Lisbon has been on my hit list of places to go to for ages. What I was greeted with far surpassed my expectations.
Arriving in late September, the weather was still roasting and the city was booming. What’s great about Lisbon is the airport is not far from the city centre so you don’t have to spend an age travelling before you’re in the midst of everything. I was immediately struck by the number of old buildings. As Portugal was neutral in the Second World War, the country has escaped the fate of so many European countries which were bombed to smithereens.
As there are many parts of Lisbon, you need to set time aside to explore. My first choice was the district of Belem. What was the subject of this pilgrimage? Custard tarts or Pasteis de Nata of course. You can buy versions of these delicacies all over Lisbon (in fact you can get them in my local Co-op) but if you want to find the masters, you need to go to Antiga Confeitaria de Belem. Next door to the Jeronimos Monastery, this dedicated shop churns out 20,000 of the tasty little blighters using their secret recipe and, judging by the queue when we got there, they were good. The proof is in the pudding and, in the interests of fact-checking, I forced one down and can report that it was perfection.
Also in Belem is the Padrao dos Descobrimentos monument celebrating the Age of Discovery when Portugal led the pack in world exploration. The statue was designed by Jose Angelo Cottinelli Telmo and Leopoldo de Almedia and looks out to the waterfront which once boasted great ships. I recommend going to the top (don’t worry, there’s a lift) and taking in the view of Lisbon and the surrounding area. On a clear day you can see all the way to Sintra.
Sintra was our next destination and most definitely takes a day. It’s easy to navigate the train system and, in 40 minutes, you find yourself in a fairy land that Disney would envy. There’s a castle or a mansion on every hill; some are Moorish, some are Bavarian, but all are beautifully preserved. We decided to have a closer inspection of Sintra National Palace, easily identified by two white cones jutting out. It dates back to the early 15th century and is a fascinating place to mooch around.
The level of opulence is crazy with chandeliers of Murano glass from Venice and ceiling frescos in nearly every room, telling stories with hidden meanings. The best room is the Sala dos Brasoes, where the royal family received explorers coming back from new worlds with all manner of wealth and discoveries.
It’s worth getting the bus up to the Palacio Nacional da Pena, a beautifully romantic castle in bright bold colours. The surrounding gardens are supposed to be awe-inspiring. However, you should probably check if they are open otherwise you can find yourself in a queue of equally disgruntled tourists waiting for a bus to take you straight back down. Yes, I’m speaking from experience.
The next day we decided to stay closer to home and explore the famous Alfama districts of Lisbon. This area reminded of Venice, full of winding alleyways. You know you’re going to get lost in these ginnels, but you’re perfectly happy. With Lisbon on a hill down to the sea, if you get too lost you just head down until you see water. You will need a camera at full strength when you visit Alfama as the photo opportunities are endless.
All that wandering can make a boy hungry, so if the sun is out (and why wouldn’t it be?) lunch at the massive square Praca de Comercio is a wise move. It may be a tourist trap but it’s worth it and an absolute win if, like me, you are a dedicated people-watcher.
With a big lunch resting heavy, we decided to do a cheat’s way of exploring the city and took a tram. The tram takes you everywhere but the stops aren’t well advertised. For the last day of our short break we took the bus up to Mafra to see the Palace of Mafra. This is a belter of a building and, although it’s a mission to get there, about 28 kilometres from Lisbon, it’s worth it. Built in 1717 when Portugal was at its wealthiest, it doubled as a monastery and hunting lodge. But when you stand and look at the stunning facade, it could put our own Buckingham Palace to shame.
We stayed at the Hotel Portugal – a perfect location just off one of the many squares and handy for public transport. The hotel is stunning with massive rooms and mirrors which miraculously turn into TVs when you flick a switch. Handily, the hotel backs onto its bigger sister hotel, the Hotel Mondrial, which has a fabulous roof terrace where you can enjoy panoramic views with a cocktail.
But Lisbon isn’t perfect. Which city is? There’s a lot of poverty and you are badgered into buying things. My poor father was offered some marijuana but thought it was a chocolate covered brazil nut. Pickpockets are a big problem and we saw a citizen’s arrest which nearly turned into a mob while we were having dinner. It’s easy to forget that this is a capital city and you need to keep your wits about you.
It’s also probably worth doing a bit of restaurant research. We let fate decide and had two hits and one miss. All in all, Lisbon is a perfect long weekend destination, and one that I will most certainly be returning to – even if it’s just for another custard tart.
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