It takes time to get to know a city. No matter how well prepared you are in advance they can be initially confusing places to get your bearings. The first time we arrive in a city it usually feels overwhelming, an exhausting place to get around. But we walk our socks off, and with each step the city shrinks just a little. On subsequent visits it feels smaller and smaller until one of us will eventually remark “it’s not that big at all”. Not knowing a city can make choosing where to stay somewhat of a minefield. Hotels/apartments are nearly always ‘close to the sights’ according to their blurb. But a hotel website’s ‘within walking distance’ can turn out to be a bit of a slog in reality.
We’ve stayed in Lisbon on numerous occasions; in both hotels and apartments in six different districts of the city (it’s straightforward to get to all central areas from the airport using the Metro). We now know which areas suit our city slicker preferences, but like just about everything when it comes to travel, it’s horses for courses. This is our totally biased take on the Lisbon districts where we’ve temporarily laid our hats, starting with the nightlife centre of the city.
Located on a hill directly to the west of the Lisbon’s grand centre, Bairro Alto and Chiado represents the flamboyant, artistic face of Lisbon. Bairro Alto is known for its bars, located in a maze of narrow side streets, whereas Chiado is good for shopping, including book browsing; there are a couple of labyrinth-like livrarias ignored by most visitors. Like everywhere else in the city there are also historic buildings and curious quirks. To the north of Bairro Alto are independent fashion shops (exemplified by those in the Embaixada shopping emporium, the building itself a fusion of Moorish and Art Nouveau influences) and cool coffee bars around Bohemian Praça Principe Real.
The feel – day and night
We stayed in a sexy loft apartment in the heart of Bairro Alto, above the steep street the Bica funicular trundles up and down. During the day it, and the surrounding streets, were quiet, most visitors sticking to the main drag which links Bairro Alto and Chiado with Baixo. After dark there was a Jeckyll and Hyde transformation; suddenly bars appeared and, by midnight, the street which had been sleepy during the day was filled with people using its cobbled steps as seating. It’s a fun place if diving headlong into a vibrant bar scene is what you’re after, but not if tranquil surroundings are important. We loved the energy of the area but were shattered by the time we left.
Ease of getting around on foot
As long as you’ve no mobility problems (streets can be seriously steep) the central Lisbon districts are all well placed for relatively easy access to the main attractions in the city. There’s plenty to explore without walking too far – Mirador de Sao Pedro; the Santa Justa Elevator; Praça Luís de Camões and the statue of Fernando Pessoa outside Cafe a Brasileira. Drop south towards the Tagus and it’s not far to the waterside and Cais do Sodre. Parts of this area were borderline seedy when we first visited. Now it has a trendy upmarket personality with a load of sleek, chic restaurants to choose from including those in gourmet central, the Time Out Market. We were blown away by the market on initial visits, but it’s become so popular it can be too frantic, especially during busiest holiday periods.
There’s simply masses of choice. I’ve a list of restaurants I want to eat at around Bairro Alto/Chiado. Of the ones we’ve already notched up, there have been hits and misses. The Time Out Market wowed us so much we ate there twice when we stayed in Bairro Alto. Cervejeria de Trindade, an institution set in a former monastery, failed to impress. 1 de Maio is a Tripadvisor favourite which we thought was decent. But now that we’re far more familiar with traditional Portuguese cuisine realise it’s more overpriced than we thought at the time. Favourite was as a result of a local tip, the cosy and eclectic Estrela da Bica where we had an introduction to petiscos (small dishes) with a difference.
There’s still a community feel to Bairro Alto, especially noticeable during early evening between the times visitors head back to their accommodation and the bars hit their stride. One of our favourite ways to while away late afternoon/early evening is with a bottle of Sagres under the grotesque gaze of Camões’ mythical giant Adamastor at the Miradouro de Santa Catalina. The sunset scene there is not one which will suit everyone, maybe too authentically grungy, but it’s one which for us captures the easy feel of the lost afternoons of our youth in places like Hay-on-Wye.
In future we’ll take a closer look at staying in other Lisbon districts, including Alfama, Mouraria, Oriente, Liberdade, and Baixa.