There is something about the light of Lisbon. The cobalt sky right out of a Renaissance fresco. The glistening azulejo (patterned tiles) facades topped with terracotta roofs. And the golden hour over the Tagus River. Here’s why you must visit Lisbon, Portugal’s charmingly vibrant capital, and one of Europe’s most exciting cities right now.
Lisbon is the ‘City of Seven Hills’, a fact that you become acutely aware of as you wander its streets. Ignore the numerous tuk-tuks vying for your attention.
Instead, hop on the bright yellow vintage tram 28 and make your way to the hilltop São Jorge Castle. Lisbon was born on this hill. Legend has it that Odysseus arrived here fleeing from Troy and established a city. The Celtic tribes, the Phoenicians, the Romans, and the Moors have all defended the city from this vantage point. Today, you can see the urban sprawl of Lisbon, the Tagus, and the Golden Gate lookalike Ponte 25 de Abril.
The Alfama quarter tumbles down from the castle in a picturesque jumble of cobbled streets. The great earthquake of 1755 levelled much of Lisbon but spared Alfama. While the rest of the city was rebuilt along modern lines, Alfama stayed stuck in time. Its labyrinthine streets are lined with small houses in pretty pastels, festooned with fresh laundry hanging out to dry.
At night, Alfama takes on a mysterious, medieval air. The yellow streetlights cast long shadows, and the sounds of fado reverberate from its many clubs. Attending a fado performance is a must when you visit Lisbon. Even if you don’t understand a word of the song, it’s difficult not to be moved by the music. Drop in at Clube de Fado, which has the best performers gracing its dining room.
That’s me with Mario Pacheco, one of the best fado guitarists in Lisbon.
The soul of Portugal
Alfama may have usurped fado, but it was in Mouraria where the music genre was born in the early 19th century. The most famous fadista of that time, Maria Severa lived here on Rua da Guia. Her house has been restored and turned into a Fado house. In fact, the entire street is a tribute to the music, with photos and paintings of fadistas adorning the walls.
Mouraria was earlier considered a notorious slum. Indeed it looks a little rough around the edges. Its tiled houses and graffiti-covered buildings stand cheek by jowl, so close that at places the afternoon sun barely caresses the street.
In 2008, the residents of the area created a non-profit association called Renovar a Mouraria to improve community integration for the 50-odd immigrant nationalities living there. Today, Mouraria has gentrified considerably and is Lisbon’s most multi-cultural neighbourhood. Read more about it in my article for The Hindu Sunday Magazine.
Read between the lines
Lisbon is home to the (Guinness-certified) oldest bookstore in the world still in operation. Livraria Bertrand opened in 1732 and quickly became the meeting place of the city’s literary elite. After the earthquake of 1755, it moved to its current location in Chiado in 1773. Don’t expect a musty shop with dusty shelves and haphazard piles of books. Bertrand’s azulejo tiled façade leads into a bright, well-stocked shop with hardwood floors, a high, vaulted ceiling, and polished wooden shelving.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Livraria do Simão in Mouraria, possibly the smallest bookshop in the world. It’s a mere shoe cupboard size shop choc-a-bloc with books, many of which spill out over the steps of Escadinhas de São Cristóvão.
Further afield in the Alcântara neighbourhood is Livraria Ler Devagar. A former printing factory was repurposed into what is arguably the coolest bookstore in Lisbon. An antique printing machine forms the centrepiece. Don’t miss the flying bicycle hanging from the ceiling. The bookstore is in the LX Factory area, which is currently Lisbon’s trendiest quarter with co-working spaces, galleries, cafes, and indie design shops.
Stroll down Avenida da Liberdade, the city’s majestic, tree-lined boulevard flanked by mosaic-paved sidewalks. There’s a mix of 19th and 21st-century buildings that house designer shops, fancy restaurants, and trendy bars.
Several hotels line the avenue, and the chicest of them is Hotel Valverde. The boutique hotel is a townhouse with elegant, castle-view rooms and a contemporary teal-and-gold ambience.
Avenida da Liberdade opens onto Rossio Square, the preferred meeting spot of Lisboetas since the Middle Ages. The neo-Manueline façade of Rossio Train Station dominates the square on one side.
Nearby is Café Beira Gare, a no-frills bar that dishes out utterly delicious Portuguese-style street food. Stand at the bar as the locals do and savour the deep-fried varieties of salgados. There are cod cakes, shrimp empanadas, meat samosas, and more.
Wash it all down with a potent shot of sour cherry liqueur ginjinha. The hole-in-the-wall A Ginjinha in Largo São Domingos has been serving it since 1840. Read more about it in my article for Mint Lounge.
Then, walk down Rua Augusta towards the riverfront Praça do Comércio crowned by the striking Rua Augusta Arch. For a small fee, take the elevator up the arch for a sublime view of the river.
History meets art
Continuing down the riverfront, you arrive at Belém, which is home to two 16th-century UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The extravagantly carved Manueline-style Jerónimos Monastery and the fortified Belém Tower both played a significant role in Portugal’s long history of maritime discoveries.
The nearby Discoveries Monument commemorates Portugal’s naval conquests.
Near the monastery, Antiga Confeitaria de Belém has been dishing out pastéis de Belém (custard tarts) by the thousands since 1837. You cannot visit Lisbon and not eat at least a couple (if not more) of these! Read more about it in my article for Indian Express.
Across the immaculate Jardim da Praça do Império, is the Centro Cultural de Belém, which houses the modern and contemporary art Museum Berardo. But perhaps the most exciting of Lisbon’s museums is the recently opened Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology. Its undulating façade covered with 3D ceramic tiles makes a futuristic design statement.
Belém is a good stay option when you visit Lisbon. And you can’t beat the riverfront location of Altis Belém Hotel & Spa. At this luxury design hotel, the rooms look out over the Tagus and the Belém monuments.
The hotel’s Michelin-starred Feitoria Restaurant will please your palate with a seasonal menu of contemporary Portuguese cuisine.
Food for thought
Lisbon’s dining scene reflects the city’s resurgence. Young chefs are turning traditional Portuguese cuisine on its head, retaining its authentic flavours but giving it a modern makeover. Nowhere is this more evident than in Chiado where superstar chef José Avillez has no less than 7 restaurants and bars. These include the Michelin-starred restaurant Belcanto and the newly opened Beco – Cabaret Gourmet, which combines a stellar degustation menu with burlesque performances.
For a more relaxed meal, try Cantinho do Avillez where Portuguese cuisine marries international flavours.
Read more about what and where to eat in Lisbon (and Portugal) here.
While in Chiado, do your souvenir shopping at A Vida Portuguesa, a shop that looks like an old-fashioned haberdashery where you can buy Portuguese design products – traditional soaps in retro packaging, kitchen props, local food products, porcelain, and more. Much like Lisbon, it’s a place that celebrates its past while embracing its future.
Ready to visit Lisbon? What’s on your must-do list? Leave us a message below.
This feature was commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar India and was published in their September 2017 issue. Read it here.