Lisbon is often overlooked but it’s one of the world’s great capital cities. It’s well-worth visiting for its beautiful architecture and superb food and drink. You’ll find the city to be one of the most affordable European capitals, too. The city is a foodie’s heaven and, in a way, I was grateful for the steep slopes and inclines. I could easily have put on a few pounds in weight otherwise!
The hills slope down towards the Tagus River, which is spanned by the Golden Gate-like, 24th of April suspension bridge. Its span reaches right across the rooftops of houses and when you walk the streets underneath, you realise what a racket the vehicles overhead make.
It provides a good navigation marker for the trendy LX factory. LX is simply local shorthand for Lisbon and the former warehouse has become the city’s hippest shared workspace for computer and collaborative businesses. The street below is filled with cafes, bars and art and design shops.
Another foodie place, which is nearer the city centre, is the Timeout Market. It was founded by the people behind London’s what’s on magazine. They’ve filled an old market hall with artisan food, delis and snack bars where people can choose the food they want and rejoin their friends to eat on large communal dining tables. The place is filled with dozens of main course, dessert, beer and wine choices from the stalls, bars and kitchens dotted around the hall. It’s like London’s Borough Market but much bigger.
There’s some hip and trendy bars nearby too. I loved the cocktail bar on Rue Ribeira Nova. There’s no menu – the barman decides what you’d like!
Back at the LX factory I met up with Bruno Gomes, one of the businessmen renting an office space on the fourth floor. I tried to convince myself that the steep stair climb would wipe out the previous day’s intake of Ginginha liqueur.
Bruno set up We Hate Tourism Tours. And as you might imagine, his company’s name was the starting point of our discussion. Bruno had been giving informal tours to visiting friends. After a successful trip a guest suggested that he start his own company. His response was that he hated tourism tours and the name stuck.
Bruno says he wants to share the love he has of the city and explain why Lisbon’s culture is so special. Sometimes clients get taken around in an old military jeep but don’t expect to tick off the sites from Tripadvisor’s top 10 attractions. “If you want to do that, pick another company,” he says. However if you want to ask locals about life in Lisbon and what their concerns and challenges are, this is the tour for you. There’s no gloss or spin and Bruno and his colleagues will “tell it like it is.”
I asked Bruno whether there are differences between Lisbon residents and the people in Porto. He told me Portugal’s second-city thinks that Lisboners don’t do much work. And he knows why they say that. “Lisbon has amazing food, the sun and the ocean. We haven’t got much money but we have the life.”
Bruno also likes to share facts about the city he loves. In Lisbon’s cafés, an espresso coffee has a different name not used elsewhere in Portugal. It’s a ‘bica’, which means fountain. The name stuck because Lisbon was filled with pumps for public water access. They used to drip, just like the early coffee machines.
Bruno has a really useful map for his guests highlighting interesting spots to visit and suggested places to eat. I followed his dinner recommendation and headed to the city centre ferry terminal at Cais do Sodré to take the ten-minute ride across the Tagus to Cachilas. I had been told to keep walking along the wharf alongside the river until I found two fish restaurants. But after ten minutes I wondered if I’d made the right decision as I headed deep into an industrial wasteland, with abandoned warehouses on my left and the river on the right. There wasn’t a soul in sight. Then after five more minutes of walking and nervously looking over my shoulder, the path veered to the left around a small inlet. The bright yellow umbrellas of the restaurants of Ponto Final were tucked in the corner in front of me.
I had a lovely meal of roasted fish and very garlicky roast potatoes sitting at a table on a narrow 15ft wide strip of path around the top of the river wall. One couple sat watching the sunset over the city on chairs balanced at the top of the sea wall. They must have had nerves of steel. Bruno’s tip was good. The food was delicious and cheap and the view was incredible. The last rays of sun shone through the towers of the suspension bridge and picked out the white stone and red tiles of the city rooftops across the water. The setting sun silhouetted the 300ft Statue of Christ, which overlooks Lisbon from this side of the river. There’s a lift from the waterside if you want to get up the cliffs to the statue.
I should say something about getting around in Lisbon. The underground isn’t extensive but the service is good and it is clean, feels safe and is cheap. Taxis are reasonable and the city is compact and walkable. That is just as well because I wouldn’t want to drive. I spent five minutes transfixed by two uniformed police officers who appeared to be controlling busy traffic using whistles alone. I couldn’t work out their system or how the order given by two sharp blasts differed from one blow. That’s why it’s best not to get behind the wheel here.
You should also realise that Lisbon has hills! And the city operates four hill-climbing funicular cars in the central residential areas.
It is worth a ride just for the experience. I took one to climb to the summit of Barrio Alto, only to walk the steep slope back down the other side. I was heading back beneath the suspension bridge to visit the Carris Transport Museum. You can see how Lisbon has expanded in the museum’s photographic displays and exhibits. You can also ride a 1901-built tram, which does circuits around the museum’s large central yard. I was very lucky – I was allowed to ring the bell! Kids will love that.
The final museum visit came highly recommended by Bruno. These days Lisbon’s residents can express their feelings and sentiments using graffiti. But years ago, they used tiles to make statements. The most distinctive feature of the city’s architecture is the tiling on the fronts of homes and businesses. And the National Tile Museum documents the history of the ceramic art of ‘azulejos’ since the 1500s.
I met with Dr Alexandre Pais, sitting in the stylish museum coffee bar and I couldn’t resist another one of those custard tarts. Alexandre confessed that he ate one each day and then tried to convince me that a media report had proclaimed their health benefits!
During my guided tour of the museum he showed me examples of the tiles through the centuries and explained their symbolism. Yellow was used in some of the blue and white tiles to look like gold and to suggest that the occupant was wealthy. The building that houses the museum is incredible in itself. The former convent contains the impressive St Anthony chapel. It’s walls and ceilings are adorned with portraits in gilt frames and the room almost glows because of its golden appearance. The most incredible exhibit is a proud, panoramic view of Lisbon made up of 1,300 blue and white tiles. It’s an accurate representation of the cityscape created just before the earthquake levelled much of the centre. And it’s the only representation of what was there before. You need to set aside around two hours to take in the museum, which is about ten minutes out of the town centre. Details are on the museum’s website at www.museudoazulejo.pt.
Getting to Lisbon
Many people visit Lisbon for a short, weekend break but I think you need a bit longer to really take in everything this fascinating and beautiful city has to offer. And it’s not just about the city – the Atlantic beaches and surfing nearby is highly rated, so you might want to spend a few days in town before sun seeking on the coast.
Lisbon is cheaper than other European capitals and affordable to visit. Both Ryanair and EasyJet are among the low-cost carriers that serve the city from the UK, from around £50 return. The airport is only 6km from the city centre and a taxi costs just €10.The cab queues can be long so you might want to follow my naughty travel hack – go around the corner to departures and pick up a cab that has just dropped somebody off. It worked for me.