional and the service is incredibly friendly – the entire experience is designed to make you feel thoroughly welcome. Starters arrive piece-by-piece, elegant tapas that mix flavours rather boldly. The scrambled eggs with truffles, dished up directly from a steaming pan, are delightful while the oysters turned my companion into a seafood fan. After running for 35 years it is clear this restaurant knows what it’s doing.
For something simpler you can sample traditional Portuguese offerings at A Travessa Do Fado. Here the sun-drenched courtyard is decorated with trays of produce and meals have a provincial feel – hearty creations that both entice and warm. The stuffed squid and black pork remind you why Portugal has always been on the European foodie map.
If you like your dinner with a view make for Restaurante Eleven; overlooking manicured gardens, house-dotted-hills and the distant Tagus River, this is a fabulous spot to catch a Lisbon sunset. The interior is suitably elegant – huge glass windows, leather chairs and wooden detailing (as polished as the service) – and the food is delightful. Even the tiniest morsel, creatively arranged on the plate, is succulent and flavour-filled. The focus is on well-sourced produce and their appreciation of fine ingredients really does shine through. The scallops in particular melt in your mouth, cheese tastes farm fresh and somehow the chestnut adorned pumpkin soup looks and feels lighter than air.
When it comes to lunch the Bairro Alto Hotel’s Flores do Bairro is a must. Right by the trusty 28 tram this chic restaurant, with its artistic interiors, warm colour scheme and almost retro furnishing, is thoroughly inviting. There’s even a central table that can be used for communal dining. Tableware comes with a handmade touch and fresh, seasonal seafood reigns supreme.
Wandering, eating and generally falling in love with Lisbon can be rather exhausting so it’s great to know that this ancient capital is brimming with pioneering boutique hotels. One such venue is the independent Inspira Santa Marta Hotel, a luxury hideaway with an environmental conscience. This eco friendly hotel is going to great lengths to reduce its environmental footprint (think solar panels on the roof and charity work with Pump Aid). Found on one of the oldest streets in Lisbon, this elegant hotel has a Scandinavian feel on the design front and is own spa, The Retreat, managed by Ritual Spa. For something truly decadent there is also the aforementioned Bairro Alto Hotel, which mixes old world style with thoroughly modern service.
Sometimes you just have to get out of town. Lisbon is a 40-minute train journey from Sintra, a charming township that’s home to the park and Palace of Pena and Moorish Castle. The later is a 10th Century military fort built by the Muslin populations that occupied the Iberian Peninsula. Stunning when drenched in mist or sunlight, it once acted as a control tower for the entire Atlantic Coast. Similarly, the Pina Palace is the stuff of fantasy. This colourful, tile and turret covered palace is one of the finest examples of 19th Century Portuguese romanticism. Framed by eighty-five hectares of parkland, it’s well worth a daytrip. Clearly this thriving pocket of Portugal has plenty to offer.
Text first appeared in Yen Magazine.