Alone in Lisbon

By Tim Lott, Daily Mail

Last updated at 14:52 01 December 2003

Having read several travel guides to Lisbon, I had little doubt about what to expect on my first visit.

Despite its deep historic links, it was a vibrant city, pulsing with a new modern beat, with some of the best nightlife in Europe.

My partner, Rachael, and I arrived on a Friday night, and checked into the Pestana Carlton Palace Hotel, a beautiful converted 19th-century palace ten minutes out of the city centre.

It was very quiet - essentially the suburbs. We reassured ourselves that we would soon find the New Lisbon, and set out that night towards the centre on one of the Lisbon's charmingly rickety trams.

We chugged pleasantly along the banks of the river Tagus, and at about 8pm arrived right in the heart of the city, in the winding streets beneath the Castelo de Sao Jorge.

We'd booked a table at the Antiga Casa de Pasto Estrella da Se, which features curtained wooden booths enclosing the tables (dating from the 19th century, these tables allowed discreet smooching).

We knew that, unlike the Spanish, the Lisboans eat dinner at normal (i.e. British) time. So we were somewhat taken aback to discover that the streets around the Baixa (downtown) were almost completely deserted.

We thought we'd managed to escape the sepulchral atmosphere once we were in the restaurant, but apart from one other couple we were the only people in there.

I tried the famous Bacalhau (salt cod), which was disgusting - although the booths were cute. Come about 10pm, we headed into the streets again, assuming that things would have picked up. If anything, it was even deader than before. Inquiring, we were told that the nightlife happened either down by the docks or in the Bairro Alto, so, checking the map, we started walking down to the docks through the deserted streets.

At this point, we realised something very important about Lisbon. Unlike Madrid, Barcelona or even Paris, it's more spread out than it looks.

After 30 minutes trudging along a deserted riverbank boulevard, we seemed no closer than when we started, so, exhausted, we gave up and took a cab back to the hotel.

Next morning, over the traditionally disappointing five-star hotel buffet breakfast, we decided to walk to the museum district in Belem. On a Saturday morning, this was bound to be buzzing.

Three-quarters of an hour later, practically alone in the fierce heat, we'd reached the first museum we were interested in, the Museu da Electricidade, a cathedral-like power station. It was closed for refurbishment.

What next? A few dozen yards from the museum was the Padrao dos Descobrimentos, a giant monument to Portuguese explorers, leaning out over the river.

Inside, there was an interesting photo exhibition of modern photography - actually open, but again completely deserted.

We paid to take the elevator 50 metres to the top of the monument, expecting something impressive - an exhibition, some information, anything. There was nothing - just the rather pleasant view.

This was getting ridiculous. After a beautifully situated but poorly prepared lunch at the packed Portugalia restaurant by the monument - my partner's meal was inedible - we crossed the road to the Design Museum.

Bingo - it was both open and fascinating, one of the best of its kind in Europe. As a history of modern furniture and household design it was absorbing. We loved it. But guess what? We were the only ones there.

Suspecting some kind of plague had hit the city to which we were mysteriously immune, we headed for the Bairro Alto where, my guide book assured us, 'the shopping experience is being re-invented, with many boutiques open mid-afternoon and continuing well into the night'.

But when we arrived, I swear there wasn't a single shop open, and the most life we saw was a yapping dog.

We hopped on a tour bus that took us on a 90-minute tour of the city. It was almost unbearably boring. Either there's nothing to look at, or the driver got lost.

In the evening, we took a trip up to the Via Graca restaurant, with allegedly the best views in Lisbon.

I had bread stew with prawns - good prawns, but what's with the bread? - and kid with wine and garlic. I shall not be eating goat, however immature, again. And you couldn't see the view properly because of the back-lighting.

Sunday got a lot better, when we took a beautiful ferry trip over the river and took an elevator to the top of the giant statue of Christ that overlooks the city, the Santuario de Cristo Rei.

The views from here really are majestic, and the statue so huge that when you stand at its base you feel a genuine sense of awe.

The south bank continued to deliver when we wandered into a crowded restaurant by the ferry terminal, the Restaurante Farol.

Lobsters crawled around a tank in front and waiters dashed about like maniacs. We sat and ate the first really terrific Portuguese food we'd had so far - sardines and prawn soup, vinho verde and a delicious speciality cream dessert, all for '20 for two.

That evening, we had a final attempt to find out where the city rocked. We asked the taxi driver to take us to a fado bar in the Bairro Alto, and we ended up at O Forcado on Rue Da Rosa (also deserted). Fado is indigenous Lisbon music - melodramatic and melancholy.

O Forcado announced itself as a tourist joint by the high prices and presence of a table of 20 Japanese next to us. But although the experience was a bit cheesy, the fado was fun.

Outside, in the heart of the Bairro Alto, there were people around, but it wasn't exactly buzzing.

We had a stroll, and found quite a few shops worth visiting. If only we could have found out when they were open.

After returning to London I did find out when - and where - Lisbon is open, by talking to a friend, Nancy, who is a regular visitor.

She told me the only night that Bairro Alto is quiet is Sunday. On other days it is bustling between 9pm and 4am.

The place for up-market shopping and bars is Chiado, just west of Baixa. The restaurant to go to is Club Lux, part-owned by John Malkovich, on the water in the equally happening Alfama district, or the Pavilion Chines in the Baixa, a cocktail bar Tony and Cherie Blair have been known to visit.

The coolest sights are outside the city, such as Cintra, 40 minutes away, with its royal palace and Gaudi-style cathedral, and the beaches of the Caparica Coast south of Lisbon.

Also, a lot of the museums and the bullring are being refurbished in preparation for the Euro 2004 football championship, explaining some of the ghost town atmosphere.

So if you go to Lisbon, you will probably have a different experience to ours. Just make sure you speak to Nancy first.

Travel facts

Thomson Cities and Short Breaks offers two-night breaks to Lisbon staying at the five-star Pestana Carlton Palace from £334 per person (from Nov 1 to Dec 5).

The price includes return scheduled flights from Gatwick, all taxes, bed and breakfast accommodation, based on two sharing, and a guidebook. For reservations call 0870 606 1476 or visit

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