Those in the know have been quietly enjoying Lisbon’s charms for years, but the city is currently having a bit of a moment. In recent times, it’s seen the opening of a slew of modern museums, trendy clubs, smart boutique-style accommodation and the regeneration of some of its more run-down areas – all while retaining a traditional atmosphere and friendly vibe.
Add to this some of western Europe’s lowest prices for food and drink and a politically stable background, and you can understand why it’s so popular. Here, Matthew Hancock, co-author of the new Rough Guide to Portugal, runs down a few of the things that make Lisbon one of Europe’s hottest city breaks right now.
There are lots of new openings
Though endearingly traditional, Lisbon can do hip as well as any other European capital – the recently renovated Ribeira Market is currently the place to eat and drink, with the city’s iconic Pap’açorda restaurant giving it a seal of approval by moving there.
The Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) is a sleek new addition to the riverside in Belém, while 2017 will see the opening of a new Jewish museum in the historic Alfama district and a new viewpoint on the Golden Gate-like 25 de Abril Bridge.
It’s one of Europe’s most affordable places
The bottom line for most people’s city break is the cost – and Lisbon is still remarkably affordable. A room in a central guesthouse can be had for under €80 even in high season, and a dorm in a hostel is under €20.
Choose carefully and you can eat well for around €10 while a travel card on the bus, trams and metro is just €6 for the day.
Even more refreshingly, an espresso is under €1, a small beer is just €1.20 and you can buy a quality bottle of wine in a supermarket for under €5.
There’s an endlessly enchanting city centre
Lisbon has always been a place to get lost in. Head to the centre, put the map away and just wander. It’s the sort of city where you stumble upon wonderful tile-fronted buildings, little-visited squares and stepped alleys leading to tiny welcoming cafés.
Not that the city lacks sites. No visit to Lisbon is complete without enjoying the view across the Tagus from the hilltop castle, or admiring the astonishing stonework of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Belém, or the amazingly diverse collections of art at the Gulbenkian Museum.
In fact there is an eclectic array of museums that could keep you occupied for weeks, from the impressive Maritime Museum to the quaintly old-fashioned Carris tram museum.
But unless you hit one of those days when it decides to rain (and being on the Atlantic, it certainly can rain with a vengeance), you’ll probably spend most of your time admiring the city’s handsome profiles from the viewpoints dotted around its seven hills.
When the weather’s good, it’s great
This might not seem to matter hugely when you go on a city break, but it helps when there are more than 3000 hours of sunlight a year. Even in December, you can expect an average of five hours’ sun a day. And with so much to see and do outdoors, that is a real bonus.
If the heat gets a bit much, it’s also a short hop to some superb beaches. Estoril is where Ian Fleming gained inspiration for James Bond when it was a nest of spies during the WWII, and today it has one of the region’s best beaches.
Nearby Cascais, the next stop on the endearing coast-hugging rail line, has smaller beaches but is more attractive, with grand mansions and historic backstreets.
There’s delectable food at every turn
Less well known than its Spanish neighbours, Portuguese cuisine is hugely underrated. Every restaurant serves a tempting array of freshly grilled fish (and not just sardines) and generally affordable seafood, not to mention various versions of bacalhau – the national dish of dried salted cod.
Pork is also a big deal here, as is the succulent grilled chicken, with or without piri piri sauce. It helps, too, that you can wash all this down with local wines that are invariably cheap and inevitably quaffable. Don’t miss the pastries, either. The pastel de nata custard tarts taste even better on their own turf, and are the best known of an array of goodies that you’ll find behind the counter of every pastelaria.
The nightlife is no holds barred
The Portuguese are generally more sedate than their Iberian neighbours, at least until the clubs open, when they show that they know how to have a good time.
Lisbon is also the home of fado, Portugal’s distinct national music, and though some of the fado clubs are little more than tourist shows, find an authentic fado bar and it’s hard not to be moved by the experience.
The hotels offer more than just rooms
Many of Lisbon’s old town houses in the central and historic Baixa district have been renovated in recent years to become smart stylish boutique hotels, hostels or apartment rentals.
One of the latest to open is the Pestana CR7, backed by (and named after) former sporting Lisbon star Ronaldo, who usually knows where to find success. All of these hotels mean that you can get some very good deals, especially out of season and if you book far enough in advance. Here are our recommendations for the best places to stay in Lisbon.
It’s easy to get around
Central Lisbon is small enough to walk around, though you may want to hitch a lift on one of the trundling, old-fashioned street lifts or elevadores to negotiate its steep hills.
For trips further afield, the metro system is smooth and efficient, as are its buses. Far more fun, though, is to hop on one the wonderful trams, mostly dating from the early twentieth century – the five routes tackle some of the city’s steepest streets.
Written by Matthew Hancock with some contributions by Amanda Tomlin.