Lisbon is the great underrated Western European capital – and it almost certainly offers the best value for money in the region too. It has the magic combo of being pretty – orange-tiled roofs line the hillsides and look out to the mighty river Tagus – and having bags of energy. The latter applies both to the free-flowing nightlife and the cultural scene – Lisbon brims with worthwhile attractions.
Riverside district Belém is remarkably greedy in hogging the museums and heritage sites. The 16th century Belém Tower and massive Jeronimos Monastery are the highpoints of Manueline architecture – best described as Gothic gone playful. And there's also the Museu Colecção Berardo, a top-drawer collection of modern art that's well explained for novices. Big names represented include Warhol, Man Ray and Pollock. See museuberardo.pt.
A small, seven-table joint found down an easy-to-miss side street, the Enoteca de Belém has a brick barrel-vaulted ceiling and serves up a mighty fine beef tenderloin. It's most interesting on the wine front though. Ask for a wine list, and the waiters will just give you a pair of binoculars to look at the wines on the shelves. They figure most visitors don't know much about Portuguese wine, so they deliberately wait until the food is ordered then suggest a good match. See travessadaermida.com.
It is a hefty slog up to the hilltop Castle of São Jorge, but the views from the top are worth it. The castle dates back to the Moorish occupation of Portugal in the 11th and 12th centuries, but much of what can be seen now is a 20th century restoration. See castelodesaojorge.pt.
Lisbon is rightly gaining a reputation for its nightlife, and it all kicks off in the raucous but incredibly good fun Bairro Alto district. It's not about any bars in particular here, as the party just sloshes around the streets, people carrying beers and cocktails with them in the open air. In the early hours of the morning, however, the scene shifts to the riverfront – particularly the clubs in recently rejuvenated, waterfront Cais do Sodre.
Just at the bottom of Bairro Alto, the elegantly high-ceilinged Bairro Alto Hotel goes for tastefully classic furniture and dreamy yellow marble bathrooms. The roof terrace here is fab, with sofas under white fabric shades looking out over the river. Doubles cost from 205 euros. See bairroaltohotel.com.
The Metro system is not just useful for getting around – it's also home to a treasure trove of tile art. Many of the stations have been deliberately designed to include traditional azulejos. The most impressive displays can be found at the Oriente, Restauradores and Cais do Sodre stations – all of which are close to major areas of interest.
David Whitley was a guest of Turismo de Lisboa; see visitlisboa.com.