A gorgeous melange of pastel-hued buildings is the first thing you notice when you arrive in Lisbon. In shades of sunshine yellow, lilac, blue and dusky pink, they gently rise and fall over the seven hills upon which Lisbon stands, offering up terracotta roofs like sweet sacrifices to the gods.
Gently distressed, Lisbon has been shaped by centuries of baking sunshine and general decay. It is a city that has been moulded by its history, from the Moorish tiles that decorate every other surface to the wooden trams that trundle up and down the hills. The cobbled roads have been worn smooth and slippery by generations of tramping feet; tiny cafes and cave-like shops populate the winding streets.
Tucked into the shelter of an estuary on the western coast of Portugal, away from the Atlantic waves, Lisbon has for centuries been a port for fishermen, sailors and soldiers. Nowadays, it welcomes weekend breakers, culture vultures and sun seekers alike, of which last weekend I was one. Small enough to walk around if you’re of an agile and energetic disposition, Lisbon offers a vibrant mixture of history, art, food and nightlife, whatever your taste. Here are my top eight must-see sights to add to your itinerary, should you be fortunate enough to visit.
1. Castelo de Sao Jorge
Sitting atop one of Lisbon’s seven hills, this ancient castle adorns Lisbon’s horizon and is impossible to miss. A presence in one form or another since the mists of time, the current castle contains Moorish, Roman and medieval Portuguese influences. It also offers a prime viewpoint over the terracotta tiles of Lisbon, leading down to the bright blue of the Tagus estuary.
2. The garden of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum
Central to Lisbon’s artistic and cultural scene, the Gulbenkian is well worth a visit for an illuminating tour of Portuguese art history. But its beautiful sculpture garden is what really made it for me: landscaped beds, luxurious foliage and trickling streams offer a zen refuge away from the bustle of the city.
3. Tour de Belém
A ten minute train ride outside of Lisbon lies Belém, a sleepy town on the banks of the estuary. Central to the town’s attractions is the striking Tour de Belém, a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon that was built in the early 16th century. Worth visiting for its UNESCO World Heritage Site status, the Tour is a beautiful example of the flamboyant Portuguese Manueline style of architecture.
4. Jardim Botânico Tropical, Belém
Also in Belém is the gorgeous tropical gardens that are well worth a wander through on a sunny afternoon. Originally created as a paean to Portugal’s colonial conquests in 1909, the garden offers us a sumptuous array of tropical plants, flowers and trees. There are also peacocks, chickens and ducks which live in the garden, which provided us with endless entertainment as we ambled through the greenery.
5. Casa da India
Recommended to us by our Air BnB host, Casa da India is an unassuming eatery on the outskirts of the city’s renowned nightlife district, but the queue of locals outside was enough to tell us that the restaurant would live up to its accolades. We sampled the seafood, of which there was a lot, plus sea bass and flame grilled chicken, all for a laughably small amount of money. More than anything, eating well in Lisbon is certainly not a challenge.
6. Topo bar
We capped off our weekend in Lisbon with a dance at Topo, a rooftop bar overlooking the Castelo and Lisbon’s old town. Copious cocktails and vintage RnB tunes are the USP of Topo, which combined with the spectacular views led to an unforgettable night.
7. Museu Nacional do Azulejo
We spent our last morning in Lisbon in the Azulejo, or tile, museum. Lisbon is renowned for its ornate tiles, which are used decoratively on every other wall or floor in the city. Housed in an exquisite old convent, the Azulejo museum takes you on a journey from the original Moorish tiles to 21st century creations by ceramic artists. The convent is also beautiful, and is itself a showcase for the tile tradition.
8. Pasteis de Nata, anywhere and everywhere
Finally, there can only be one highlight to our Lisbon trip: the Pasteis de Nata, which we had for breakfast everyday (and sometimes as an afternoon snack too). These little custard tarts are the perfect accompaniment to coffee, and we just could not get enough of them.