Between local liqueurs and creamy custard tarts, Modern Traveller took a moment to reflect on what makes Portugal’s up-and-down capital so special.
The locals recommend a generous dusting of cinnamon — and not to inhale just as you take a bite.
Here, pastéis do Belèm are on offer in almost every café, on each of the city’s maze of roughly cobbled streets. These bite-sized custard tarts are a Portuguese staple: not to be missed on even a fleeting visit to this most underrated of European capitals.
The soaring Gothic skeleton of the roofless Convento de Carmo bears testament to the Great Earthquake of 1755, in which most of the city burned. Its people, in church on the Day of the Dead, had left lit candles in their homes which, when the ground shook, went up in flames. MT ambles across broken stone slabs, up to where the altar once sat, raising its eyes to marvel at the vivid blue Lisbon sky, now all-too-visible through cracked rib-like arches: a startling intertwining of nature and human endeavour.
Lisbon is a city of surprises, a city forced by fire to reinvent itself, forming a unique fusion: from the mass of warren-like streets in the Moorish Alfama quarter – each of which yields an aromatic café – to the fishing tackle shop-cum-wine bar in the refurbished red light district, or the townhouse built on an impossible slope, its exterior covered in a bright mosaic of chipped blue-and-white tiles.
Stepping aboard the city’s remarkable no.28 tram is to skip back in time, swaying with the motion of the wooden carriage as it rocks, teeters and shudders up and up to the dizzying heights of the city’s seven hills.
Beneath the watchful gaze of somnolent saints, the hilltop flea market, too, is a half-forgotten sprawl of bric-a-brac, from scratched Dire Straits records to gleaming semi-precious stones to piles and piles of unclaimed shoes. Bartering is of the essence here, and even the most wide-eyed visitor must be prepared to play the game.
Beckoned by a grinning barman into a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant, MT tucks in to fresh cheese and cured meats, and gives an obligatory nod to Portugal’s most famous export, that burgundy nectar from Porto. An afternoon stroll finds the weary wanderer retracing the tram’s tracks towards the sea.
Myriad food markets and bars tucked into ancient aqueducts or quirky curiosity shops remain to be discovered, but – for those with a desire to do as the locals do – the real secret, come nightfall, is to take to the rooftops.
Following the clatter of stilettos up a dark, graffiti-clad staircase in an eerie car park, the intrepid traveller is rewarded with the top-floor terrace of dreams. Swaying, shoulder to shoulder with Lisbon’s party crowd, to the latest DJ’s hippest beats, cocktail-sipping night owls are treated to an absolutely unforgettable view.
In the city of seven hills, with spell-binding, jaw-dropping sights on almost every corner, that’s saying something.
WORDS BY SASKIA WALKER | IMAGES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS