Everyone’s going on about Lisbon.
Portugal’s capital city has long been beautiful – but now we all want a piece of the action.
City of Light: Europe’s sunniest capital is especially glorious outside of the summer season
There are boutique hotels aplenty, new restaurants opening all over the place and (gulp) stags and hens parading the narrow streets. But you can easily lose them. Go now – outside the summer crowds – and you’re more likely to find a seat on the trundling trams.
WHAT’S THE STORY? Lisbon was devastated in 1755 when an earthquake, then a tsunami, destroyed the city, killing 60,000 people. The gothic Carmo Convent is a monument to the disaster. It was left roofless, open to the stars, to commemorate those who died within.
The arches going nowhere are haunting, and there’s also an archaeological museum with creepy 16th-century mummies from Peru. Entry for adults is €4 (£3.50), museuarqueologicodocarmo.pt.
Sombre: The Carmo Convent remains unfinished, to commemorate those killed in the quake
Impressively, Lisbon was rebuilt within ten years. Like Rome, the city is built on seven hills. Walking is a great way to see it: my phone pedometer recorded 25,000 steps one day. But opt for trainers – the gradients and cobbles are unforgiving.
ARTY SIDE: The new Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) in Belem, by architect Amanda Levete, is surreal inside and out. It looks like a curving velodrome, with a rooftop giving wide river views. The art is challenging. Admission costs €5 (£4.40), maat.pt.
More accessible is the nearby Berardo Collection, where there’s work by Modigliani, Henry Moore and a section devoted to British pop art. Entry is free on Saturdays, en.museuberardo.pt Even if you don’t fancy art, this is still a good place to wander and soak up the riverside scenery. Cars crossing the great big 25 de Abril Bridge create a rumbling backing track.
ON THE TILES: It’s easy to appreciate Lisbon’s tiles. Navy and white polka-dots, Moorish patterns and green glazed beauties decorate houses on every street.
But the National Tile Museum – in a serene former convent, Madre de Deus (Mother of God) – is worth visiting, especially for the panorama of Lisbon before the 1755 earthquake, which shows buildings that were destroyed, sailors navigating the Tagus River and the potteries’ chimney stacks smoking gently.
There’s more recent work, too, such as the grasshopper-patterned tiles by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro (c. 1905).
We walked, but it’s wiser to take the bus from the centre. Entry is €5 (£4.40), museudoazulejo.gov.pt.
SWEETEST TREATS: Portuguese pasteis de nata (custard tarts) are no good for throwing – you’ll want to gobble them up whole. Pasteis de Belem is the home of custard tarts, and you’ll queue for them.
Pie perfection: Don’t leave Lisbon without scoffing a Portuguese ‘pastel de nata’ custard tart
But the tarts at Manteigaria, on Rua do Loreto, in the Bairro Alto district, are also very good. A bell is rung when a fresh batch comes out of the oven. The coffee is cheap, too – €1 (88p) for an espresso and €1 for a tart.
I’ll walk miles for an ice cream and Nannarella is worth the trek. They’ve just opened a new gelateria in Belem.
The owner is Italian, the ingredients Portuguese and the portions generous. From €2.50, nannarella.pt
DISH OF THE DAY: There are millions of places to eat, but Tapisco, a new tapas joint in Principe Real from famous Portuguese chef Henrique Sa Pessoa, is fantastically tasty and done up like a stylish diner.
His restaurant Alma has a Michelin star, but you’ll enjoy his food for less here. Sit at the gleaming bar and watch the chefs marinade octopus.
At lunchtime in the Alfama, head for Pateo 13, with its open-air grill and chefs peeling bucketloads of roasted red peppers.
BOUTIQUE SLEEP: Casa Das Janelas Com Vista in the lively Bairro Alto has the sort of relaxed feel many of us long to recreate at home. Tall ceilings, lovely linens, mismatched chinaware and vintage furnishings.
Fine dining: The restaurant at five-star hotel Memmo Principe Real has views across Lisbon
My room has an old-fashioned tailor’s dummy. In the morning, the breakfast table groans with goodies. The openplan kitchen living room is available 24 hours a day and tea is on tap.
Beware, there are no lifts and lots of stairs, so pack light. Rooms from £116.99, dorisanddicky.com.
ROYAL DIGS: The Principe Real district is an aristocratic neighbourhood – the name means Royal Prince – and, unsurprisingly, it’s plush. Now, there’s a new boutique five-star hotel.
Classic transport: Trams, in operation since 1873, are a charming way to see the city sights
Memmo Principe Real has views across the city rooftops, a bar serving white port and tonic in famous for crystal glasses, and a pool made for posing.
Our room overlooks the lot. The bed is gargantuan and the bathroom products are by Hermes. Staff are enormously helpful, parking our dusty Kia Picanto (blushing amid the Porsches) and recommending local restaurants.
You can join a free tour of the neighbourhood at 5pm each day. Our guide took us to the first church to feature coloured tiles, the Church of Sao Roque, with its extraordinary lapis and gold chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist.
The guide described the political situation in Portugal thus: ‘Not the best, but not the worst democracy. We can’t complain. It’s sunny. The food is great. The people are nice.’
Rooms at Memmo Principe Real from £220 a night, memmohotels.com. Tap Portugal offers flights from £76 return, flytap.com.