Discovering Portugal

Text and photographs Elana Castle Reminiscent of the romanticism of Venice, the authenticity of Rome, the nonchalance of Barcelona and the bold, designer strokes of Berlin, the city of Lisbon – the capital of Portugal – is a richly layered metropolis that can often be (mistakenly) overlooked by visitors to Europe. Its iconic blue and white, azulejos-tiled facades, dramatic ocean-front location, melancholic fado music, rustic, traditional fare and brazenly modern developments make for a heady urban experience. Fortunately, the city is also a breeze to explore, given its compact size, easy-to-use underground system and an original tram network that traverses the main city routes. BAIXA Although many of its neoclassical buildings are in dire need of restoration, Baixa remains one of Lisbon’s most striking districts. The area is defined by two grand urban gestures – Praça do Comércio, a public square, and Arco da Rua Augusta, a triumphal arch that frames the main shopping thoroughfare. Baixa is also the new home of MUDE, Lisbon’s design and fashion museum, a symbol of the city’s emerging creative scene. The museum’s intentionally raw shell forms an appropriate canvas for the designer objects and haute couture on display. CHIADO A walk westwards brings you to the refined, boutique-rich area of Chiado. The area centres around shopping thoroughfare Rua Garrett, Armazéns do Chiado mall and Café A Brasileira, the stomping ground of Lisbon’s intellectuals. Snap up gourmet food products or vintage-style wares at Casa Pereira and A Vida Portuguesa, but spare some precious currency for a pair of butter-soft leather items from glover Luvaria Ulisses. The area’s crowning glory is Elevador de Santa Justa, a historic elevator that offers panoramic views of the city. Foodies shouldn’t look past Cantinho do Avillez, celebrated chef José Avillez’s contemporary bistro. STAY: Hotel do Chiado BAIRRO ALTO Continuing westwards, you’ll then find yourself perfectly placed to explore the 16th-century, working class, bohemian neighbourhood of Bairro Alto.  The area is known for its intimate, graffitied – and often inconveniently camouflaged – bars and fado houses. Primarily a night-time haunt, you get the distinct feeling that the area is evolving, the smattering of avant-garde clothing boutiques and art galleries a sign of things to come. As expected, food options abound, the most notable eateries being 100 Maneiras, Antigo 1° de Maio and Flores at the Bairro Alto Hotel. Savour an after-dinner cocktail at the hotel’s rooftop bar and then hit A Tasca do Chico, A Capela or Xafarix after dark to listen to some of the city’s best local musicians. STAY: Bairro Alto Hotel ALFAMA The winding roads, tiled facades and whitewashed buildings of medieval Alfama miraculously survived the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. As a result, the district is a living remnant of the area’s original communities and Moorish, Roman and Visigoth history. Its charming, meandering streets are lined with tascas – simple cafés – that offer traditional fare (grilled cod is a perennial favourite), boutiques and antique stores. The area is also home to three of the city’s historical landmarks – Lisbon’s cathedral, the Sé; Igreja de Santa Engrácia; and, most significantly, the Castelo de São Jorge, a thickly walled fortress that was established in the sixth century. The best time to visit is late afternoon, when you can enjoy a quiet wander around the courtyards and a dramatic sunset from the ramparts. As evening descends, you’ll be well placed to explore the modern, river-front shopping and restaurant precinct near Santa Apolónia Station. Even actor John Malkovich is in on the action, as part-owner of Lux, one of Lisbon’s hippest clubs. STAY: Palácio Belmonte BELÉM Many of the world’s greatest seafaring adventurers were Portuguese and a visit to Belém, a mere 30 minutes from Lisbon, provides a powerful visual display of Portugal’s power and wealth during the Age of Discovery. It was from here that the likes of Bartolomeu Dias, Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama set sail. The Maritime Museum is worth a visit and is conveniently adjacent to Belém’s historic and architectural jewel, Jerónimos Monastery. A UNESCO World Heritage Site built to commemorate Vasco da Gama’s epic journey, the monastery was named after the order of monks who lived there. Additional worthwhile destinations include The Coach Museum, Belém Tower and  The Berardo Collection Museum. A fitting way to end your visit is to indulge in Pasteis de Belém, the Holy Grail of Portuguese desserts, at the azulejos- tiled, Antiga Confeitaria de Belém. PARQUE DAS NAÇÕES When Lisbon hosted Expo ’98, it embarked on a complete redevelopment of the northeastern portion of the city, collaborating with some of the world’s most innovative architects and urban planners. As a result, the area is host to some of the boldest architecture and urban planning in Lisbon. The area is easily reached via the metro, which conveniently stops at the striking Santiago Calatrava-designed Oriente Station. Area highlights include a state-of-the-art oceanarium, water gardens, a river front marina, The International Fair Complex, a viewing tower and a cable car that travels the full length of the site. Design lovers will spend most of their time inspecting Alvaro Siza’s architectural masterpiece, the Pavilion of Portugal, a true feat of engineering. INSIDER SCOOP Nelson Carvalheiro is a travel and food enthusiast who manages luxury boutique hotels in Lisbon and Sintra. Favourite market? Feira da Ladra, an open-air flea market in Alfama, where you can find almost anything. Best place for breakfast? Confeitaria Nacional in Baixa – the oldest confectionary in Lisbon. Best spot for a romantic dinner? 100 Maneiras. Avoid touristy fado houses, where the fado produced is like a bad show from the 1980s. My favourite traditional dish is seafood rice cooked in a stew of peppers, tomatoes, chillies and coriander. Pair with Vinho Verde. Best budget buy? Portuguese wine. A good place to escape the hustle and bustle is Belém. Don’t leave Lisbon without sunset sailing on the Tagus River with skipper Filipe Avillez Paixão. The city’s best-kept secret is its A Baiucas restaurants – they’re tiny, authentic and family-run. The food is basic and unpretentious but the real draw is the fado. Any other tips? Electrico 28. The tram rumbles right through the city. Hop on and hop off when you see something interesting, as there will be another one along in 10 minutes. I love Lisbon because it’s the only European capital where you can step directly onto a beach, eat the freshest seafood and enjoy sunshine 300 days of the year. This article was originally featured in the September 2012 issue of House and Leisure.