Electrifying Lisbon: Bars, beaches and bright lights in the city that has everything
As dilemmas go, it can be a tough one. Plotting a break and having to decide between city and beach is a recipe for heated debate, especially for couples with opposing views on what constitutes a relaxing weekend away.
Which is why, as I lie on the sand, feeling the sun beat down, I give thanks that Lisbon exists.
On the cobbles: the 28 tram route offers visitors and locals a taste of an antique Lisbon
The Portuguese capital sits 30 minutes by train from the beach towns of Estoril and Cascais. This positions it as an ideal destination for those who want to combine sun-seeking and culture – and makes it a god-send for my wife and me, whose holiday plans are frequently a tug-of-war between the lure of museums and galleries (my wife) and the pleasures of a day by the sea (me).
There are, of course, other reasons to visit this great city, which sits pinned to the estuary of the river Tejo, halfway up Portugal’s west flank:
Unlike many Eurozone capitals, it is still good value for money. The climate is lovely, offering warmth and blue skies for much of the year.
It is a place ripe for exploration – easily dissected on foot, yet also blessed with an efficient, inexpensive public transport system that ranges from underground trains and nostalgic trams to quirky elevators and funiculars.
And it revels in a winning atmosphere, its centre a compact blend of grand avenues and delightfully cluttered old quarters where close-knit alleys send out an invitation to roam.
We opt to stay slightly north of the centre at the Corinthia, a tall tower hotel with commanding views over the city. But a 15-minute hop on the metro quickly has us at the heart of the matter, looking for somewhere for lunch.
Lisbon spreads out across seven hills, but much of its daily movements happen in the flat Baixa district on the edge of the Tejo – the main shopping and business area.
Heart of the matter: Lisbon's Baixa district spreads out around the colourful Praca do Comercio
Interspersed with impressive squares and public buildings, Baixa is the result of a grand rebuilding plan conducted by the Marques De Pombal following the devastating earthquake that hit the city on 1 November 1755 – a disaster that is reported to have killed 40,000 of Lisbon’s then-270,000 inhabitants.
Pombal’s urban plan represented a carefully co-ordinated attempt to restore order, with individual streets given over to different crafts and trades.
Two-and-a-half centuries on, this policy is reflected in street names that no longer quite fit, but which still recall this former era: Rua da Prata (silversmiths) and Rua dos Sapateiros (cobblers) now play host to a rich mix of shops, cafes, restaurants and bars in spite of their history-defined identities.
Baixa is an ideal start-point for a city tour. We begin at the southern end, where the Praca do Comercio, with its substantial arch, is flanked by elegant arcades as it overlooks the river.
From here, we wander along Baixa’s wide boulevards, quickly working up an appetite. And the Rua dos Portas de Santo Antao, lined with places to eat, proves a perfect spot for a lucky-dip choice of restaurant to sample a plate of grilled sardines and a cold beer or two.
Post-lunch, it is time to take a journey into Lisbon’s past. I am not sure what the lisboetas make of the tourists who pack the more quirky parts of their public transport network – but there is something both charming and comical about the incongruous combination of visitors and everyday inhabitants squeezing onto the trams and elevadores.
On the terrace: Lisbon's hilly contours mean great views await at almost every corner
These elevadores – three short funiculars and one ornate street lift - help save tourist legs by whisking people up from one level of central Lisbon to the other, while the trams run along five criss-crossing routes – most notably the Number 28, which takes in Baixa, the Se cathedral and the steep hill of the Alfama district as it trundles on its antique way.
Despite their must-ride reputation, the trams are best approached as an experience rather than a sightseeing opportunity. Don’t expect to be able to sit, see much, or take any photos.
On the other hand, tram 28 is the easiest way to reach the Castelo de Sao Jorge, which, with its walls, pathways and pleasant grounds, perches imposingly on one of Lisbon’s highest points.
The castle has a rich history that takes in a period as a Moorish royal residence, a lengthy 12th century siege by Crusaders and its partial destruction in the 1755 earthquake. We spend a happy two hours strolling the ramparts and gardens, and absorbing the views.
A further romantic step into Lisbon’s back-story can be found in the streets of the Alfama, which tumble down the hillside below the castle. Ambling downwards, we pop our heads into the Se Cathedral, and make note of several tempting restaurants as dinner options.
Many of these eateries specialise in live performances of fado – the mournful and poetic music for which Lisbon is famous. It typically involves a singer accompanied by a guitar (and sometimes strings) – and to my British ear, sounds almost sea-shanty-tinged.
However, for a taste of Lisbon’s legendary nightlife, you need to venture to another of the city’s elevated enclaves – the more modern but equally atmospheric Bairro Alto district, which comes alive as night falls.
A night on the tiles: Lisbon comes alive after dark in the cluttered bars of the Bairro Alto
Here, endless bars and restaurants throw open their doors to locals and tourists, and dining possibilities range from cheap-and-cheerful to extravagant. We plump for Louro & Sal, which, with its elegant wood and tiled interior, falls firmly into the trendy camp, but serves delicious food at prices that seem extremely reasonable compared to the UK.
The menu features dishes such as game sausage with roasted vegetables, and a two-course meal – with aperitifs, a good bottle of wine and coffee – sets us back little more than 60 euros.
Afterwards, we join the happy crowd that spills onto the streets, shuffling between bars clutching bargain cocktails, including potent mojitos and caipirinhas.
Like all great cities, Lisbon is also fringed by enticing day-trip destinations, linked to the centre by regular trains. The picturesque outpost of Sintra – where you find botanical gardens, the former royal summer residence and an epic Moorish fortress – is 45 minutes away by rail.
And if you are hoping for beach time, the popular resorts of Estoril and Cascais (tied together by a promenade that hugs the shore between them) are in close proximity.
We take the train from Cais do Sodre (one of the stations in Lisbon’s centre) to Estoril - where we jump off and walk remaining distance to Cascais.
Despite their neighbourly positioning, the two resorts have distinct characters. Estoril has a long strip of beach, backed by Riviera-style hotels, while Cascais has a handful of sandy bays and more of a self-contained feel, with a small centre of little shops, restaurants and bars.
Seaside neighbour: Simon found the beach he was seeking in the pretty coastal enclave of Cascais
A 20-minute walk away, where the Tejo meets the Atlantic, the Boca do Inferno (Mouth of Hell) caves supply subterranean diversion. And the energetic can hire bikes and take the cycle path that runs five miles around the headland to the surf-hotspot beach of Praia do Guincho.
But as soon as I catch sight of Cascais beach, I know that I will go no further. And as I lie there, I reflect that Lisbon might be the perfect European short-break destination – but for the fact that, on this score, there is one obvious flaw: You will certainly be tempted to stay for longer.
For more details on Lisbon, see www.visitlisboa.com.
Double rooms at the Corinthia hotel (00351 21 723 6363, www.corinthia.com) start at €120 (£100) per night, room only.
easyJet (0843 104 5000; www.easyjet.com) flies to Lisbon from Gatwick, Luton, Bristol, Edinburgh and Liverpool. Return fares from £54.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/article-2117806/Lisbon-Portugal-city-breaks-Culture-sun-city-halves.html#ixzz22wG8eoS0