The delights of Portugal’s capital are manifold, as Low Shi Ping found out this summer.
If asked to summarise Lisbon in one word, it will undoubtedly have to be “charming”. While this adjective is typically reserved for old European towns, it is nonetheless an apt description of the capital of Portugal.
Perhaps it has to do with its moniker “The City of Seven Hills”, where the landscape undulates like its past with its ups and downs. Nowhere is this more visible than on the highest peak, topped off by the Moorish-style São Jorge Castle in the Alfama district. Its battlements offer sweeping panoramas of modern-day Lisbon.
The fortification dates back to the 11th century and still has its original 11 towers. Transiting between military stronghold and royal palace, the site today is a well-preserved national monument that also houses a permanent exhibition on its history.
Because it is downhill after that, it is a good idea to go on foot. The Santa Justa Elevator in the neighbouring Baixa district is a unique sight in the city: a 45m tall structure in neo-gothic style made with wrought-iron and polished wood for the lift interiors.
Designed by Raul Mesnier de Ponsard, a student of Gustave Eiffel (who himself designed the Parisian Eiffel Tower), the elevator was initially intended to transport residents of the city to the Largo do Carmo square so they needn’t climb the steep Carmo Hill. Today though, that function has taken a back seat and it has become another national monument.
Be sure to wander around in Baixa, with its motley collection of shops and eateries. If unsure where to go, download the Atlas Lisboa app, a guide to Lisbon’s hidden charms and unspoiled places. Search through the curated list of restaurants, bars, exhibitions and concerts, or put away the phone and get notifications when something cool is nearby based on your mood, interests and location.
The full-screen city map with built-in compass can tell you what’s in your pre-set radius, so you are free to wander the streets, or take a tour led by an industry expert in the field of archaeology, history, art, cuisine and more.
Stroll – or in some instances, climb – the city and its charms are also reflected in the colourful ceramic tiles that line the façade of many buildings. The restored ones gleam prettily in the sunlight, but even those that have fallen into disrepair do not require much imagination to be admired.
For a bit more pomp and circumstance, head to the gentrified district of Belém. Its waterfront promenade along the River Tagus is lined with museums and more important monuments. On the western end is the home of the Champalimaud Foundation, with its contemporary style of architecture, that is symbolic of its focus on advanced biomedical research.
Further east is the quietly elegant Museu do Combatente, housed in a fort from the 18th century that was built to safeguard the city from attacks launched along the River Tagus. Today, it is a memorial to the armed conflicts that Portugal was involved in around the world, such as during the two world wars.
Do a photo stop at the medieval Belém Tower, built in the 16th century, that contains the first European stone carving of a rhinoceros. Serving as a fort and a warning of the treacherous rocks that it is built on, the structure is also became a symbol of homecoming for returning seafarers.
About a kilometre east is the Monument to the Discoveries, this time a modern sculpture completed in 1960 and lined with 34 statues. It pays tribute to Prince Henry the Navigator who stands tall on the prow, as well as other important figures from Portugal’s Age of Discoveries from the 15th to 17th centuries.
A little further inland is the imposing Jeronimos Monastery with its more than 300m-long, elaborated façade. One glance and it is easy to understand the wealth and power of the Portuguese during the Age of Discoveries. In fact, Vasco Da Gama spent the night here before setting sail the next day to eventually become the first European to reach India by sea.
Sights aside, the charms of Lisbon are also reflected in its food. The permanently crowded Pasteis de Belém is the original confectionary that made famous the Portuguese egg tart. Best had piping hot from the oven, it is framed by flaky pastry containing creamy custard that is light as air.
The city’s proximity to the coast also means there is an abundance of fresh seafood available at every corner. Book a table at Restaurante Solar dos Nunes, found on the Michelin Guide Bib Gourmand list and a tad off the beaten track. The family-run eatery is quaint and cosy, with its walls lined with photographs and food reviews above blue-and-white ceramic tiles.
Don’t miss out on the appetisers – the Iberico hams drying over the bar counter are irresistible. Have a juicy lobster from the enticing seafood display, or a lightly grilled cod that comes in a substantial portion. End the meal on a sweet note with the rice pudding, which is a meal on its own.
If time is of the essence, a visit to the trendy Time Out Market Lisboa will offer up a buffet of choices. Occupying a site that traditionally used to host markets, it features stalls offering food from 24 “great” restaurants across the city, curated by the publishing house.
Big names like Alexandre Silva and Marlene Vieira have spaces here. But if there is one dish to try, it has to be Henrique Sá Pessoa’s leitão confitado, a mouth-watering hunk of 24-hour confit suckling pig with sweet potato puree.
There are talks that Lisbon is seeing a revival of its fortunes by way of tourism and even tech. Condé Nast Traveller calls it “Europe’s coolest city right now”. It can only be hoped that as the floodgates yawn open, it manages to retain its mix of charm and whimsy.
The Atlas Lisboa app is available on Android and iOS.