Lisbon, the coolest of Europe's capitals, is on everyone's hotlist these days. They flock to this hilly Portuguese city on the mighty Tagus to tramp the cobbled lanes and discover its rich maritime history by day and hang out in shaded bars, serenaded by mournful Fado balladeers, by night.
What's more, Lisbon is a great spot to stretch the ailing pound – this is the best-value destination for a city break in terms of spends on the ground.
We asked Nicolas Roucos, general manager of Inspira Santa Marta Hotel, an 89-room boutique hotel with spa close to the city centre, to pick the must-do experiences for anyone visiting this historic city.
Lisbon: What not to miss
Lisbon: What not to miss
Take a stroll around the Alfama district. Getting lost in its narrow, cobbled streets and alleyways is a rite of passage. Once you can navigate your way around this neighbourhood of ivy-clad, tumbledown red-roofed buildings, which lie beneath the ramparts of Castelo de São Jorge, you’ll start feeling like a real Lisboéta.
At Café A Brasileira (Rua Garrett 120), a venerable Art Deco coffee house, you’ll find faces young and old reflected in gilded mirrors, all here to worship at this temple to caffeine. Touristy? Yes, but also loved by locals. Outside, watching over this favourite city-centre meeting place, is a statue of poet Fernando Pessoa, one of the turn-of-the-century intellectuals who were Brasileira regulars.
Experience sun, sea and Sintra. This elegant coastal town, just north of the city, comes with a Unesco world heritage status and grand hilltop villas that were once home to the Portuguese royal family. Relax on the sands beneath cliffs thick with pine and oak, topped with the fantastical conical chimneys and candy-coloured turrets of the iconic Castle of the Moors and the neo-Gothic Pena Palace.
Pull up a bar stool at Tasca do Chico (Ruo do Diário de Notícias 39). This old tavern, papered with posters and photos of musicians past, is beloved of Fado fans – the traditional Portuguese music defined by a bittersweet, often melancholic state of longing. Order a glass of red and a plate of rustic, grilled sausage, and sit back to enjoy one of the regular singing sessions.
Try a snifter of Ginjinha morello liqueur. The locals have been knocking back warming doses of this deep-amber liquor, made from sour cherries, for centuries. It’s a syrupy sweet shot, complete with a stoned fruit in the bottom, and typically served over the counter in tiny, hole-in-the-wall bars, such as the venerable A Ginjinha (Largo de Saõ Domingos 8).
Taste a Pastel de nata, still warm from the oven. These flaky pastry tarts, with custard gently baked and browned on top, are so addictive that people have them shipped worldwide. Locals will fiercely champion their favourite bakery, but Pastéis de Bélem (Rua de Bélem 84) is really renowned and does a brisk trade from dawn until dusk.
See the city from Castelo de São Jorge. The distinctive turrets of this magnificent Moorish hilltop castle are visible from across Lisbon. Hike up (or cheat and hop on tram 28 to just under its rambling ramparts) to explore the former home and peaceful gardens of Portugal’s medieval kings – and to get unparalleled panoramic views across harbour and hills.
Dine in landmark Restaurante Tágide (Largo da Academia Nacional de Belas Artes 18-20), overlooking the Tagus river, where the setting amid beautiful azulejo tiling is as fine as the food. Select from the wall of wine bottles and pair your choice with such classic dishes as clams in white wine, and garlic soup with almond and rabbit.
Take a tour the Monastery of Jerónimos (Praça do Império), Tower of Belém and Monument to the Discoveries (both Avenue Brasília) and breathe in the powerful history of Portugal’s early seafaring days. Here, in the handsome, harbour-front neighbourhood of Belem, you’ll find the eye-bogglingly ornate monastery where Vasco da Gama resided before his Far Eastern voyage, the 16th-century tower fortress that once guarded Lisbon’s river, and the Monument to the Discoveries, topped by a carved-stone army of feather-hatted Portuguese sailors, explorers and navigators.
Feel the fury of the Atlantic at Boca do Inferno, a chasm set deep into the cliffs near the seaside satellite town of Cascais. The name of this landmark literally translates as 'Hell’s Mouth', and you can see why when you step out on the viewing platform for a dramatic, ocean-sprayed panorama of waves crashing onto the jagged rocks below.