When in Lisbon recently, I was amazed at how spruce the city was looking despite all the doom and gloom reports in the press. Contrary to expectations, the Portuguese capital has dozens more riverside haunts, sharp new museums and hipsters pouring into the Cais do Sodré area and the extraordinary LX Factory. Luckily old-time Lisbon is there too, with its touchingly quaint buildings, decorative azulejos and creaking old trams. I was delighted to find the city in such good form, hot and sultry too but with that invigorating Atlantic breeze. Here an old boy laps it up at the top of the Alfama district.
With 40% youth unemployment (albeit not quite the 55% of Spain or 60% of Greece – when will it end?) and endless bickering between ineffective political parties, Portugal does not look solid. Two weeks ago the Minister of Finance actually threw in the towel in desperation or perhaps recognition of his own shortcomings. Yet foreign tourism has already soared this year by over 8% while, even better, homegrown design talent continues to innovate, in tandem with creative cuisine. So here are some tips to combine the two at all levels of budget.
Sometimes, in the heat of summer, all you want is a shady outside spot, preferably endowed with gentle breeze, yet with a view to immerse you in the context. Well you can’t really beat the terrace at the hip Bairro Alto Hotel with its sweeping panorama (above) over rooftops and across the Tejo river. Here you can sit at a table or lounge on sofas while indulging in a cocktail or beer with a club sandwich or their signature Caesar Salad. At 11€ the salad won’t break the bank and you could even afford to follow with a lavender creme brulée (4€). It’s one of those sybaritic places that you don’t really want to abandon, and there’s no pressure to do so. + 351 21 3408288
A couple of streets away is the HQ of Lisbon’s top gastronomic talent, José Avillez, whose upmarket Belcanto restaurant now proudly flourishes a Michelin star. But you don’t have to rob a bank to eat at his older Cantinho do Avillez nearby (pic above): here a lunch might put you back 25€ and dinner 40€ – a snip, certainly by London standards. Inside it has a comfortable funky feel courtesy of the young design duo Anahoryalmeida that fits the simple yet sophisticated dishes and boho clientele. Go for the strawberry gazpacho followed by flaked cod with breadcrumbs and ‘exploding’ olives – that’s when you’ll find out that Avillez is yet another of elBulli’s inmates who flew the nest.+ 351 21 1992369
One place which hasn’t changed in 40 years is Solar dos Presuntos (above), in the restaurant-packed rua das Portas de Santo Antao, in Baixa. Every big city has such an informal yet slick classic, haunt of celebrities (footballers love it, so do politicians) and other well-heeled denizens, and still affordable. Rising on three floors, it has fish tanks at the entrance to announce extreme piscean tendencies and the walls are artistically plastered with photos of regulars. Cheerful, without pretentions, it serves excellent, classic Portuguese fare, no molecules in sight. The black rice is ace, as are the garlic prawns and cod. Book or you won’t get in. + 351 21 3424253
Equally traditional, but much lower on the budget scale, is the lovely Solar dos Bicos (above, inside and out, before lunch), bang next to the iconic Casa dos Bicos with its diamond-shaped stonework, both on a leafy square. Here you can eat in the stone and tiled interior or top up your tan outside, inspect the suspended laundry above and demolish clams, grilled sardines (7.50€), the house cod or tasty barbecued pork. There are plenty of such very basic options, all translated for the tourists who flock to this picturesque street. A word of advice, avoid the less good Lautasco in a devastatingly pretty courtyard a street back. + 351 21 8869447
Spent all your money? Well you could do worse than pop into the wonderful old Conserveira de Lisboa just a bit further along the same street (rua das Bacalhoeiros 34) where tins of sardines are immaculately wrapped and tied – yet another of Lisbon’s unexpected arts. Then untie, unwrap and eat in style! Alternatively you can have your selected sardines dished up on corn bread beside a glass of red wine at the quirky Sol e Pesca shops and bar, a converted fishing tackle shop in funky Cais de Sodré. + 351 213 467 203
At night, head way over to the west side of Lisbon to Alcantara and the LX Factory that lurks in the shadow of the April 25 bridge. This old industrial factory has been rejuvenated by an army of creative young things: an acting school sides with design studios, a dental clinic, art galleries, a vast bookshop, a music shop, a film production company, cafés, sushi bar and the allegedly excellent Cantina with its wood oven and recycled furniture. This was where the factory workers once ate, though I missed the experience as it was closed (Monday), but you get the picture. For hip travellers only. + 351 21 3628239