Leave it to the Americans to wake up everyone in the hotel.
Our flight to Lisbon, Portugal, had arrived an hour ahead of schedule, and then we made it through customs in record time. We entered the cobblestoned courtyard of Palácio Belmonte, in Lisbon’s Alfama section, just before 8 a.m. on a Sunday — three or four hours earlier than we thought we’d be arriving.
Except the front door of the hotel was shuttered, and there didn’t seem to be a single person occupying the property. Were we even at the correct address?
Thirty minutes (and one extremely awkward conversation with the hotel’s cook) later, Palácio Belmonte’s owner, Fredric Coustols, was aroused from his slumber to greet us. We sat on the hotel’s glorious terrace, sipping strong coffee and taking in the rooftop view of the city and the Tagus River, all the way to the 25th of April Bridge, which bears a striking resemblance to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
And while we were red-faced about our disruptive arrival, the French-born, cheerfully voluble Coustols quickly put us at ease, regaling us with the storied history that had transpired behind the tall, bright-red doors of Palácio Belmonte.
The hotel proved the perfect home base for our five-day trip to Lisbon. It was our first encounter with a city that usually gets left out of conversations about the great European capitals. The conversation needs to change.
The first thing you realize about Lisbon as you walk the cobblestoned streets — the stones are often laid unevenly, and sometimes set into undulating mosaic patterns — is how the city remains relatively untouched by the hallmarks of globalization.
Even Palácio Belmonte retains the aura of its late-15th-century origins. Abutting Castelo de Sao Jorge, arguably Lisbon’s most famous historic site, Palácio Belmonte was home over the centuries to various members of the Portuguese elite, including the 16th-century explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral.
There are no televisions in the rooms here. There’s no spa or gym, no see-and-be-seen lobby bar. Instead there are countless winding passageways and unexpected nooks that call out for an afternoon respite with a book and a glass of port. Original stone floors and walls remain, as do panels of traditional blue-and-white Portuguese ceramic tiles — all part of a painstaking and eco-friendly renovation Coustols conducted after he stumbled upon the property in the mid-1990s.
The result is a truly unique luxury hotel where visitors can spin back hundreds of years in time, yet still enjoy the finer aspects of modern life. We found that feeling across Lisbon. From boutique hotels to the high streets, the city seems infused with the spirit of the old, but also with the vitality of the new.
We couldn’t wait to discover it all.
If Paris and Milan, with their familiar lineups of Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton stores, sometimes seem no different than New York or Tokyo, Lisbon maintains a sui generis charm and unpretentiousness. Gucci and Prada do make an appearance here, on the city’s tony Avenue de la Libertad, but far more often you’ll find yourself strolling past restaurants that have been here for decades, or stores like Fabrica Sant’Anna, considered the city’s finest for traditional ceramics, a small space cluttered with bowls, plates and tiles all hand-painted in a factory a few miles away.
The second thing you notice about Lisbon: It’s photogenic, almost absurdly so, with its tile-covered town homes, outdoor cafes and expansive plazas.
We spent our first two days exploring the three central neighborhoods of the old city.
We started in Alfama, at the Castelo de Sao Jorge, first fortified in 2 B.C. and constructed by the Moors, likely in the 10th century. The Moors were expelled from Lisbon in 1147, and the castle eventually became the royal residence.
(Palace-seekers should also check out the Palácio de Queluz, Portugal’s answer to Versailles, located about 10 minutes outside the city in the town of Queluz, and the Palácio Nacional da Pena, a sprawling compound of bright red, yellow and purple buildings, located on a hilltop in the town of Sintra, about 30 minutes from Lisbon.)
From there we made our way down to the more conventionally laid-out Baxia section of town, rebuilt according to a familiar square grid following a devastating earthquake in 1755.
Here you’ll find the city’s most famous square, Rossio, with its monument to King Pedro V in the center. A popular gathering place for tourists and locals alike — and the setting for the opening scene of David Leavitt’s excellent Lisbon-set novel “The Two Hotel Francforts” — it’s a great spot to take a breather before carrying on to the much hillier and twistier Bario Alto, the neighborhood where you’ll find the city’s trendiest shops, bars and restaurants.
Fair warning: Much like with San Francisco, Lisbon’s vertiginous topography can prove quickly fatiguing. Luckily the city (also like San Fran) has the sort of old-fashioned public transportation that’s a tourist experience in and of itself. Considered a must for any visitor to the city is a ride on the Elevador de Santa Justa, an elevator that connects Baxia to the Barrio Alto.
Even more glorious is a trip on one of the city’s bright-yellow trams that traverse the streets at a clackety clip, and that are usually jam-packed. No air-conditioning or cushioned seats here — creature-comfort seekers should look elsewhere.
Instead, your senses awaken, your pulse quickens and you feel as if you’re experiencing life the way it used to be experienced, before iPhones and Twitter came along to fry all of our brains.
Not everything in Lisbon harks back to the past — that’s what makes the city so special — and we wanted to experience the best of its bustling new neighborhoods. We began by hopping on the city’s spacious, air-conditioned metro system to Parque das Nações, in the northeastern corner of Lisbon, along the Tagus estuary.
This area used to be mostly industrial, but was redeveloped in the 1990s and became the site of the 1998 World Expo. Since then it’s been transformed into a model of urban redevelopment, with hotels, office buildings, the Lisbon Oceanarium and a lovely waterside promenade.
The most impressive sites here are the Gare de Oriente train station, which connects to the also striking Vasco da Gama shopping mall. Both were designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who also designed the Trinity River bridges in Dallas and the newly reopened World Trade Center PATH station in New York City.
Fans of Calatrava will instantly recognize his signature flourishes, especially those soaring arches that suggest the exoskeletons of prehistoric beasts. Everyone else will simply wonder why we can’t have shopping malls this plainly wondrous in America.
To get another taste of modern Lisbon, literally, it’s worth exploring the city’s fertile dining scene.
The star of the culinary scene here is José Avillez, a 37-year-old chef who owns five restaurants in the city, including the Michelin two-star-rated Belcanto. (It’s one of only three restaurants in the country to earn two Michelin stars.)
We opted for his more casual spot, Café Lisboa, a modernized version of a traditional European cafe, located in the National Theater of São Carlos building.
This is one of those spots where the menu doesn’t merely begin to hint at the subtlety on offer; consider the “broad beans with cilantro,” a bowlful of plump fava beans served over an irresistible cilantro-infused hummus, or the “brás-style cod,” traditional salt-cured cod melting into a plate of rice, so that it takes on the texture and depth of flavor of a classic risotto.
Our other favorite spot — and another place that takes Portuguese classics in bracing new directions — was Tabik, with its blond wood tables and trendy craft cocktails that wouldn’t feel out of place in Brooklyn. We dined on deep-fried green beans with mayonnaise (according to our server, a Lisbon specialty), grilled octopus and a wonderful beef tartare accented by coconut foam, and then washed it all down with glasses of port. (When in Portugal, do as the Portuguese do…)
That last dinner in Lisbon was a late one for us — like their Spanish neighbors, the Portuguese don’t usually sit down to dinner until well after 8 p.m. — and even though by then it was nearly midnight, we weren’t quite ready to bid farewell to the city.
We took one final stroll through the Barrio Alto, its streets and bars and nightclubs alit, a mix of a half-dozen languages in the air. (If Lisbon has a quitting time, we never managed to stay up late enough to figure out when it was.)
Indeed, who needs the endless lines at the tourist meccas of Rome, or the gleaming shops of Paris? Not when Lisbon offers something so much more precious: a triumph of timelessness over flash.
Christopher Kelly is a New Jersey-based freelance writer.
Getting there: Multiple carriers fly to Lisbon, though there are no direct flights from DFW Airport. Current airfare is about $1,100.
Where to stay: Palácio Belmonte, Pátio de Dom Fradique 14. Suites from 500 euro per night. www.palaciobelmonte.com.
Where to eat: Café Lisboa, Largo de São Carlos 23, www.cafelisboa.pt/en. Tabik, Avenida Liberdade 29A, 1250-139 Lisbon, www.tabikrestaurant.com.
Before you go: Consider reading David Leavitt’s “The Two Hotel Francforts,” a story of two couples stranded in Lisbon during World War II, or Pascal Mercier’s “Night Train to Lisbon,” a novel about a professor who becomes obsessed with the story of a doctor during the António de Oliveira Salazar dictatorship.
Good to know: Weather is temperate year-round, but to avoid the crowds — and occasionally hot summertime temperatures — consider visiting in autumn or spring.