Lisbon is known for...
Melancholy remains ingrained in the Portuguese psyche, and Lisbon’s profoundest passions and sorrows are expressed by fado, the haunting strains of which can be heard throughout the city. The music interprets saudade, an emotional, heartfelt yearning that is sung over mellow, plaintive guitars. The greatest exponent of this musical expression was Amália Rodrigues (1920–1999). Born in Lisbon, she became known as the Rainha do Fado (“Queen of Fado”) and was instrumental in popularising fado worldwide. Her house in Rua de São Bento is now a museum. There’s also the engaging Museu do Fado in Largo do Chafariz de Dentro. But perhaps the best way to appreciate this unique version of the blues is to dine at one of the many restaurants that stage live fado performances.
Lisbon is divided into a number of very distinct neighbourhoods, each with its own unique history and singular personality. The city’s oldest area is Alfama, the Moorish quarter. The maze of narrow cobbled streets and steep alleyways that surround the castle conjure up images of an Arabic Kasbah. Bairro Alto’s lively bohemian character is personified by a plethora of whacky bars, funky boutiques and off-beat eateries that’s totally at odds with adjacent Chiado, an area of elegant shops, historic cafés and fashionable restaurants. The busy Baixa is Lisbon’s colourful commercial heart. West of the city centre is Belém, forever associated with Portugal’s Age of Discoveries. It’s from here that 15th-century explorers set sail to chart new lands. And it’s here that Lisbon’s grandest historic monuments stand in fitting tribute.
Not for nothing is Lisbon known as da cidade das sete colinas – the city of seven hills. Fortunately this means that there are plenty of viewpoints, or miradouros, in place at various locations to take advantage of some truly breathtaking panoramas. One of the most rewarding is Miradouro de Santa Luzia, a pretty terrace that takes in sweeping views of Alfama and the shimmering River Tagus. Further along is Miradouro da Graça, positioned in front of the Igreja da Graça. From here, Baixa (downtown) Lisbon unfolds below to resemble an intricately embroidered quilt. On the other side of the Baixa, in Bairro Alto, is Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara. This is arguably the most picturesque viewpoint and affords a draw-dropping canvas.
Lisbon lets its hair down in June when the whole capital celebrates the annual Festa de Santo António (St Anthony Festival). This is the city’s biggest and brightest street party, when thousands of locals parade in colourful costume down Avenida da Liberdade in honour of their favourite saint. The revelry continues into the night, with the Alfama and Castelo districts the main focus of festivities. The three-day Optimus Alive music festival in July is always eagerly anticipated (Coldplay and Foo Fighters are previous acts) while the multi-faceted Festival dos Oceanos (Oceans’ Festival) during the first two weeks of August is absolutely free.
One of the great surprises for visitors eating in Lisbon is how inexpensive the food is. The prato do dia – dish of the day – options are among the cheapest in Europe! As befitting a seafaring nation, fresh fish and seafood choices figure prominently in many restaurants: bacalhau (cod) is a delicious staple. For hearty provincial fare seek out the traditional tascas tucked away in the city’s backstreets. For more sophisticated palates Lisbon’s gourmet hotspots offer a truly international flavour, with Mediterranean gastronomy particularly well represented. Exotic cuisine from Brazil, Mozambique and other ex-colonies add spice up an already colourful ethnic menu. Indian restaurants abound, and some of the city’s sushi bars have garnered celebrity status.