In Portugal – Lisbon

As I’ve been visiting Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city, for a few days I thought I’d share my insights on the city with my readers.

With a metropolitan area encompassing a population of about 3,000,000 you might assume that Lisbon has a similar character to London or Paris, but you would be wrong. In fact, the city centre is remarkably compact – you can get from just about anywhere to anywhere else in 30 minutes or less on foot if you have a decent walking pace. There are the hills to contend with however – while the main drag from the top of the beautiful , tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade (where you’ll find most of the theatres, cinemas and high-end fashion brands) down to the waterside Praca do Comercio via the city’s main Rossio square follows a gentle incline down towards the estuary, venture over to the citadel to the east or the clubs and bars of the Bairro Alto and Chiado districts to the west and you’re in for a surprise. Except to deal with 45 degree inclines on Lisbon’s shiny stone-set pavements and very steep sets of stairs – although there are lifts and several funicular railways (only one of the latter is working as at June 2012) the costs soon mount up if you’re moving around the city in this fashion several times a day. Walking boots are advised, and if you have any mobility issues then I have to say that Lisbon really isn’t a viable destination. When the narrow streets that climb the 200 metres to the top of the hills surrounding the main square were being rebuilt after the 18th century earthquake they weren’t thinking about access unfortunately… it’s treacherous, even for the able-bodied.

You should also expect to encounter Lisbon’s seedier side, particularly if you’re in the entertainment district of Bairro Alto. Graffiti taggers rule supreme here – there’s hardly a surface that they haven’t touched. Also, do follow the normal precautions when walking around this area of the city at night – the streets can be very narrow and poorly lit and while serious crime is as rare here as it is in any European capital, pick-pocketing and theft isn’t exactly unknown. At night, stick to the main thoroughfares if you can, and only carry as much cash as you think you will need – leave the bulk of your money and cards back at your hotel whenever possible.

Warnings aside, Lisbon is one of Europe’s most charming capitals – in terms of its architecture and culture it stands head and shoulders above most of its European rivals. The main squares that litter the (thankfully flat!) centre of the city are picturesque, the winding hillside streets are absolutely charming (at least during the day), and there are more museums than you could possibly fit into a whole week. The city also boasts some of Europe’s most beautiful theatres and cinemas – there are no chains here, so the marvelous art nouveau and art deco picture palaces built to screen silent movies still draw in the crowds to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters (most are screened in English with Portuguese subtitles, so a cinema visit isn’t out of the question on your holiday either).

In terms of the historic sights, there are three that you simply must tick off your list – a visit to the top of the outlandish and ornate 1920s lift and its observation tower just down from Rossio square is a must. Leave at the top and you will find yourself next to one of the city’s oddest museums – the Carno archaeological museum which you’ll find inside the ruined (and roofless) convent church that looms over the city centre – it’s strange to be ‘ indoors’ and yet be examining artifacts in bright sunlight! You must also climb the hill on the opposite side and visit the castle – Lisbon’s ancient Castelo de São Jorge (named for the British patron saint) is remarkably well-preserved, with parts dating back to the 6th century, although much of what you see today is a result of rebuilding following the devastating earthquake of 1755. Most of the walls and towers are accessible, and offer fantastic views over the city and the sea beyond. I should just remark, however, that very little is free in Lisbon – you should budget for 10%+ of your holiday money being spent on entry fees to the museums, galleries and other attractions – a Lisboa Card (which you can pick up at all metro and rail stations, as well as the tourist information offices) can help offset some of the cost, as well as help with paying for public transport around the city.

Other spots worth a look are the outdoor cafes sprinked beneath the trees along the Avenida de Liberdade where, during the day, you can mingle with the most well-heeled locals over a coffee – arrive later in the evening during the summer and expect to find DJs spinning the decks as revellers dance to the latest pop tunes under the stars. Also try to find time to stop off at one of the cafes on Rossio square for some serious people-watching. For younger people a visit to the many clubs and bars of Bairro Alto are definitely on the itinerary, as the narrow streets and large crowds make for a real party atmosphere, but don’t expect things to get exciting before about 11pm however, and clubs only really start to hot up at around 1am!

I’ll close in mentioning food, and note that Lisbon isn’t renowned for its culinary delights beyond the ‘pastel de nata’ – the city’s iconic small, crunchy custard tart. While you can find wonderful restaurants if you look hard enough, I’d concentrate on making the best of the other aspects of your trip and just settle for the canteen-like food that seems to prevail in the city…

You can see all of the images that I captured on my visit to Lisbon here.