Lisbon has become one of the hottest city break destinations of the year and it’s not hard to see why. Just a two hour plane ride from London, this seaside city boasts a Mediterranean climate, romantic cobbled streets, fascinating history, delectable cuisine and a charming sense of nostalgia at every turn. Its temperate climate makes it ideal for a visit at any time of the year, but Lisbon is particularly beautiful in springtime, early summer and autumn. Alice Fewery spent a long weekend in Portugal’s stunning capital at the beginning of March and here she shares how she found it…
After leaving behind damp, drizzly London we touched down in Lisbon to brilliant sunshine and a pleasant 17 degrees, perfect for warming our winter weary bones. As it was almost lunchtime, we headed straight to the Mercado Ourique, a buzzing covered food market in the heart of the Campo de Ourique neighbourhood. Made up of traditional stalls, bursting with colourful produce, the main attraction is its numerous restaurants –offering everything from steaks and pasta (made to order), to vegan burgers and handmade sushi. We were spoilt for choice! After collecting our food and grabbing an icy beer from the bar, we took a seat in the large communal seating area and soaked up the atmosphere. It was a Saturday, so the Mercado was busy with friends meeting for lunch, families picking up the week’s essentials and couples stopping in for a glass of wine or a pastel de nata. It was the perfect introduction to this vibrant city.
After lunch, we decided to walk into the city centre, cutting through the timeless neighbourhood of Estrela and passing numerous houses clad in stunning blue and green azujelos tiles. Turning a corner, we were confronted with the imposing twin bell towers of the Basilica Estrela, an ancient carmelite convent built in the late 18th century. Inside we were dazzled by the geometric grey, pink and yellow marble interior – certainly one of the most beautiful European churches I have ever seen.
Cutting across the Jardim de Estrela, located directly opposite the Basilica, we felt like we’d stumbled upon an oasis of calm within the city, brimming with exotic plant life and enormous cacti. Locals were snoozing on benches or reading the weekend papers on the grass. We made a mental note to return here later.
On reaching the centre we made for the sea, settling down with a drink at one of the many seafront bars and breathing in some of that fresh marine air. Although bustling, the atmosphere was still one of relaxation. Despite being a city, Lisbon never feels overwhelming or stressful. Perhaps there’s something about being right beside the sea that stops you feeling hemmed in.
After a couple of drinks we decided to head to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, the Moorish castle which towers on a hill above the city. Climbing the zigzagging cobbled streets at dusk was more than a little tiring but certainly rewarding –we saw the beautiful old wooden trams trundling up vertiginous hills, numerous ancient churches illuminated by candlelight, and restaurateurs putting our their gingham-covered tables for the evening trade. It reminded us of Montmartre in Paris; dotted with tiny boutiques and romantic restaurants. When we reached the Castelo it was almost dark, but as it opens until 9pm we decided to explore it by torchlight. It offers stunning panoramic views of the city and allows you to pick out and place key sights. Seeing Lisbon at night, spread out before us, was utterly magical.
On our second day, after a delicious breakfast at Dois Três Três (a former drugstore turned health food restaurant), we strolled through the baroque-style Parque Eduardo VII to reach the Calouste Gulbenkian, a fascinating museum housing the impressive art collection amassed by financier, industrialist and philanthropist who gives it its name. Ranging from ancient and Islamic art to French decorative and art nouveau, my favourite pieces were the collection of Rene Lalique jewellery and the French 19th-century masterpieces from the likes of Degas and Manet. There is also a large collection of modern Portuguese art. (Admission is free on a Sunday afternoon after 2:30pm).
n need of refreshment, and realising that by this time we had been in Lisbon for 24 hours and hadn’t yet consumed a custard tart, we headed back into the city centre, making a beeline for Manteigaria on Rua de Loreto –a bakery offering arguably the best pastel de nata in Lisbon. They came presented in a tiny box, in the style of French patisserie, and were still warm from the oven. Biting into one, wafer-thin layers of perfectly-crisp pastry gave way to oozing vanilla goodness. In a word – heaven! And so different to ones I had tried back home.
That evening we managed to get a table at Peixaria da Esquina, an acclaimed seafood restaurant serving traditional Portuguese inspired dishes in Campo de Ourique. We enjoyed an aromatic fish soup, followed by grilled salmon, then finished with their wonderful chocolate salami over coffee.
On our final day we took the 15-minute tram to Belém, a district to the west of the city, which houses some of Lisbon’s most picturesque attractions. We admired the architecture of the fabulously gothic Jerónimos Monastery – it’s clean white stone looks particularly striking against a cerulean sky. Then strolled across to the majestic Monument of the Discoveries, a mammoth carved stone structure which juts out into the sea. From here you can walk along the promenade (which is dotted with hotels and bars) to the Torre de Belém, Lisbon’s most famous landmark (it even has its own emoji).
After stopping for a beer and another tart (this time at Belém institution Pasteis de Belem, a bakery which has been making these custardy confections since 1837), we took the tram back to Cais do Sodré, in time for a late lunch at the Time Out Market – another bustling food market featuring pop-up versions of some of Lisbon’s most venerated eateries, a stylish cocktail bar and a very cool shop, perfect for souvenirs. I had Portuguese chicken and potatoes, my friend had squid ink risotto with scallops.
After a pit-stop at the antique tile shops along the Rua Dom Pedro V (the genuine article is so much better than those mass produced tourist tiles touted on every street corner) and a visit to Silva & Feijóo to pick up some soap and tinned sardines (worth it for the ornate packaging alone), we jumped in an Uber to the airport and home.
Where to eat in Lisbon
Mercado Ourique (website under construction so facebook is their main hub) – Packed full of gourmet food stalls and bars, this food market is well worth a visit
Peixaria da Esquina – A wonderful fish restaurant
Manteigaria – With the tarts made right there in front of you and a rather traditional feeling setting, this is a great spot to enjoy one of those infamous tarts (or three)
Alice stayed at Casa Das Janelas Com Vista in the buzzy Bairro Alto district, which is ideally located for a weekend in Portugal’s capital set amongst plenty of great bars and restaurants and just a 15-20 minute walk to the city centre. With 12 individually-styled rooms and relaxing communal area, it has a homely vibe and provides the perfect retreat at the end of a busy day of sightseeing.