Anthony Pearce profiles the Portuguese capital, which is now welcoming more tourists than ever – especially cruise customers – drawn by weather and culture
Given the huge queues that regularly snake around the block for the famous yellow 28 tram, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine that Lisbon was ever off the tourist trail. It could be explained by the fact that there are relatively few blockbuster sights in the Portuguese capital. This isn’t a tick-list destination: there is arguably no landmark in the centre of Lisbon that is a must-see. Rather, the city is more about its culture: the azulejos, the intricate tiles that adorn so many buildings; the simple and affordable food; the rooftop bars; the late-opening restaurants (and even later nightlife); the pretty cobblestone stone streets and colourful buildings; the Moorish influence in Alfama; and fado, the mournful Portuguese music that is experiencing a renaissance. Lisbon is also one of Europe’s sunniest cities and offers unrivalled access to beaches – there are eight within a 30-minute train ride.
Regarded as one of Europe’s most affordable city breaks, Lisbon now welcomes more tourists that ever, including from cruise ships. According to CruiseMapper, more than 500,000 cruise guests visit each year and the number looks set to grow. In 2017, seven ships made maiden port calls at the city: Freedom of the Seas (Royal Caribbean), MSC Meraviglia, Viking Sky, Marella Discovery, Columbus (CMV), Caribbean Princess and Silver Muse (Silversea). MSC Cruises offers nine-day round trips from Lisbon, and many ex-UK cruises call there on the way to, or from, the Mediterranean, while it is sometimes a call on transatlantic crossings or world cruises. The likes of Riviera Travel, Uniworld and Emerald Waterways also spend a few days in the city before flying guests down to Porto to sail the increasingly popular Douro.
What to see and do
Lisbon is a good, if tiring, city to wander around. Legend has it that it was founded on seven hills, although the story’s accuracy is disputed. From the seafront looking back you’ll see the neighbourhoods of Alfama and Castelo on the Graça and São Jorge hills to the your right; Barrio Alto and Príncipe Real on the São Roque hill to your left; and Baixa – downtown – in the middle. The climbs are worth it: Lisbon from above is stunning. The city has 16 official viewpoints, each offering incredible views over rooftops, and of the Tejo river and the 25 de Abril Bridge. Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, which offers a panorama of the city including the river, the São Jorge castle, Graça and the tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade, is perhaps the pick of the bunch. Alfama, the oldest district, is perhaps the most rewarding to stroll around.
Those with the luxury of time should hope to sample some of the local delicacies: prego (steak rolls); bifanas (pork rolls); sardines (Lisboas usually enjoy them on toasted bread); national dish bacalhau (salted cod); pastel de nata (custard tarts); and ginjinha, a sweet cherry liqueur that can be bought for a euro or two from tiny bars (Ginjinha Sem Rival in Praca Dos Restauradores may be the most famous). Tascas are traditional Portuguese restaurants where some of the best (and cheapest) food is served in no-frills surroundings, while kiosk cafés provide picturesque settings to eat and drink, particularly down the Avenida da Liberdade.
Belem, the southwesternmost parish of the city, offers some of the most celebrated monuments: the Jerónimos Monastery, Belém Tower and Padrão dos Descobrimentos and the futuristic MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology). Further afield is the Cascais Coast, home to several sun-kissed beaches, and Sintra, a beautiful town set amid pine-covered hills. The Quinta da Regaleira, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is worth exploring in depth. It’s little wonder Lisbon is one of Europe’s fastest growing destinations.
Getting the tram
The number 28 tram connects Martim Moniz with Campo Ourique, passing through Graça, Alfama, Baixa and Estrela, many of the city’s touristic highlights. The yellow Remodelado trams, which date from the 1930s, are iconic, and provide a quaint way of navigating the city’s many hills. Be warned: the queues can be huge