Travel: Lisbon is the perfect European cocktail
PUBLISHED: 12:32 26 February 2015 | UPDATED: 12:32 26 February 2015
Warm winters, views and music make the Portuguese capital one of the best city breaks around
When I heard Lisbon was “the city of seven hills”, I was worried our short break to the Portuguese capital was going to be a bit too much like hard work.
But every time you scale a slope in this sun-soaked corner of the Iberian peninsula, you’re rewarded with a spectacular view of western Europe’s oldest, and perhaps most beautiful, city.
Adding its looks to the warmest winter climate of any European capital, and that you get noticeably more for your euro than elsewhere on the continent, it’s easy to see why Lisbon is an increasingly popular city break.
Most of Lisbon was destroyed in an earthquake in 1755, so there’s not much sign left of the city’s imperial glory, except for in Belém.
This is where Portugal’s favourite son, Vasco da Gama, set off for India at the end of the 15th century. It is also home to the Torre de Belém tower, which for five euros gives you an incredible view of the majestic Jerónimos Monastery where you’ll find da Gama’s tomb.
Another reason to head to Belém is Casa Pasteis de Belém: a giant tea-room which is widely acknowledged to serve the best custard tarts in the city for €1.50.
Belém is a short train ride from the heart of the city, and we stayed slightly north of the centre, perched on one of those famous hills.
If you’re looking for luxury, you’ll struggle to do better than the Ritz Four Seasons, which is right next to the pretty Parque de Eduardo VII.
The hotel was commissioned by Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar in response to the city’s growing role as a refuge for heads of state looking for a temporary escape from the turbulence of the Second World War.
Its opening in 1959 saw the likes of Audrey Hepburn in attendance and the hotel is still the go-to place for celebrities looking to rest their head in Lisbon.
Highlights include the open air running track on the roof providing 360 degree views of the city, the elegant Varanda restaurant which serves some of the finest seafood in town, and a pioneering spa, which offers a range of hi-tech and luxury treatments.
The hotel also exhibits and champions Portuguese art, with a priceless collection in the lobby, but the jewel in its crown is arguably situated outside the walls, in the shape of a sidecar tour around the city.
This really is the best and most fun way to see Lisbon in a day, as you’re taken to the greatest vantage points as well as being driven through the narrow streets of quiet authentic neighbourhoods which are off limits to cars.
The most unique part of this trip was our driver, Joao, who took us to Carmo Square where he was taken as a 13-year-old by his father to witness the celebrations as Portugal’s dictatorship was overthrown in a military coup in 1974.
The city is littered with fantastic churches; chief among them is Igreja de São Domingos near Rossio metro station, which survived the earthquake in 1755 by the skin of its teeth and therefore showcases both the architecture of the city’s past as well as its restoration in the newer Pombaline style.
As with most Mediterranean cities, evening entertainment starts late on in Lisbon. Bars aren’t full until after 1am and clubs don’t get going till about 3am.
Stansted to Lisbon from £39.98 return with Ryanair
The Ritz, Four Seasons
Rua Rodrigo da Fonseca 88
T: +351 21 381 1400
Rooms from €370 a night
The most unique part of Portuguese nightlife has to be Fado – intimate and powerful folk music sung by locals to a small band of guitars.
Sitting in a cosy restaurant or bar in Alfama with the lights down, it’s almost like being on stage at an opera.
A 10 or 15 minute walk from Alfama is the bustling night life of Barrio Alto where you can find beers for one euro in wall-to-wall bars and a healthy student population.
One down-side is the almost unbelievable bombardment from drug dealers, but a firm no usually works.
If you feel like venturing out of the city, Sintra is a must-see and only a 45 minute train ride. From the beautiful palaces to the stunning views from its hillside forest and castle, Sintra is worth a full day and showcases the Moorish history of the region.
If you get time you might also want to visit the largest indoor aquarium in Europe, which contains rare wonders from the prehistoric looking giant Sand Fish to the unbearably cute Sea Otters.
The Lisbon Oceanarium is in the new commercial district of Parque das Nações and is very close to the airport – a perfect way to fill any time you have before your flight home.
Lisbon really is a truly great European city, a cocktail of Mediterranean weather and rich, glorious history – with eastern European prices.