From above, the terracotta rooftops of Lisbon looked as if they were flowing over the city’s hills, up and down the urban slopes towards the water in the distance.
Portugal’s capital, one of the oldest in Europe, was built on seven hills overlooking the mouth of the Tagus River as it flows into the Atlantic. The hills are obvious from above, from the vantage point of a plane window, but you can’t fail to notice them at ground level either, when your muscles gear up to climb yet another steep street.
For me, it was wandering Lisbon’s cobbled streets – steep or otherwise – that held the most appeal on our three-and-a-half days there. There are well-known sites to see, of course, but we visited them while slowly making our way through the city’s neighbourhoods, admiring the pastel-hued buildings and tiled-covered walls along the way.
Even in late November, with drizzle often lingering on the horizon, life in Lisbon seemed to be lived outside.
I developed a particular fondness for the quiosques dotted around the city, small food stands surrounded by a handful of chairs that serve anything from pastries and sandwiches to local cocktails. What’s not to love about stopping for another alfresco coffee, cake, or glass of wine while walking around a beautiful city?
We were staying in the Hotel Memmo Alfama, tucked away down a small side street, and got into the routine of starting our day nearby by enjoying coffee and pastries at Quiosque das Portas do Sol. The breakfast pastries came with a cinematic view from the “miradouro” across Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest (and maybe most atmospheric) neighbourhood, and one which survived the earthquake of 1755 that destroyed most of the rest of the city.
The miradouros, or viewpoints, were another feature I delighted on stumbling across again and again during our weekend in Lisbon.
In a city of hills, it’s hardly surprising that these dedicated viewing plazas are around every corner. As well as our breakfast spot, we loved Miradouro de Santa Luiza, where the blue and white tiles were complemented by bright pink bougainvillea and views out over the Tagus. Then there was Miradouro da Graca, the one we came across accidentally in the dark after dinner one night. It was here, packed amongst the crowds in the shadow of church towers, that we watched one of the most incredible sunsets I’ve ever seen.
When it came to the more touristy things to do, we watched the city speed by from the open windows of Tram 28, the historic mode of transport that you can’t miss as you move around the city. In the vast square of Praca do Comercio, we wandered by as tourists posed for photos, trams slid past in the shadow of the Rua Augusta archway, and buskers strummed guitars or blew giant bubbles for children.
At LX Factory, an industrial site-turned-creative hub overlooked by an elevated highway, we saw a more modern side to the city, and popped in and out of the artsy boutiques, galleries, and bookshops. We strolled along the riverbank in Belem, past the towering Monument to the Discoveries and the 16th century Belem Tower, and made our way down picturesque alleyways and up and down hills in Bairro Alta, Chiado, and Alfama.
And of course, with so much walking and climbing, we ate – a lot.
Cheap and tasty Portuguese dishes like grilled chicken and rice at Casa da India in Bairro Alto. Acorda alentejana (bread soup) and enough steak to feed four at O Tachadas in the Santos neighbourhood, where locals filled up on long, leisurely lunch breaks. Our accidental lunch at Michelin-star restaurant Solar dos Nunes, which we popped into as we wandered around under the highway in Alcantara. The evening glasses of port and plates of petiscos (Portuguese small plates) beneath the wine bottle-lined walls of tiny Graca do Vinho, worth the steep uphill stroll from our hotel. After two-plus years of a pandemic, it felt thrilling to sit at the bar in another country, eating and drinking local specialities, and chatting with city locals – a reminder of the magic that comes with travel.
On our last morning in the city, we had our requisite pastries and coffee at the local miradouro, then climbed yet another hill to the 11th century Castelo de Sao Jorge. It was quiet and still, the sound of Sunday church bells pealing through the air, and except for a handful of cruise ship passengers who’d made their way up to the castle, there were hardly any other visitors. After a busy, brilliant weekend of soaking in everything Lisbon had to offer, slow strolls atop the castle walls (while narrowly avoiding the resident peacocks) seemed like the perfect way to round off our holiday.
And as we stood on the ramparts ready to leave, I paused to admire that iconic Lisbon panorama one more time, taking in those undulating waves of rooftops and shades of terracotta stretching over the hills and into the distance.
NEED TO KNOW
How do I get there? Whether you arrive by train or plane, getting into the centre of (and then getting around) Lisbon is relatively easy. Going to and from our hotel from the airport and train station, we used a taxi one way and the subway another, and once we were settled, we walked most of our way around the city, with a few tram rides to outer neighbourhoods, too.
Where should I stay in Lisbon? Where to stay is such a personal choice, but we opted for the Hotel Memmo Alfama, as we knew we’d be right in the heart of Lisbon’s old town, and also within easy walking distance to many of the must-see neighbourhoods and sites. (The beautiful rooftop pool and bar may have also swayed the decision!) I also loved the look of The Ivens, but we settled on visiting the gorgeous bar there for a drink instead, and the Torel Palace was another contender, which we eventually ruled out based on our desire for walking as much as we could.
Have you ever spent a weekend in Lisbon, or would you like to? Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you!