Rich in history, culture and social scenery, Portugal’s capital is also surprisingly affordable, says David Whitley.
Lisbon’s many talents
From the top of the hill – it doesn’t really matter which one, there are more than enough to share – the Portuguese capital looks devastatingly winsome. Lisbon is, beyond any reasonable doubt, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, sidling alongside the widest stretch of the River Tagus as it reaches its crescendo into the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s a remarkably easy city to love – traffic rarely seems overbearing, ubiquitous mosaic-tiled pavements make it feel like you’re walking along priceless treasures and there’s a mild-mannered friendliness that’s noticeably absent from most capitals. It’s also, by western European standards, remarkably inexpensive.
But Lisbon is more than a pretty one-trick pony. It shifts in character quite dramatically from area to area. Thr cafe-packed Chiado area feels chic without being posey. Bairro Alto comes alive with a hedonistic roar at night. Historic Belém has the Portuguese Golden Age honeypots in the form of the Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery. The Park Of Nations, on the once-bleak Expo ’98 site, provides a textbook example of how to keep life in such a place once the Expo has gone – all highly strollable gardens, an excellent aquarium and innovative architecture.
A comfortable bed
Few Lisbon hotels are as gorgeously atmospheric as the York House (www.yorkhouselisboa.com; 00 351 21 396 24 35).
Secluded inside a converted convent with an adorable garden terrace and just enough period features to keep the modern fittings interesting, it has rooms available for from €99 (Dh504).
The small-but-elegant Bairro Alto Hotel (www.bairroaltohotel.com; 00 351 21 340 8288) makes up for surprisingly small rooms with a magnificent rooftop terrace with views out over the city and river, and a service ethic that really shines through. Doubles from €205.
The city’s best bargain, however, is the Portugal Ways Bairro Alto Apartments (www.portugalways.com; 00 351 91 199 9010). With full kitchens, quality-but-homely furnishings and plenty of space, they’re available costing from €36 a night (Dh184).
Find your feet
The hilltop Castle of São Jorge (www.castelodesaojorge.pt; 00 351 21 880 0620) dates back to the Moorish occupation of Portugal in the 11th and 12th centuries, although much of the current complex is a result of extensive 20th-century restoration and rebuilding. The views from the top are swoony, however, and wandering around the interconnecting citadel ramparts and gardens is hugely enjoyable. From there, head downhill into the mazelike, medieval Alfama District, where getting lost among the crumbling old homes and narrow lanes is both easy and highly desirable.
Eventually, you’ll probably end up at the grand but oddly empty-feeling riverside square, Praça do Comércio. This is the starting point for Lisbon Walker’s (www.lisbonwalker.com; 00 351 21 886 1840) fabulously informative €15 (Dh77) walking tours. The Revelations tour takes in the horror of the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the city, the modernist grid-like rebuilding and oddities such as the Elevador de Santa Justa.
Meet the locals
Lisbon’s generally an undemonstrative city, but that goes out the window when football’s concerned. The two big teams are Benfica (www.slbenfica.pt) and Sporting Lisbon (www.sporting.pt) and their games are surprisingly accessible. Tickets for league games cost from €15 (Dh77), with Benfica playing at the Estadio Da Luz, host venue of the 2014 Champions League final.
Book a table
For the astonishing building alone – you’ll walk through a Moorish courtyard and climb painted tile-lined stairs before getting to the restaurant – the Casa Do Alentejo (www.casadoalentejo.net; 00 351 21 340 5140) is worth ducking into. The food showcases the rustic Alentejo region, with simple dishes such as the €13 (Dh67) pluck-off-the-bone lamb stew.
José Avillez is Lisbon’s star chef, and his Belcanto restaurant (www.belcanto.pt; 00 351 21 342 0607) in well-heeled Chiado serves up atypically inventive Portuguese fare such as slightly smoked beef loin with rosemary, bone marrow and garlic purée for €42 (Dh214).
Around 50 per cent of the world’s cork comes from Portugal, and the gallery-esque Cork and Co (www.corkandcompany.pt; 00 351 21 609 0231) in Bairro Alto shows just what you can do with it. That stretches from table placemats and iPhone cases to umbrellas and drums.
A Arte Da Terra (www.aartedaterra.pt; 00 351 21 274 5975) is inside the former stable of the cathedral. It’s a good place for souvenir-ish ceramics, cutesy figurines, woolly slippers and colourful scarves.
What to avoid
Be wary of anything that looks close on a map – Lisbon’s hills can make distances deceptive. Avoid anything but comfortable shoes.
Inexplicably underpublicised and utterly wonderful, the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (www.museudoazulejo.pt; 00 351 21 810 0340) is devoted to Portugal’s signature art form, the azulejo tile paintings. Beautiful examples have been sourced from churches and palaces around the country. Displays show the techniques used to make them and the historical progression of styles through simple geometric patterns to ambitious figurative storytelling. But the old chapel the museum winds around is just astonishing – paintings and gilded frippery take over the higher levels, while huge blue and white azulejo-covered walls are packed with narrative detail.
Emirates (www.emirates.com; 600 55 55 55) offers direct flights from Dubai to Lisbon from Dh4,435 return including taxes.
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