Lisbon is the perfect port city. Set at Europe’s watery western fringes, it’s briny, a little brash and entirely sure of its own often determinedly bohemian identity. Portugal’s 17th-century ocean-ruling days may be long gone but, with its back to the continent, Atlantic-facing Lisbon has always appeared to steer its own course, traditionally felt nowhere more keenly than among the sprawling docks and ramshackle industrial warehouses of its blustery Tagus riverfront.
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But with a vast new cruise ship terminal taking shape (shakily slated for completion at the end of this year), new museums and a seemingly endless wave of hipster bars coming in like Atlantic rollers from the waterfront nightlife barrio of Cais do Sodre, the city really is starting to smarten up.
It may be getting its posh hat on but thankfully so far Lisbon hasn’t become pricey. It still tops polls as Europe’s cheapest city for dining and drinking, so take a break here before the big cruise ships dock and the inevitable overpriced souvenir stands sail in.
In April, get a taste of Lisbon’s sea-faring traditions at the Fish and Flavours Festival (peixemlisboa.com; April 7-17), when Portuguese chefs gather in the lovely Pombaline arcaded courtyard of the waterfront Tourism Information Office to offer cooking demos, tastings and food-and-wine paired menus.
Bed Down: In and Out
Combine a hotel stay with exploring the city. The Inspira Santa Marta Hotel (00 351 210 440 900; inspirahotels.com) in central Lisbon recently launched expert-guided tours, including “sight running”, which takes joggers/runners around the sights of Lisbon’s waterfront (and numerous hills, so be warned).
It also hosts a walking tour of the city’s independent shops and boutiques, and a walk-and-eat tour exploring the tradition of Portuguese petiscos (small plates). Inside, the modern 89-room boutique hotel has a subtle Sixties retro feel, feng shui-inspired design and a sizeable spa. Double rooms from €88 B&B; activities extra.
Fed and Watered: Chourico and Petiscos
Newly opened The Station (station-club.com) is a great place for a sunny lunch or brunch on a decked terrace overlooking the ferry pier at Cais do Sodre. There’s a pan-Asian slant to the menu but the tuna steak, straight up, is exemplary Lisbon fare. Main courses €12/19.
For a light bite, lunch or dinner, nearby Mercado da Ribeira (Av 24 de Julho 50; open to midnight or until 2am Thurs-Sat), has been transformed from a 19th-century covered market into a buzzing food hall, complete with food trucks and stands where you can try everything from cured presunto ham to pungent wheels of sheep’s cheese and fine Alentejo wines, plus the requisite array of on-trend cold-brew coffee and hand-churned gelato to round things off. Watch this space for this year’s opening of a new mezzanine floor, home to outposts of some of Lisbon’s top restaurants.
A friendly, local dinner retreat, Dona Quiteria (00 351 21 395 1521; Travessa de São José 1) is a teeny eight-table bistro in a quirkily converted grocery store in a residential hilltop ’hood just above the market. Its small but perfectly formed menu of modern Portuguese food includes such standouts as a flaming chourico (chorizo), a light, fresh bacalhau (salt cod) and superb garlicky shrimp. Dishes from €5-12.
Back in Cais do Sodre, push through the crowds along Rua Nova do Carvalho, the “pink street” where bar patrons spill onto the rose-painted cobbles of this former dockside red-light district, creating a defacto pedestrian precinct. Pensao Amor, a former brothel now club/art space, is the main draw here, but good luck getting in; long queues of camera-toting tourists and overdressed out-of-towners keen to see the outlandish graffiti that adorns the club’s crumbling walls can make this fun house a bit of a chore. Instead, head west towards the road’s slightly quieter end to Taberna Tosca (tabernatosca.com), a new bistro and annexe bar serving small plates of traditional petiscos, excellent Portuguese wines and lively cocktails.
In the Bag: One-off Shops
Lisbon leads Europe for unique boutiques. In Cais do Sodre the Conserveira de Lisboa (00 351 218 864 009; conserveiradelisboa.pt) sells kitsch-designed cans of premium fish, while nearby Lx Factory (00 351 213 143 399; lxfactory.com) offers labels from local designers. The Lisbon Walker (00 351 211 307 600; thelisbonwalker.com) makes handcrafted men’s shoes; a bottle of fine Portuguese wine is gifted with every pair.
Inland, the Chiado district’s elegant boulevards are lined with gilded 19th- century shops, including the landmark Luvaria Ulisses (00 351 213 420 295; luvariaulisses.com), whose leather gloves have adorned royalty; while A Vida Portuguesa (00 351 213 465 073; avidaportuguesa.com), in an old fabric merchant’s warehouse, sells such heritage brands as Claus Porto bath salts, and “papa” blankets from Maçainhas, a village where Marques de Pombal initiated textile production in the 1700s.
Cultural Agenda: A Day at the Museums
The most westerly waterfront barrio of Belem is home to the lion’s share of Lisbon’s cultural spaces, including the wonderful olde worlde Maritime Museum (00 351 210 977 388; museu.marinha.pt) with its eclectic collection of naval furniture, navigational charts and instruments.
A new-look Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT), designed by British architect Amanda Levete, is scheduled to open here at the end of this year. In the meantime, don’t miss the final few weeks of A Luz de Lisboa (to March 27). This arts and science exhibition at the Museum of Lisbon (00 351 217 513 200; museudelisboa.pt), on the grand, Tagus-fronted Praça do Comércio, celebrates the city’s unique setting, which makes sunsets here so immense and golden.
TAP Portugal (0345 601 0932; flytap.com) flies direct to Lisbon from Heathrow and Gatwick, from £121 return.
More information: visitlisboa.com