Things to do in Lisbon: Twenty reasons to visit Portugal's capital city

1. VISIT: Lisboa Story Centre

Romantic, cultured and inexpensive, moody Lisbon is the European city of the moment. Start your exploration with an entertaining glimpse of the city's history at the Lisboa Story Centre on the newly renovated Praca da Comercio, Lisbon's main square, on the Tagus River. Portugal's great voyages of discovery departed from here in the 15th and 16th centuries: these days you're more likely to run into a televised soccer game than Vasco da Gama. A scale model of the city will help you get your bearings.  lisboastorycentre.pt  visitlisboa.com 

2. EXPLORE: Lisbon on the number 28 tram

Lisbon is hilly and its funiculars and vintage trams, which rattle perilously around steep corners and up inclines, are a great way to experience the city. Avoid the touristic trams, which are red and green, and more expensive. The number 28, the most famous route, will take you to the lofty viewpoint of Castelo De Sao Jorge but it's often crowded. Try the 25 or 18 instead. You can buy single tickets from the driver or purchase a Via Vagem rechargeable ticket from offices near major transport hubs. 

3. VISIT: Bairro Alto, Alfama, Baixa

The fun way to get to the heights of Bairro Alto, with its expansive views, is to take the vintage funicular "Glory", which shudders up the hill from central Baixa. Not far from the tram stop is Igreja Sao Roque, a less touristy church than the popular Se Cathedral in Alfama. It's no less beautiful, though – the opulent 16th-century baroque church features chapels of gilded wood, ceramic tiles and inlaid marble. The dazzling St John the Baptist Chapel was constructed in Italy using 22 different kinds of semi-precious stones. 

*4. EAT: The Mercado da Ribeiro

The Mercado da Ribeiro at Cais do Sodre is Lisbon's largest produce market. The down-at-heel, 19th-century industrial hall next door was taken over by Time Out magazine in 2014 and transformed into a food court of 35 stalls selling regional specialities. Graze on Alentejo ham, croquettes, roast suckling pig and some of the many versions of salted cod, bacalhau, washed down with vintages of local wines and craft beers. The soaring glass-roofed space, set with tables and high stools, is perfect for dinner, lunch or in between. Inexpensive. From 10 am every day until late.

*5. EXPLORE: Belem

The old industrial district of Belem is easily reached by the 15 tram or the excellent train service. It's worth the short journey for the luscious Pasteis de Belem, the original, commercially made Portuguese tart, which was first produced in 1837 using an ancient recipe from the Jeronimos Monastery. The fabrica on Rua de Belem 84-92 is the place you're looking for – there will be a line. pasteisdebelem.pt Other things to do while you're in Belem: visit the monastery, the UNESCO-classified Torre de Belem, the quaint National Coach Museum and the Berardo museum of contemporary art. 

6. EAT: Bistro 100 Manieras

It's not all grilled sardines and bacalhau in Lisbon. Try Bistro 100 Manieras, recognised as one of the top 10 restaurants in the country. Chef Lujubomir Stanisic is a champion of Portuguese gastronomy, with a TV program and four published books on the subject. It's comfort food with class. restaurant100manieras.com  At Mini Bar, Portugal's most progressive chef, Jose Avillez, serves wildly creative food in "acts" inside the opulent São Luiz Municipal theatre. minibar.pt

7. SHOP: Ebaixada

Lisbon's newest shopping precinct, Ebaixada, can be found within the walls of the beautiful Ribeiro da Cunha Palace on Praça de Principe Real. The 1856 neo-Moorish mansion has an Arabic courtyard, grand staircase, stained glass windows and art nouveau fireplaces. The boutiques include local fashion designers, furnishings, footwear and men's accessories. In the courtyard, Gin Lovers & Less is a bar dedicated to gin. At the rear of the building is a bucolic garden cafe that backs onto the Botanic Gardens. embaixada.pt

8. VISIT: The National Azulejo Museum

Lisbon is all about the beautiful tiles, or azulejos, some 500 years old, which cover the facades of its buildings. A stroll along any street is an opportunity to admire a number of styles of ceramic tiles. The National Azulejo Museum is housed in a medieval convent that is worth visiting for its cloisters and extravagant baroque chapel, aside from the magnificent collection of ceramics. It includes tiles dating to the 15th century and a 53-metre-long mural of 1300 tiles from 1738. museudoazulejo.pt

9. SHOP: A Vida Portuguesa

Portugal still produces high-quality handmade goods, from beautiful ceramics to bags and kitchenware made from cork. Head for A Vida Portuguesa in the central shopping district of Chiado. It's a well-stocked store housed in an old perfume factory that is dedicated to Portuguese crafts. The shelves are laden with old-fashioned soaps and toiletries, ceramics by local artists, cork platters, embroidered hand towels, fine papers and traditional foods such as brightly labelled cans of those ubiquitous sardines. avidaportuguesa.com 

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10. EXPLORE: Moorish architecture

The fashionable, once-grungy, neighbourhood of Alfama is the historic heart of Lisbon. Built on the ruins of a great Roman city, it was a Moorish possession from the eighth until the 12th century and survived the 1755 earthquake. There are still many examples of Moorish architecture among the mostly red-roofed houses. Wander the delightful and hilly maze of narrow streets that wind up to the Sao Jorge Castle, visit the 12th-century Se Cathedral, stop by the Fado Museum, and join the locals grilling sardines on the streets during festival months. 

11. DRINK: Coffee

No chance of you missing your coffee fix in Lisbon – the city centre has a number of historic coffee shops and pastelaria where you can imbibe "an Italian" (espresso.)  A Brasileira on Rua Garrett was the first cafe to serve coffee imported from the Portuguese colony of Brasil in 1905. Pastelaria Bernard (1868), a few doors away, bakes croissants that are supposed to be the best in the city. Sweet teeth will love the homemade cakes at Confeitaria Nacional (1829) on Praca da Figueira. Casa dos Ovos Moles near the Basilica of Estrela serves old-fashioned treats known as "convent sweets".

*12. SHOP: Chiado district

After coffee, explore the streets of Chiado, the elegant central district renowned for its century-old bookstores and beautiful Art Deco and Art Nouveau shops. Don't miss tiny glove store Luvaria Ulisses (1925) on Rua do Carmo, the small department store Paris Em Lisboa (1888) on Rua Garrett and Caza das Vellas Loreto on Rua do Loreto, an artisan candle manufacturer continually producing beeswax candles since 1789. Shoes are great value in Lisbon – visit Sapataria do Carmo on Largo do Carmo, which is more than 110 years old.

13. RIDE: The Santa Justa elevator

Lisboetas have used the Santa Justa elevator to connect the lower streets of Baixa with upper Carmo Square since 1902. Originally powered by steam, the imposing 45-metre-high neo-gothic steel lift was converted to electricity a few years later.  Now it's a major tourist attraction, with lines often snaking along Rua Santa Justa for a ride to the observation tower and walkway. It's free for holders of the tourist pass, the Lisbon Card. You can also use the Via Vagem transport pass; otherwise it's €2.80 ($4) per person. lisboacard.org

14. EXPLORE: Cais do Sodre station

Lisbon's situation on the Tagus River near where it enters the Atlantic Ocean means a beach is never far away. For a day trip, take the train from the art deco Cais do Sodre station, which has an underground waterfall, to the resort town of Estoril, about a 40-minute ride. The pretty fishing village of Cascais is the last stop on the route. Another option is a 40-minute train ride from neo-Moorish Rossio station to the cooler climates of Sintra, a former royal enclave of castles and painted palaces, like stepping into a whimsical fairy tale. cp.pt

15. VISIT: Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology

Lisbon's newest museum is the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology on the banks of the Tagus, which brings together an old building, the industrial Tejo Power Station, and a new one, a striking, organic structure by British architect Amanda Levete. The site also incorporates the new Museum of Electricity. Directed by a former curator at New York's MoMA, MAAT highlights contemporary art, film and photography and features exhibition halls, artistic residencies, creative workshops and a restaurant. maat.pt

16. VISIT: Oceanario de Lisboa

Kids will love the Oceanario de Lisboa, which is among the three largest aquariums in the world. Seven-and-a-half million litres of water are divided between 30 tanks, showcasing 8000 living organisms, including animals and plants. The illusion created is of walking through one large ocean. As well as permanent and temporary exhibitions, there are fun activities such as Fado concerts for babies and "sleeping with the sharks" pyjama parties for small groups of children. oceanario.pt

17. SHOP: Portuguese porcelain

Vista Alegre Porcelain is the retail outlet for the renowned 200-year-old porcelain manufacturer, which supplies fine handcrafted porcelain to many royal tables and the White House. The porcelain is renowned for its whiteness, resilience and bright glaze. From traditional glazed ceramic cabbage leaf bowls to collaborations with contemporary artists, the work is surprisingly affordable. The store will ship to Australia. There's a museum and factory north of Lisbon in Aviero. vistaalegre.com 18. DRINK: It's not difficult to find a good panorama in hilly Lisbon. One of the best rooftop bars in the city is the terrace wine bar of the Memmo Alfama, a whitewashed, contemporary, 42-room hotel overlooking the port in Alfama. Sit poolside – the dramatic infinity pool is red tiled – and watch the mega cruise ships sail in and out of port. For more bars with views, try Terrace BA at the Bairro Alto Hotel, the Rooftop Bar at the Hotel Mundial, Limao at the H10 Duque de Loule boutique hotel and Park, on the sixth floor of a carpark in Bairro Alto.

19. VISIT: Fado clubs

Lisbon's sultry Fado clubs, most in the old Alfama district, are legendary. Clube de Fado is no secret but it's still one of the best, featuring many renowned singers. Established by guitarist and composer Mario Pacheco, who accompanied the great Amalia Rodrigues, it's the real thing. Don't eat there, as the tour groups do. Instead, go after 10.30pm when the crowd thins out and pay the €10 cover charge. If it's mid-week, you may find you have the singers almost to yourself. clube-de-fado.com

20. STAY: Pestana Pousada de Lisboa

The Pestana Pousada de Lisboa, perfectly situated on the city's main square, Praca do Comercio, once housed the Ministry of Internal Affairs. (The suite Dom Perignon was the dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar's office.) The colonnaded hotel, built on Roman ruins, is part of Pousadas de Portugal, a collection of 33 hotels, which all occupy palaces and other national monuments. The hotel is filled with treasures from the national museum, fascinating for art and history buffs. The 90 rooms feature high ceilings, wide corridors and there's a stylish atrium restaurant for breakfast. slh.com/pousada-de-lisboa

*Traveller top choices

Lee Tulloch was the guest of British Airways (britishairways.com), the Pestana Pousada de Lisboa (slh.com/pousada-de-lisboa), Memmo Alfama (mrandmrssmith.com/luxury-hotels/memmo-alfama) and mrtravelportugal.com

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