I’ve often heard Lisbon compared to one of my favourite American cities, San Francisco and the seven hills, steep streets, trams and excellent food are certainly common to both. But as with most European capitals, what Lisbon adds to the mix is a rich history brought to life by sights including a fabulous old Moorish castle perched high on a hill above the city centre.
The views from Castelo de São Jorge are a great way to get a feel for Lisbon, a city filled with red tiled rooftops, narrow lanes and a mix of architectural styles. Many of the Lisbon’s buildings were destroyed in a mid 18th century earthquake, but some key ones survived and there’s also a vast array that are decorated inside and out with tiles, known as azulejos.
Getting to the castle is a steep walk up twisting streets, so like us you might find the #37 bus from Praça da Figueira is a more attractive option. Outside the castle was busy with tourists and there was a queue at the ticket office, but once inside the gates the crowds quickly thinned as there’s plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the spectacular views.
Built in the 11th century the castle was once the heart of a walled city and you can walk around parts of the walls and the 11 towers it still retains. There’s also an exhibition, a cafe and a restaurant housed in what was once part of a medieval royal residence.
The areas around the castle are some of the oldest parts of the city, particularly the Alfama, a tangle of narrow streets and alleys. Also nearby is the Sé, Lisbon’s main cathedral which has a simple but impressive facade with twin towers and a large rose window. The #28 tram passes right by the cathedral and is known as the tourist tram as it goes through some of the most interesting areas. You just need to be prepared for the queue to get on it and the fact it will be standing room only once the small number of seats have been filled.
A few streets below the cathedral is the unusual Casa dos Bicos, which translates as the House of Points as its covered in diamond shaped stones. Just across the street is the terminus for the #25 tram which is deemed another classic Lisbon tram ride and does take a picturesque route, but not as impressive as the #28.
A short walk from here is the Praça do Comercio, a huge riverfront square that’s at the end of Rua Augusta, a pedestrianised street lined with shops, cafes and market stalls. Its also home to the Arco da Rua Augusta, a large and impressive gateway to the city. This area is the Baxia and together with Chiado next door is one of the nicest areas in Lisbon for shopping, meandering and lunch.
Further north, the Rossio area has some large but lovely squares, the national theatre and Elevador do Lavra, one of the city’s classic funiculars which help take the strain off the calf muscles. Another of these is Elevador da Gloria in the Barrio Alto, the upper town that sits on a hill to the west of the Baxia. I rode this on my first trip to Lisbon and it transports you up an extraordinarily steep street in just a couple of minutes.
A smoother tram ride is the modern #15 which runs parallel to the River Tejo and takes just over 20 minutes to get to Belém, a suburb that’s famous not least for being the home of one of Lisbon’s favourite foods – Pastel de Nata, a delicious custard cream pastry tart. The tiled Antiga Confeitaria de Belém pastry shop and cafe has been serving them since 1837 but it’s immensely popular. As it’s huge inside, getting a table to enjoy a pastry with a coffee is likely to be quicker than queuing outside.
Apart from pastries, Belém has a lot to offer. It’s in a lovely riverside setting with a broad promenade which includes the Moorish influenced Torre de Belém built in the 16th century and the much more modern Padrão dos Descobrimentos. This Monument to the Discoveries is 54m high and was erected in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator. A statue of him is at the head of a line of other Portuguese heroes.
We visited Belém on a Sunday when there was also a market leading down to the riverfront and offering a nice variety of local crafts. Just back from the river is the beautiful Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the buildings that thankfully survived the Lisbon earthquake. There are also some small museums in the area including the Bernado Collection of modern art, all of it making Belém a must do visit while in the city.
In fact there’s lots more to Lisbon that I haven’t mentioned, but I think this is enough for anyone to get and flavour and agree its well worth a visit. So I’ll just finish off with a couple of eating and drinking recommendations, as that’s something my friends and I spent quite a bit of our time doing on this trip.
After we arrived on Saturday, lunch was at Andorra, one of a number of restaurants with an outside terrace in Ruas das Portas de Santo Antão. It’s a great spot for enjoying the sunshine, a glass or two of Rose and some people watching – we had a very good view of a wedding party arriving at a nearby church. The food wasn’t fantastic but was pretty good – one friend and I opted for salt cod a bras which was a delicious comfort food mix of shredded cod, straw fried potatoes, onion and egg. It’s a traditional Portuguese dish and though we looked for it on other menus we never found it again, so my advice is to snap it up if you spot it.
On Saturday night we went to Lisboa a Noite, 69 Rua de Gaveas, one of the Bairro Alto’s narrow cobbled streets (flat shoes or wedges are your best bet in Lisbon girls). Every type of food is on offer but fish is a speciality and we had a fab meal. After dinner we walked through the Bairro Alto passing plenty of very lively but mostly quite small bars. Our destination was Pavilhao Chines at 89 Rua Dom Pedro V, a quirky place with a series of rooms lined with mirrored cabinets that are stuffed with all sorts of everything from model trams to hats. It serves every kind of drink too and has a cocktail list that’s printed in such a gorgeously designed book it’s actually for sale.Sunday lunch in Belém was at the Enoteca de Belém, a tiny wine bar in Travessa Marta Pinto, a small side street off the main Rua Belém. The food and wine were excellent and even the toilet was worth a visit to see the vast array of colourful toilet rolls! After a walk around we went for another drink and ice cream at Nosolo Italia, a geleteria and pizzeria with a nice terrace close to the riverfront. That evening was dinner at SeaMe, another fish restaurant in Rua da Loreto in Bairro Alto where the menu also had an extensive and interesting range of sushi.
The next day before heading to the airport we tried to have a late lunch at Casa do Alentjo, back in Rua das Portas de Santo Antão, but it closed at 3pm. So I don’t know what the food is like, but its worth checking out because the building is a former Moorish palace with a gorgeous courtyard and a ballroom. Its actually a regional cultural centre so when you visit you’re quite likely to see a Lisbon choral group, some dancing or just a group of older residents socialising. On my last visit I also went to Bica do Sapato, a stylish restaurant in a converted warehouse that’s part owned by American actor John Malkovich.
So, it was my second trip to Lisbon and I liked it as much this time as the first and still feel there’s more to see and do. It’s quite a big city but the different areas make it feel cosier and an ideal choice for a weekend break in one of Europe’s most exciting and cosmopolitan destinations.
Click on an image below to scroll through the gallery.