WHY GO NOW?
Spring smiles upon mainland Europe's most westerly capital. March, April and May are the ideal months to visit Lisbon, when the air is as fresh as the flowers that decorate the city. At any time of year, Portugal's capital offers a seductive mix of ambience, altitude and architecture.
From Heathrow, British Airways and TAP Portugal have frequent flights; the latter also flies from Gatwick, as does Monarch. From Luton, you can fly with easyJet. A fare of £108 return from Gatwick is available through www.opodo.co.uk. Thomsonfly has introduced flights from Manchester to the Portuguese capital.
Lisbon airport is conveniently, if somewhat noisily, located just five miles north-west of the city centre; a modern replacement is planned for a long way out of town. The Aerobus departs every 20 minutes from the well-indicated stop outside arrivals. If you happen to have flown in on TAP Portugal, simply hand your boarding pass to the driver; otherwise, the fare is €3 (£2.20) - though you can reduce this to €1.30 (90p) by taking bus 44 or 45 from the next bus stop along. The buses follow much the same route into and through the city centre, calling at the busy square of Praca Dom Pedro IV, better known as Rossio (1), and terminating at Cais do Sodré (2).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Lisbon is built on seven hills, but the core of the city occupies one of the few expanses of flat ground. Baixa ("lower"), as it is called, comprises a grid of streets running north from the riverside Praça do Comércio (3). To the east stands the castle of St George (4), the cathedral (5) and the ancient Alfama district. Chiado rises to the west, while beyond it is the Bairro Alto, the hub of Lisbon's nightlife. Most of your time is likely to be spent in this relatively small area, but it is still worth investing in a 7 Colinas ("Seven Hills") transport pass. This is a stored-value or unlimited-travel ticket; the latter is well worthwhile, since it costs only €3.90 (£2.75) per day, and allows unlimited use of the city's excellent underground, trams, buses and lifts. Buy your pass at an underground station, or a ticket office dotted around at street level - including at the foot of the Elevador de Santa Justa (6).
The larger and flashier chain hotels tend to be dispersed away from the city centre, so instead choose a smaller city-centre location. I paid €160 (£114) for a vast double room, including breakfast, at the four-star Lisboa Regency Chiado (7) at Rua Nova do Almada 114 (00 351 21 325 6100; www.regency-hotels-resorts.com). The innocuous entrance is misleading: on the other side of this refurbished historic building, the rooms - and the bar - have superb views across the whole city.
A short way north-east, the modern Hotel Mundial (8) at Praça Martin Moniz 2 (00 351 21 884 2000; www.hotel-mundial.pt) also has four stars and a good view, but it is cheaper at €98 (£70), without breakfast.
Residencial Londrina (9), at Rua Castilho 61 (00 351 21 386 3624), is a quiet, comfortable budget option costing only €50 (£35) for a double room, including breakfast (with jet propulsion-grade coffee).
TAKE A HIKE...
... to the castle of St George (4): aim first for the cathedral (5) and then head uphill through the tangle of lanes and staircases to this once-mighty fortress. The Moors built the first fortifications in the ninth century, but the Christians seized it in the 12th; it served as a royal palace, but is now subsiding into ruins - which are great fun to explore. The views from the walls are excellent. The castle (00 351 21 880 0620; www.egeac.pt) opens 9am-9pm daily (to 6pm from November to February), €5 (£3.50).
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Alfama, the oldest part of Lisbon, spills downhill east of the castle. It is full of curious little cafés - many of them serving bacalhau, the rehydrated, salted cod that is the city's staple. At the no-name cafe (10), half a ragged block north-east of Largo do Chafariz de Dentro, a fill-up costs a handful of euros.
The Saturday flea market in Santa Clara - beyond Alfama - sprawls outward from the Campo Santa Clara. At this eccentric carnival of commerce you can buy anything from broken sunglasses to classy antiques. For a more manageable retail environment, explore the elaborate Armazens do Chiado (11) mall at the foot of Rua Garrett.
Fine art is not the city's speciality. Instead, immerse yourself in the architectural splendour of the classic Lisbon café, A Brasileira (12) at Rua Garrett 120 (00 351 21 346 9541). This grand old hall is filled with ageing wood and waiters, stocked with hexagonal marble tables and decorated with modern art that dazzles in dozens of mirrors. You could grab a bica (short, strong coffee) and pastry in minutes or linger for hours. If fine weather tempts you outside, you'll be in the company of a Portuguese cultural icon, the poet Fernando Pessoa - or at least a bronze sculpture. The man who wrote "The poet is a pretender" was a regular here. Wander around Rua Garrett to find bookshops and art galleries.
The Elevador Santa Justa (6) manages to combine several functions in one. It is an Eiffel-designed lift that will haul you from river level to higher ground as part of the city transport network; a national historic monument; and the perfect place to go for a drink at the top station cafe, as the setting sun illuminates the hills across the city. You can choose from a wide range of ports (from €3.75/£2.70), or settle for a cheap beer with a view (€2.50/£1.80).
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Now that you have been hauled to the heights, seek out one of the many superb little restaurants in the Bairro Alto. A Cataplana (13) at Rua do Diário de Noticias 27 (00 351 21 342 2993) is typical - just 20 places squeezed into a tiny corner site, with a random scattering of kitsch interrupting the elegant tiles. You will struggle to pay more than €35 (£25) for a meaty or fishy meal for two with a carafe of robust wine.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
The best assets of Lisbon's cathedral (4) are the views from its south side: over mottled terracotta roofs towards the broad, slow Tagus and, beyond, the 25 April Bridge, glinting like San Francisco's Golden Gate.
TAKE A RIDE
The standard tourist tram ride is on number 28, which mimics a San Francisco cable car as it clambers over the hills on each side of the Baixa.
But some antique trams also run on route 15, west from Cais do Sodre. Climb aboard for the trip to the regal suburb of Belém.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Pastéis de Belém is both the name and the signature dish - custard pies doused with icing sugar - at this institution at Rua de Belém 84 (00 351 21 363 7423; www.pasteisdebelem.pt). See if you can stop at three.
TAKE A VIEW
By now you will realise that Lisbon is full of spectacular panoramas. One of the most unusual, though, is at river level beneath the shadow of the 14th-century Tower of Belém. On a clear day when the tide is low, you can wander out onto the rocks, look upriver to see the city framed by the 25 A pril Bridge or downriver to the resorts of Estoril and Cascais and the ocean beyond.
A WALK ON THE BEACH
Lisbon is 800 miles closer to the Equator than London is, which means that even in March you can dip a toe into the Atlantic. From Belém's own railway station, you can reach the pretty resort of Cascais, the end of the line, in 32 minutes.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
Get to the airport a little early on your way home, and you can visit the brand-new aviation museum that opens next Tuesday. Located in the administration building (close to departures), it is expected to be open 9am-5.30pm daily except Mondays, admission free.
Additional research by Patrick WelchReuse content