I’m in Lisbon, the Portuguese capital famed for its blue dome skies, Atlantic beaches and 3,000 hours of sunshine every single year. And just in time for our arrival, it is raining.
In fact, to call this rain doesn’t really do justice to what is happening.
Sheets of water are falling wholesale from the sky. The cobbled lanes and storybook squares this city is renowned for are being submerged by puddles fast taking on the appearance of lakes.
Caught out in it, we – me and her – dive, already dripping, inside Charcutaria, one of the dozens of artisanal cold meat and coffee houses that dot the side streets here.
The woman behind the counter looks at us with a good deal more warmth than the wretched weather.
‘From England?’ she asks as we order steaming mugs of hot chocolate. ‘You brought the rain, hm?’
Visitors and residents alike rave about this coastal capital’s summer months, about how you’re never more than a grape’s throw from a pavement café and how locals lead their lives largely out of doors. Travel writers talk of a town where you don’t need to choose between beach break and city stay. In Lisbon, they say, you have both in one place.
And with trend-callers currently declaring this ocean-adjacent capital the Barcelona of 2016, is it worth the time and eight-hour flight, we wondered.
Magnificent and absolutely are the answers. Yes, even if there happens to be a little heavy rain.
Lisbon, like its Catalan cousin, has everything you’d expect from a great city and more. Spread across seven hills, it’s historically fascinating, scenically stunning and comes packed with world-class cultural attractions. There’s a thriving foodie scene, architecture that is both imperial and higgledy-piggledy, and shopping to rival anywhere in Europe. It has a past marked by incredible triumphs and scarred by extreme tragedies, both of which – more on them shortly – are writ large into its physical fabric. And less like Barcelona, it’s a bargain to boot.
That hot chocolate on our first morning sets us back just Dh4. A good dinner here – and there are plenty to be had – often don’t cost more than Dh120 for two.
Our hotel is a real bargain too. The Corinthia is a spacious, five-star, 24-storey tower, in understated, becalming luxury – with rooms for just Dh600 a night. The views from the top floors are almost worth that alone. So too the breakfasts.
The National Pantheon, Commerce Square, 25 de Abril Bridge and Monument to the Discoveries symbols of Lisbon’s rich history.
The city centre unfolds from the banks of the River Tagus into a handful of distinct neighbourhoods, the most picturesque of which is historic Alfama. When the 40-minute downpour clears, this is where we head to. And it’s wonderful; all narrow alleys, cluttered coloured housing, and half-hidden nooks and crannies; part medieval, part Moorish, part fairy-tale.
This is the city’s oldest neighbourhood, mainly because it’s the only one that survived an earthquake, a tsunami and a fire, which – talk about a bad day – all hit the city in a single apocalyptic 24 hours in November 1755. An estimated 50,000 of the then 270,000 population perished.
Because of its hilltop location, Alfama stayed standing while all below crumbled, flooded, and burned. It has remained much the same since, protected for posterity. Indeed, the Visit Lisbon website claims that to walk through the streets here is to be ‘literally transported back in time’. And while, clearly, that’s not quite true, there is, nonetheless, a sense of Portugal’s past coming alive.
Amid the area’s historic jewels are the Castelo de São Jorge (a sprawling royal fortress built by the Muslim Berbers who ruled here for 400 years), Lisbon Cathedral (a part-Romanesque, part-Gothic church from circa 1147), and the National Pantheon, a vast domed building that was started in 1681 but not completed until 1966.
Another, perhaps more unusual tourist attraction these days, is Alfama’s biweekly flea market. As luck would have it, we happen to stumble on this. Then, because of its sheer size, it’s difficult to stumble off it again.
The rain has not deterred the hundreds of wheelers and dealers who turn up here every Tuesday and Saturday, filling street upon street and square upon square with tabletop stalls. They sell everything from books to batteries, vintage clothes, crockery, artwork, stamps, tea towels and toiletries. The chap offering umbrellas is doing a roaring trade today. A few tables down, the fellow offering sunglasses and hats looks on forlornly.
This is Lisbon, he explains when he sees me eyeing his wares sceptically. ‘Sunny tomorrow,’ he patters. ‘Then you need.’ I pass, although, as it turns out, he’s right.
The Portuguese capital has had trams since the 19th century, but it’s modern too, as can be seen on Rua Nova do Carvalho come nightfall.
We leave Alfama by public transport, and that’s an experience in its own right. Tram 28 is an old-fashioned street cart with a must-ride reputation for offering unrivalled views over the city and the sea as it trundles along. Not quite true – while there is some novelty about riding this antiquated little mobile, the views are interrupted by the fact it’s so busy. Don’t expect to get a seat or, if you’re that way inclined, much of a selfie.
Nonetheless, the trio of funiculars that whisks visitors and locals alike up three especially steep hills are a fun way to move from one part of town to another.
That’s how we get to Baixa, where, after a (relatively) light bite – expect big plates of meat and generous glasses of mineral water wherever you eat – we spend the afternoon exploring. This is what you might call the business end of town; the place where, amid gridded boulevards, wide open squares and ornate storefronts, the daily drama of city living tends to occur. Or, to put it another way, this is where people come to shop and work.
It is also where the evidence of Portugal’s great ages of exploration stands in splendour.
This square mile or so was once one of the richest in Europe, and the capital of the world’s first truly global empire.
Across six centuries, Lisbon ran an overseas territory that, at varying times, included 60 modern-day countries, stretching from coastal Japan in the east to Brazil and Argentina in the west. In between were vast swathes of Africa as well as areas of India and Arabia.
The wealth this created still stands in Baixa today. Just one example is the mighty Rua Augusta Arch, located in the equally majestic Commerce Square. Constructed as part of a vast rebuilding project following the 1755 earthquake, it stands looking out at the Tagus, facing off against the Atlantic beyond. Among its intricate detailing are carvings of Vasco da Gama, the 15th-century explorer who set sail from this city into the unknown and returned with riches beyond his dreams.
Today, we stand back, taking in the sheer grandiosity of this giant arch. In 2016, 17 years after the last Portuguese territory, Macau, was handed over to China, its facade looks just a little faded.
As night falls, the neighbourhood to head to, we’re told, is nearby Bairro Alto; and that’s what we do. ‘Full of life,’ says Maria Joao Galante, marketing manager for the Corinthia. ‘But don’t go too early. In Portugal, we eat late and dance later.’
Bairro Alto is, by day, a sloping mishmash of vintage shops, record stores and art galleries. But when night comes so does the party. Restaurants, outdoor patisseries and music venues attract a lively crowd. Or, at least, they attract them post 10pm. Before that, most of the revellers who later crowd out of doors digging into big plates of seafood and game are nowhere to be seen.
Which, at any rate, makes it easier to get a table at Restaurante Vicente in Rua das Flores. With low arched ceilings, stone walls, and dim, hanging lamps, it sort of feels like stumbling on a secret cellar where a wonderful chef just happens to be cooking. The rustic atmosphere is so utterly charming that I worry the food can’t possibly live up to the vibe. But it does. We’ve been walking all day but cod fritters followed by big plates of beef cheeks and local vegetables wipe away our hard-earned appetites. It’s a marvellous way to end the day.
Portuguese tarts for breakfast, after lunch and post dinner, anyone? These delightful little pastries are reason enough to visit Lisbon.
A marvellous way to start the day, we decide a sleep later, is with a Portuguese tart.
These delightful little pastries, made from egg yolk, flour and cinnamon, are pretty much ubiquitous in Lisbon. Every coffee house, pavement café and food stall seems to do its own version.
The Corinthia is no exception. Among its huge breakfast offering, the tarts are a standout. We enjoy one each with our coffee. Then one more. So impressed are we, indeed, that later in the day, we try a couple of others from different city outlets.
The home of the Portuguese tart is Belém, a neighbourhood that’s a 10-minute train ride from the city centre where we spend our second day. Here, in the middle of this historic monuments district, is Pastéis de Belém, a one-time sugar refinery turned cake shop that has been baking and selling these treats since 1837.
If you discount the monks at next door’s World Heritage-listed Jerónimos Monastery – from whom the shop-owners bought the original recipe – this was the first place to bake the tarts. Their reputation precedes them, but I’m afraid to say I cannot verify how good they are. Instead, on the recommendation of a friend and food writer, we skip the tourist traffic and tariffs, and head down the road to the less famed (and considerably less glamorous) Pasteis de Cerveja. There, sitting at a pavement table with trams trundling by, it’s possible nothing has ever tasted so good.
Belém Tower is a 16th-century fort with fabulous views.
This neighbourhood is home to several treats of the non-culinary variety too. The Belém Tower is a 16th-century river fort that’s worth climbing to the top of, while Monument to the Discoveries is a 52m man-made monolith celebrating Portugal’s age of exploration and empire. Belém Palace is the president’s residence with an attached museum telling the story of the republic; and Lisbon Botanical Garden is a lush 10-acre oasis of endangered plants from across the globe. In a city where you never feel too far from some greenery, it is a stand-out jewel.
Further along the river are the twin day-trip beach resorts of Estoril and Cascais. At just 45 minutes on a train that runs every 12 minutes, getting there couldn’t be easier, Maria tells us. Time constraints mean we don’t make the journey but, while debating the decision, we look at pictures of their sandy beaches and Riviera-like hotels. We decide Lisbon will be a place we visit again.
Time passes quick in Belém and the evening is soon upon us. We want to sample Mercado da Ribeira, a gourmet food hall and hangout with an impeccable reputation in the redeveloped riverfront area of Cais de Sodré. Here, in what was once a sprawling fresh food market, some 35 high-end kiosks (some of them smaller versions of popular city restaurants) offer everything from plates of cold meats to steak and chips, sheep’s cheese and sardines, fish in stew and duck too.
Among the multinational offerings are Turkish, Japanese, Italian and French. But it’s for traditional Portuguese that we plump, sharing a range of seafood bites from a selection of different purveyors. We end things, naturally, with a Portuguese tart.
Sitting on the high wooden benches and with the blur of activity and conversation all around, it’s easy to while away a couple of hours here. And that’s just what we do before moving on to nearby Rua Nova do Carvalho, a street painted bright pink and famed for its tapas eateries, live music and bohemian vibe. Just like Bairro Alto, diners gather here to eat, make merry and, most importantly, be seen.
Of particular note is Sol e Pesca, a one-time fishing-tackle shop now transformed into a seafood bar, but with all the accoutrements of its former life. The walls are covered with glass cabinets filled with rods, hooks and presumably empty tins of bait.
We’re both stuffed from Mercado da Ribeira but the tapas here look too good not to try. We order sardines with bread and olives and big glasses of mineral water, and sit at the rickety fisherman tables outside.
It’s midnight but the evening is warm enough for shirt sleeves. There’s not a sign of yesterday’s rain. We tuck into the food, reflecting on our 48 hours in this summer city. It’s been wonderful.