Any excuse will do for a visit to one of the great southern European capital cities, writes Michael Lamb.

In the film Night Train To Lisbon, Jeremy Irons plays a classics professor from Bern drawn into checklist of tempting plot devices. A mysterious, pretty young woman? Check. An impromptu train ride to the titular European seaside capital? A long-dead Portuguese poet, a twist back to the days of fascism and lots of idling about the city? Yep, all of the above.

It worked for me. After a grey Sunday afternoon viewing, I needed to be there, hanging about on the miradouro where Jezza realises he's in a clunky narrative and breathing in the salty Atlantic air that drifts in over the Tagus River.

The miradouros are the famous terraces scattered around the hills of Lisbon, where you can idle away the hours gazing across the slumbering terracotta roofs of Portugal's capital.

Locals go to contemplate, drink, snog, smoke, play games - or simply bask in the magnificence of their city. Some terraces have restored 18th century kiosks, or quiosques de refresco. Visit one of these for a refreshing orchata de amenda (sweet almond milk) or a mazagran (a kind of iced coffee).


So Lisbon and its miradouros delivered generously on my idle romanticism. Except for the tourists. The other ones, obviously. The No Vacancy signs are up in Paris, the House Full notices in London, so it seems everyone is heading here. A Sunday morning favourite among visitors is taking the tram along the coast to Belem, home to double World Heritage treats Jeronimos Cathedral and the Tower of Belem. We arrived at the tram stop to find a jostling crowd. When a tram did finally arrive, two tourists next to us came to blows trying for a place on board.

When we did make it there - by taxi - the highlight turned out to be Pasteis de Belem, home of the famous pasteis de nata (custard tarts). If the sugar/carb hit isn't enough to seduce you, the amazing 18th century baroque tiling of the meandering dining rooms will.

Although the trams to Belem are a modern species, the famous electricos (yellow heritage trams) still rattle along the inner city hills - the most picturesque of all being the No28 that runs between Martim Moniz Square and Campo Ourique in the medieval neighbourhood of Lisbon, called Alfama.

This 7.5km journey is a fairground ride for the soul. Heading east, it will take you all the way to the Feira da Ladra (The Thieves' Market). This is no tourist set-up but a genuinely dazzling selection of geegaws and bagatelles, old and new.

The Alfama district is desperately atmospheric, a labyrinth of twisting, narrow alleyways. There are bars, restaurants and tiny hole-in-the-wall joints specialising in port, where tasting sessions are always on offer.

To finish, find a fado joint - there are plenty - and kick back to the heartwrench of Portugal's famous sound late into the night. Fado is a special kind of musical melancholia, songs of loss and longing that originated in the brothels and streets of 1800s Lisbon, influenced, they say, by the slaveships returning from Brazil, and Moorish mysticism drifting up from the south.

A Fado musician. Photo / Feliciano Guimaraes
A Fado musician. Photo / Feliciano Guimaraes

If Lisbon has an Achilles heel, it's usually considered to be the food. The good stuff is there but it can be hard to find. To eat well, ditch the faded romance tour and go modern. We found Sea Me, which bills itself as a modern peixaria (seafood restaurant), in the Chaido neighbourhood. There the catch is displayed market-style, flaked ice groaning under piles of clams, oysters, monkfish, eel, octopus and other Atlantic bounty.

The average tourist chophouse can rustle up a perfectly adequate plate of the obligatory - and delicious - grilled sardines, but at Sol e Pesca in the Cais do Sodre neighbourhood, chef Henrique Vaz Pato has a kind of post-modern tapas thing happening. Here they use only tinned fish - tuna, octopus, squid and eel - served on slices of cornbread, perfect with a glass of Portuguese red wine.


On our last evening in town we took a walk to the ancient Castelo Sao Jorge perched high up on the hill above Alfama. We then found the Miradouro da Graca - the actual one from the movie - where we drank in the setting sun and the most spectacular views of the city.

Coming back we spotted an intriguing archway that seemed to lead into an inner sanctum of some sort.

Oddly, the courtyard gave way to an empty section that looked like an archaeological dig but was actually just abandoned buildings. Happily lost, we then headed down a short alleyway and then some stairs.

In a few steps we popped out on onto the miradouro right above our place in Alfama, somehow having conjured a magical shortcut. From a castle to a graffiti backlot to a breathtaking view out over the timeless Tagus River in just a few steps. That's so Lisbon.


Getting there: United Travel has a variety of Early Bird deals on flights to Europe, including Lisbon.