48 hours in ... Lisbon

Enjoy street parties, free concerts and exhibitions in Portugal's vibrant capital city.
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The Independent Culture
Why go now?

There are flowers everywhere, the sky is blue, and there are fewer tourists than in the summer. In June there are street parties to celebrate St Anthony on the 13th, St John on the 24th and St Peter on the 29th. The city sponsors Festas da Lisboa this month, too, with free concerts and exhibitions. What's more, at the exciting new Cultural Centre of Belem (CCB), Suzanne Vega is playing on 15 June and David Helfgott on 24 and 26 June. At the beginning of July the city hosts an international arts and crafts fair.

Beam down

Go (0870 6054321) flies from Stansted to Lisbon, with fares starting at around pounds 120 return. Go's parent company, British Airways (0345 222111), and TAP Air Portugal (020- 7828 0262) fly from Heathrow to Lisbon, but fares are likely to be higher. From Manchester, Portugalia (0990 502048) flies via Oporto to Lisbon.

Lisbon's airport is handily located within the city's suburbs. Air Portugal ticket-holders are entitled to a free ride on the Aero-Bus into the city centre - hang on to your boarding pass. Other airlines' passengers pay pounds 2 for this service, or about 50 pence for the local bus. A taxi will set you back pounds 4.

Get your bearings

Much of the downtown is organised on a grid like Manhattan, so it couldn't be simpler to find your way around. The main exception to this is the Alfama district, which houses the castle, the old heart of the city and almost the only part not destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1755. Here, winding alleyways and narrow staircases lead you a merry dance and the only thing to do is succumb, enjoy the scenery, avoid the washing hanging out from balconies above, and keep your fingers crossed that you will eventually hit a corner you recognise. It helps to make a mental map of the different districts of the city: Alfama, the ancient quarter; Baixa, the grid-like downtown shopping area; Bairro Alto, for night-life; Belem, the beautiful, open riverfront quarter. To find out what's on where, pick up a free copy of Follow Me Lisbon (in English) or Agenda Cultural (in Portuguese) from kiosks or the tourist office at the airport, at the Praca dos Restauradores or at Rua Jardim do Regedor, 50 or a programme from the CCB.

Check in

To the Hotel Avenida Palace (1) near Rossio (Rua 1 de Dezembro, 00 351 1 346 0151), a grand downtown hotel, if you want to spend some money - this is in the expensive category, at 36,000 escudos (pounds 120) for a double. For only Esc7,000 (pounds 23) you could stay at the Pensao Coimbra e Madrid (2) (Praca da Figueira 3, tel: 00 351 1 342 1760) with views of the Praca da Figueira, Rossio and the castle. In Lapa, there are several top-range hotels in ancient buildings with gardens. One such is the Residencial York House (3), (Rua das Janelas Verdes 32, tel: 00 351 1 396 2435) a 16th century convent with an interior courtyard where meals are served in summer. A double here costs Esc30,700 (pounds 100). In the ancient Alfama quarter, for Esc10,500 (pounds 35) you can stay in the Pensao Sao Joao de Praca (4) (Rua Sao Joao de Praca 97, tel: 00 351 1 886 2591), a town house just below the cathedral.

Take a ride

Leap aboard the no 28 tram - often described as "the most picturesque tram journey in the world" - and wiggle your way from the Estrela gardens (5), through the Baixa, or low town, up the steep, cobbled streets of the Alfama and Castelo districts to Sao Vicente. You'll be right in the heart of the old city, and can make the ascent without crampons or a heart attack. A one-way ticket costs 150 escudos. If you're planning on using lots of public transport while you're here (though mostly it's a city for walking in), it's worth investing in a one-day pass for the trams and buses, which costs 430 escudos, or a three-day pass for 1,000 escudos. Alternatively, there is a Passe Turistico (1,600 escudos for four days) that is valid on all public transport.

Light lunch

...in the peaceful gardens overlooking the river and docks of the National Museum of Ancient Art (6) on Rua das Janelas Verdes, 95. A generous salad or pasta in these leafy surroundings should set you up for your...

Cultural afternoon

This museum, also known locally as the Museum of Green Windows because of its location, boasts a fine collection of Portuguese painting from the 15th to the 18th century, Flemish and German painters, and Portuguese furniture and textiles, silverware and ceramics, and an Oriental art collection revealing the influence of Indian, African and Oriental design due to trade. The museum is in the quietly wealthy suburb of Lapa, near the riverfront, and you may get a glimpse of hordes of well-heeled Portuguese making their way to a Saturday afternoon wedding. If you leave your visit until Sunday, entrance is free.


Chiado district (7) between Baixa and the Bairro Alto was almost wiped out by a fire in 1988. Now beautifully restored, its facades front designer boutiques and branches of Diesel, GAP and the Spanish chain Zara. For a more unusual shopping experience, try the chaotic flea market - Feira de Ladra - centred around Campo de Santa Clara (8) in Alfama district, on Saturdays (and Tuesdays) until 6pm. The market sprawls around Santa Engracia church, and wares range from true junk to antiques and old prints.

An aperitif

A stroll through the Bairro Alto, or high town, will reveal a warren of bars, restaurants and Fado houses. There is no shortage here of establishments in which to spend a few escudos before hunting out your dinner. One such is the Instituto do Vinho do Porto (9), or Port Wine Institute, housed in an old apartment-style building on Rua de Snao Pedro de Alcantara, 45, where you can try one of the 300 types of port they allegedly stock. A rather special place outside the Bairro Alto that fits the bill splendidly is A Brasileira (10), Rua Garrett 120, where the celebrated poet Fernando Pessoa hung out. It changes character during the course of the day from a cafe through aperitif hour to late-night beers on the pavement. For something more trendy, head down to the newly renovated area under the 25th April bridge, the Alcantara and Santo Amaro docks (11), where Cuban, African, Brazilian, Portuguese and - yes - Irish bars nestle side by side, their glass frontages enticing you in with music.


At no 31 Armada street, you will find a restaurant aptly named 31 de Armada (12), and you will be glad you did. It consists of a snaking line of three rooms with low ceilings, linked only by a narrow passageway reminiscent of the secret passages of priestly hiding places during the Reformation. An intimate but buzzy atmosphere prevails, and the third of the rooms offers a glowing real fire for nippy nights. Beautiful examples of Portuguese tiles adorn the walls. On the (Portuguese) menu there is lots of fresh fish and the typical codfish - the Portuguese national dish - and another local speciality of Acorda de Gambas - prawns in a bread mixture with the texture of porridge. Rather delicious, despite how it sounds. Grilled sardines make an appearance, too, and the house white is delicious and superbly cold.

Sunday morning - go to church

In a city that bristles with churches, which ones to single out? Santa Luzia (13) for its spectacular blue-and-white tiles; or Santo Antonio (14), saint of lost belongings and single souls, built on the site of his birthplace, to which singletons make the pilgrimage to request a partner, even though they are no longer allowed to scribble their requests on the walls. But the Monastery of Jeronimos (15) is a place where you could easily spend much longer than a morning (and it's free on Sunday morning). Its intricate white face dominates the river walk at Belem. The monastery, built between 1502 and 1551, was begun by the ruler Dom Manuel to celebrate the safe homecoming of the explorer Vasco da Gama, who went to find India. It is largely decorated in the Manueline style of the time, with the influence of all things naval making their presence clearly felt. (Next door is the naval museum, also free on Sunday mornings). The double-decker cloister is magnificent.

Lunch on the run

For a true taste of Lisbon, forsake a normal lunch for the pleasures of the custard shop at Belem, the Antiga Casa dos Pasteis (16). Just two minutes from Jeronimos, this ancient establishment has a small-looking, neat shop at the front where you can buy their famous custard tarts - the tart itself is a speciality of Portugal, but these are renowned to be the best. Wander behind the counter and you'll find yourself in a warren of beautifully tiled rooms where you can sit and marvel at the tile pictures depicting ancient Lisbon, and indulge in enough custard tarts and coffee to keep you going all afternoon.

A walk in the park

Not quite a real park, but the gardens in front of Jeronimos (17) are hard to beat. Beautiful buildings at every turn, glittering sea all along the front, a little row of cafes with sunny terraces, in rose pink and ochre and ancient tiles, even a tasteful, subdued, peach-coloured branch of McDonald's. Boys playing football and people walking their dogs; the perfect place to watch relaxed Lisbon life.

The icing on the cake

Belem is a treasure. You've already seen Jeronimos and tasted the custard tarts. The spiral staircase in the Torre de Belem (18), once guarding the entrance to Lisbon's harbour, makes you short of breath, and then the view from the top takes it away. The city laid out before you, boats plying up and down the river and the superb new bridge, over 10 miles long, that spans the stretch to the southern shore. Further along the water's edge stands the Monument to the Discoveries (19), its white form startling in bright sunshine, Portuguese heroes ascending the sharp bow of the boat which juts out onto the water. No doubt there are lovely views from the top of here, too, but if, like me, you find the lift out of order, you'll never know - there are no stairs!