We usually love cities for the attractions they offer, but the city of Lisbon is more of an attraction in itself. There are exquisite museums and splendid palaces to visit, but whatever you choose to do, the real star of the show is always the city itself. In some ways it’s a fantastically complex destination – centuries of colourful history piled on top of itself, all wrapped up in dozens of eclectic architectural delights (Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline, baroque, Modern, postmodern), which teeter precariously on seven steep hills overlooking the majestic River Tagus. It’s almost impossible not to get lost. But it’s also a very simple place to go to. All you actually have to do is stroll along its myriad narrow cobblestone streets, marvel at the beautiful tiles that pattern the walls of both ancient and modern buildings, and soak up the warm sunshine. In fact, your only real dilemma is wondering which boisterously good restaurant you’ll eat dinner in.
While ancient Lisbon assaults the senses, the modern city that flanks the old quarter is all calming boulevards, breezy roof terraces and large open squares that have been laid out since the capital’s last great reinvention of itself – the result of a devastating earthquake in 1755. Moving between the old and new parts of the city is endlessly fascinating. And underlying everything is an appreciation of the finer things in life. From Pastel de Belém, Lisbon’s world-famous pastry, to bacalhau (salted cod served in at least 350 different ways), your taste buds will be as exhausted as your legs.
Three fun things to do
Head to a flea market Feira de São Pedro is held on the second and fourth Sunday of every month. It’s a huge flea market that dates back to the time of the Christian Reconquest, but it’s still very much alive and kicking. You’ll find stalls heaving with pottery, leatherwork, local antiques and handicrafts, as well as amazing olives, cheese and spiced meats to tempt you.
Take a tram The city is crisscrossed by beautiful trams – No 28 is perhaps the most well known. The little wooden wagons clunk and groan up vertiginous streets as you perch on tiny wooden benches inside. Many of the yellow trams are listed as historic artefacts and all are lovingly maintained. A single journey is €3, or buy a one-day travel card for €6.40.
Go to church There are dozens of churches worth visiting – from small painted chapels to towering gothic masterpieces – and all are free to enter. One that will have your eyes bulging is the Igreja de São Roque. It’s one of the earliest Jesuit churches in the world and supposedly the most expensive ever built. It’s a baroque bonanza and the walls are studded with the heads of thousands of gaudy, chubby little cherubs.
Three great places to stay
1908 Lisboa Hotel Occupying one side of the revitalised Largo do Intendente – a pretty square which is a favourite with locals – the 1908 is named after the year in which architect Adães Bermudes created the original building. It’s filled with art, design and unusual touches, and has a lively restaurant and buzzy bar on the ground floor. Be sure to book the curved corner room, no 111, which has 14ft ceilings and three huge windows (rooms from €99, 1908lisboahotel.com).
Hotel Bairro Alto Sitting between two totally contrasting neighbourhoods – the elegant Chiado on one side and the bohemian Bairro Alto on the other – this sumptuous hotel is one of the grandest in the capital. Over the past couple of years it has been completely remodelled. Its restaurant now features the ambitious cooking of Nuno Mendes – formerly the executive chef at Chiltern Firehouse, London. Enjoy an evening cocktail on the hotel’s glamorous roof terrace with views across to the harbour and the bridges of the Tagus (rooms from €323, bairroaltohotel.com).
The Lumen Located in the heart of the city and opened last August, the Lumen takes its name from the famous light that Lisbon is blessed with. They’ve taken this theme a step further with an immersive light and colour experience projected on to the walls of the hotel’s central garden. More than that, there’s a glorious rooftop deck and a swimming pool lined with bright red tiles. Lie back and enjoy amazing views across the old city as you sip a cocktail and nibble almonds and olives. Rooms are large, modern and unexpectedly affordable (from €77, lumenhotel.pt/en).
Where to enjoy fantastic food
Ofício Lisboa Don’t be put off by the decor at Ofício, which makes you feel as if you are in the basement of a large aquarium. The food is sensational (go for the seafood) and the prices are weirdly cheap for the effort that has clearly been involved with each meticulous dish (oficio-restaurant.negocio.site).
Cavalariça Lisboa There’s a huge stuffed unicorn on the wall, surveying you as you eat – and there is clearly something magical about this place. Modern interpretations of traditional Portuguese classics will have you licking your lips in wonder (cavalarica.com).
Comptoir Parisien Head to Belém not just for the finest custard tarts on the planet (you can buy them in boxes of 40), but for a cheap and cheerful lunch in the sunshine. Lining the little street behind the pastry shop you will find a run of friendly cafés serving sardines, prawns in garlic, chips, tomato salads and carafes of cold sangria. Locals flock here at the weekends. The Comptoir Parisien is good, but so are many of the others – just choose a terrace and a table you like (restaurante-comptoir-parisien.com).
What to bring home
Everywhere you will see beautifully packaged tins of sardines. The prettiest are from Conserveira de Lisboa, established in 1930. They’ve taken the art of tinned fish to a whole new level (conserveiradelisboa.pt/en).
Over the past decade, Porto’s undergone a renaissance. Split by the gleaming Douro river, it’s small enough to cover the main sights in a long weekend, but has enough interest to keep you exploring for weeks. Wander down the steep, cobbled streets to the historic Ribeira waterfront (a Unesco world heritage site) and you’ll find it buzzing day and night, with live music, and endless places to eat. Cross the double-decker Dom Luís I bridge, built by a student of Gustave Eiffel in 1886, and you can wander around the separate town of Vila Nova de Gaia. This is the home of Porto’s most famous product: port wine.
The city’s elegant buildings are packed into the hilly landscape, many of them decorated with azulejos, the stunning blue and white tiles that are a defining feature. A more modern take is the cutting-edge street art that adorns walls across Porto. If you decide to walk everywhere, don’t forget comfortable flat shoes. But if you get tired, many classic trams crisscross the city.
There are fabulous independent stores selling local produce, crafts, cool interiors, books and hip fashion. Don’t miss the Rua das Flores and while you are here, stop off at the Mercador Café for a quick snack. If you’re feeling energetic, climb the 240 steps of the Torre dos Clérigos for a great view across the city. You’ll also want to visit the city’s Sé cathedral with its 12th-century Gothic rose windows. If you can face the crowds, the bookshop Livraria Lello (made famous by the Harry Potter films) is eccentric and delightful. For more down-to-earth purchases, go to Mercado do Bolhao, specialising in meat, fish, fruit and flowers. The historic building has been closed for restoration, but should reopen soon.
A visit to Porto wouldn’t be the same without investigating the many well-known Port wine cellars in Gaia. They’re often open for visitors, with tours and tastings (we enjoyed Taylor’s). And before you go, be sure to take a six-bridges cruise along the Douro. It may feel touristy, but there’s no better way to appreciate this stunning city than from its water.
Three fun things to do
Enjoy a picnic Just across the Dom Luís 1 bridge in Gaia, you’ll find the Jardim Do Morro. It’s the perfect place to watch the sun set over the city.
Go on a gallery tour Head to Rua de Miguel Bombarda for its myriad of art galleries. You’ll also find great restaurants, bookshops and design, music and fashion. Pop into the O! Galeria illustration and art gallery. You can follow Porto’s street/graffiti art trail here, as well on the Rua das Flores, Rua da Madeira, Travessa de Cedofeita and many more streets across the city.
Three special places to stay
Gran Cruz House This cool, heritage boutique hotel is located right on the riverside in the bustling Ribeira. It is owned by the port brand Gran Cruz and all the bedrooms, named after port types, have views over to the port houses of Vila Nova de Gaia. A highlight is the intimate Casario restaurant with traditional Portuguese dishes and a wonderful choice of wine (rooms from €100, grancruzhouse.pt).
Torel Palace Porto A stunning new hotel in what was a 19th-century palace. Every inch of the ornate interior – including the remarkable interior skylight – has been beautifully restored. Rooms are spacious, elegant and super-luxurious. There’s an outdoor swimming pool and spa treatments. The food here is excellent (see also Blind restaurant below; rooms from €220, torelpalaceporto.com).
Rosa Et Al Townhouse An intimate design hotel with just seven suites in the heart of the Cedofeita arts district. It has a tranquil garden to relax in and offers in-room spa treatments. The hotel’s delicious and informal restaurant serves some of the best brunches in the city. Don’t miss their other restaurant, Early early.pt; rooms from €128 with breakfast, rosaetal.com).
Where to eat amazing food
Semea by Euskalduna One of the most exciting restaurants in town, with wonderful views across the Douro, the concept here is all about sharing plates and the kitchen is all about fire. The fresh fish and seafood is incredible. Our favourite was skate, grapes and mushrooms and pica pau (which means woodpecker, but is actually spicy beef or pork). Plus, the French toast and cheese ice-cream dessert is worth the trip alone (semeabyeuskalduna.pt).
Blind at Torel Palace The restaurant pays tribute to Portuguese writer José Saramago’s novel, Essay on Blindness. Eating here in near darkness is an extraordinary culinary magic show, gasp-worthy at times – to explain would ruin so many surprises (blind.pt).
Manna Homely, relaxed vegetarian restaurant serving organic, vegan and vegetarian dishes. The coffee is top notch, and the pancakes legendary. Also hosts yoga and meditation classes (mannaporto.com).
What to bring home
Claus Porto is Portugal’s celebrated soap brand, famous for its stunning packaging and delicious scents. Its flagship shop in the Rua das Flores is simply beautiful. If you’re in need of refreshing after a hard day’s sightseeing, this is the place. Pop in to wash your hands at the large basins on the ground floor and enjoy the wonderful atmosphere. There’s also a fascinating museum upstairs (clausporto.com).
Essentials Combining a visit to both cities on a single trip is easy – and the 320km journey between the two is a good chance for some extra sightseeing. The train takes 2.40 hours and costs from €31. The bus takes 3.30 hours and costs from €19. Both have multiple services every day. For more information, go to visitportugal.com/en