The Alfama district of Lisbon. Feature image via Visit Lisboa.
Charming Lisbon makes a great weekend break, with top restaurants, a stunning setting and beautiful if crumbling tiled buildings. Even travelling by taxi across lovely Lisbon from the airport is a treat: it only takes half an hour to get into town (less if you’re staying bang in the centre), costs about €10 and there’s lots to see en route.
I pass the Praça do Comércio and its statue of King José I, majestic on horseback as he crushes snakes beneath, and have a great view of the Tagus estuary, before a short climb up cobbled streets to the Lapa district, in the south-west of the city.
The Lapa district
Even the taxi driver was a little stumped when it came to finding our hotel, Lapa being a kind of hidden Lisbon that few tourists seem to find. As Janelas Verdes has an unassuming entrance under a small, green awning, and is next to the stunning Museo Nacional de Art Antiga.
Inside it’s all cool tiled floors, pale painted walls and marble columns, with a comfortable lounge leading to a breakfast area that has all-day refreshments to help yourself to, including delicious pasteles de nata, the traditional Portuguese custard tarts.
As Janelas Verdes is part of the family-run Heritage Lisbon Hotels group, and nice touches include a decanter of port in each room, monogrammed towels and classic tiled though slightly faded bathrooms, which only add to the charm of the place.
There is a beautiful wood-panelled library and honesty bar on the top floor leading out on to a sunny terrace, and a pretty courtyard filled with pot plants downstairs. Our room included entrance to many of Lisbon’s galleries and museums too.
The area is also the home of grand embassy buildings and one of the city’s most upmarket hotels, the Lapa Palace, where royals and dignitaries are known to stay. Opposite As Janelas is the Palacio Ramalhete, an elegant boutique hotel with an outdoor pool and 12 individual rooms.
On our first day we headed out of town to the Sintra Hills, a region of palaces, castles and views all the way to the coast at Cascais. It’s 40 minutes by train from the centre of Lisbon and once you get away from the main part of town, with its fairytale turrets, you can pretty much have the area to yourself.
Sintra’s Capuchos convent
We got a taxi to the Capuchos convent, about half an hour from the centre. Built in 1560, it is in start contrast to the grand buildings of the rest of Sintra, with its bare rooms, simple cloister and monk’s cells. Capuchos means cork, and the material was harvested from the oak trees in the grounds and used as insulation.
You can hire bikes in the centre of Sintra, but a car will allow you to explore the Monserrate Park, the Moorish castle and the mid-19th century Palace of the Pena, King Ferdinand II’s summer retreat.
Back in Lapa, we headed out for dinner to the fabulously quirky Come Prima, a neighbourhood Italian with an ivy-clad exterior and dark and cool interior, which has rightly had rave reviews. Pasta, pizza and fish are all first-rate, and if you’re lucky to be there at the right time, white Alba truffles will be on the menu too.
The next day, after breakfast (fruit, cereal and more pasteles de nata), we walked into town, through the little streets of Lapa, detouring via the bohemian Bairro Alto area (which comes alive at night) to Lisbon’s excellent market, the Mercado da Ribeira.
The market building has been around since 1892 and last year became foodie heaven as you can now eat from 35 different kiosks, with well-known names under one roof including Santini ice creams, chefs Alexandre Silva and Henrique Sá Pessoa, and Monte Mar, a top fish restaurant.
The twist here is that the dishes are often cheaper than at their main restaurant counterparts, plus you can stay until 2am at weekends. There is also the famous Sol e Pesca, a shop and bar selling tinned fish, right next to the market. Choose your tin and eat its contents with hunks of local corn bread and a tumbler of wine.
For dinner, we discovered Taberna Portuguesa, a tiny place on the edge of Bairro Alto. It has simple wooden furniture, tables laid with lined A4 paper as mats and Telmo, a porcelain dog mascot.
We ate curd cheese with local bread, then chose roasted chorizo, cod and tomato tapas from the short sharing menu. Trams rattled past outside as we ate, and when we left, a queue had formed.
Trams and tiles
Lisbon is famous for its trams, and while number 28 – its best-known – will show you much of the city, you can avoid the tourist crush by going early or late, or just jumping on one going a different route. They are a fun way to travel, screeching up and down Lisbon’s hills since 1873, and the 28 will take you through the Alfama district up the hill to the castle (the Castelo de São Jorge).
I also became obsessed with taking pictures of Lisbon’s tiled and sometimes crumbling buildings. The azulejos, or ceramic tiles, come in bright colours and there are whole streets where each home has a different design.
Tiles came to Portugal after the 15th century King Manuel I visited Spain’s Alhambra Palace and decided to decorate his home in a similar way. There is even a museum dedicated to them, the Museo Nacional do Azulejo, but as with the rest of Lisbon, I was happy to wander and discover.