It has beautiful weather, great food and wine and cutting edge culture... so why is Lisbon underrated as a city break destination?

The Portuguese have a specific word to describe a nostalgic longing for a place, 'saudade', and after visiting Lisbon it’s not hard to see why but what is tough to understand is how overlooked the capital is as a city break destination.

The coastal hub is conveniently close to the UK, it even sits in the same time zone and it is cheap compared to the likes of Berlin and Paris. Since the pound's value dropped post-Brexit, Brits will be pickier about where to holiday, and Lisbon is well-placed to take some of the heat off overcrowded hotspots such as Bruges and Rome. While it may have always seemed an exciting culture break for the middle-aged, in fact, Lisbon is ideal for young people looking for good but well-priced food and wine, cutting-edge nightlife and architecture that would make Kevin McCloud weep tears of joy.

I made a visit to the city this year for the 10th annual Nos Alive music festival, which had a line-up widely considered by industry insiders as the best of any festival this year, including Glastonbury, Reading and Bestival. On the 2016 bill were acts including Chemical Brothers, Robert Plant, Arcade Fire, Hot Chip and The Pixies, with Radiohead, Foals and Tame Impala all playing back-to-back one night, despite the fact that each band is more than worthy of a headline gig, and music fans from as far as America, the UK and Iceland had travelled to the city for the event.

Earlier on in the evening, much of the entertainment was on the Fado stage, an arena dedicated to the melancholy music that first originated in Lisbon in the 1820s and is now making a big comeback. The festival is very much an indicator of where Lisbon sits on the 'cool' scale right now, with a huge buzz in the city’s arts and design sectors.

This is partly down to local government, with their policy of holding free music and arts events in troubled neighbourhoods to bring investment to the areas.
They have also launched numerous cultural association buildings, where communities can apply to run restaurants and bars in previously run-down properties alongside the council. The city's population is now reaping the rewards of this policy, with plenty of pop-up restaurants in the ateliers of artists or disused buildings.

A prime example of the success of this policy is in an inner-city area called Mouraria, which used to be the old red light district but is now one of the city's trendiest locations.Over the years, Mouraria, which was well-known for being the birthplace of Fado music, had extensive waves of immigration. The area became run-down and crime-ridden until the council began to hold regular events in the area, working with local artists to revive empty buildings, so it is now one of the top destinations for people visiting the city. As well as being home to some of the most beautiful tiled buildings in Lisbon, it is also one of the top foodie hangouts.

To sample some global cuisine, head to the food market in Martim Moniz Square, or get in with the locals who dine at secret restaurants in people's kitchens. There are also plenty of temporary eateries in the neighbourhood, like the pop-up events run by Elisa Sartor and Valentina Toscano of Mani In Pasta.
I didn’t manage to check out one of their parties, but the ladies took us on a foodie and cultural tour of the city through the website Trip4Real, which sets up different types of tours between tourists and locals who have a special knowledge of topics from wine, architecture and music to more niche areas of expertise such as the Afro-Caribbean neighbourhoods. They introduced us to possibly the tastiest three mouthfuls to be had in Lisbon – the famous Portuguese custard tart. The original tarts can be found at the Pastéis de Belém in the Belém area, but for an equally delicious treat in a more central location, head to the Confeitaria Nacional shop at Praça da Figueira, which was built in 1829 and still contains its original interior. The pastries are a breakfast delicacy, and don’t forget to copy the locals by sprinkling the tart with cinnamon or icing sugar.

From Praça da Figueira, a short Metro ride takes you to one of the newest jewels in the Lisbon crown - the indoor Time Out Food Market, which houses several artisan food and drink stalls by some of the biggest bars and restaurants in the city. The concept has proved so successful that similar markets are following in London and New York. Visitors can choose from a number of culinary delights, including steak, sushi, dim sum, local cheese and charcuterie. I opted for a salmon, cuttlefish, tomato and seaweed burger in a cuttlefish ink bun that was absolutely delicious, although not cheap at eight euros, accompanied with some local white wine.

The market was heaving when I visited, with hardly a spare seat in the house.
There are plenty of places to have a more upmarket meal too though, including the Bica Do Sapato restaurant, co-owned by Hollywood A-Listers Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich. Or there is the hotel Tivoli, which caters for pretty much every customer under its roof.

Downstairs, the Brasserie Flo is a grand 1920s-style dining room serving French food, where my friend and I indulged in some local oysters, followed by the most delectable prawn and asparagus risotto I have ever eaten and a salted cod with chorizo crumble. Upstairs at the Terraço restaurant, diners get one of the best views of Lisbon with Portuguese-style dishes like prawns, octopus and squid in a coconut ceviche, or red mullet with razor clam salad. Later, we enjoyed a drink at the Sky Bar, a terrace with panoramic views over the city that regularly hosts DJ sets and open air cinema.

Thanks to its hilly nature, Lisbon is famous for its terraces and visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to verandas with a view that serve food.

People looking for a more modern and relaxed vibe should head to the Memmo Alfama though, a boutique hotel in the Alfama area that is built into the medieval walls of the city. On the terrace, guests relax on Ibiza-style white sofas with sea views, while enjoying local tapas such as croquettes containing Portuguese ham. Just a stone’s throw from the hotel is the Clube do Fado in Alfama, widely considered to be the best bar to hear Fado music in the city.

When heading out on the town though, the main place on everyone's lips is the Barrio Alto, an area dating from to the 15th century that was traditionally inhabited by arty types. The quaint streets come alive at night, with traditional and modern restaurants, Fado houses and lively bars staying open well into the night.

With the numerous nightclubs on offer, it is easily possible to stay up until dawn in the area - so don't forget your dancing shoes. Of course, with such a diverse range of nightlife, it would be tough not to wake up nursing a sore head, but thankfully, many of the city’s daytime activities are designed to sweat out a hangover.

Beautiful beaches can be reached in under an hour and for fans of pretty buildings, Lisbon will spoil you for choice with many photogenic, tiled facades.
A whole day could easily be spent walking around the hilly city looking at the different ceramic tiles especially those that were introduced to the city during Moorish times. 

The tradition has persisted up until today, and in some neighbourhoods almost every home is covered in the ceramics, making entire streets like they are splashed with rainbow colours. Lisbon's past as a hugely successful commercial port can be seen in the architecture at every turn, from the Moorish tiles and old city walls to ornate chapels and churches.

But nowhere is this more evident than Pestana Palace, a five-star hotel in a carefully restored 19th century palace with views over the Tragus.
Guests can act feel like royalty in the grand reception rooms of the building, which boast fresco ceilings and decorative furniture. Or they can relax by the incredible swimming pool that looks like a scene from a Hollywood movie.

So, it was with a heavy heart, an undeniably tighter waistband and sorrowful liver that we headed back home after a long weekend in the Portuguese capital.
With beaches a stone’s throw away, world-class music, great food and nightlife and almost guaranteed good weather– what’s truly incredible about Lisbon is that it isn’t already overrun with 30-somethings.

By Caroline Mcguire for MailOnline



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