Lisbon is the ideal backdrop for the instagram generation. Much like a photogenic quilt, Lisbon is stitched together with an array of beautiful hand painted tiles, charming family run restaurants and lazy sun-filled parks that act as perfect content for the social media savvy.
I must admit I had not factored Lisbon highly on my ‘to visit list’ but as Portugal’s fragile economy recovers so has its appeal to foreign travellers. When searching for a destination for my best friends and me to go on our annual holiday, I was surprised to see Lisbon recommended so frequently. The tantalising combination of sunny weather early in the year, world-renowned seafood and the increasingly rare budget-friendly appeal of the city were too much to resist.
“One friend took great delight in photographing as many different patterned tiles as she could. By the end of our trip she had amassed a rather impressive collection of digital postcards.”
Nestled between seven hills, much like in a fairy tale city, Portugal’s capital has an abundance of steep slopes for visitors to climb up in search of the city’s abundance of hidden experiences. Part of the fun of Lisbon is walking the streets and seeing what you can discover. One friend took great delight in photographing as many different patterned tiles as she could. By the end of our trip she had amassed a rather impressive collection of digital postcards.
The tiles, or Azulejos as they are known, are not just pretty decoration. They tell an important part of Lisbon’s history. Originating in the 15th Century, the traditional geometric and Arabic style tiles were introduced to Lisbon’s buildings by Moors. The tradition continued with the introduction of new colours, patterns and styles as the Portuguese empire expanded and more inspiration was taken from around the world. If you look closely you will see Chinese influences as well as Brazilian spread throughout the city.
In 1755, following an earthquake, the people of Lisbon took the opportunity to brighten up their devastated city with even more experimental and embellished tiles. Today they act as a symbol of a city reborn and are an inspiring reminder of the evolution of creativity in Lisbon.
On our first morning we woke up early and found a little café near our apartment where we enjoyed a generous heap of scrambled eggs with ham and cheese with coffee and juice all for under €5 each. Following our well-priced feast we set off to explore. Be warned, Lisbon is a walkable city, but you should be prepared for some pretty high gradients to get to your desired destination. Like Rome, Lisbon’s cobbled streets require comfortable footwear.
We first visited Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara, the 19th Century Gardens at the top of one of Lisbon’s hills. The grounds are filled with swaggering peacocks, local guitar players and the best views of the city. You can either clamber up the palace walls searching for an impressive panorama or sit quietly with a coffee and enjoy the people watching. These gardens, set over several tiers, will charm you regardless.
All of that hill climbing means visitors to Lisbon can indulge in the delicious food the city is famous for. A visit to the Time Out market is a must for foodies and will give you a snapshot of the wild array of cuisine Lisbon has on offer. Inside the market, my friends and I surveyed the different pop up stalls of many of the famous restaurants in Lisbon and then reconvened in the canteen style seating to compare our spoils.
After a short walk along the sea front we found Praça do Comércio, an impressive square with egg yolk yellow painted walls and some lovely cafes in prime people watching position. Also rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake, the square was totally remodelled in dedication to José I, the King of Portugal during that time.
There is a very modern edge for a the capital city steeped in such potent history. Following a delicious dinner at Cantinho de Avillez; chef José Avillez’s affordable bistro alternative to his Michelin star restaurant, we stumbled across Park Bar. Following a group of well-dressed locals congregated around an unassuming car park stairwell, further investigation found us sipping Espresso Martinis on a chic terrace enjoying the wonderful views of the city -just another example of the hidden treasures waiting to be found in Lisbon.
On our second day we took a short taxi trip to Belem, an area just outside of Lisbon. A trip to Pasties de Belem, the bakery, which first created the famous Portuguese custard tart, is a must. You can gorge yourselves on these delicious crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside bites of heaven and then head over to the Jerónimos Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for a good dose of architectural history.
My favourite meal of the trip was a two hour lunch affair at Margem also found in Belem. This riverside restaurant looks across to the 25 Abril Bridge, which has a striking resemblance to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and was built by the same architect. The dramatic view was the perfect accompaniment to our alfresco lunch of enormous salads and freshly caught seafood.
If seafood is your thing, dinner at Sea Me cannot be missed. Make sure to book in advance, as this popular restaurant is busy everyday from early till late. You can choose your fish from the counter and then the waiter will present it to you beautifully cooked on a large platter with an assortment of potatoes and vegetables to accompany it. Add a good white wine into the mix and you’ll have yourselves an evening to remember.
Our final day called for some low maintenance tourism. The LX Flea Market is perfect for a Sunday morning stroll under the 25 Abril Bridge. The market has an eclectic mix of vintage clothing shops as well as furniture and food stalls with some refreshingly different brunch options.
For energetic visitors, you can walk back to the city centre through sleepy parks and quiet residential areas stopping off for custard tarts along the way. This route is a perfect opportunity to take those last few photos for you to post when you get home. No need for a filter though. The magic of Lisbon will speak for itself.