Stylist contributor Johanna Derry discovers that the Portuguese capital has exactly what she needs: style, sunshine and sweet treats
Proud mercantile buildings in pink and yellow, beautiful tiles, tumbling cascades of red roofs, the shimmer of the Tagus estuary and the promise of adventure on the Atlantic Ocean beyond – Lisbon in late summer is the most colourful of destinations. And as soon as I arrive, I realise that in this dreariest of British summers, Lisbon is exactly what I (and my Instagram feed) need. The Portuguese have a wonderful, untranslatable word for that unnamed longing – ‘saudade’ – and Lisbon has a reputation for
rectifying this with its magic, which has lured explorers, traders and adventurers for centuries.
The base for my own expedition is the brand new AlmaLusa Baixa Chiado, tucked in the corner of one of Lisbon’s many squares, just two minutes from the water’s edge. This stylish but unfussy 28-room boutique hotel has smartly distilled what matters to 21st-century travellers: spacious, clutter-free rooms in muted tones, airy communal spaces and sleek design in a gorgeous 18th-century listed building. I keep discovering characterful quirks, like fossils in the walls of the stairwell and tiling repurposed from a Moroccan showroom that was once here. This building has had a varied and dramatic life, rebuilt just after 1755’s massive earthquake and tsunami, which devastated Lisbon’s Tagus riverfront. The brasserie-like Delfina restaurant occupying the ground floor is full of locals as well as guests – always a good sign for a new city hotel – with a menu of Portuguese dishes (tapas-style fried eggs with black truffle for breakfast; octopus with tomato rice for dinner), which beautifully reflects the hotel’s relaxed ethos.
AlmaLusa is handsomely positioned in one of Lisbon’s most district, the Bairro Alto, a grid of attractive squares, but also right in the heart of the city, moments from central streets with a mix of familiar and local high street stores, and neighbouring Chiado, which has an elegant art nouveau vibe to its old-style cafes, theatres and boutiques. Be warned, Lisbon is built on hills, making shopping a mini-workout too. You can queue to take the Elevador de Santa Justa, an impressive looking neo-gothic style lift up to Chiado, or hop on tram 28, a bright yellow, old-school trolley that will heave you around Lisbon’s streets and into Alfama, the old city.
I walked through the warren of higgledy-piggledy lanes to discover a more traditional Lisbon, where women sell sardines from their front steps in the morning and men grill them on the streets in the evening. On every corner, you’ll find a shrine to Saint Anthony, patron saint of lost things, and you’ll hear the sound of Fado, soulful Portuguese folk music, wafting out of the windows, making you feel that sense of ‘saudade’ again.
I decided my particular longing was for tiles. It’s difficult not to stop every 30 seconds to photograph Lisbon’s tiled walls. So I indulge myself at Cortiço & Netos (corticoenetos.com) on Calçada de Santo André, where four brothers who inherited their grandfather’s stockpile of Sixties tiles have made a treasure trove of beautiful discontinued pieces for you to buy.
After hill-walking all day, I rewarded myself with Lisbon’s most famous treat: a pastel de nata (custard tart) from Manteigaria bakery. From 8am until midnight, you can watch the pastries being made as you munch away on one with coffee, and every time a new batch is completed, they ring a bell to announce it. Don’t blanch at the amount of butter they use – it’s what makes the pastry so crisp.
It was the nuns of Belém district who first made the pastries famous, so after breakfast the next day, I hire a bike at Bike Iberia (bikeiberia.com) for a 20-minute ride along the river to compare and contrast the tarts from Pastéis de Belém (pasteisdebelem.pt). It’s a heaving mass of tourists but I push through into the labyrinth of blue and white tiled rooms beyond the counter to enjoy table service in a shady courtyard.
From Belém I hop on the ferry to Trafaria on the Costa Caparica. You could get a train to Cascais and head to the beach at Guincho with everyone else, but the Praia de São João is closer, more off the beaten track, cheap to get to and less windy. Plus, the Sunset Club bar does a weekend sushi special that’s a winner with the locals.
Back in Alfama that evening, I head to the stylish Maria da Mouraria (mariadamouraria.pt) restaurant for a mouth-watering menu of petiscos – small plates of seafood, hams, cheeses, peppers and beans – while listening to the Fado guitar and songs of loves lost and found, and ‘saudade’. Some of Portugal’s greatest singers perform here and the music spills into the warm night and gets under my skin. What sorcery lies at the heart of it, I don’t know, but even before I’d left, Lisbon was already calling me back.
Lisbon: a foodie haven
With incredible produce and seafood, Lisbon is a foodie’s dream destination. Put these delicacies on your list…
Pastel de Nata
These pastries are an unmissable treat that Lisbon’s urbanites take very seriously. Try the old-school Manteigaria on rua do Loreto, or Aloma (omelhorpasteldenatadelisboa.com) in the Time out Mercado da ribeira foodhall.
It doesn’t get any more authentic than Lisbon’s grills or churrascaria, Brazilian-influenced daily neighbourhood barbecues. Join the locals at the popular Churrasco da Graça in Graça for a sagres beer or caipirinha.
For a while this sour cherry liqueur was relegated to the back of the drinks cabinet, but Lisbon’s hipsters have reclaimed ‘ginja’ for the 21st century. knock back a shot at Casa da Ginja or Ginjinha espinheira, near the são Domingos church.
Sardines are the unofficial symbol of Lisbon and you can find stacks of brightly packaged tins at Conserveira de Lisboa on rua dos Bacalhoeiroas and Loja das Conservas on rua do Arsenal. A very pretty souvenir.
Not strictly Lisboan, but we say Porto is close enough. Local instagrammers love sandeman Chiado bar on Largo rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, where a generous tasting of barrel aged tawny ports will set you back £20.