Lisbon has the ability to surprise at every turn of its narrow, sloping cobblestone streets. Indeed, the allure of Portugal’s fascinating and enchanting capital city is such that it's frequently voted Europe’s best city-break destination, best European capital… well, the list goes on. But what exactly makes this dazzling and cosmopolitan Atlantic port so captivating, and what are its unique qualities?
Before embarking on any sightseeing itinerary, find out what it’s all about at the Lisboa Story Centre. This gem of a visitor attraction throws open the book on 20 centuries of colourful, dramatic and sometimes turbulent city history by way of an engaging interactive journey through the main events that have shaped the character and makeup of Lisbon, from the time of Ulysses right up to the present day.
Caravels on a crest of a wave at the Lisboa Story Centre. — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Suitably versed in the city’s culture and heritage, the next thing to do is jump on board Tram 28, the vintage streetcar that rattles and hisses its way through some of the capital’s most picturesque neighbourhoods, and passes several historic monuments into the bargain (the only other city in Portugal with a tram service is Oporto).
If you prefer a guided tour, book a ride with the fun-packed 'We Hate Tourism Tours' (honesty). The locals running this company use vans and a venerable old jeep to make mincemeat out of impossibly steep hills while imparting amusing anecdotes and useful tips to wide-eyed passengers.
Shoppers seeking that unique souvenir will be rewarded at A Vida Portuguesa, a traditionally-styled gift shop tucked away in Chiado. Run by a former journalist, special mementoes on sale here include fragrant soaps wrapped in retro paper and hard-to-find bottled brandies and liqueurs. Alternatively, some of the world's best coffee beans can be purchased at nearby A Carioca.
A glass of wine in unique surroundings at The Old Pharmacy Wine Inn — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Actually, if a memorable tipple is your thing, then it’s definitely worth savouring the contents of Solar do Vinho do Porto. This beautiful port wine tasting room in Bairro Alto stocks the largest collection of port wines outside of Oporto, and a glass or two usually leads to a bottle or three purchased for home consumption. For afternoon tea though, make the effort to get over to Café Versailles (alight at Saldanha Metro station, a little off the tourist trail but worth the detour).
Listed in every guidebook and still, and a perennial favourite on every tourist itinerary, is Antiga Casa dos Pastéis de Belém. In fact, more commonly known as Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, this historic bakery with its decorative azulejo (tile) walls is the place to munch pastéis de nata, the delicious custard pastries enjoyed throughout Portugal. However, it’s here in Belém that the recipe originated in 1837, and the exact ingredients are still a closely guarded secret.
Dinner and music at Clube de Fado in Alfama — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Bairro Alto is always full of surprises. Lisbon’s irreverent bohemian quarter is known for its offbeat collection of bars, restaurants and nightclubs. One place that’s caught the imagination of seasoned revelers is The Old Pharmacy Wine Inn. As the name suggests, this is a wine bar housed in a former pharmacy, the only one of its kind in the capital. Dozens of wines are displayed in glass cabinets that once stocked medicines, potions and elixirs, and the refurbished interior maintains an authentic veneer.
Fado is the music of Lisbon, and remains a unique musical expression. The haunting strains of this most solemn of musical styles is played out in many Lisbon restaurants. One of the most celebrated venues is Clube de Fado where traditional Portuguese gastronomy is served between some of the finest performances of fado in the land.