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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.