Travellers be warned: to visit Lisbon is to fall under its spell. The Portuguese capital has a scruffy, sun-soaked charm that’s as hard to pinpoint as it is to resist.
The city’s name stems from old Phoenician words allis ubbo, meaning ‘enchanting port’. Perhaps I should have heeded this before arriving. But that’s the thing about Lisbon; its allure creeps up on you.
Unlike its European neighbours, Lisbon doesn’t woo by flaunting grandiose architecture, extravagant dining or ancient monuments (although it has all these, and predates both Rome and London).
Rather, the city’s streets see old and new sandwiched together under terracotta rooftops. It’s a modest mishmash of small-town community and metropolitan hustle, traditional life rubbing shoulders with party culture.
Here are five ways Lisbon will win over your heart, and give you a touch of sickness – love sickness.
1. The culinary delights
Lisbon boasts one globally acclaimed food market, eight Michelin-starred restaurants, and the original pastel de nata recipe. It’s the new ‘cool kid on the block’ of the European foodie scene. Best of all, there are gastronomic gems to suit every budget.
Treat your taste buds at the Time Out Market Lisboa, where you can try affordable bites from Michelin-starred Portuguese chefs. Or for a local alternative, check out the Campo de Ourique Market.
Your foodie bucket list should include: ginjinha (a sour cherry liqueur), pastéis de bacalhau (salted cod cakes – and a favourite on-the-go snack for Lisboans), queijo with jam (local cheeses), torresmos (pork crackling) and vinho verde (green wine).
Of course, for dessert a pastel de nata (the country’s iconic custard tart) is mandatory. I recommend the Manteigaria bakery… and dare you to stop at one.
2. The heartfelt music
The Portuguese have a word that cannot be translated accurately into English: saudade. Saudade is used to describe a feeling of longing, nostalgia and aching love at all once. A local described it to me as ‘felt absence’.
Perhaps the best way to understand saudade is to hear fado music.
Frequently performed in restaurants, fado is a Lisbon-born folk music that pairs expressive singing with guitar noodling. Classical singers conjure up saudade as they sing about Lisbon’s seafaring past and the harsh, but rewarding realities of everyday life.
But if traditional tunes aren’t your thing, there’s contemporary music around Lisbon too.
Head the city’s miradouros, or viewpoints, where both locals and tourists hang out. Here, you’ll often catch buskers serenading the crowd and the sunset. It’s a great view paired with a great soundtrack – just make you sure you tip the musicians to say obrigada (thanks!).
3. The art everywhere
There are plenty of galleries in Lisbon, but I think the best art is seen on the streets.
Keep an eye out for the militaristic Pombaline architecture, the ornate Manueline buildings, and facades adorned with striking azulejo tiles, such as the Fabrica Viuva Lamego.
The city is also peppered with world-renowned street art. Venture to the Chão do Loureiro carpark to find every floor decorated by a different street artist.
Don’t forget to look down on your artistic adventure too. Key pedestrian pavements feature calcada portuguesa, or black-and-white mosaics that are painstakingly laid by hand.
4. The charming transport
Lisbon is nicknamed the ‘City of Seven Hills’ for good reason, and I love how the locals have taken this in their stride.
There are all types of transport to conquer the climb here, with six canary-yellow tram routes, three dainty funiculars, a flight of outdoor escalators, and one lacy Santa Justa Lift (designed by a student of Mr Eiffel Tower).
The city also has hundreds of zippy, green electric scooters for rent, which are perfect for when your feet are aching… or you’ve had a few too many pastéis de nata.
A word of advice: The well-known 28 tram stops at major landmarks, but if you’d rather avoid feeling like a sardine squished into a tin (a remarkably apt description for Lisbon – they’re obsessed with canned fish!) you can explore one of the other equally scenic lines.
5. The sense of community
It’s hard to taste true community when you’re a tourist in a place, but I glimpsed it in Alfama.
Alfama is the historic heart of Lisbon. It’s a labyrinth-like neighbourhood that spills down the hillside under Castelo de São Jorge, and was one of the only areas to survive the 1755 earthquake that redefined the city.
The older residents, many of whom have lived in Alfama all their lives, grew up viewing the footpaths as extensions of their homes. Neighbours would rest, eat, chat, shave, brush their teeth – you name it – out on the cobblestones together.
Contemporary culture has chipped away at this tradition, but you can still catch locals hanging washing out their windows, enjoying dinner on the street, or yelling a conversation to someone passing below. I even spotted a lady singing out her window, and the tune still sticks with me.
Lisbon will capture your heart. Explore it now on a small-group adventure through Portugal, and beyond. Check out our range of tours here.