Falling for the charms of Lisbon

Lisbon has three tram lines winding their way through the narrow streets (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Lisbon has three tram lines winding their way through the narrow streets (Getty Images/iStockphoto) - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Simon O’Neill is entranced by Portugal’s beautiful capital city

The European city break has become a staple of the holiday diary for many Brits, with Barcelona, Paris, Rome and Prague all featuring prominently in the top ten. One city, however, is often overlooked, but deserves to be up there with the best of them.

The Portuguese capital Lisbon has as much to offer as her more popular counterparts, scoring highly for accessibility, good weather, culture, shopping and food. It’s also by the sea, with glorious beaches close at hand.

Add value for money, friendly Lisboans who are genuinely proud of their city and the lack of a terrorist threat and it’s easy to see why tourists are finally catching on to its many charms. An estimated 3.6 million of them visited last year, up almost 12 per cent on 2014. Barcelona, by comparison, got 7.6 million.

Historic, vibrant and a feast for the eyes and stomach, Lisbon ticks all the short break boxes. A two-hour flight from Heathrow and a short Metro hop from the terminal took us to our city centre hotel, the four-star Marques De Pombal, in Avenue Liberdade, Lisbon’s main thoroughfare. The next three days flew by with so much to see and do (and eat and drink).

It could be argued that the making of modern Lisbon – and Portugal – was a terrible natural disaster. In November 1755 an estimated 8.5 magnitude earthquake all but destroyed the city, aided by huge resulting fires and a tsunami. The carnage caused up to 100,000 deaths and laid waste to much of Lisbon, but rapid and imaginative reconstruction brought a bold new capital city back to life, as well as sparking widespread social change. Fast forward 260 years and Lisbon is being ‘discovered’ by tourists, culture vultures and foodies. Getting around is easy, thanks to the cheap and reliable Metro. It’s a good job, as there is so much to see and do.

Culture lovers who think the world revolves around Paris will get a pleasant surprise at venues such as The Gulbenkian Museum, which mixes ancient Egyptian, Islamic and Oriental art with an eye-catching modern collection. Belem’s Museu Berardo is packed with 20th and 21st century art from the likes of Picasso and Jackson Pollock and at Museu do Oriente, a converted salt cod warehouse, feast your eyes on the Asian exhibits and your stomach at its riverfront restaurant.

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The city teems with restaurants, from the traditional to the trendy. And if it’s traditional you’re after then Pap A’Corda, formerly in the bustling Bairro Alto (high neighbourhood), is a good place to start.

Its spartan interior has hosted the likes of Robert De Niro and Sean Connery and booking ahead is a must. Acorda itself is a stew, made with bread and olive oil and almost always containing fish, usually shrimp, lobster or cod. The restaurant abandoned its quirky base this year and relocated to trendy Mercado do Ribiera and it was a smart move, as here is a food lovers’ nirvana. The city’s fish, fruit and veg market was condensed into a smaller space and a rebranded dining hall opened in 2014 with some 40 food kiosks, clustered around a huge communal dining area, offering punters a round-the-world food journey with some of Lisbon’s top chefs.

Oh, and don’t go home without trying the custard tarts, or Pasteis de Nata. Introduced by Catholic monks more than 200 years ago, they are an unfeasibly sweet speciality here.

If it’s sightseeing you crave, start with the iconic 15th century fortress, the Belem Tower and Vasco De Gama’s resting place the Jeronimos Monastery. Hop on one of the city’s three funicular railways as they clank within inches of front doors through narrow streets. One will take you to the Bairro Alto district, a shopping and nightlife mecca in a honeycomb of historic streets.

Rome may be more historic, Paris more romantic and Barcelona sexier. But Lisbon tops the lot for an all-round experience.

Book your stay

We flew with British Airways from Heathrow to Lisbon (flight time 2.5 hours). Flight times are civilized and prices start at £124 per person return based on a December booking.

We stayed at the four star Marques De Pombal in Avenue Liberdade. Rooms start from around £112 per night for bed and breakfast for a December booking

For more information on the city see visitlisboa.com.


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