From its history of sea-faring exploration to today’s edgy cultural scene, Time Out reveals how to get the most out of the Portuguese capital.
Lisbon didn’t take off as a destination until after its World Expo in 1998. This is hard to understand, as historically it’s dynamite – Western Europe’s first capital city, it predates Rome and London by hundreds of years. Its glorious past can be felt in every street – just turn a corner and you’re face-to-face with a relic of its role as a big-hitting maritime power. This is a history reflected in its name – Lisbon comes from Allis Ubbo, Phoenician for ‘safe harbour’.
Home to some half a million residents, Portugal’s capital is split into bairros (neighbourhoods). While some are more lively than others, each bairro has its own draw and charm, from the oldest, Alfama, to Cais do Sodré, fast emerging as the hippest.
Despite the city’s history and its network of antiquated yellow trams, Lisbon has a distinctly modern edge. Street art is huge in the capital – often quite literally. Look up from time to time and you’ll see the work of famous scrawlers adorning abandoned buildings – including that of world-renowned Brazilian twins Os Gêmeos. And there’s much more to modern Lisbon, such as its updated take on traditional dining establishments, new cultural spaces and white-hot nightlife.
Central Lisbon is relatively compact, and traffic can be awful, so it’s best to explore on foot. Get an idea of its layout from the top of the Aqueduto das Águas Livres – the city’s majestic aqueduct, erected in the 18th century under King John V. Go in the morning or late afternoon to escape the crowds and get an unrivalled view of Monsanto forest and the city’s sprawl. For a whistlestop tour of the capital, hop on the No.28 tram, which winds a trail around some of the city’s most picturesque streets.
A trip to the capital should take in the Torre de Belém, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of Portugal’s most famous monuments. The Gothic tower was built to guard the entrance to the harbour and has some fine examples of Portuguese stonework dating from the 1500s.
Some of Lisbon’s quirkier attractions have maintained their appeal despite natural disaster. The grass-carpeted Convento do Carmo had its roof destroyed in the infamous 1755 earthquake, and its open-air nave is a unique sight. The unlucky Igreja da São Domingos church was a victim of the quake and several other catastrophes besides – its flame-licked interior (following a fire in 1959) gives it a cave-like feel. For more history, the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian’s world class collection of Islamic and Oriental art is not to be missed – and its Centro de Arte Moderna opposite is well worth a trip for its impressive haul of Portuguese works.
Portugal is renowned for its seafood. You’ll find some of the best (and most affordable) at locals’ favourite O Arrastão – try the award-winning fish stew. For an authentic taste of the capital, a trip to a taberna (or three) is essential. These traditional drinking-holes are dotted all over the city, serving up small dishes and snacks designed for sharing. Taberna Portuguesa prides itself, as the name might suggest, on being 100 percent Portuguese, from the décor to the plates of pica-pau (tender strips of fried beef). Try Taberna Tosca for authentic pataniscas (codfish fritters). Taberna Moderna serves traditional plates with a twist, and is renowned for its excellent in-house bar, Lisbonita.
It’s impossible to talk about nightlife in Lisbon without mentioning Lux, hands down the city’s most stylish venue. Its impeccable interior – with two dancefloors and a terrace overlooking the river Tagus – is the place to dance until the early hours. Down the road, the eclectic MusicBox, a club, bar and concert venue, is the place to get down in Cais do Sodré, now an area favoured by the capital’s hip young things. While in the neighbourhood, grab a drink at the eccentric Sol e Pesca – a refurbished fishing equipment store where you can snack on tinned tuna and sardines.
Nightlife in Lisbon has become more exciting following a new wave of semi-private clubs – collective-run spaces where you can enjoy a coffee and a cultural event by day and dance to pounding music at night. Casa Independente is one of the best.
For a mellower slice of the capital don’t leave without hearing some fado. This Portuguese brand of urban folk music can be traced back to the early 19th century, and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in a hurry.
Rub shoulders with the locals at intimate Senhor Vinho, which has played host to legends like Gisela João and Aldina Duarte. Speaking of legends, Lisbon is home to one of Europe’s oldest jazz bars, Hot Club, in Praça da Alegria. Jazz lovers visiting in August are also in for a treat at the annual Jazz em Agosto, an experimental jazz festival held in the gardens of the Gulbenkian.
Need to know
Emirates operates daily flights direct to Lisbon from Dhs4,435 return.