Old world charm in a new world order

The maritime glory days of Portugal's Age of Discoveries are long gone. But standing on Lisbon's western shores, at the 14th-century watch-tower of Torre de Belém, it's hard not to taste the spice-laden air that must have tempted Prince Henry the Navigator and later Vasco da Gama into the uncharted waters of the Atlantic.

The maritime glory days of Portugal's Age of Discoveries are long gone. But standing on Lisbon's western shores, at the 14th-century watch-tower of Torre de Belém, it's hard not to taste the spice-laden air that must have tempted Prince Henry the Navigator and later Vasco da Gama into the uncharted waters of the Atlantic.

Interactive maritime museums, great striding suspension bridges and harbours full of shiny speedboats notwithstanding, there remains something of the romantic Old World about Lisboa, which means peaceful harbour.

Since the 1974 revolution toppled the stifling Salazar regime, Lisbon has made economic leaps and bounds. Yet thankfully, at least for tourists seeking the antiquated beauty of Europe's frayed fringes, Lisbon still clings to its characterful nicotine-yellow trams, seedy coffee houses and flaking tiled façades, giving the city its understated beauty and easy-going atmosphere.

Why go?To get fit. A stroll around this town, with its seven gruelling hills, is more of a hike in places. However, Lisbon is beguilingly low-rise; this is a city break that won't test the nerves with traffic and bustle.

Why now?Because locals are back from steamy summer exile in the Algarve, returning the previously deserted city to its lively self. In early autumn it cools off, but the city still enjoys a warmth long gone in Britain. It's harvest and hunting season, which means good things for eating out.

The missionThe best way to tackle Lisbon's hills is by taking the trams. My favourite is the rickety number 28, which has been making the ring route around the central city since 1901. As it clatters through central neighbourhoods it comes within reach of the main sights, traversing the Bairro Alto (the main restaurant hub) Baixa (downtown), skimming the top of Chiado (the well-heeled shopping district) and Castelo (the hilltop on which the city was founded) before clacking up to the vertiginous "villages" of Graça and Alfama (the old Moorish city).

One reason to stray from the 28 tram route is the neighbourhood of Belém (but not on a Monday, when most places are closed). This is the city's museum district, home to the iconic Torre de Belém and the maritime museums, lush parks and, absolutely not to be missed, Antiga Casa de Pasteis de Belém. This temple to sugar and pastry serves up the city's most famous pasteis de nata - cinnamon-dusted custard tarts, apparently the only reason a Lisboan gets up in the morning. Take tram 15 from Comércio Square.

Out of townIf the usual coastal day trips don't appeal, head inland to Santarem (50 miles north-east of Lisbon by direct, reasonably frequent, trains) for the biggest foodie's festival in Portugal from 19 October to 5 November. Each day a different region takes over the town's central restaurant to show off speciality dishes, while surrounding stables turn into market stalls selling port from the Douro valley, vinho verde from the Minho region, roasted chestnuts, bean stews and all manner of game.

Remember thisA number of Lisbon's museums closed last year for refurbishment and have yet to re-open. Though you keep hearing the word "imminent", the institutions and tourist offices conflict on when doors will open again, so it's best to call first.

Eating outManuel Primavera, owner of the eponymous eatery in the heart of the Bairro Alto, is a gentleman and a no-nonsense hospitality scholar. After seating my lone self,he offered a complimentary glass of sherry, translated the menu and made recommendations. And while I waited for my dish of bacalhau his wife kept me company. The menu is rustic and seafood focused, the kitchen spotless and the walls decorated with simple azueljos inscribed with Portuguese proverbs. A two-course meal with a glass of wine costs just under £10. Address: Travessa da Espera, 34 (tel: 00 35 21 342 0477).

For more formal Portuguese food, head to Pap' Acorda, where traditionally heavy dishes get a fashionable lift. The restaurant takes its name from its garlic-laden acorda, a sort of bread sauce with prawns. Make it past the thick metal door and velvet curtain at the entrance to contend with idle scrutiny from the formidably gorgeous clientele; this is the place to see and be seen. Again, the menu is dominated by excellent fish dishes and one course without wine starts at a comparatively expensive £7. Address: Rua da Atalaia 57 (tel: 00 35 21 346 4811).

Night lifeRivalling Barcelona in its diversity of nocturnal diversions, from the star-studded to the seedy, the A-list of Lisbon's venues changes like the tide. My current favourite, for its fashionable convergence, is Teatro Taborda (tel: 00 35 21 886 5786) a theatre-cum-internet-café-cum-club, with fantastic live Brazilian drumming. But if you're after harbourside international chic, the coolest venue in Lisbon is currently John Malkovich's new bar/restaurant, Bica Do Sapato (tel: 00 35 21 881 0320) on Avenida Infante D'Henrique.

Where to stayThe best view on a budget is at Pensao Ninho Das Aguias (tel: 00 35 21 885 4070) at Costa do Castelo, 74. Located below the castle, this beautiful turreted guesthouse offers simple lodgings with five-star views over the city. It's a fair walk up from the centre through quiet cobbled streets, then a further steep climb up a spiral staircase to the precipitous patio. Head for room 12 on the northern corner to feel really on top of the world. Simple double rooms from £21 (no credit cards accepted).

Pure understated luxury is to be found in Palacio Belmonte (tel: 00 35 21 8862582), hidden in the castle's ramparts at Patio Dom Fradique, 14. The enormous main suite in this 16th-century palace appears in Wim Wenders' film Lisbon Story. All terraced rooms combine traditional Portuguese decor with a little French flair. Apartments from £120.

Getting thereThe writer travelled as a guest of Air Miles (tel: 0990 515700) which has return flights to Lisbon from £170. This price is based on cash payment, but tickets can also be paid for in Air Miles, or a combination of the two.

Further information Lisbon's main tourist office is off the central Rossio Square, at Rua Jardim Do Regedor, Baixa 1150 (tel: 00 351 21 3433672). In the UK tel: 020-7494 1441 or www.portugalinsite.pt.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
peopleJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice