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Lisbon-History, attractions and cafe culture

If you’re lucky enough to have been despatched to Lisbon on business, it’s a fair bet that you glimpsed what it had to offer and promised yourself you’d return for pleasure.

The Portuguese capital has a lot going for it, packing in the history, attractions and some of the nightlife, of, for example, Barcelona, but without the stag and hen party hordes. Lisbon’s location means it is Europe’s only capital on the Atlantic coast and one set on seven hills surrounding the River Tegus, which is spanned, San Francisco-style by the huge Vasco da Gama suspension bridge.

There’s a lot to love about Lisbon and not just in summer in winter it boasts the mildest average temperatures of any European capital and the sun usually obliges, making it ideal for a long weekend year-round. The bounties bought home from Portugal’s colonists mean this is a wealthy city in historical terms, with grand architecture dating from the Age of Discovery. Later building booms came in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods (the railway station is one treat), making for a wonderful fusion of building styles.

When it comes to the main sights, there’s the inevitable castle overlooking the city, plus a monastery housing the tomb of the explorer Vasco da Gama and you can expect the museums, particularly the Maritime Museum and Tile Museum, to be impressive, given Lisbon’s history. A more recent addition is the Oceanarium, Europe’s largest aquarium, with species from all the world’s oceans, including the Antarctic.

Lisbon is fairly compact and you can see all these things in a weekend. You might just want to hang out, however, and there are plenty of opportunities for this. Many of the city’s best Art Nouveau buildings are cafes, offering two things typically Lisbon. One, pastel-de-nata is better known simply as Portuguese custard tart, while less recognised is Fado, a mournful song style performed by women, often late at night and which dates back to when the city’s men were away at sea for months.
More of this café and late night culture can be found in the Bairro Alto or Upper District on the city’s slopes, whose narrow streets are filled with independent restaurants and bars. One of Lisbon’s iconic yellow trams will take you there if you’re not up to the climb through the cobbled streets.

You might need to blow out the cobwebs the following morning and a good way to do this, assuming the weather is favourable (it usually is) is a walk along the beach. Barcelona has its urban beach, but a short train ride down the coast, Lisbon has the rolling Atlantic. About nine miles from the centre is the resort of Estoril where, during the winter, there is a consistent Atlantic swell that allows surfers to treat you to a grand display, assuming you don’t want to try it yourself.

At the end of your weekend, you’ll probably make yourself another promise, that you’ll return again and do the whole thing in reverse; a beach holiday with a nip into the city. Whichever way you do it, you’ll not be disappointed.