Europe's westernmost capital has a red suspension bridge, blue-tiled buildings, black and white patterned pavings, yellow trams and white churches. Visual temptations never ease in Lisbon, yet it remains one of the continent's most underrated capitals. But that may be about to change.
The 'City of Light' built on seven hills is a colourful motley of centuries-old Moorish architecture, destination museums, fine food and oodles of laid-back charm. Yellow trams trundle along streets paved in dramatic monochromatic patterns. Pigeons flock in fountained squares and pedestrians loiter in historic barrios (districts) crammed with azulejo-tiled buildings. Melancholy strains of Fado float in the air. First-time travellers are often surprised by the gritty yet glamorous appeal of Europe's most underrated and unsung destinations. But it's easy to get smitten by a city with a long and rich lineage dating back to 1200 B.C. when it was a flourishing trading port.
Unpeel the layers of time in Portugal's coastal capital, starting with Alfama, the compact historic centre perched on Lisbon's highest hill. Maps are best discarded to truly soak up the soul of this photogenic warren of streets, littered with whitewashed houses, traditional Fado bars, quaint eateries, forgotten churches and boast-worthy views of the Tagus River. Complete the round-up at the ruins of the 9th-century Saint George's castle, from where all of red-roofed Lisbon sprawls lazily below you for miles.
Then descend into the valley below to discover the neatly laid-out grid of grand 18th-century buildings in the Lower Town, Baixa. The historic riverfront Praça do Comércio Square and the medieval Rossio are essential stops on the route that inevitably lead to the main artery of the city, the palm-lined Avenida da Liberdade. Indulge in people-watching, be entertained by street performers and grab some traditional Bacalhau while you're in the area.
The Bairro Alto or Upper Town on the opposite hill is another popular neighbourhood to potter around. A literary and artistic haven in the 15th-century, this bohemian district is now a top-lister for its bars, restaurants, street art and vibrant nightlife. Walk into as many churches as you can spot. Most have ornate, heavily gilded interiors, bordering on over-the-top but dazzling nevertheless. Sophisticated Chiado nearby is a favourite for its contemporary vibes, luxury retailers, elegant theatres and reservation-only restaurants. Remember to step into Livraria Bertrand, believed to be the oldest operating bookstore globally (circa 1732), and you may turn into a bookworm. The aura is infectious.
Finally, reserve time for the historic waterfront district of Belem, from where 15th-century explorers, including Ferdinand Magellan, embarked on their world discoveries. Pay homage to the Tower of Belem, a stone structure that rises out of the river and is accessible only by a pedestrian bridge. Familiarise yourself with the basics of Manueline architecture at the ornate Jerónimos Monastery, where the tomb of Vasco de Gama is enshrined. Conclude the tryst by queueing up at the famous CaféPastéis de Bélem to drool over delectable Pastéis de Nata (custard tarts). The original recipe, which originated here in 1837, is still a closely guarded secret.
Avenida da Liberdade: This leafy boulevard, built in the 19th-century, is Lisbon's answer to the Champs Elysées, with its elegant fountains, cobbled streets and a line-up of imposing mansions. Carolina Herrera, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Cartier, Trussardi and Gucci are a few of the coveted designer brands on show here. Splurge.
Embaixada: Head to this upscale shopping gallery located on the posh Príncipe Real occupying the restored 19th-century, Arab-style Ribeiro da Cunha Palace, adorned with rich paintings, a stairwell and a vintage elevator. Spend a few leisurely hours browsing for chic local and global fashion labels, or stock up on organic skincare, children's clothes and footwear.
Baixa: The historic centre of Lisbon, sprawling between the central square of Praça do Comercio and the Rossio and Figueira squares, is a favourite hangout for shoppers in Lisbon. Take your time to explore the area's attractions while you flit in and out of small shops. Ceramic and cork souvenirs, wine, clothes and shoes will keep you hooked.
El Corte Inglés: This large departmental store occupies 9 floors and includes boutiques of international brands like Karen Millen, Carolina Herrera, and Ermenegildo Zegna. The store directory covers shoes, accessories, cosmetics and perfumes, household goods, electronics, and books.
Colombo shopping centre: The largest shopping centre on the Iberian Peninsula and one of the largest in Europe has a whopping 440 stores, ranging from clothes, shoes, cosmetics, perfumery and household goods. High street brands like Zara and Bershka to designers like Furla and Lacoste are well represented.
Museums & the Arts
Museu de Lisboa: Housed in the 18th-century Palácio Pimenta, this museum is your go-to for an intriguing capsule course on Lisbon's history. The galleries lined with blue-tile are loaded with fascinating archaeological artefacts starting with the Stone Age and going on to the early 20th-century. Don't miss the model of Lisbon before the 1755 Great Earthquake.
Museu Nacional do Azulejo: The origin and development of Portuguese tile art since the 15th-century is well-documented in this beautiful museum. The most remarkable exhibit is a panel showing the city before the earthquake of 1755. The Manueline cloister and barrel-vaulted church of the building will delight architecture aficionados.
MAAT - Museu de Arte, Arquitetura e Tecnologia: The innovative industrial architecture of the building is just one of the reasons to visit Belém. One of the most visited museums in the country offers various displays ranging from visual arts and urban affairs to science and technology. Keep a watch out for the changing calendar of exhibitions of contemporary Portuguese artists.
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian: Gawk at a carefully curated collection of 6,000 priceless artefacts spanning over 4,000 years, from Antiquity to the 19th-century. All objects in the museum belong to the private collection of Armenian oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian. Noteworthy essentials to bookmark are the Roman medallions from Egypt, 16th-century illustrated manuscripts from Armenia and Lalique's Art Noveau jewellery.
Museu Nacional dos Coches: The most extensive collection of historic coaches and carriages worldwide includes vehicles from Portugal, Italy, France, Austria and Spain, from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Apart from carriages with sumptuous red velvet interiors and gilded woodwork, look out for harnesses, lamps, whips and riding crops and saddle chairs.
Football: Portuguese football has ascended to unprecedented heights, thanks to celebrity players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Fans of the sport can hit up José Alvalade, an iconic venue that has hosted Champions League and European Cup finals. Tours include visits to the players' tunnel, pitch, press conference room and changing rooms. The stadium's museum is a treasure trove of trophies, star jerseys and memorabilia. An entire section is dedicated to Cristiano Ronaldo.
Golf: Golfers will be enthused to know that there are 40 courses within a 40-kilometre radius of Lisbon. West Cliffs Golf Course, located an hour north of Lisbon, is worth a trip just for the epic Atlantic views. Closer by, just 20 kilometres away, is the historic Lisbon Sports Club, surrounded by forests, high plains and deep sand dunes. And finally, there is the Montado Hotel and Golf Course, a par 72 course set on an individual island surrounded by water.
Surfing: Most of Portugal's surfing hot spots are located just 40 minutes from Lisbon. The famous Carcavelos beach, a golden stretch of 1.5 kilometres along the Lisbon-Cascais shoreline, is a 10-minute drive from the city centre. Surfboards and other equipment can be rented easily.
Restaurants & Bars
Alma: Book a table in this 2-Michelin star located in an 18th-century building in the heart of the Chiado district. Apart from seasonal à la carte options, you can order the set menu speckled with traditional, international and Mediterranean dishes. Favourite dishes include confit suckling piglet with turnip top puree, pickled onions and black pepper jus, and basil sorbet.
Belcanto: This elegant 2-Michelin star is located in a former convent in the Bairro Alto (Chiado) district. Order from the à la carte or settle for the set menus. Either way, you can expect to be blown away by the chef's creative take on classic Portuguese specialities. Reservations are recommended.
EPUR: This one-Michelin star restaurant in the Chiado district has eye-catching interiors blending Scandinavian minimalism and Portuguese sensibilities. Enjoy the surprise of a brilliantly executed tasting menu with views of the Tagus river. There are three degustation menus, with four, six and eight moments.
Eneko Lisboa: Informal, yet stylish with industrial tavern interiors, this one-Michelin starred restaurant celebrates the flavours of Basque cuisine, with food grilled over charcoal, small plates and sharing dishes paired with local wines from typical wine barrels. There are two equally tantalizing tasting menus to choose from.
CURA: A one-Michelin star restaurant located in the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon is an elegant, contemporary space with Madeira wood panelling, bevelled mirrors, a Picasso-inspired carpet and an open-view kitchen. The three tasting menus showcase inventive culinary craft with combinations of the finest regionally sourced seasonal ingredients.
Lead your gourmet heart to the home of a local host to attend a Portuguese cooking class. Stoke your appetite with some classic Portuguese appetisers, accompanied by a glass of local Portuguese wine as you join the host family in their kitchen. Then get into the hands-on mode and learn to whip up some traditional Portuguese dishes from scratch. Finally, bask in the fruits of your labour as you join your hosts at the dining table to enjoy an authentic meal.
It is almost obligatory in Lisbon to shop for timeless gifts and souvenirs at A Vida Portuguesa, a homegrown chain of stores founded by journalist-turned entrepreneur Catarina Portas. Artisan quality shopping baskets, vintage Viarco pencils, Bordalo Pinheiro swallows, Secla ceramics and Serrote notepads; from Portuguese jewellery, stationery and linens are just a few of the unusual objects on display on the shelves. Each thoughtfully packaged product has a remarkable story about its Portuguese culture.
The fairyland hill town of Sintra is a short drive of under 30 kilometres from Lisbon. Wander its manicured floral gardens and ivy-clad woodlands on your way to the vibrantly painted National Palace of Pena to see fine relief work, sculptures, chandeliers and papier-mache furniture. Make sure to stop by at the gardens and palace of Monserrate before you continue to Cabo da Roca, the windy western-most point of continental Europe, to stare at the endless blues of the Atlantic Ocean. On the return journey, halt at the seaside town of Cascais. Portugal's Riviera to join locals on the breezy marina dotted with sailing boats and yachts. Celebrate a flaming sunset while strolling on the promenade bordered by the old palaces of Estoril.
Prep for a lively evening at Casa Independente, one of Lisbon's hippest nightclubs and an institution of sorts for music buffs. Performances by new-gen psychedelic rock bands, emerging local talent, and international artists are regular features on the calendar. Weekends are incredibly buzzy, with the funky lights, pumped-up volumes and local DJs steering the crowds into a frenzy.
Lisbon boasts a wonderful collection of luxury hotels. Expect comfort, lashings of opulence in contemporary and classical settings.
The BusinessClass.com guide to the best hotels in Lisbon:
Taxis are readily available at the Humberto Delgado Airport, also known simply as Lisbon Airport or Portela Airport. Downtown is just 7 kilometres northeast of downtown. Once in the city, your best bet is to explore the surroundings on foot, though the city's hilly streets can sometimes be a strain. Take taxis when time is of the essence and trams when you are in a laid-back mood.
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