With its charming cobbled streets, fabulous coastal location and welcoming atmosphere, Portuguese capital Lisbon is idyllic for stay-and-cruise holidays, says Liz Jarvis
From the moment you arrive in Lisbon and see its whitewashed buildings, terracotta roofs, bright yellow trams and glorious vistas you’ll be captivated, because the city is one of the prettiest capitals in Europe.
Although Neolithic tribes lived in the area, Lisbon was really founded by Iberian Celts with its name deriving from Phoenician traders’ term for ‘safe harbour’. Julius Caesar later established it as the capital of Lusitania.
By the eighth century, the Moors had begun their invasion of Portugal, and several Moorish castles can be seen today, the most famous being the Castelo dos Mouros in Sintra on the outskirts of Lisbon.
Following 60 years of union with Spain, Portugal became independent, although it was occupied by the French under Napoleon. In 1755 it was razed to the ground by an earthquake which cost around 35,000 lives. Lisbon was redesigned by the then-prime minister, the Marques de Pombal – most notably in the district of Baixa, where wide avenues and spacious squares sprouted up.
What to do
Wander the fortified Moorish quarters, or barrios, exploring the city’s hills. Head to Bairro Alto for the nightlife or trendy Chiado, and multi-cultural Mouraria, ancient Alfama and Castelo, with the 12th-century São Jorge Castle to the east.
Explore the UNESCO World Heritage Belém Tower, dating from the 1500s, the city’s golden age.
The Teatro Romano museum houses the ruined Roman amphitheatre, built by Augustus, while the Calouste Gulbenkhian Museum houses Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Islamic, Asian and European art, including works by Rembrandt, Rubens and Monet.
In the historic Alfama quarter the battlements of Moorish São Jorge (Saint George) castle give a bird’s eye view of the city. A stroll around the only surviving district from the earthquake takes you along cobbled streets and up soaring hills – there are lots of bars and restaurants en route.
Lisbon is, of course, the spiritual home of fado, the plaintive folk music that resonates around the Portuguese capital’s streets and restaurants. Visit the Museu do Fado, for the history of its use in cinema to censorship in the 20th century.
For some of the finest architecture, the Sé Catedral with its two bell towers and a rose window is Lisbon’s oldest building, built in the 12th century on the foundations of a mosque. Lisbon’s more recent links to Christianity can also be seen at the delightful Madre De Deus Convent on the city’s western edge, now home to the National Azulejo tile museum.
Santa Justa Elevator, built by the Portugal-born French architect Raoul de Mesnier du Ponsard and inaugurated in 1902, is a major Lisbon attraction. The 45-metre high iron tower, observation platform and walkway connects the lower streets of Baixa with the Carmo Square.
Another iconic sight is the yellow wooden Tram 28. Start at the foot of the 18th-century bohemian Bairro Alto and pass through Baixa and Chiado before snapping the churches and castles on the cobbled hills of Alfama and Graça.
For a total contrast, head to the Parque Das Nacoes which showcases striking contemporary architecture backdropped by Europe’s longest bridge. There you’ll find a state-of-the-art aquarium, a casino, and a magnificent waterfront promenade.
Lisbon is also within easy reach of some glorious beaches, all easily accessible by public transport. The most popular are along the Cascais-Estoril coastline; and the astonishing Sintra-Cascais park, with its astonishing vistas, is well worth exploring if you have the time.
Where to eat
For sea views and an amazing Mozambique and Portuguese-inspired menu, head for Ibo Restaurante (ibo-restaurante.pt – the crab and mango salad and grilled tiger prawns are particularly good).
Open Brasserie Mediterránica (open.com.pt) at the Inspira Santa Marta Hotel serves Portuguese food with a Mediterranean twist, using largely organic, locally sourced food, in line with the eco-friendly ethos of the hotel. Open is also the only certified gluten-free restaurant in the city and it has vegetarian and vegan options.
The slow-cooked meagre fillet with beetroot risotto and watercress is a standout dish. It is presented beautifully, with a succulent fillet of white fish (meagre) balancing delicately on top with a garnish of watercress. It is a perfect combination of sweet, tangy beetroot blended with creamy Parmesan. We highly recommend it as the simplicity of the dish allows each flavour to shine through.
For a local twist, try the roasted codfish, asparagus and olives. The classic Portuguese specialty bacalhau (dried and salted cod) is cleverly presented on a bed of potato chips fried with eggs, garlic and olives. This dish is full of flavour and uses fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Both of the mains work well with local organic white wine.
Those with a sweet tooth will especially enjoy the dessert that Open has to offer.
The chocolate and carob brownie with almond praline is another creatively presented dish – mini piles of chocolate dust sit either side of the brownie, perfect for teaming with the side serving of ice cream. Crumbled almonds cover the top of the cake to create a multi-layered texture, as the crunch contrasts with the smoothness of the carob chocolate.
For something more unique, try the crispy Madeira banana, which is fried with a light, crispy coating. It is presented in bite-size portions that, when combined with the salty caramel sauce and the tart yoghurt ice cream, creates a melt-in-the-mouth experience – one that you will find yourself wanting more of.
Of course, no visit to Lisbon would be complete without trying a custard tart from Pasteis de Bélem, a family business which guards a secret recipe sold to them by monks in 1837.
What to buy
Hand-painted wall tiles and ceramics, canned sardines in exquisite packaging, antiques, cork and leather goods.
Where to stay
Housed in an 18th-century building, the delightful boutique hotel AlmaLusa Baixa has 28 rooms which are a mix of exquisitely-designed studios and suites decorated in earthy tones with luxurious finishing touches.
It’s located near the grand Praça do Commercio in central Lisbon, close to the nightlife hotspot of Barrio Alto and stylish Chiado and just five minutes from the Tagus.
The hotel restuarant has a broad, varied menu with a long wine list and there are many traditional eateries nearby.
Rooms start a £114pp per night (almalusahotels.com).
The Lisboa card gives you free and unlimited travel on buses, trams and funiculars, and free admission to 26 museums, historic buildings and other places of interest.