48 HOURS IN LISBON - EUROPE'S BEST VALUE CITY BREAK
From custard tarts to classic trams, make the most of a city break in Portugal
IF you're feeling the pinch right now (aren't we all?), but still can't suppress the rising wanderlust within, the results of this year's Post Office City Costs Barometer should be on your radar - as should this year's winner: LISBON.
Every year, the Post Office bods compare the price of a city break across Europe, with the price of 12 essential items taken into account. These include a three-star hotel for two nights, an evening meal for two with a bottle of house wine, sightseeing and transport.
And while costs throughout Europe are up on previous years, there's a new champion in town. LISBON is officially Europe's best value city break. And with that in mind, we asked our friends at www.VisitLisboa.com how to best spend a weekend in the Portuguese capital...
Start your holiday the right way - with a breakfast containing custard. Hell yeah! Get into the swing of local life at a pastelaria (pastry shop), where the Pasteis de nata custard tarts are a city staple.
If you need a pick-me-up, then the Portuguese have this down to a fine art. The bica coffee is a standard order in Lisbon - order 'a coffee' and this is what you'll get. Like an espresso - or more accurately, a luongo - it's short and packed full of caffeine, but you'll find it slightly smoother than the Italian version, due to the lighter roasting methods used in Portugal. Why the name bica? Well, it means waterfall or fountain in Portuguese, and refers to the way the coffee tumbles from the machine into the cup.
If you're a real coffee buff, make time in your weekend to visit Café A Brasileira in the Chiado district - it's where Adriano Telles first introduced the bica in 1905, as a way to promote his imported Brazilian coffee beans.
But for now, wait for that caffeine to hit and then step back into Lisbon’s past by exploring the Baixa district, where wide avenues, elegant squares and neoclassical buildings were born out of the 1755 earthquake that devastated Lisbon and ended the city’s golden age. Today, the traditional shops – some three centuries old - specialise in goods such as wine, dried cod and antiques.
At the southern end of Baixa is the mosaic-paved Commerce Square (Praça do Comércio to the locals), dominated by the magnificent Arco da Rua Augusta. It's a beautiful, vast square surrounded on three sides by ornate government buildings, the Supreme Court, hotels and even the Museum of Lisbon.
It's an important part of Portuguese history, not just because it's one of the biggest squares in the country. It was once home to the Royal Palace of Ribeira (Paço da Ribeiro) until the 1755 Lisbon earthquake came along and shook things up.
Things didn't get much better for the Royal Family, either, as the square was also the scene of the 1908 assassination of Portugal's penultimate King, Carlos I and his heir, Luís Filipe.
Find lunch in the one of the many restaurants, where the menu do dia (fixed menu) provides great value, and grilled sardines and bacalhau (salted cod) are a speciality. To really bask in the history of Commerce Square, pop into Cafe Martinho da Arcana, which opened its doors just 27 years after the 1755 earthquake. If those walls could talk...
The No. 28 tram
When it's time to leave Baixa, there's no better way to travel than the city's iconic No. 28 tram, which has been carting tourists and Lisboetas around for more than 100 years. It's still pleasingly old-fashioned, with polished wood interiors and brass dials - plus that beautiful, canary yellow colour that pops against the city's ever-blue skies.
Part of the reason the tram has never been replaced is that its route through the city - connecting Martim Moniz with Campo Ourique via the popular tourist districts of Alfame, Baixa, Estrela and Graca - navigates narrow streets, steep gradients and tight turns that would be impossible for modern day trams to manage.
Enjoy the tram while you can, as it's less than 10 minutes to Alfame, where we'll be jumping off.
Alfama, Castelo de São Jorge
Leave the tram at the cobbled streets of the Alfama district, the oldest part of Lisbon. Climb up to the Castelo de São Jorge, a high and mighty fortress built by the Moors, with amazing views from the ramparts of the city and the River Tagus below, before exploring the area’s atmospheric maze of alleys, unique shops and local cafes. Stay for an early evening shot of ginjinha (cherry liqueur) with the locals.
The area is a maze of narrow, cobbled streets and traditional houses, but if you get lost there's plenty to keep you occupied. Alfame was originally a relatively poor area of Lisbon. It became home to many of the city's sailors and dock workers before undergoing a transformation into a place where creatives and fashionistas - attracted by the cheaper property prices - called home. Now, it's a bustling hub of creativity, where trendy cafés and independent shops lurk around every corner.
Food and fado
Lisbon’s dinner choices are endless, from family-run tascas serving local favourites, to Michelin-starred restaurants. For a unique Lisbon experience, the fado houses of Alfama, Bairro Alto and Mouraria combine dinner or petisocos (small plates) with the chance to enjoy the poetic songs of love and fate brought to life by the combination of guitar and emotional vocals. An integral part of the city’s history and culture, fado was born in the streets, houses and riverside areas of Lisbon and is included in UNESCO’s World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Some great places to find fado include Parreirinha de Alfama and A Baiuca in Alfama, Café Luso and A Severa in Bairro Alto and Amigos da Severa and Maria da Mouraria in Mouraria.
Parque das Nações, Oceanário
Start the day at Lisbon’s riverside Parque das Nações (Park of Nations), which is one of the city’s coolest neighbourhoods. Stroll along the waterfront boardwalk and discover futuristic architecture and urban art installations, then dive into Oceanário, one of the largest indoor aquariums in Europe. Inside the futuristic over-water building, you'll find all manner of sharks, penguins, tropical fish and the like and the aquarium has an ever-changing schedule of fun kids activities, family attractions and innovative ideas such as 'Sleeping with Sharks,' which is a sleepover in the centre of the shark tank.
When you've spent enough time beneath sea level, head outside and finish the morning with birds-eye views from the overhead cable cars that glide above.
Head along the river to the Belém district (a cab is the best option), home to unmissable heritage sites and famous for its abundance of beautifully ornate, old buildings. With plenty to pack in, a street snack like the bifana - a traditional Portuguese sandwich filled with marinated fillets of pork – makes the perfect lunch. For a sweet treat grab a pasteis de Belem - the original pasteis de nata but with a secret recipe! Its traditional home is at the Pastéis de Belém, and its position next to the Monasteiro dos Jeróniomos is key to the tart's popularity.
The monastery used to have a small sugar cane refinery next door and, when the 1820 liberal revolution caused all monasteries to be closed and the clergy expelled, somebody from Mosteiro dos Jeróniomos began to sell sweet pastries in the local shop to make ends meet. These became known as Pastéis de Belém and visitors to the area began to spread the word about these incredible new treats. The recipe remains unchanged - but secret - to this day, passed down through generations of bakers.
It's these historic stories that make the Belém district so fascinating and a wonderful way to spend a day.
Ornate Torre de Belém is one of Lisbon's most famous icons. It was originally built in 1515 as a fortress to guard the entrance to Lisbon's harbour and is decorated with motifs of the Age of Discovery, when pioneering Portuguese sailors explored the world. The nearby Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is an extraordinary monastery built in honour of Portugal’s famed navigators.
Keep an eye out here for a carving of a rhinoceros. The sculptor created it after hearing stories of the animal, so it's not entirely accurate - but the story behind it is wild.
Returning sailors brought a rhino back from their travels - a diplomatic gift from India - and it was swiftly chained up and used for King Manuel's entertainment. They tried to make it fight an elephant, who got bored and walked off. Eventually, Manuel also got bored and the rhino was re-gifted to Pope Leo X. But its legacy lives on at Belém Tower to this day.
Royal Treasure Museum
For a final hist of history head to the Royal Treasure Museum in the magnificent Palácio Nacional da Ajuda. Opened in 2022, this is the first permanent public display of Portugal’s Crown Jewels and home to a collection featuring more than 1,000 pieces of royal goldsmithery, from rare and precious jewellery to what is thought to be the second largest gold nugget in the world.
To finish your short break like a Lisboeta, start the night in the bohemian district of Bairro Alto, where people meet and drink outside the tiny bars to create a street party buzz. Make your way up to the Miradouro São Pedro de Alcaântra for the incredible views over the city, before heading towards the bars to get the evening started. Highlights include Loucos e Sonhadores and the jazz nights at Páginas Tantas but you'll want to pay a visit to the rooftop bars at Park and Insólito, where you can soak up the views while glugging cocktails.
Cais do Sodré
Then, stroll downhill to Cais do Sodré, which brims with lively bars and popular dance clubs - some not closing until 6am. At the heart of the action is Rua Nova do Carvalho, once the city’s red light district and now known as “Pink Street” due to its bright pink pavement.
Penão Amor and Sol e Pesca are well worth a visit, and most people in the area will make their way to Music Box underneath the arches to end their evening (or morning, depending how much energy you've got!).
For more information, visit www.visitlisboa.com