It may not have the world famous attractions of Paris, Rome or Madrid nor the pull of Gaudi’s Barcelona or Bilbao’s Guggenheim, but for a short break Lisbon has much to offer in its enchanting streets, fast transforming waterfront, its bridges, bars and restaurants with museums, churches and galleries galore. It’s also terrific value. Which other European capital provides an airport bus into town for just three euros and taxi meters that barely peak five euros?
Lisbon is fast emerging as a vibrant, cultural city with tons of character, whether in the historic yellow trams or the new Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT), its fado music, blue azulejos tiles at every turn and those crisp little pasteis de nata custard tarts, warm from the oven.
On day one of our three-night break, we squeezed into the famous old 28 tram that trundles up and down the steep and narrow streets in rickety fashion until the Portas do Sol stop, one of the numerous miradors in the city from where you can take in the whole panorama: the pantiled rooftops, a sparkling River Tagus and the beautiful 25 April suspension bridge. A stroll through the maze of cobbled streets and the pastel coloured houses of the Moorish Alfama district will bring you to a pavement cafe for a coffee and the Fado bars, where the guidebook promises, the local fadista will sing plaintive songs of heartbreak, love and loss. We only found ones where the tourist touts tried to entice us in for fado plus dinner.
Back down at river level to the Cais do Sodre station for the short ferry ride across the Tagus to Casilhas and a walk past dilapidated warehouses, the remains of the now defunct shipbuilding industry, to Restaurante Ponto Final and yellow tin tables on the quayside to while away the afternoon with a glass of chilled white Arinto and views across to the Lisbon skyline. We ate well for €25 a head on octopus salad, grilled sardines, salt cod fritters with rice and beans and grilled sea bream. The pigs’ trotters are optional.
It’s wise to start early to avoid the tour buses at the Unesco World Heritage Mosteiro dos Jeronimos at Belem, the 1501 wedding cake of a monastery built in tribute to Vasco de Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India. The honey coloured stone cloisters decorated with plants, animals and mythical beasts are cool and mostly calm.
The Belém Tower, built in the 16th century to signal Portugal’s role in maritime exploration is nearby, though you can opt, as we did, for coffee and pastéis de Belém, the little puff pastry custard tarts that have been baked at Lisbon’s famous Antiga Confeitaria de Belém since 1837.
For a journey through 20th century contemporary art, the Berardo Museum (free entry) houses just some of José Berardo’s massive art collection. The billionaire businessman is also the biggest art collector you’ve never heard of with 40,000 works of art, many of them here in the purpose-built Berardo Museum which progresses visitors through Dadaism, Cubism, Surrealism, British and American Pop Art.
From the Berardo, it’s a cheap taxi ride to the LX Factory in the Alcantara district, a redundant factory complex that has been refigured as a centre for quirky and vintage shops, art, music and food. 1300 Taberna serves modern Portuguese dishes in an old warehouse. We ate a tiny but elegant gazpacho with a herb sorbet; bitoque, a Lisbon speciality of steak with honey and mustard sauce topped with a fried egg and proper chips, finishing with a fabulous cheeseboard.
Unmissable for shopping but mostly eating is the Mercado da Ribeira. A traditional market since 1842, it does the usual trade in fruit and veg but in 2014 part of it was transformed into a huge food court by publishers Time Out. Now the market hosts 24 restaurants and eight bars along with shops and a music venue.
For three floors of seafood, Cervejaria Ramiro is an older Lisbon institution. Queues move quickly and so does service for this rowdy, no-nonsense restaurant serving lobster, prawns, langoustines, crab (you get your own hammer to attack the shell), murex snails, goose barnacles all served with toasted ciabatta and washed down with a bottle of Sagres.
A nightcap at one of Lisbon’s cool bars is a must. Take the photogenic elevador up to Bairro Alto which comes alive at night.
And for the ultimate sundowner in the Portuguese capital there is the Park, a unique bar plonked on the roof of a multi-storey car park. Sofas, candles and cocktails, a DJ mixing Brazilian beats and with any luck, a glorious sunset over this remarkable city.
Ryanair flies direct to Lisbon from Manchester Airport
Where to Stay: LX Boutique Hotel, in Rua do Alecrim, is well positioned for restaurants and shops. River views and close to the airport bus stop. Rooms start at 80 euros. lxboutiquehotel.