Spread across 7 hills, the Portuguese capital mixes majesty and shabbiness in equal measure. Designer boutiques and cutting-edge restaurants sit side by side with crumbling mansions and tatty cafés, and rickety yellow trams vie for space on the busy streets. It’s very much a city of villages, and every neighbourhood has its own personality – from refined Chiado to Bohemian Lapa, long a favourite with writers and artists. At the very heart is Alfama, the original Moorish settlement, where cats dose on sun-dappled squares and the scent of grilled sardines wafts from open doorways. Above it all are the imposing battlements of São Jorge castle, from where you can see the whole of Lisbon spread out at your feet, with the mighty River Tagus flowing beneath the enormous suspension bridge that hangs in the distance. Back down the hill in the Baixa district you’ll find galleries, museums and theatres aplenty, while a couple of km west is historic Belém, from where the great explorers set sail in search of the New World.
Lisbon’s dilapidated buildings provide perfect canvases for urban artists, and the city’s ever-evolving street art scene is gaining an international reputation. Perhaps most well-known is Vihls, who creates striking portraits of local residents, including one carved into the side of Memmo Alfama. Lisbon Street Art Tours offers fascinating guided walks around some of the highlights, including hidden works that are well off the beaten tourist track.
Huddled just beneath São Jorge castle, Lisbon’s circus school has jaw-dropping views over the rooftops to the sparkling River Tagus below. There’s an alfresco bar for sunset cocktails and tapas, plus a more formal restaurant at the top of a steep spiral staircase.
The excellent MUDE, set on Rua Augusta in the heart of Baixa, charts the evolution of style over the course of the 20th century. Its comprehensive collection brings together fashion, interiors and architecture, and there are frequent exhibitions showcasing the work of designers from Portugal and beyond. Admission is free.
Every Tuesday and Sunday, Campo de Santa Clara in the Graça district is transformed into a sprawling flea market known as the Feira da Ladra. It’s a great place to pick up bric-a-brac, vintage clothes, jewellery, salvaged tiles and old photographs, and it’s easy to lose hours among the mass of stalls.
Housed in a former convent, this sprawling museum contains beautiful examples of Portuguese tiles from the 15th century onwards, together with modern interpretations of traditional motifs. There’s also a shop selling a range of designs, plus a leafy courtyard café. Don’t miss the giant tiled mural on the top floor, which depicts Lisbon as it was before an earthquake destroyed much of the city in 1755.
Portugal has become synonymous with the cinnamon-dusted custard tarts known as pasteis de nata. For some of the best in town, head to Pastelaria Aloma in the Campo d’Ourique neighbourhood, or take the tram out to Belém, where the bustling Antiga Confeitaria de Belém has been churning them out by the box-load since 1837.
Portugal’s haunting folk music was born among the tangled alleys of Alfama. Learn about its history at the Museu do Fado, housed in a former station near the waterfront, then listen to the best of the new-generation Fado artists at Mesa de Frades (Rua dos Remédios 139a), a tiny chapel turned taverna whose candlelit interior is clad in ornate tiling.
We love the laid-back vibe at Pois Café, an Austrian-owned spot hidden down a side street near the cathedral. It’s something of a local institution - find a spot amongst the mismatched furniture, choose from a pile of books and magazines, and tuck into tasty brunches, salads, pastries and sandwiches.