Simon O'Neill discovers the charms of Portugal's beautiful capital city

The European city break has become a staple of the holiday diary for many Brits, with Barcelona, Paris, Rome and Prague all featuring prominently in the top ten short hop lists.

One city, however, is often overlooked, but fully deserves to be up there with the best of them.

The Portuguese capital Lisbon has as much to offer as her more popular counterparts, scoring highly for accessibility, good weather, culture, shopping and food. It’s also by the seaside, with glorious beaches close at hand.

Add good value for money, friendly Lisboans who are genuinely proud of their city and the lack of a terrorist threat and it’s easy to see why tourists are finally catching on to its many charms. An estimated 3.6 million of them visited last year, a rise of almost 12 per cent on 2014. Barcelona, by comparison, got 7.6 million.

Historic, vibrant and a feast for the eyes and the stomach, Lisbon ticks all the right short break boxes. A two-hour flight from Heathrow and a short Metro journey from the terminal took us right into the city centre and our hotel, the four-star Marques De Pombal, ideally located a short walk from most of the sights in Avenue Liberdade, Lisbon’s main thoroughfare.

The next three days flew by with so much to see and do (and eat and drink) that we were spoiled for choice.

It could be argued that the making of modern Lisbon – and Portugal – was a terrible natural disaster. In November 1755 an estimated 8.5 magnitude earthquake all but destroyed the entire city, aided by huge resulting fires and a tsunami.

The carnage caused up to 100,000 deaths and laid waste to much of Lisbon, but rapid and imaginative reconstruction brought a bold new capital city back to life and had a lasting effect on Portuguese society as a whole in fields as diverse as politics, civil engineering, architecture and the reduced influence of the aristocracy.

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Fast forward 260 years and Lisbon is suddenly being ‘discovered’ by tourists, culture vultures, foodies and even clubbers. Getting around is a doddle, thanks to the cheap and reliable Metro. It’s a good job, as there is so much to see and do.

Art and culture lovers who think the world revolves around Paris will get a pleasant surprise at venues such as The Gulbenkian Museum which mixes ancient Egyptian, Islamic and Oriental art with an eye-catching and occasionally bizarre modern collection.

Belem’s Museu Berardo is packed with 20th and 21st century art from the likes of Picasso and Jackson Pollock and at the Museu do Oriente, a converted salt cod warehouse, you can feast your eyes on the Asian exhibits and your stomach at its riverfront restaurant.

There is plenty more to choose from on the culinary front. The city teems with restaurants, from the traditional to the trendy with something to suit all tastes and budgets.

Not surprisingly, seafood features prominently on many menus and particularly so in those serving Portuguese fare.

And if it’s traditional you’re after (you don’t travel all this way for a curry, do you?) then Pap A’Corda, formerly in the bustling Bairro Alto (high neighbourhood), is a good place to start.

Here was an authentic Portuguese experience, from the basic interior, to the menu and the people smoking while locked in animated conversations all around us.

Its spartan interior has hosted the likes of Robert De Niro and Sean Connery and booking ahead is a must, which speaks volumes for the food.

Acorda itself is a stew, made with bread and olive oil and almost always containing fish, usually shrimp, lobster or cod and often a combination. But we opted for oysters followed by about the most typical of Portuguese dishes, salt cod with cabbage and potatoes, two thirds of which suited my Irish palate to a tee. It was beautifully cooked, although be warned: it was also very salty.

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In the can: Tinned fish is a popular treat

Finally, if chocolate mousse is your thing and having it delivered in a giant mixing bowl your fantasy, then leave some room, because Pap A’Corda is famous for it.

Sadly, the restaurant abandoned its quirky base this year and relocated to the trendy Mercado do Ribiera, but they’ve kept the menu (and the chef) and separated the smokers and non-smokers, so it’s still well worth a try.

The relocation was a smart move, as the Mercado do Ribiera is a food lovers’ nirvana. The city’s fish, fruit and veg market was condensed into a smaller space and a rebranded dining hall opened in 2014 with some 40 food kiosks, clustered around a huge communal dining area, offering punters a round-the-world food journey, with some of Lisbon’s top chefs in attendance. Thai, Chinese, seafood and steaks; it’s all here and much more besides.

The hall opens from 10am until midnight (2am at weekends) and if you can’t find something to your liking here, then you’ve probably had your taste buds removed.

Dining choices abound all over the city and the best advice is to avoid the obvious tourist traps, do a bit of research beforehand and be a bit adventurous, even if only for one night.

Oh, and don’t go home without trying the custard tarts, or Pasteis de Nata. Introduced by Catholic monks more than 200 years ago, they are an unfeasibly sweet speciality here.

If it’s sightseeing you crave, then Lisbon is as good as it gets, starting with the city’s iconic 15th century fortress, the Belem Tower and Vasco De Gama’s resting place the Jeronimos Monastery, dating from 1500. Both are on the World Heritage list and stand out among architecture that ranges from ancient to 21st century cutting edge.

Hop on of the city’s three funicular railways, the Gloria, Bica or Lavra as they clank within inches of front doors through impossibly narrow streets. The Gloria will take you to the bohemian Bairro Alto district (high neighbourhood), a shopping and nightlife mecca in a honeycomb of historic streets, with a pleasingly high number of independent retailers operating successfully alongside the usual corporate suspects.

Europe has many stunning and fascinating capitals and Rome may be more historic, Paris more romantic and Barcelona sexier. But Lisbon tops the lot for an all-round experience.

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Pray time: Jerónimos Monastery

Where to eat and drink for a feast of flavours

  • CAFFEINE: Fabrica Coffee Roasters, Rua das Portas de Santo, ( They really are full of beans, directly sourced from Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia and Kenya. A must for coffee connoisseurs
  • CUSTARD: Pasteis de Belem, Rua de Belem, ( The original and best, with 20,000 custard tarts sold daily, all made on site in the ‘secret room’.
  • QUIRKY: The Nuns’ Canteen, Travessa do Ferragial, (no website) Self-service canteen with great food and fantastic views from the outside terrace. Seven euros for two courses make it worth the hunt, as it is cunningly concealed down a side street
  • TRADITIONAL: If Pap ‘Acorda’s trendy new incarnation is not for you, there are plenty of alternatives. Based in an old convent, A Travessa, Travessa do Convento das Bernardas (, has been going since 1978 and is one of the city’s very best
  • BUDGET: A far cry from the traditional British kebab vans, take your pick from the food kiosks that dot the city, as do churrascarias (grills). No-nonsense food at no nonsense prices

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THE facts

GETTING THERE: We flew with British Airways from London Heathrow to Lisbon (journey time 2.5 hours). Flight times are civilized and prices start at £124 per person return ( based on a December booking.

STAY: We stayed at the centrally-located four star Marques De Pombal in Avenue Liberdade. Rooms start from around £112 per night for bed and breakfast (, based on a December booking

WHAT TO DO: For more information on the city see