Spread over a string of seven hills north of the Rio Tejo (Tagus River) estuary, Lisbon presents an intriguing variety of faces to those who negotiate its switchback streets. In the oldest neighborhoods, stepped alleys whose street pattern dates back to Moorish times are lined with pastel-color houses decked with laundry; here and there, miradouros (vantage points) afford spectacular river or city views. In the grand 18th-century center, calçada à portuguesa (black-and-white mosaic cobblestone) sidewalks border wide boulevards. Elétricos (trams) clank through the streets, and blue-and-white azulejos (painted and glazed ceramic tiles) adorn churches, restaurants, and fountains. Of course, parts of Lisbon lack charm. Even some downtown areas have lost their classic Portuguese appearance as the city has become more cosmopolitan: shiny office blocks have replaced some 19th- and 20th-century art nouveau buildings. And centenarian trams share the streets with "fast trams" and noisy automobiles. Lisbon bears the mark of an incredible heritage with laid-back pride. In preparing to host the 1998 World Exposition, Lisbon spruced up public buildings, overhauled its subway system, and completed an impressive second bridge across the river. Today the former Expo site is an expansive riverfront development known as Parque das Nações, and the city is a popular port of call for cruises, whose passengers disembark onto a revitalized waterfront. Downtown, all the main squares have been overhauled one by one. In its heyday in the 16th century, Lisbon was a pioneer of the first wave of globalization. Now, the empire is striking back, with Brazilians and people from the former Portuguese colonies in Africa enriching the city’s ethnic mix. There are also more than a few people from other European countries who are rapidly becoming integrated. But Lisbon's intrinsic, slightly disorganized, one-of-a-kind charm hasn't vanished in the contemporary mix. Lisboetas (people from Lisbon) are at ease pulling up café chairs and perusing newspapers against any backdrop, whether it reflects the progress and commerce of today or the riches that once poured in from Asia, South America, and Africa. And quiet courtyards and sweeping viewpoints are never far away. Despite rising prosperity (and costs) since Portugal entered the European Community in 1986, and the more recent tourism boom, prices for most goods and services are still lower than most other European countries. You can still find affordable places to eat and stay, and with distances between major sights fairly small, taxis are astonishingly cheap. All this means that Lisbon is not only a treasure chest of historical monuments, but also a place where you won’t use up all your own hard-earned treasure. Though Baixa, or downtown, was Lisbon’s government and business center for two centuries until the mid-20th century, the most ancient part of the city lies on the slopes of a hill to its east. Most visitors start their exploration there, in Alfama. All but the very fittest ride the antique 28 eléctrico (streetcar) most of the way up to Saint George’s Castle (or take the 737 bus or a taxi all the way up). The views from its ramparts afford a crash course in the city’s topography. You can then wander downhill to absorb the atmosphere (and more views) in the winding streets below. There are several museums and other major sights in this area, so give yourself plenty of time. Baixa itself is interesting mostly for its imposing architecture and its bustling squares, as well as an unusual cast-iron elevator that affords yet more panoramic views. But a new design museum is what persuades most visitors to linger. On the slope to the west is the chic Chiado district, traditionally the city’s intellectual center, with theaters, galleries, and literary cafés. A little farther uphill is the Bairro Alto. Originally founded by the Jesuits (whose church is among Lisbon’s finest), it was long known for rather sinful pursuits and today is a great place for barhopping. Both neighborhoods are great places to shop. Modern Lisbon, meanwhile, begins just north of Baixa. The city’s tree-lined central axis, the Avenida da Liberdade, forges up to the Praça Marquês de Pombal roundabout, with a rather formal park beyond. Dotted around the area north of here are major museums and other sights. West of Baixa, along the river, former docklands such as Alcântara are now home to stylish restaurants and nightclubs, as well as the odd museum. Farther west is historic Belém, which boasts yet more museums—and some famous pastries. On the city’s eastern flank, the Parque das Nações has family-oriented attractions and green spaces.
Meals generally include three courses, a drink, and coffee. Many restaurants have an ementa turistica (tourist menu), a set-price meal, most often served at lunchtime. Note that you'll be charged a couple of euros if you eat any of the couvert items—typically appetizers such as bread and butter, olives, and the like—that are brought to your table without being ordered.
While in upmarket restaurants all fish will come ready filleted, in other places most grilled fish will not only have bones but come complete with the head and tail, so only a dish described on the menu as filete will be bone-free. Traditional rural meat stews also usually contain bits of the animal you may not have eaten before, such as pig’s ear (orelha de porco) or trotters (pézinhos).
Lisbon's restaurants usually serve lunch from noon or 12:30 until 3 and dinner from 7:30 until 11; many establishments are closed Sunday or Monday. Inexpensive restaurants typically don't accept reservations. In the traditional cervejarias (beer hall–restaurants), which frequently have huge dining rooms, you'll probably have to wait for a table, but usually not more than 10 minutes. In the Bairro Alto, many of the reasonably priced tascas (taverns) are on the small side: if you can't grab a table, you're probably better off moving on to the next place. Throughout Lisbon, dress for meals is usually casual, but exceptions are noted below.
Note that the city tourist board’s 72-hour Restaurant Card brings discounts to a number of leading restaurants. The card is free with a discount sightseeing-and-transport Lisboa Card but otherwise costs from €6.15 (for a single person; there are also double and family cards). The cards are available at tourist offices and major hotels.
Lisbon has an excellent range of accommodations serving just about every market niche, from luxury pads downtown to workaday, business-oriented hotels out at the former Expo site, Parque das Nações. Even in the city's hotels, consider inspecting a room before taking it: street noise can be a problem, and, conversely, quieter rooms at the back don't always have great views (or, indeed, any views). Also, some hotels charge the same rate for each of their rooms, so by checking out a couple you might be able to get a better room for the same price. This is especially true of the older hotels and inns, where no two rooms are exactly alike.
Lisbon is busy year-round, so it's best to secure a room in advance of your trip. Peak periods are Easter and June–September; budget pensões are particularly busy in summer. Despite the high year-round occupancy, substantial discounts—sometimes 30% to 40%—abound from November through February.
Lisbon has a thriving arts-and-nightlife scene, and there are listings of concerts, plays, and films in the monthly Agenda Cultural, available from the tourist office and in many museums and theaters. Also, the Friday editions of both the Diário de Notícias and O Independente newspapers have separate magazines with entertainment listings. The weekly magazine Time Out Lisboa is still more comprehensive. Although all written in Portuguese, these publications' listings are easy to decipher.
It's best to buy tickets to musical and theatrical performances at the box offices, but you can also get them at several agencies, including Ticketline, which has desks in the Fnac book, computer, and music stores at the Colombo and Grandes Armazéns do Chiado shopping malls, in the El Corte Inglés department store, and at the Casino Lisboa at Parque das Nações. Downtown, a booth—called ABEP—on Praça dos Restauradores, in front of the Altis Avenida hotel, sells tickets to theater shows and concerts as well as to sporting events such as bullfights and soccer games. You can also buy tickets to most events on the phone or online.
Shopping in Lisbon is less about multinational chains and more about locally owned shops. Instead of the same-old mass-produced goods, you’ll find ceramics and lace made by Portuguese craftspeople, foodstuffs and wine that impart the nation’s flavor, and clothes by established local designers.
Family-owned stores are still common in Lisbon, especially in Baixa, where a grid of streets from the Rossio to the Rio Tejo has many small shops selling jewelry, shoes, clothing, and foodstuffs. Trendy Bairro Alto is another district full of little crafts shops with stylish, contemporary ceramics, wooden sculpture, linen, and clothing; some open only in the afternoon and stay open—sometimes with their own resident DJ—until after the restaurants and bars around them have begun filling up.
Bairro Alto is also one of the shopping hubs of Lisbon’s flourishing fashion scene. The brightly lighted modern shops of local designers stand in stark contrast to the area's 16th-century layout and dark, narrow streets. The same can’t be said of the antiques shops that abound in the Rato and Bairro Alto. Many are on a single long street that changes its name four times as it runs southward from Largo do Rato: Rua Escola Politécnica, Rua Dom Pedro V, Rua da Misericórdia, and Rua do Alecrim. Look on the nearby Rua de São Bento for more stores. There's also a cluster of antiques shops on Rua Augusto Rosa, between the Baixa and Alfama districts.
Chiado, Lisbon’s smartest shopping district, has a small shopping complex as well as many stores with considerable cachet, particularly on and around Rua Garrett. And Praça de Londres and Avenida de Roma—both in the modern city—form one long run of haute-couture stores and fashion outlets. International luxury brands are also increasingly found on the city’s downtown axis, Avenida da Liberdade.
Several excellent shops in Baixa sell chocolates, marzipan, dried and crystallized fruits, pastries, and regional cheeses and wines—especially varieties of port, one of Portugal's major exports. Baixa is also a good place to look for jewelry. What is now called Rua Aurea was once Rua do Ouro (Gold Street), named for the goldsmiths' shops installed on it under Pombal's 18th-century city plan. The trade has flourished here ever since.