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Three Perfect Days: Lisbon

Once the center of a mighty empire, the Portuguese capital was nearly wiped out in the 18th century, only to rise again and establish itself as one of Europe's most beguiling cities, rich in beauty, grace and melancholy

Author Chris Wright Photography Pedro Guimaraes

“Monument to the Discoveries” on the Belém waterfront

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DAY TWO | Today you’ll be tackling Bairro Alto, one of Lisbon’s hilltop neighborhoods. You’ve opted to fuel up at Deli Delux, a fashionable riverside café that, in contrast to yesterday’s avalanche of calories, offers a healthy brunch: juice, a bread basket and yogurt with muesli, which you consume while watching hulking cargo ships roll by.

Then you head to the second hotel of your stay, the Altis Avenida, a beautifully restored 1940s commercial building downtown. This boutique property tends toward high style—its interior features lots of black lacquer and art deco designs— while its location near busy Rossio Square caters to those who prefer to be in the thick of things.

A five-minute hike and you’re in Chiado, a district filled with cafés and street performers. Here you find the Elevador de Santa Justa, a 147-foot elevator enclosed in an Eiffel-like iron-lattice tower. At the top, you pause to take in the view of the city before crossing the skyway to the Carmo Archaeological Museum, a semi-ruined 14th-century convent that today houses a jumble of Roman cornices, Jewish gravestones and Peruvian mummies.

You stroll into Bairro Alto, a labyrinth of narrow streets containing a mishmash of butcher shops, gift shops and bars. Mostly bars. You arrive at a small square, once a burial ground for plague victims and now home to one of the weirdest churches you’ll ever see: the Igreja de São Roque.

While the façade of this 16th-century Jesuit church is drab, its interior makes you squint. The central theme is gold, with smatterings of ivory, agate, lapis lazuli and silver. There are cherub heads clustered like grapes, display cases bearing grubby skulls and femurs, and a painting of St. Francis Xavier regarding a crab with a crucifix in its claw. After an hour in here, you’re woozy.

Luckily, the rest of your day is being handled by the Sidecar Touring Company, an outfit that transports sightseers alongside vintage motorcycles. Your guide, the garrulous João, takes you around town, and then around town some more, pausing for the odd snack and ending up at A Ginjinha in Rossio Square, where you are treated to a glass of the red-berry liqueur ginja and a spirited monologue about Lisbon’s history.

From there it’s a 10-minute bus ride up Avenida da Liberdade, at the end of which you find Eduardo VII Park. You amble through the gardens to Eleven, a funky restaurant specializing in Mediterranean-with-a-twist dishes. You have oysters with shaved leeks, followed by quail ravioli and black truffle risotto. Predictably, there’s plenty of wine involved, and by the time you totter out you are almost tearfully appreciative. Which, as it happens, sets you up nicely for the last stop of the evening.

Lisboans love their fado—a wistful, acoustic musical form—and the best place to experience it is Senhor Vinho, an atmospheric bistro in the Lapa district. The singers here warble about broken dreams, the scent of candle wax and fish stew filling the air. Even though you can’t understand a word of it, the tone tells you all you need to know, and you head home with a pleasingly melancholic twinge.

3 Responses to “Three Perfect Days: Lisbon”

  1. Pedro Freitas Says:
    May 3rd, 2012 at 8:22 am

    Great three days. Only the fine dining restaurants are wrong. The three best in town are Belcato, Assinatura and Bocca


  2. Cristina Cavoto Says:
    May 30th, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Thank you so much Chris,

    I really enjoyed reading your article about Lisbon. You made me to revisit places that I have been in this lovely city and you made me to want to discover the ones that I missed. I am from Brazil. Have you wrote anything about our cities?

    Kind Regards,

    Cristina Cavoto

  3. Suneet Walia Says:
    August 18th, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    I had read your article on one of my flights and taken the magazine home. Many moons later, I was able to finally come to Lisbon – I had a head-start through your lovely writings…. good work – I wish I could pack in as much as you did – but I had a great time.

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