Whichever way you look at it, Lisbon packs a panoramic punch. Set on seven steep hills beside the river Tejo (Tagus in English), the Portuguese capital offers views up, views down, and views over. And whilst Lisbon is a very compact and walkable city, the main sites are all easily accessible by bus and tram, lift and funicular.
There’s plenty to explore on the level too, including pretty squares, fascinating museums, and tempting restaurants, making Lisbon a popular location for a city break, especially during Britain’s colder months. When my husband and I visited in late January over his birthday, the weather was cloudy but a balmy 16 degrees.
And as an added bonus, Portugal announced in January that it has prepared a contingency plan in the event of a no-deal Brexit, to avoid disruption to British travellers. This will include visa exemption (trips up to 90 days), dedicated passport control lanes for UK flights, and use of the Portuguese National Health Service.
With a bit of online research, it’s easy to organise an independent stay with a few clicks of the mouse. But for something a bit special, I can always trust Silver Travel Advisor travel partner Kirker Holidays to deliver.
We’ve enjoyed previous Kirker breaks to Naples and Florence – available to read on this site – and appreciate their high levels of customer service. Expect a choice of quality hotels, chauffeur-driven airport pick-up, and little extras such as a city card or timed entry to a famous museum. And their London-based concierge system will make restaurant or event reservations before you travel.
John and I took an early Monday flight from our local airport, London-Luton – recently upgraded with new passenger, parking and access facilities – which delivered us to Lisbon by 11.15. Here a genial bilingual chauffeur in a Mercedes plied us with useful insider information on the short journey to the city.
Kirker offer a number of hotels in the city centre and we’d chosen the Avani Avenida Liberdade, a contemporary hotel set one block back from Lisbon’s answer to the Champs-Elysées. Quiet, well-appointed and with smiling, helpful staff, it ticked all our boxes and was a great base to explore, right by the Avenida metro stop and a 20-minute stroll to the riverside.
With Mercedes Man booked to collect us at 4pm Wednesday, we had more than two full days to explore. Kirker clients receive a booklet of Guide Notes – tourist information and restaurant suggestions, prepared in-house and with many useful tips not always found in guidebooks. Our package also included a 48-hour Lisbon Card, value €32 each, which gives free access to 29 museums and monuments, various discounts, and unlimited free travel on public transport. We love to walk but also tried all forms of public transport with a simple swipe of our Lisbon Card.
So, on our first afternoon, we set out past the designer shops of the Avenue Liberadade, spectacular in spring when the jacaranda trees are laden with purple blossom. Pass through a couple of imposing squares and you arrive in the biggest of them all, Praça do Comercio, fronting the Tejo on one side and arcaded on the other three. Here, beside the Tourist Information office, I’d recommend the multi-media, super-sensory Lisbon Story as a great starting place for first-time visitors.
Founded by the Phoenicians, Lisbon became rich thanks to the 16th century explorers like Vasco da Gama, who is buried in the Sé – Lisbon’s 12th century cathedral. But the city was extensively rebuilt after the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 1755 in a grand urban development plan masterminded by the Marquis de Plombal.
Before you head off to follow your own agenda, here are a few of our tips for inquisitive Silver Travellers:
Rua Augusta Arch: Before you leave Praça do Comercio, take the lift up this monumental arch for a pigeon’s eye view of the square and the grid of shopping streets behind, core of Plombaline Lisbon.
Trams: The historic trams are picturesque in the extreme, portrayed on countless souvenirs from sardine tins to fridge magnets, but they are not comfortable. They rattle and sway, and you’re unlikely to get a seat, which means you’ll probably spend your whole journey looking sideways. So, ride one by all means, but not too far!
Belem: A UNESCO-listed highlight for any visitor is the Mosteiros dos Jerónimos, around 20 minutes by historic tram, quicker by spacious modern bus from Praça do Comercio. The church is free (right hand queue) but there’s a charge for the glorious cloister (left queue) – free with the Lisbon Card. The famous custard tart shop is just before the bus stop (blue façade) and the gardens opposite lead to the Discoveries Monument – ride the lift to the viewing platform for good views of the 25 April Bridge and the Belem Tower. You probably won’t want to go up all three.
Elevador de Santa Justa: There’s usually a queue, even in January, but they tend to be shorter later in the day. Either way, this fancy wrought iron elevator, designed by a Portuguese pupil of Gustav Eiffel, will whisk you from the low level Baixa district to the lofty Chiado area in moments. Cross the walkway to explore Chiado and neighbouring Bairro Alto, but not before you’ve taken the short, but tight spiral staircase to the panoramic viewing platform 45 metres above the city for 360° views.
Museums: Lisbon has lots. More than you’d probably expect for a capital city of just 600,000 people. Take your pick of the art collections and historical institutions, but we were recommended to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo – the National Tile museum – and weren’t disappointed. The 16th century convent building is as arresting as the traditional multi-coloured tiles, particularly the gilded and tiled chapel. Jaw-droppingly OTT but somehow it works. Walk for 15 minutes from Santa Apolonia metro station or take a bus to the door.
Food and drink: Expect lots of scrumptious fresh fish, including Portugal’s signature sardines; the famous Pasteis de Belem, puff pastry tarts filled with confectioner’s custard; good wines and of course port. All the restaurant staff we met spoke good English but make sure you understand that the bread, olives and cheese put on the table are optional. If you don’t want them, say so or you’ll be charged. And if you can’t resist a market, browse the stalls and maybe enjoy an informal meal at the buzzing Time Out Market at Cais do Sodré, close to the river.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Kirker Holidays.