A fading imperial city on the westernmost fringes of Europe can proudly boast of beautiful cheekbones and ageing skin. Lisbon is a secretive and romantic place. Portugal’s largest city suffered a devastating earthquake in 1755 but survived the wars of the twentieth century largely unscathed. Instead of war monuments or plaques to our glorious dead, Lisbon boasts grandiose statues of ancient explorers and outlandish works of modern art. Elegantly designed by architect Santiago Calatrava and inspired by Gaudí’s love of trees, Oriente Station’s dynamic white arches and double decker flashing tubes make for a truly marvellous spectacle.
Overlooking the River Tagus, the de facto Portuguese capital offers a fairytale vision of Europe. Although the stylish regeneration of Parque das Nações ensures any visit to Lisbon is not just confined to an open air museum or a monolith but somewhere vibrant, secretive and highly sophisticated. Subject to enormous EU investment throughout the 1990s, New Lisbon is home to one of Europe’s largest and most popular aquariums. Oceanário de Lisboa inspires children, tourists and adults alike with its stunning exhibitions of sea life from the blue planet.
Portugal’s capital is a romantic throwback with its ornate piazzas, lush fountains and a street plan that ranges from serenely rational to bewilderingly crooked and steep. From the triumphal arch at Praça do Comércio to Rossio Square everything feels so meticulously planned that you feel every footstep has been accounted for on a map. There are beautiful inter-linking grids, which are all connected by flash yellow buses and rickety wooden trams emblazoned with fifties style Coca-Cola logos. Arguably the best way to see the city is by tram and the iron tracks slice deliciously across some of Lisbon’s steepest gradients – where standing like so many other forms of public transport is the norm.
Down at sea level and incessantly noisy at peak periods, the Restauradores district is home to swarms of tables with napkins, menus and diminutive waiters. It is an intense and deeply pressurized environment, especially at night, where the area is like walking through a lake of food straddled by purple faced managers thrusting menus instead of oars. Elsewhere the city is exceedingly romantic and carries a feminine and luxurious charm full of civic delights.
Although this doesn’t stop pathetic little men offering Class A drugs to every man under the age of forty on every street corner. Portugal became the first European nation to officially abolish all criminal penalties for possession of drugs in 2001, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and amphetamines. According to reports this radical policy has been remarkably successful in reducing drug addiction, but it does mean you will get verbally pestered by sinister looking men on holiday.
Luckily these shady forces hover around the Rossio Square and are nowhere to be seen on the ascent to Bairro Alto. The hilly ascent towards Lisbon’s vibrant clubbing and shopping district is home to one of the few areas unaffected by the earthquake of 1755. Effortlessly youthful and lively in the evening, the cobbled streets are laden with housewives hanging their washing over ornate iron balconies and Mediterranean birdsong throughout the day.
The city’s architectural splendour ranges from 18th century buildings, crooked hilly streets and dilapidated baroque squares with flaking ceramic tiles. Although there is a creeping sadness in the dying of the streets – pigeons can be seen flying out of broken windows and beautiful skin that once sparkled is often seen withering in neglect. Visitors should look beyond the grandiose monuments in the historic centre and wander along the side streets for a glimpse of the city’s soul. Like the decrepit side streets, the city is often overlooked in an era of cheap air travel, which is a shame for Lisbon remains the essence of cool. With its fading glamour and effortless style, the Portuguese capital is one of the most understated and romantic cities in Europe.