Exploring Lisbon’s best areas…
An unmistakable Mediterranean-ism and a wild Atlantic coast! Europe’s westernmost country literally has the best of both worlds. Voyage-driven history, staggering landscapes, Moorish roots, and a unique culture that changed the face of its colonies for posterity. Certainly a destination to redefine your vision of the continent. So give in to the pull of Portugal. Submit to the lure of Lisbon. With my rundown of the top five most atmospheric neighbourhoods in the capital.
Baixa: Dressed to impress
Baixa in Central Lisbon makes a powerful statement with its wide tree-lined avenues and rows of elegant neo-classical mansions adorned in intricate tile-work. Portuguese statues in spacious squares stand as proud symbols of victory. Stares guaranteed all along its most important grand boulevard, Avenida da Liberdade, mimicking the Parisian Champs Elysees. Perfect curtain-raiser to the grid-like Lower Town, the first example of urban planning in Europe and hub of all action in the capital.
Quintessential curiosities: Flashback to the times of executions, bull fights and royal proclamations in Lisbon’s Town Square, Rossio. It is still a much-loved public space with its baroque fountain, black-white Calcada floor design and iconic art deco Café Nicola. No shortage of sights in the area, from the Elevador de Santa Justa, to streets named after traditional crafts (Rua da Prata or Silversmiths’ Street and Rua dos Sapateiros or Cobblers’ Street) to the main shopping drag, Rue Augusta, ending in the large Placa Commercio. Waterfront, wind and wonder whisk into a delightful froth, in the mellow light of the evening. Amplified by the cheerful yellow buildings of the large square buzzing with tourist activity.
Eye-candy alert: Don’t forget to look down at the white, polished limestone square patchwork pavements, shiny and slippery with millions of footsteps over the centuries. Dozens of black-and-white wavy or geometric patterns, completely unlike each other. Never-ending amazement!
Chiado: Trendy chic
The aura of quiet sophistication envelops you with the first few steps into Chiado’s wide streets. Slip into your prima-donna avatar and match up to the the harmony of mansions on both sides. Steal glances at theaters, browse in classy boutiques, linger in artefact galleries, gape at jewellery stores and stare at design houses…follow the mandate, forget the map. Stop by statues of literary greats like Fernando Pessoa, Luis de Camões, and Eça de Queiroz and listen to their wordless accounts. Because even a 20th-century fire couldn’t burn away Lisbon’s intellectual heart.
Quintessential curiosities: Prowl around the ruins of Convento do Carmo, an old Gothic convent, and famous icon of Lisbon. Think about Chiado’s survival instinct at the São Roque Church…standing strong even after the 1755 quake. Order genuine Brazilian coffee at ‘A Brasileira’, the most historical café of them all (circa 1905) or marvel at the interiors of the city’s oldest restaurant, Tavares Restaurant (from 1784), as you savour shrimps in herb sauce.
Eye-candy alert: And while you’re still wondering if lineage is the unwritten code of conduct in Chiado, stumble upon the world’s oldest bookstore, Livraria Bertrand. No cobweb corners or dusty piles here, despite being in business for 300 years. 95% books are Portuguese, but why should that stop you from gloating at the shelves?
Bairro Alto: Bohemian rhapsody
The original bohemian haunt of artists and writers in Portugal’s capital has a vibe unlike any other. Traditional tile-decorated buildings and graffiti-ridden façades, shabby-chic shops, steep, tram-lined streets of Bairro Alto (High Town). Quiet and calm of the day morphs into vibrant nightlife with the many international restaurants, lively bistros and crowded bars sprinkled all over the area.
Quintessential curiosities: Igreja de Santa Catarina is a gilded baroque wonder dating 17th-century with lovely stucco rococo ceiling and delicately sculpted figures of St Catherine, St Paul and St Anthony. Spend some time absorbing in the peace and prettiness from the pews. Later, melt into the night with a bar-hop in Rua Diário de Notícias, the neighborhood’s central street. The protocol, as part of the neighborhood’s trademark image, is to stand outside with a drink in hand. Bottoms up? Time to move to the next bar.
Eye-candy alert: Go vista hunting in the narrow downhill alley-ways and create your own mind-map of the Lisbon’s raw appeal. And when you’re seeking iconic, venture to two of my fave spots with magical views of Sao Jorge Castle…Calçada do Duque street and Miradouro De Sao Pedro de Alcantara. Gasp. Breathe. Repeat.
Belem: Back in time
Pretend to be a sardine-in-a-can on the Tram 500 from Figuera Square to Belem. Lisbon’s most historical neighbourhood, located at the mouth of the River Tagus was the point from where Portugal’s celebrity explorers launched their famous Voyages of Discoveries.
Quintessential curiosities: 15th-century Jeronimos Monastery, one of the most important monuments in Lisbon and Unesco World Heritage, built by King D. Manuel I, with gold loot from Portuguese discoveries, is worth a couple of hours of gawping for its Manueline architectural details…spires, gargoyles, vaulted corridors, cloisters, azulejo murals, massive cathedral and Vasco da Gama’s tomb. Soak in as deep as you can. Get inspired by the adventurous spirit of the real travellers of yesterday at the Monument of Discovery. Twirl uninhibited on the glorious Calcada-tile world compass and map, marking places they found. Take a windswept walk to the 16-century Tower of Belem, which was once an island in the river, when Tagus reached Jeronimos Monastery. Enjoy views of the bridge and harbour before heading back.
Eye-candy alert: Join the queues under the blue canopies of the legendary Pasties de Belem to experience the original 1837 recipe of Pasties da Nata, the iconic olden-yellow tartlet filled with deliciously rich, creamy, baked egg custard. This is food heaven for the taste, aromas and sights of delicious goodies filling the fast-emptying counters. Remember to find the azulejo tiled-wall on the inside parlour.
Alfama: Gritty glam
Ride the Tram 15 to Puerto Sol and set foot into the city’s oldest core, Alfama (from Arabic ‘Al-hamma’ or ‘hot baths’). Inhabited by fishing folk in the days of yore, and neighbourhood of the underprivileged till today, Alfama’s grunge factor is hard to ignore.
Quintessential curiosities: Head to the medieval Castle of São Jorge, the royal residence until the early 16th century to admire remnants of the Moorish city walls, and various terraces (Miradouros) for glorious birds-eye views. Stop by the Lisbon Cathedral (12th–14th centuries), the oldest of the city before trace out hidden delights in the narrow streets that meander off in different directions. There’s even a Jewish Quarter to tempt you along the way. The obligatory? Reservations for a Fado dinner. Recommendations? Clube de Fado. Melancholic music to feed your soul, while your tastebuds feed on typical Bacalhau a braz in an intimate setting. And shhh.. no talking, please.
Eye-candy alert: Alfama’s labyrinth of narrow streets and small squares is replete with endless photo-opportunities. White-washed old houses, twisty and crooked flights of steps, unexpected views, modest churches and leftovers of ancient structures to amaze you. Crying babies, snoozing cats, chatting women, quirky street art and shoes drying outside doors to capture your heart. Intruding into personal spaces was never so rewarding.
And when you wave goodbye to the ‘City of the Seven Hills’, you will know…one visit was not enough.
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