Spread across steep hillsides that overlook the Rio Tejo, Lisbon offers all the delights you would expect of Portugal’s star attraction, yet with half the fuss of other European capitals. Gothic cathedrals, majestic monasteries and quaint museums are all part of the colorful cityscape, but the real delights of discovery lie in wandering the narrow lanes of Lisbon’s lovely backstreets.
As bright yellow trams wind their way through curvy tree-lined streets, Lisboetas stroll through the old quarters, much as they’ve done for centuries. Village-life gossip in old Alfama is exchanged at the public baths or over fresh bread and wine at tiny patio restaurants as fadistas (proponents of fado, Portugal’s traditional melancholic singing) perform in the background.
Meanwhile, in other parts of town, visitors and locals chase the ghosts of Pessoa in warmly lit 1930s-era cafés or walk along the seaside that once saw the celebrated return of Vasco da Gama. Yet, while history is very much alive in centuries-old Lisbon, its spirit is undeniably youthful.
In the hilltop district of Bairro Alto, dozens of restaurants and bars line the narrow streets, with jazz, reggae, electronic and fado filling the air and revelers partying until dawn. Nightclubs scattered all over town make fine use of old spaces, whether on riverside docks or tucked away in 18th-century mansions.
The Lisbon experience encompasses so many things, from enjoying a fresh pastry and bica (expresso coffee) on a petite leafy plaza to window-shopping in elegant Chiado. It’s mingling with Lisboetas at a neighborhood festival or watching the sunset from the old Moorish castle.
Just outside Lisbon, there’s more to explore: the magical setting of Sintra, glorious beaches and traditional fishing villages.