We’re Calling It; Lisbon Is Europe’s Best City
Sorry everywhere else.
Minimalism is having a moment. Articles tell me to declutter my house and my Instagram feed is full of negative spaces; shades of white and grey, some shadows, the green pop of an indoor plant that hasn’t wilted and died. The focus is less on things and more on a lack of things. Everything is crisp, simple and tidy.
While I appreciate that aesthetic, it’s the antithesis of how I live my life. My house is only neat on weekends when I know people are coming over, my brand new white button-up has balsamic dressing stains on it already and when my mum told me to buy an iron, I said it was probably “a little too high maintenance”. I live by the motto that ‘more is more’, and while I love the idea of minimalism, I can’t seem to make it happen because my life is too lived-in.
And that is why I love Lisbon. It’s a confetti cannon as a city, and my summertime visit is overstated, saturated and sensory, just like my favourite things in life.
While most European countries have numerous borders, Portugal – the continent’s oldest nation-state – sits in relative isolation on the south-west edge of the mainland, touching only Spain on one side the the Atlantic Ocean on the other. It’s not undiscovered by any stretch of the word (especially by European tourists), but that extra distance goes miles to explain why Lisbon feels so different to other nearby capitals; why it hardly feels like a capital at all.
There’s far fewer neatly gridded neighbourhoods, grand plazas and sprawling avenues than other European cities (hi Barcelona and Paris) for one simple reason: with Lisbon stacked like dominoes up its seven cinematic hillsides, there’s just not much room to spread out.
With the hangover of an earthquake, a dictatorship and a recent economic downturn, many of Lisbon’s buildings have been left abandoned or in varying states of decay. My travel companion says that it reminds her of Cuba – somewhere else that seems stuck in time. But that’s what makes these places so great to visit. They’re extant archives on which modernity almost seems like an intrusion, as though history is just some place you can go to.
But Lisbon is slowly stretching and waking up. Cranes and construction are everywhere and rather than starting from scratch, the city’s foundations are being used to rebuild and repurpose. It’s typical to see an old grand building, abandoned and fallen into disarray, beside a marvel of modern architecture, and beside that, a 1930s cinema turned into showy accommodation.
That said, the true treasures are found between the buildings. A walk through the tangles of backstreets in the Bairro Alto or Alfama neighbourhoods will render your map useless. Your best bet is to just put your phone away and follow your eyes; the painted doorways, the sharp angles and inclines of the winding lanes, the pink bougainvilleas fringing them, the peeling paint, the minutiae of the everyday life of the locals, the intricately decorated tiles sheeting entire buildings, the laundry strung up between window sills, the plants growing through the cracks of the walls, the grit, and the centuries of history writing and rewriting over itself. It’s a collage, a patchwork quilt, an open-air museum. It’s almost amusing to think that the people of Lisbon see this everyday and think of it as ordinary.
Summertime in Lisbon is busy, and the Ascensor da Glória – a funicular up a particularly steep Lisbon alley to our hotel – is pretty expensive, so we decide to foot it up the hill. The angle of the ascent burns our calf muscles as the midday sun beats down. At the three-quarter mark, I stop to catch my breath as it rushes to escape my body, my heart knocking rudely on my chest. I’m beneath an English-language billboard that appears to be selling nothing. It says, ‘Without the cracks in the walls, how can the city breathe?’
That’s Lisbon; not just lived in, but alive.
Eat & drink
For the love of god, please try and time your visit for June’s Festival of Popular Saints, when small party pockets are set up around the city, criss-crossed with colourful flags overhead and staffed by locals serving up slick sardines fresh from the grill for a couple of Euros a pop. It’s like a huge street party that the whole city shows up to.
Obviously, you’ll need to try Pasteis de Nata (Portuguese tarts), ideally from Manteigaria in the backstreets of Bairro Alto, where the flaky, perfectly balanced egg tarts are served up warm from the oven, ready for a sprinkle of cinnamon and practically begging to be consumed within a single, life-affirming moment. Pasteis de Belem is also famous for their version which you can buy fresh from the factory. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t just have these for every meal. Live free.
Pinóquio on Praça dos Restauradores (Restauradores Square) is a time-worn institution serving up traditional and delicious food with little fuss. The squid with bacon and the seared beef pieces are pure savoury flavour bombs if you’re a salt-lover like me. The servings are massive; order half as much as you think you need, but be prepared for premium prices due to its position on the popular thoroughfare.
The Time Out Market, which gathers a number of the city’s premium food producers under one roof, is also good, if not a little overpriced. And the best spots to sink a wine are the many small outdoor kiosks dotted on street corners throughout the city: the perfect reminder that you’re not in Australia anymore.
High up on the hill of Bairro Alto, across from the São Pedro de Alcântara lookout over the city’s orange tiled roofs, the Independente Suites and Terrace is a reflection of the city – a happy patchwork of the past and present. While it does away with some modern amenities like gyms, valets and minibars, the hotel more than makes up for this with sheer character.
In a restored old building centred around a grand staircase – complete with a kinda terrifying old-school elevator – the antique furniture, bric-a-brac decorations and hidden nooks adorned with plastic flower arrangements mean you could reasonably wander around the hotel for hours and not get bored.
Plus, there’s a particular joy to waking up in the morning to use a bathroom so fancy it feels like it belongs in a first-class suite on the Titanic. Eating pastries for breakfast on the rooftop bar overlooking the city is the most ‘Europe’ you’ll feel in Europe, I guarantee it. For a cheaper option, the attached hostel has just as much character and triple-decker bunk beds.
In this city of hills, you’ll constantly find yourself emerging to views. Several miradouros (lookouts) will give you uninterrupted views over the disjointed geometry of the city below, where orange roofs cut in from all directions and roll down the hills. Try the Miradouro de São
Wander the narrow backstreets of Bairro Alto and Alfama, visit the Moorish São Jorge Castle on a hill overlooking the city and order fresh fish at nondescript restaurants; it’s always a good idea. The trip out to Belém is worth it, if only to see the surreal Torre de Belém (Tower of Belém) looking like a semi-truck without its load on the banks of the river.
Shop (and people-watch) in the hip Bairro Alto neighbourhood, especially along the Praça do Príncipe Real street – Entre Tanto is an indoor market, cafe and gallery selling locally designed wares and generally excellent things over two huge levels, but there’s plenty of shops along this strip to sink your teeth into. Visit Feira da Ladra (Thieves Market) along Campo de Santa Clara, on every Tuesday and Saturday, for vintage trinkets and second-hand clothes.
Take the day trip to Sintra, where the town rising up out of the pine forest looks fit for a fairytale. Traditionally a retreat for the royal and elite, Sintra’s cotton candy coloured castles and green-fringed stone palaces – complete with secret networks of tunnels – dot the hillside.
If you can only choose two, make it 19th century Romanticist-era Pena Palace, which is an amalgamation of bold colour decisions that shouldn’t match but somehow do, and the Quinta da Regaleira estate, with its fountains, lakes, stray castle-like turrets and a grotto system that, in pitch darkness, leads you to the base of a well that resembles an inverted tower, 27 metres underground. It’s surreal.
Good to know
- Lisbon – which uses the Euro – is cheap, so there’s plenty of good-value accommodation and food options, especially in the backstreets.
- Getting around is easy and inexpensive on the train and subway system, but expect a bit of uphill walking if you want to avoid the relatively pricey street trams.
- For beach times, head to the coastal town of Cascais, 30 kilometres west of Lisbon, which turns into a playground in summertown. Expect crowds.
- Don’t speak Spanish to Portuguese people (it happens more often than you’d think); speak English or learn some basic Portuguese instead. Obrigado/a (‘thank you’ if you’re a man/woman), adeus (‘goodbye’), and boa noite (‘good night’) are great places to start.
- Eat late, go out late and sleep in late, too.
(The writer was a guest of the Independente Suites & Terraces. All unattributed images: Taryn Stenvei)