Fine weather and affordability have contributed to the Portuguese capital's soaring popularity in recent years.
We step through the airport’s sliding doors into Lisbon’s balmy early evening.
It is a city famous for its light. As well as boasting more sunny days than most European cities, Lisbon has a giant mirror — the river Tagus reflects rays onto surrounding hills, whose buildings and pavements bounce back in turn to create a glowing basin of sorts. And we arrive just in time to catch the last of it.
I’m here with a friend who spends a good deal of time in Portugal each year but even he seems surprised by the city’s sudden popularity.
Trying to book accommodation a few days earlier, the website had informed us that 97 per cent was unavailable … peak season should have ended a month and a half ago. “It’s been like this all year,” our taxi driver responds when I question him about it. I suppose it makes sense. Portugal has been popping up on various ‘best destination’ lists over the last few years. Apart from the good weather, affordability has been cited for its rising popularity compared with European cities.
Often likened to San Francisco for its trams and lookalike bridge (the Ponte 25 de April), Rome for its seven hills and Rio de Janeiro for its version of Christ the Redeemer, (the Cristo Rei) don’t be fooled into thinking that Lisbon lacks originality, for there’s plenty about the capital that’s unique.
Admiring the city from one of its “miradouros” or viewpoints is a must and we begin our first day doing just this, drinking coffee beneath the pines at Miradouro da Graca. Between all the whitewash and terracotta, pastel-coloured buildings pop up, as if someone has sprinkled a packet of giant dolly mixtures over the streets below. We spy Castelo de Sao Jorge. The castle was a fortification for the Romans, Visigoths and later the Moors until captured by Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques in 1147.
In Baixa we stroll along the tiles of the main shopping street, Rua Augusta towards the giant triumphal arch at the end. Constructed after the devastating earthquake of 1755, the arch symbolises the city’s resilience and rebirth. Passing beneath, we arrive at Lisbon’s largest plaza, the Praca do Comercio,near the river. People are drawn to the Tagus; bars and cafes buzz as we walk along and we pass rows of deckchairs in which people sit, watching the water like a silver screen. “More wine?” asks our waitress, already pouring the vinho verde into my glass.
As if you’d refuse! The “green wine” (named not for its colour but for its young age) is going down well with the char-grilled tiger prawns and salsa. We’re seated at a bar overlooking one of the live cooking stations at Time Out Lisboa’s busy food hall. The city’s oldest market, Mercado da Ribiera was transformed by Time Out in 2014 into its first marketplace venture.
Curated by the guide’s journalists and critics, the aim to create a destination combining the finest local produce with some of the best talents in town has worked. The market is extremely popular with tourists and Lisboans alike.
Of course, there’s the wealth of history and art you’d expect in any great European city. In Belem, where great Portuguese explorers like Vasco da Gama departed for their voyages of discovery, you’ll find iconic attractions such as the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Belem tower and Jeronimos Monastary. Not to mention that the area is also the birthplace of the famous pastel da nata! (Portuguese custard tart). The National Museum of Ancient Art holds the largest number of national treasures; the Calouste Gulbenkian collection contains works by Rembrandt, Renoir and Monet and the Berardo museum is a must for lovers of modern and contemporary art, including works by Warhol, Dali, Duchamp and Jackson Pollock.
But if you really want to get a feel for what makes Lisbon special, I’ll let you in on a little secret...Lisbon’s heart beats from its back streets. The lifeblood of Lisbon flows not from its arterial main roads but from its network of capillary-like laneways.
Stepping back in time over the cobbles of medieval Alfama, we disappear into one of the candle-lit Fado bars to eat seafood, drink rich port and listen to the melancholy ballads of the traditional singers. And even though we might not understand the words, there is an intimacy of expression here that needs no translation.
In once-neglected Mouraria, we duck down side streets to wander about the most multi-ethnic neighbourhood of the city and we smell the spices of “little India” long before we see the row of grocery stores and Bengali restaurants. In the early evening, sounds of family life drift from open doorways, workers pull up plastic chairs to share a story and a cigarette, lovers steal kisses in the shadows and groups of friends sit together on steps leading up the steep hill towards the castle.
Picture at top: A beautiful view from Miradoura. Picture: Bonita Grima