There’s no city on earth like Lisbon. To feel the vista of sunset drizzling over terracotta tenements and the Pombaline rococo of the old town; to husk over cold cerveza in the dulcet twilight of the banks of the Tejo as the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge blends into nightfall; to see the number 28 tram rattle and clank through cloistered, cobbled amber-lit laneways of Alfama – all of this is to understand and experience the true essence of Portuguese magic.
And there was no end to it on our short but sweet trip over to Portugal. After living in Berlin for a year, and most recently through a very bleak winter, the Portuguese coast was like a vapor-lined mirage: a shimmering coast of surf and sun, and delicious seafood and wine. Watching Anthony Bourdain’s take on the city was the clincher. We set our course for Lisbon.
Flying in on a sunny April afternoon, we trained effortlessly on the comfortable, sleek metro to the Santa Apollonia railway station, before trundling up the steep, winding hills of old town Alfama to our cozy flat for the week. The magic was on show from word go: ornate Moorish tiles of the heritage town houses, local faces peering from iron-lattice balconies, tiny boutiques with original proprietors; the lissom sea air, a joy to breathe; the rattling number 28 historical tram, clunking its way through the old town’s slender, winding lanes and streets.
It can be easy to overlook Portugal in the vast range of idyllic and exotic European destinations, but it’s worth remembering that not long ago, this country was not only the focal point of Europe, but also the center of the world itself. Lisbon, as its capital, was home to the first, longest and arguably most influential empire in modern times: the birthplace of the Age of Discovery, stomping ground of great seafarers and conquistadors, a dynamic hub of global trade and innovation.
The relics of the era can still be seen and felt, most notably at the Lisbon Maritime Museum, or the Torre de Belem, where ships once passed on their way to the endless Atlantic, en route to new, unseen parts of the world. Today, Lisbon gives an air of relaxed grace; it has undergone considerable economic strain post-GFC, and the feeling here, if not once of financial abundance, is one of renewal, and appreciation for the smaller things.
On our first night, we dined at a Lisbon food institution: the Cervejaria Ramiro, relishing in the city’s freshest and most succulent seafood, drizzled in garlic and fresh herbs, steaming in skillets, all washed down with endless glasses of crisp Sagres beer, and the obligatory beef sandwich, aka ‘bifana’, which the Portuguese like to call ‘dessert’.
The following days were spent wandering blissfully about the city center: the Baixa Chiado district, where the lingering legacy of one of Portugal’s most revered and cherished authors, Fernando Pessoa can still be felt. A coffee and cake at Café A Brasiliera, one of Pessoa’s old haunts, was a fine spot to take in Lisbon’s literary past.
Aside from the incredible seafood, one thing you can’t miss in Lisbon is the abundant Pasteis De Nata, aka Portuguese Tarts: moreish, glazed custard pastries, a certified way to overdose on sugary goodness (and add a fresh tire to the waistline). It’s worth it: some of the best can be found at Manteigaria Fabrica De Pasteis de Nata, on Rue do Loreto.
If your savory taste buds are still in want, look no further than the most satisfying lunchtime bifanas in town, boiled pork varieties with mustard and chili oil at the very unpretentious ‘O Trevo’ diner, just a few minutes walk away.
Come nighttime, some of the best bars and nightlife can be found in the Barrio Alto district, a slightly more raucous affair to the sleepier, amber-rinsed romance of old town Alfama. Plenty of fine bistros and restaurants on offer here too.
Like San Francisco, San Diego, Medellin, Rome and countless others, Lisbon is allegedly built on seven hills. Here, the moniker ‘City of Seven Hills’ truly sticks well, and the city’s beauty lays in its stunning geography – Moorish, Romanesque and Pombaline tenements compete for space in one magnificent, ramshackle cluster over a vista of wide, sprawling peaks and ebbs; come evening, take in this panorama over a cold beer or wine as the sun basks on the shimmering Tejo waterline (especially around the outlooks of Graca). It elevates the experience to truly heavenly.
I could spruik endlessly on the many virtues of this incredible city – the remarkable heritage leather tanning industry just a short drive north; the friendliness of the people; of the majestic Atlantic surf coast of Sintra, Estoril, Cascais, Oeiras; or the earthquake and firestorm that razed it completely in 1755, and how it was rebuilt into the magical place we see today. There’s just too much to love about Lisbon: you’ll simply need to head across and find out for yourself.
Written by and photos by Cam Hassard for EuropeUpClose.com
Although Cam travels the world and is currently living in Berlin, he is a Melbournian at heart. You can probably figure that out by his distinctive turn of phrase.