It was not too long ago that Lisbon was often dismissed as the unfashionable capital of Portugal, the ‘Poor Man of Europe’. This was harsh on a city that spectacularly straddles the River Tejo with a flurry of old world architecture, rich African cultural influences and a notoriously wild nightlife scene.
Today, savvy city breakers are finally cottoning on that budget airline flights have opened up the city. Delights such as the old world streets of the Alfama and the Biarro Alto, plus one of Europe’s most impressive urban renewal projects, the Parque das Nações, await.
Why is Lisbon great for a weekend break?
Because it has never been easier nor cheaper to get to Lisbon. Gone mercifully are the days when the only ways of getting here were ridiculously expensive flights with scheduled airlines. Budget carriers now compete, on the London routes especially, making a weekend break more tempting than ever before.
Getting around Lisbon is both easy and a joy. In fact, the city is like a giant theme park for adults. Myriad little cruisers and ferries ply the river, trundling old trams rattle on up to its landmark castle and suburban trains drift off to the Atlantic beaches at Cascais and Estoril. There are funiculars too, as well as the unique Elevador de Santa Justa, an early twentieth-century lift you go up just to take a look at the view then nip back down again.
What is there to do and see?
Kicking off in the heart of the city, the Baixa is based on an easy to navigate grid system built after the devastating earthquake of 1755. The new viewing gallery at the landmark Arco Rua Augusta lets you enjoy a bird’s eye view of the area.
The Baixa and the nearby Chiado are ideal for a shopping splurge with plenty of pavement cafés on hand for respite.
Afterwards, jump on vintage Tram 28, which snakes its way from the Baixa in a screech of metal as it lurches upwards, past the city’s cathedral and towards St. George’s Castle, which opens up the finest views of the city. They have a café where you can enjoy a cold Sagres beer or milky Galao coffee as you plan your sightseeing from this lofty perch.
Further seawards there is evidence of Lisbon’s Golden Age, which came in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when its brave explorers sailed out of the River Tejo in search of the New World.
Catch a train or tram to Belem, the historic quarter dedicated to those days. The Belem Tower is the last thing the sailors would have seen of Lisbon as the land shrunk in their wake, while the hulking Monument to the Discoveries strikes out towards the sea, with myriad cultural events breathing contemporary life back into it.
Away from the water, the Jeronimos Monastery is easily the city’s most striking building with its elegant fairytale-esque curves and the flourishes of its Manueline architecture.
The more modern face of Lisbon is on show at the Parque das Nações site, where the Expo 98 was held. It is a model of urban regeneration and home to the Oceanário, one of the largest aquariums in the world, with everything from playful otters to hulking sharks.
There are concert venues, museums and a flurry of restaurants and bars too. Visit the Pavilion of Knowledge science museum and take a ride on the cable car, which opens up the whole site.
So the nightlife is good – where should I party?
The tight, packed old lanes of the Biarro Alto attract a mixed crowd of locals and visitors, who flock to enjoy a chaotic collage of fado groups, characterful independent bars and bustling little clubs.
Walk uphill from the Praca Luís de Camoes and embark on a bar crawl. Clube da Esquina (Rua da Barroca 30) with its live DJs is a great place to take the area’s pulse and pick up flyers for one off events.
Some of the hottest action – especially later on in the night – is out in the converted warehouses of the Doca de Santo Amaro and the Doca de Alcantara, where riverside bars, clubs and restaurants tempt. K Urban Beach is a sushi bar and club rolled into one right on the water.
The more central area around Santa Apolonia is also on the up. Legendary super club Lux, ideal for a cocktail on a sink in sofa before hitting the dancefloor with the locals.
What’s for dinner?
Atlantic seafood is a highlight on many menus in the Portuguese capital. Look out, too, for delicious goat’s cheese from the Alentejo just across the river.
The old world restaurants of the Alfama are the place for simple grilled fish dishes. For a more upmarket seafood feast though – the cod baked in salt is a stunner – head to Frade dos Mares.
Fried chicken is also something of a local budget institution – try it at El Rei d’Frango.
Make sure to enjoy the seriously underrated Portuguese wines too, especially hearty reds from the Alentejo and crisp whites from the Douro Valley.
Out at Parque das Nações, Ilha Doce dishes up the type of hearty, expertly cooked food you find all over budget pleasing Lisbon. Tuck into clams in garlic and white wine or pork Alentejo style with clams and potatoes. They dish up a mean plate of sardines with water views too.
Where can I finally get some sleep?
As Lisbon’s popularity has soared so have room rates. Look out for discounted deals at business hotels at weekends, when the besuited crowd flees the city. Apartments are a good value option. The Santos River Apartments are brightly furnished with river views in increasingly hip Cais de Sodre.
If you’re looking to splash out, the new Myriad is a sleek option at Parque das Nações. This soaring five-star tower hotel offers views of the River Tejo, as well as open plan bedrooms and in-room hot tubs. They have spa too, complete with bubble jets, a steam room and a sauna with a view.
Explore more of Portugal with the Rough Guide to Portugal, or buy the Pocket Rough Guide Lisbon to explore the city in more depth. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
Top image © anyaivanova/Shutterstock