Lisbon is attracting more visitors by turning traditional into trendy, writes Sarah Marshall.

When I lived in Lisbon more than a decade ago, I stayed, rent free, in a dilapidated 12-bedroom palacio owned by a bon vivant called Jorge who wafted through its crumbling corridors with an air of faded grandeur.

For decades Lisbon has been trapped in a wonderful time warp: specialist shops still sell products from behind wooden counters and weathered doorways reveal historic interiors untouched for years.

But now the city is changing at an accelerating pace, and there's a palpable energy in a place that's drifted aimlessly for so long.

According to figures collected by Lisbon's tourist board, the number of visitors to the city increased 18 per cent from 2013 to 2015.


To cope with demand, there has been 150 per cent growth in hotel openings during the same period.

It's partly down to changes in government. Four years ago a century-old law freezing rent charges was scrapped, sparking investment in rundown properties and a plethora of new restaurants and bars.

Fortunately proud Lisboans prefer to preserve their past rather than raze buildings and start again.

Once dominated by government offices and embassies, Rua Dom Pedro V and the Principe Real district are now filled with wine bars, fashion boutiques and design stores.

Climb the wooden staircase of revamped 1800s neo-Moorish mansion Embaixada (Praca do Principe Real, 26) to find ornate interiors just as beguiling as the pop-up shops now housed inside.

Lisbon is enjoying a new lease of life. Photo / 123RF
Lisbon is enjoying a new lease of life. Photo / 123RF

The concept of upcycling was key to the design of new hotel AlmaLusa Baixa/Chiado, which occupies a former arsenal on Praca do Municipio — another area of the city enjoying a new lease of life.

Director of operations Sofia Brandao shows me the original flooring — one of the few parts not to be flattened in the city's devastating 1755 earthquake — and highlights fragments from the property's more recent past: silver-stained mirrors from a barber's shop hang in the restaurant, and Moroccan tiles once sold in a showroom decorate bathrooms.

It's possible to dine in a neighbourhood restaurant for 10 a head and even the 45-minute metro journey from the airport into town costs less than a couple of euros.


From dusty, traditional stores to trendy new openings, local shops champion artisan Portuguese products such as paper-wrapped soaps, household linens and even canned fish.

Of course, Lisbon still bathes in the glory of its historical sites - including the Unesco World Heritage sites of Belem, linked to the Age of Discoveries.

Standing beneath the Monument to the Discoveries, where statues of 33 navigators reach out to the River Tagus, I imagine a time when Vasco da Gama set sail to extend the Portuguese Empire.

Right now though, there's so much on Lisbon's own doorstep to explore.

AlmaLusa Baixa/Chiado

Located opposite the city hall, this smart, stylish hotel is part of a downtown regeneration.

Minibars have been replaced with kitchenettes and ostentatious additions stripped back, although the look is far from utilitarian. Request room 26 for a romantic suite, and book dinner in the excellent Delfina restaurant serving dishes inspired by former Portuguese colonies. Doubles from 145 a night with breakfast.

The Insolito

Still in operation, Lisbon's first private lift rattles guests to the rooftop restaurant of this 19th century family house in Bairro Alto, which is now a boutique hotel. Weave through the cool, quirky interior to a terrace with views of the Sao Jorge Castle. Eat oysters at the bar, or order creative modern cuisine, to a soundtrack of soul music.

Sao Jorge Castle. Photo / 123RF
Sao Jorge Castle. Photo / 123RF

Cervejaria Trindade

Traditional seafood dishes are heavenly at this former monastery in Bairro Alto, where waiters are dressed as friars. Order fresh shellfish and swig popular draught Sagres beer, while seated at tables in the vast canteen-like space. An outdoor terrace can be found in the cloisters.

Bar Procopio

Emulated by many but matched by few, Procopio is the archetypal clandestine cocktail bar of years gone by. Ring a doorbell to enter a dimly lit room crammed with Art Nouveau antiques, where dapper gentlemen wait tables in a space that's changed little since opening in 1972. Closes at 3am.

Pensao Amor

Once a brothel in the seedy Cais do Sodre district, Pensao Amor is now one of Lisbon's hottest nightspots. Flit among rooms adorned with images of naked women, or sneak into secret kissing booths. Open late on weekends but expect long queues if you arrive after midnight. The entrance is at 38 on Zona Rosa, the pink street.

Loja Das Conservas

Canned fish is one of Portugal's most important industries, and more than 300 brands of tuna, mackerel and sardines can be found in this store set up by the National Association of Manufacturers of Canned Fish.

Caza das Vellas Loreto

There's only one item for sale in this wood-panelled shop - candles. More than 3600 shades and shapes have been manufactured on the premises since 1789. Prices start at 1.50.


Trams are a convenient way to get around hilly Lisbon. Photo / 123RF
Trams are a convenient way to get around hilly Lisbon. Photo / 123RF

Take the tram

A convenient way to traverse Lisbon's ankle-busting seven hills, the 19th-century tram network is also great for sightseeing. Route E28 is the most famous, but equally scenic — and less crowded — are routes 12 and 25.

Soak up views

Spread across seven hills, the city has plenty of high points. To watch the sunset, visit the ramparts of Sao Jorge Castle, or save money on an entry ticket by climbing to Nossa Sra do Monte in Graca, where there's the added bonus of the 11th century fortification in your view.

Eat pastel de nata
Pasteis de Belem has been making award-winning custard tarts using a secret recipe since 1837. Expect large queues An alternative is Zarzuela on Rua do Arsenal; its tarts were named among the best 12 in Lisbon.

It will be hard to bypass Pasteis de Belem's award-winning custard tarts. Photo / 123RF
It will be hard to bypass Pasteis de Belem's award-winning custard tarts. Photo / 123RF