Culture lovers: where to stay in Lisbon

Culture

Culture lovers: where to stay in Lisbon

Portugal’s artfully dilapidated capital is a city awash with cultural riches. Here's where best to base yourself to explore them…

Amy Everett

BY Amy Everett6 September 2021

In an act of divine judgement or terrifically bad luck, both an earthquake and a tsunami ravaged its warren-like streets on All Saints Day in 1755. And today’s Lisbon is still in recovery, but beautifully so. Original Portuguese azulejos are flecked with damage, plaster peels off walls and the magnificent, Gothic-style Carmo Church looks over Rossio square with no roof at all.

It’s a city whose diamonds are resplendent in the rough. From the grand boulevards of Bairro Alto to the sun-dappled, labyrinthine alleys of Alfama, you’ll spot staggering historic architecture, quirky flea markets or the subtly marked doorway of a Michelin-starred restaurant. Days can be lost in top tier museums, vibrant galleries and grand gardens; evenings are made for elegant rooftop bars and crowd-pulling restaurants where you can sample winning wines and inventive modern cooking. To be best-placed for exploring its cultural riches, here’s where to stay in Lisbon

For riverside rambles

MEMMO ALFAMA

You’d never guess this sleek centre of sophistication started life as a shoe factory. Standing in contrast to the surrounding maze of 300-year-old houses, Memmo Alfama’s blinding white walls give a modern but homely townhouse feel. Throughout the hotel there are flashes of rustic flair; thick wooden doors, exposed brick and piles of well-thumbed books adding texture. But up on the terrace the view takes precedent. Clean lines and block colours (the dipping pool is lined with red tiles) contrast with the higgledy piggledy parade of rooftops stretching out to the water.

Being so close to the river, bedroom windows afford much to look at. But don’t linger too long: you’re in a great spot to start a breezy bike ride that takes you all the way to historic Bélem. About halfway through your ride you’ll near LX Factory. Set back from the water, it’s worth the detour. Billed as an ‘experience factory’, it’s a one-stop shop for all things cultural: design stores, handmade jewellery shops, tattoo parlours, pop-up exhibitions and eclectic club nights are upstaged only by Ler Devagar, a heaving bookshop in a former printers.

You’ll pass the riverside museum district on the way; the stingray-like MAAT museum (Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology) is hardest to miss with its white scales glittering in the heat. Deep within is a cleverly executed exhibition exploring globalisation. Next door you’ll find the Museu de Marinha, on ode to the Lisbon’s seagoing history, and the quaint National Coach Museum. Up and over a slightly perilous motorway footbridge is Cordoaria Nacional (currently housing a major exhibition by Ai WeiWei) detailing the plight of the refugee in a variety of thought-provoking mediums.

Emerge to gaze at the Bélem tower (the ceremonial gateway to Lisbon, and an entrypoint for explorers) before finishing up at the star attraction: Pastéis de Belém. This is the inimitable birthplace of Lisbon’s famed pastéis de nata. Hungry for a proper meal? Walk 10 minutes to O Frade, where modern takes on traditional tasca dishes seemingly fly from the open kitchen.

Insider tip Plump for Room 33 or 22 for vistas of both the river and city.

Memorable scene Trams rattling past the Latin cross-shape of the 12th century cathedral Sé de Lisboa just beyond your doorstep.

Touristy for a reason A circus school and full-blown restaurant, Chapitô à Mesa is a treasure trove scattered with kitsch bric-a-brac, steps from Castelo de São Jorge’s imposing walls. Entering through a charming gift shop, guests find themselves surrounded by colour, the fairy-light strewn courtyard upstaged only by the Tagus, glinting in the distance.

For living to the local beat

THE LISBOANS

If you prefer a blissfully hands-off approach, worlds away from hushed dinner service and white gloves, turn your attention to the Lisboans. Laidback Marina and Isaac work hard to make sure guests feel completely at home, but never coddled. Breakfasts of flaky pastries and freshly-squeezed orange juice are quietly hung on door handles each morning, to be enjoyed in your private apartment, kitted out with curios and artworks.

Shuttered windows look out onto the bustling Baixa district, a quietly cool neighbourhood where the refurbished building blends in with original simplicity. You don’t have to go far to find local gems: the hotel’s greenhouse-like sister restaurant Prado is next door and helmed by revered chef António Galapito. Book (and you’ll need to) for inventive flavour combinations you’d never expect (think black pork tenderloin, quinces and chocolate pepper), washed down with organic Portuguese wines.

Insider tip Browse the very best Portuguese produce at Prado Mercearia (the hotel’s sister deli) to cook in your shiny new kitchen. Those of a lazier disposition will delight in pulling up a chair at the farm table and having a short menu of excellent daily dishes plonked in front of them, perfect for pairing with biodynamic wines.

Memorable scene An up-close experience of traditional Fado music must not be missed. Mic drop distance from the Lisboans are a handful of the best restaurants that’ll treat you to a stirring live show with your supper, where servers (and sometimes customers) down tools to sing away their sorrows. Try Povo or A Tasca do Chico.

Touristy for a reason Castelo de Saint Jorge is a few minutes’ walk away, and unmissable – its first fortifications date back to 1st century BC. Even if history isn’t your thing, the surrounding area is magical: a cluster of bar-filled streets zig zagging beneath the medieval walls.

For surveying the city

THE LUMIARES

For epic views and modern twists on tradition, the Lumi rooftop and bar has few rivals. Book a spot on the sun-soaked terrace and discover a sea of terracotta rooftops between you and the bright blue Tagus. Start your trip with a plate of Pica Pau (tuna steak, instead of the usual beef, in a tangy pickle sauce) and a glass of vinho verde. Then head out into well-heeled Bairro Alto, where there’s a bar or nightclub on every corner. Join the throng at Portas Largas AKA ‘the Large Doors’ for live Brazilian music.

All the perks of a luxury hotel await when you return, exhausted, but the Lumiares’ apartment-style setup gives you that extra sense of freedom. Pretty gold fixtures betray the building’s beginnings as a palace, but blocky shapes and pops of pastel colour bring furnishings bang up to date. Overall it’s opulent without a hint of stuffiness, and very well appointed: kitchens are decked out with Smeg appliances, bathrooms filled with Banho products.

To the left of the huge double staircase – strung with geometric chandeliers and spied on by three imposing portraits – is a small but perfectly formed spa. In it, there’s a 24-hour gym, four treatment rooms plus separate sauna and steam rooms. If you need a little cooling down afterwards, seek out the basil ice cream at nearby Italian gelateria Nannarella. It doesn’t get more authentic (outside of Italy, anyway) than this hole-in-the-wall where fans queue down the street at all hours.

Insider tip Seek out the Jardin de Botanico de Lisboa’s thought-provoking monument honouring the LGBTQ+ community, shaped like an open closet door with cutouts of male and female figures

Memorable scene If you like to know a city from every angle, put the African Tour Of Lisbon high on your list. Working tirelessly to reveal the silenced history of Portugal and the African Continent, passionate guide Naky sensitively assists with the re-learning of the hard (and often oppressive) truths behind the city’s most prominent monuments.

Touristy for a reason The cosmopolitan concept stores of the gay-friendly Principe Real. Stop in at Embaixada, Banema Studio and Sokyo for non-stop inspiration, and an abundance of shiny things you’ll just have to find room in your suitcase for.

For aesthetes escapes

HERMITAGE CASTELO CASA CHAFARIZ

Style-seekers make tracks for the heart of Santos, Lisbon’s thriving design quarter. Hermitage Castelo Casa Chafariz blends seamlessly with the area’s theme, its exterior standing serene in Sienna red; statement furniture and detailed cornicing enchanting inside. It’s perfect if you love to luxuriate in the lavish, baroque feel of a place, but still expect all the mod cons (we love the Delta Q coffee machines and the organic Damana bath products).

Let the expert concierges here spill the secrets of their city. We made a beeline for Cais do Sodré train station, from which you access Cascais. It’s a quaint fishing town, perfect for daytripping, not least for the eccentric Museu Condes de Castro, a 19th century mansion. Oh, and the food of course. Here’s your hit-list: drinks on the terrace at Villa Cascais, lunch at Hifen, strawberry ice cream from retro ice-cream parlour Santini, and an elegant French dinner at Zozo.

Insider tip Plump for the one-bedroom Santos Suite if you can. You’ll get views of the Chafariz da Esperança fountain, a mere coin toss from your window.

Memorable scene Hiking up to the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara. This landscaped garden boasts sweeping views across the historic centre – perfect for any lovers planning a very special picnic (nudge, nudge).

Touristy for a reason The Time Out Market’s legion of sweet and savoury stalls can’t fail to please. Gathering the best local producers and restaurants in one busy market setting, it aims to make great food accessible to all. Grab a freshly-poured pint then wander aimlessly until fish stew, paella or maybe a chocolate eclair wins you over.

For exploring the historic heart

VERRIDE PALACIO SANTA CATARINA

A historic palace that’s at once regal and cosy, Verride Palacio Santa Catarina is memorable for jaw-droppingly ornate stucco work and original arches, shot through with modern touches. High, slanted ceilings and marble surfaces lend an up-to-date feel to Suba, the hotel’s informal fusion restaurant. And up at the rooftop bar, expansive views and a welcome breeze make for a chilled out, convivial meeting point.

From your Palacio you’re perfectly placed to try your luck at Taberna da Rua das Flores, the infamously tiny and impossibly authentic Portuguese tasca that heaves on any given date. Turn up at an unusual time (and keep trying) to be rewarded with the likes of toasted peanut dôce, potato rama with satay, fresh oysters or fried aubergine with Madeira honey. Afterwards, grab an expertly-made cocktail at cosy, cave-like Toca de Raposa, a 10-minute stroll from your bed.

If you’re up for venturing further afield, a quick taxi to the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian is well worth your time – there’s free entry on Sundays, too. The encyclopaedic museum spans around 6,000 pieces from East and West, amassed by one wealthy collector, and is surrounded by magnificent modernist gardens.

Insider tip This is one of the very few inner-city hotels featuring an alfresco pool – a sleek, minimal affair – with those 360 degree views of the Atlantic and the Old Town. Retreat here with a cocktail on stifling summer days.

Memorable scene Jostling for cheap beers on lively Pink street. At weekends in high season, the atmosphere is electric (and that floor was made for the ‘gram).

Touristy for a reason Shopping for sardines, the city’s traditional souvenir. Wander wide-eyed through technicolour tourist trap O Mundo Fantástico da Sardinha Portuguesa or give your pennies to family-owned Conserveira De Lisboa, a grocery store selling canned goods since 1930. To try before you buy, seek out the unassuming, fishing-themed Sol E Pesca for a spot of people-watching while you snack.

Done with museums, galleries and markets? Now browse our complete collection of hotels in Lisbon