I love Lisbon: tumbling down seven hillsides towards the shimmering River Tagus, it’s at once charmingly old-fashioned and highly modern, beautifully ornate and appealingly shabby. Sleek shops sit next to crumbling mansions, cutting-edge restaurants by tatty neighbourhood cafés, and rickety yellow trams rattle along the cobbled streets much like they have done since the 1900s.
Despite its urban sprawl, Lisbon is very much a city of villages, each with its own personality – from refined, boutique-filled Chiado to gently Bohemian Lapa, long a favourite with artists and writers. At the very heart is Alfama – the original Moorish settlement and for me the most enchanting district of all. Here, tangled alleyways echo to the melancholy strains of traditional fado music, and the aroma of grilled sardines wafts from open doorways. Looming above it all are the imposing battlements of São Jorge Castle on one hill and the nightlife hub of the Bairro Alto on another, while down on the waterfront alfresco bars line quays where explorers once set sail in search of the New World.
There’s a lot to explore, so here are some recommendations from my recent visit…
Memmo Alfama (Travessa Merceeiras 27)
I adored my stay at this minimalist adults-only hotel. It occupies a former tile factory near the Sé cathedral, with a wine bar and a red-tiled rooftop pool gazing out over old Alfama.
Palacio Ramalhete (Rua das Janelas Verdes 92)
I also spent a night at this 18th-century Lapa townhouse, which is wrapped around a tranquil courtyard. It has a trio of azulejo-lined lounges, plus 12 beautifully restored rooms and suites. The long list of G&Ts in the panelled bar was a particular highlight!
Baixa House (Rua dos Fanqueiros 81)
Located bang in the centre of the downtown Baixa district and lauded by friends and colleagues, this quirky-cool collection of self-catering apartments mixes vintage finds and colourful contemporary pieces.
All of the above are bookable through i-escape.com.
Above: Memmo Alfama’s terrace, a street sign in Alfama, and the lounge and courtyard of Palacio Ramalhete
Chapitô à Mesa (Costa do Castelo 1)
I spent a happy evening marvelling at the jaw-dropping views from Lisbon’s circus school, perched beneath São Jorge Castle. The food is just as good: there’s a terrace bar for tapas and cocktails, plus a more formal restaurant up a spiral staircase.
Pois, Café (Rua de São João da Praça 93)
My top pick for lazy brunches and lunches, this Austrian-owned café is hidden down a side street near the cathedral. It’s filled with sofas where you can sprawl out and flick through magazines.
Le Chat (Jardim 9 de Abril)
Another great lunch spot is the terrace of this striking glass cube in Lapa. It offers light, tapas-style dishes (grilled octopus, sweet potato chips, mojito-flavoured ice cream) and sweeping panoramas over the port below.
Chefe Cordeiro (Praça do Comércio 20-23)
This glossy Baixa eatery is the latest opening from Michelin-starred chef José Cordeiro and serves up inventive seafood dishes. I tucked into seared scallops with lime risotto – delicious.
100 Maneiras (Rua do Teixeira 35)
The 10-course tasting menu at this stylish little place in the Bairro Alto has a fun take on traditional Portuguese cuisine, including the ‘codfish clothes line’ (pieces of dehydrated bachalau pegged onto a line).
Antiga Confeitaria de Belém (Rua Belém 84-92)
Open since 1837, this bustling bakery makes the best pasteis de nata (custard tarts) in the city, churning them out by the boxload to locals and tourists alike.
A Margem (Doca do Bom Sucesso)
This modern, minimalist cocktail bar sits on the waterfront in the historic Belém area – ideal for sundowners overlooking the Tagus.
Above: the view from Chapitô à Mesa and historic Belém
A Vida Portuguesa (Rua Anchieta 11)
This Chiado shop is a treasure-trove of Portuguese treats – chocolates, perfume, hand-woven baskets, toiletries, and row upon row of sardines in cute retro tins.
Paris Em Lisboa (Rua Garrett 77)
Also in Chiado, this warm, wood-lined shop stocks a selection of pampering Portuguese and French products – beautifully crisp linen, lavender-scented soaps, cotton bathrobes.
Hangar Design Store (Travessa do Carmo in Chiado, and the Centro Cultural de Belém)
Both branches of this bijou boutique sell stylish homeware brands from Portugal and further afield, including Castelbel Porto candles, Normann Copenhagen kitchen kit and Kartell lamps.
Feira da Ladra (Campo de Santa Clara)
Lisbon’s sprawling flea market, brimming with bric-a-brac, clothes, jewellery, salvaged tiles and old photographs, takes over the Campo de Santa Clara in Graça every Tuesday and Sunday. You can easily lose hours here; I certainly did.
Ler Devagar (Rua Rodrigues Faria 103)
Housed in a lofty industrial space in the LX Factory (see below), this vast bookshop has an eclectic range, plus a programme of cultural events and live music.
Above: sardines at A Vida Portuguesa and the view from São Jorge Castle
Be inspired by:
The Museum of Fashion and Design (MUDE, Rua Augusta 24)
This excellent Baixa museum charts the evolution of style over the course of the 20th century, with comprehensive exhibitions that bring together fashion, interiors and architecture.
Lisbon is gaining a growing reputation for street art, and its dilapidated buildings provide perfect canvasses. Perhaps most renowned is Vihls, who creates striking portraits of local residents – I found examples on the waterfront and carved into the side of Memmo Alfama.
LX Factory (Rua Rodrigues Faria 103)
This sprawling former industrial complex in the Alcântara district has been transformed into a creative hub, with design studios, galleries, arts associations and cafés.
Portugal’s haunting folk music was born in Alfama’s maze of alleys and forms an integral part of Lisbon’s identity. Explore its history at the Museu do Fado (Largo do Chafariz de Dentro 1), then head to tiny converted chapel Mesa de Frades (Rua dos Remédios 139a) to hear some of today’s best artists.
Museu Nacional do Azulejo (Rua da Madre de Deus 4)
Housed in a former convent are beautiful examples of Portuguese tiles from the 15th century onwards, together with modern interpretations and a shop selling a range of designs.
Above: Vihls street art and the River Tagus at dusk
Photography by Abi Dare