Yet for all its down-at-heel charm, Lisbon is undergoing a facelift. The diggers are out and the city is gearing itself up for Expo 1998. In two years' time pomp and glory will no doubt return as thousands descend on the city for this massive global exposition.
Lisbon is starting to do fairly well out of it already. Certainly the shoe shine boys were enjoying good business around the Praca do Dom Pedro IV last weekend. Here you can buy an impressive shine for just a couple of hundred escudos (less than pounds 1). Judging by the dust from all the earthworks the Lisboetas need such services.
Footwear is an important considerations in Lisbon. The best way to appreciate the flaking charm of the city is by walking. How else would you take in the mixed aromas of the place: barbecued sardines, drying laundry, the whiff of drains? This is not a city of must-do sights: there's no Louvre or St Peter's here. Instead you spend your time huffing your way up hills, admiring stunning views over terracotta rooftops down, dipping into Baroque churches and getting lost in the maze of the Alfama district - that antique and unashamedly proletarian warren of twisting lanes overhung with washing and flowery balconies.
Perched above these old guts of the city is the castle of Sao Jorge. From there you'll get the best views of the city. Dating back to at least the sixth century, much ruined and rebuilt, the castle has now become a public park. Very peaceful, very pretty, and a far cry from the bloody clashes that once took place around the remaining walls.
If by this stage your feet have given out on you, the no 28 tram that passes near the castle provides one of the most appealing rides in the city and trundles you through the less seamy parts of the old town. These retro cable cars, all wood panelling and leather upholstery, squeeze down narrow lanes where no bus dares venture.
A hi-tech tram (no 15), looking like an articulated caterpillar, will whisk you from the Praca da Figueria to Belem. This industrial suburb is the unlikely backdrop to one of Portugal's proudest sights. It was from Belem that Vasco da Gama set out to find a sea route to India in July 1497. When he returned triumphant two years later, the Jeronimos Monastery here was revamped in thanksgiving, by order of the king, Dom Manuel.
You have to jostle for space among the hordes of tourists who come to see the Manueline architecture, a curious blend of Gothic and Renaissance styles embellished with seafaring motifs. The Lisboetas tend to be rather more earnest in their visits, attending mass in the barn-like church, dodging the souvenir touts outside, and extending their pilgrimage to that great emblem of Portugese adventure - the Torre de Belem. The tower, once guarding the seaway to Lisbon, is a fine example of the Manueline style, with Moorish elements included for good measure.
There's an added bonus to Belem. You get the best custard tarts in town here. The Antiga Confeitaria on Rua de Belem is an old seafaring inn turned coffee shop, its walls decorated with maritime tiles. The locals love it. It's not a grand place; like much of the city it doesn't pretend to be. But you'll get a good taste of Lisbon life here.
Where to stay
The very central Hotel Borges, Rua Garrett (00 351 1 346 19 51), is old-fashioned and fairly cheap - double rooms are 8,500 escudos (pounds 35). For more comfort, try the Hotel Veneza, 189 Avenue de Liberdade (00 351 1 352 26 18) - double rooms are 16,000 escudos (pounds 65).
Where to eat
Portion control is an alien concept in Portugal: restaurant meals tend to be vast, but you can ask for half servings. The Marisqueira on Avenue de Liberdade serves very good monkfish and balcalhau (Portuguese salted cod): a generous dinner with a bottle of Vinho Verde will cost about pounds 20. For a simple lunch of barbecued sardines, A Nossa Churrasqueira, a workman's cafe near the castle at Largo Rodrigues de Feitos, offers some of the best tastes in town.