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Why go now?
Europe's most westerly and, arguably, sunniest capital offers a glorious escape from the winter grey of Britain. At this time of year, you can expect temperatures of at least 15C in this palm-filled city. Although Lisboans like to complain about the few drops of rain that fall in January and February, the touch of cloud cover provides a wonderful luminosity that adds to the bitter-sweet mood of nostalgia for which Lisbon is so romantically celebrated. Winter is also when the city is least visited, so you'll find its fine galleries and museums relatively empty and you'll enjoy the haunting fado music of its bars in the company of genuine locals.
From the UK the widest choice of flights is offered by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com), with services from Bristol, Gatwick, Liverpool and Luton. Portugal's national airline TAP (0845 601 0932; www.flytap.com) flies from Gatwick and Heathrow; British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow; and bmibaby (0871 224 0224; www.bmibaby.com) from Birmingham.
The airport is just 7km from the city centre (too close for Lisbon's authorities, who are planning to move operations some distance away). The express Aerobus provides a shuttle service to Cais do Sodre station (1), with stops at a few significant points along the way – including the busy Praca dos Restauradores (2) and the vast, waterside Praca do Comercio (3). The bus runs every 20 minutes between 7.45am and 8.45pm. If you fly in with TAP, keep your boarding pass and you get a free ride. Otherwise, the €3.35 (£2.60) ticket also covers other city centre public transport for the day. Buses 44 and 45 also go to Cais do Sodre, taking longer (about 40 minutes) but for the cheaper fare of €1.20 (£0.90). Taxis to the centre cost around €12 (£9.20). At the tourist office in the airport arrivals hall (00 351 218 450 660; open daily 7am until midnight) you can buy vouchers for a limousine service for up to six people from €15 (£11.50).
Get your bearings
Water and hills largely define this strikingly located city. Overlooking the wide estuary of the River Tagus, Lisbon is set on seven hills with its tiny heart occupying a narrow flat area known as Baixa or lower town. After a devastating earthquake in 1755 this district was rebuilt in a gracious grid pattern.
Immediately to the east, the medieval tangle of the Alfama district survived the tremors as a result of its rocky terrain. Above it sits the spectacularly positioned Castelo de Sao Jorge (Castle of St George) (4). To the west of Baixa are the steep and funky Chiado and Bairro Alto neighbourhoods, while on the water's edge out to the far west is the suburb of Belem from where the great 15th- and 16th-century explorers of Portugal's Golden Age set out.
Lisbon's main tourist offices are at Praca do Comercio (3) (00 351 21 031 2810) and Palacio Foz on Praca dos Restauradores (2) (00 351 21 346 3314), both open daily 9am-8pm (www.visitlisboa.com). You can buy a Lisbon Card here, covering public transport and offering free entry or discounts to many sights (although bear in mind that entry to some museums and monuments is free) one day costs €14.85 (£11.40); three days €31 (£24).
The new Fontana Park Hotel (5) at Rua Engenheiro Vieira da Silva 2 (00 351 21 357 6212; www.fontanaparkhotel.com) opened on Boxing Day. This designer haven offers sleek comfort in black and white, with 139 bedrooms set in a former iron foundry in an up-and-coming area of town very close to the centre. Doubles cost from €185 (£142) including breakfast.
The VIP Eden Aparthotel (6) at Praca dos Restauradores 24 (00 351 21 321 6600; www.viphotels.com) provides serviced apartments in the converted Art Deco Eden cinema. Studios for two people start at €105 (£81), room only.
Cosy good value is offered by the Se Guest House (7) opposite the cathedral (8) at Rua de S Joao da Praca 97 (00 351 21 886 4400). Doubles cost from €80 (£62) including breakfast.
Take a hike
For a short walk that takes in two of the city's great landmarks – Lisbon's cathedral (8) and castle (4) – start at the central tourist office at Praca do Comercio (3). Turn left and then right along the gracious colonnades of this splendid 18th-century square. Continue down Rua da Alfandega, which clangs with narrow trams. On the left you pass the Portal de Nossa Senhora do Conceicao Velha (9). This fantastically carved doorway, richly decorated with angels, flowers and creatures, dates from the 15th century and miraculously survived Lisbon's 1755 earthquake in which the rest of the original church was destroyed.
In the green square at the end of the street, turn left through a pedestrian archway by Nisudo souvenir shop and then right at Rua Afonso de Albuquerque, which brings you to the edge of the Alfama district. Turn left steeply up Travessa do Almargem to reach the walls of Lisbon's Se cathedral (8). Turn left and follow the road round to the entrance of this fine building dating from the 12th century (open Tuesday-Saturday 9am-7pm, until 5pm Sunday and Monday; admission free). Turn right again, up Rua de Augusto Rossa and along to Largo das Portas do Sol (10), where terraces offer great views over the rooftops of Alfama and across the Tagus estuary. The Museum of Decorative Arts is on the left (open daily 10am-5pm, adults €4/£3.10). Follow the road left up to the imposing Castelo de Sao Jorge (4), dating from at least the 7th century and much rebuilt since (open daily 9am-6pm, adults €5/£3.90).
Lunch on the run
Just down from the castle, Treasure Land (11) at 11-13 Rua Bartolomeu de Gusmao (00 351 91 890 2778) is an atmospheric little café/bar where for around €6 (£4.60) you can feast on local fare of garlic shrimps or bacalhau (dried, salted cod reconstituted in myriad different ways).
The Chiado area offers some of Lisbon's most interesting shops. Don't miss tiny Luvaria Ulisses (12) at 87a Rua do Carmo selling exquisite leather gloves while at the top of the street Armazens do Chiado (13) is an atmospheric arcade housing 41 stores from a huge FNAC for music, books and more, to fashion at Massimo Dutti and the toy store Imaginarium. Just across the road from Cais do Sodre station (1) is the lovely Mercado da Ribeira (14). This food market is at its most lively in the mornings. Come by at 9am to see stalls piled high with fish and fruit (open Mon-Sat 6am-2pm).
Take a ride
Catch the number 15 tram from Cais do Sodre (1) or Praca do Comercio (3) to Belem; the ride takes about 20 minutes.
Leafy Belem contains a host of museums as well as some of Lisbon's most significant sights. Start at the waterside Torre de Belem (open 10am-5pm daily except Monday; €3/£2.30). A superb example of ornate, 16th-century Manueline architecture, it was built as a fortress to guard the city and is now a Unesco site. Move on to another Manueline masterpiece, the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (open 10am-5pm daily except Monday; entry to church free; cloisters and chambers admission €4.50/£3.50). The monastery church contains the tomb of Vasco da Gama, who set sail from Belem to India in 1497. In complete contrast, across the road is the stunning pink marble Cultural Centre built in 1992. It contains performance venues and, possibly the best of all Lisbon's sights: the new Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (00 351 21 361 2913; www.museuberardo.pt), which opened last June. The permanent collection includes works by Picasso, Mondrian, Warhol and Cindy Sherman. It opens 10am-7pm daily, admission free.
Write a postcard
Take a table at Belem's iconic café, Antiga Confeitaria de Belem at Rua de Belem 84-92 and write your card while enjoying a coffee and a pastel (custard tart) doused with icing sugar and cinnamon.
Take a view
Back in town, one of Lisbon's more eccentric landmarks, the 1902 Elevador de
Santa Justa (15) is a large wrought-iron lift constructed by a pupil of Gustave Eiffel. From the entrance at Rua de Santa Justa you clank pleasingly up to a rooftop café. The lift operates daily 7am-9pm, fare €2.70 (£1.95) – or free to holders of the Lisbon Card.
Dining in style
The Bairro Alto area spreading west from the top of the Santa Justa lift is full of tiny and generally excellent restaurants. For something more stylish, the Panorama Restaurant at the newly refurbished Sheraton Hotel (16) on Rua Latino Coelho (00 351 21 312 0000; www.sheraton.com/lisboa) presents a magnificent combination of stunning views and gourmet food. Dishes such as John Dory fillet with porcini risotto and chestnut cream are created by celebrity chef Henrique Sa Pessoa, who is Lisbon's answer to Jamie Oliver. Expect to pay about €30 (£23) for a main course.
A Night out with the locals
Bar-hopping in Bairro Alto is a great way to take in the haunting strains of Lisbon's fado culture. Make for Rua do Norte – particularly Adega Machado (17) at number 91 (00 351 21 322 4640; www.adegamachado.web.pt) – and Rue da Atalaia.
Sunday morning:go to church
Igreja de Sao Roque at Largo Trindade Coelho (18) has a sombre exterior but inside this Renaissance church is a riot of painted ceilings, gilt chapels and azulejos (decorated tiles). Sunday mass is at 11am; the church is open 8.30am-5pm daily, admission free.
Out to brunch
Take bus 727 from Marques de Pombal square (19) east to Calcada do Galvao and the Ajuda Botanical Gardens, laid out in 1768 and once belonging to the royal family. Here the Estufa Real, or Royal Greenhouse (00 351 21 361 9400; www.estufareal.com), is a beautifully situated restaurant serving lavish brunches on Sunday (12.30-4pm) – from scrambled eggs to oysters, smoked fish and more – for €36 (£28) per person including a glass of sparkling wine.
A walk in the park
Beyond the restaurant, stroll around the Ajuda garden's terraces where peacocks strut by ancient yew trees and magnificent hedges of neatly clipped box (daily 9am-6pm, until 7pm in April and until 8pm May-September; adults €2/£1.50).
Icing on the cake
The Gulbenkian Museum (20) at Avenida de Berna 45 (00 351 21 782 3000; museu.gulbenkian.pt) presents the collection of Oriental and Classical art collected by the Armenian businessman Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian. The range is staggering, from Ancient Egyptian pieces to paintings by Manet and Monet. It opens 10am-5.45pm daily except Monday, admission €4 (£3.10).