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Lisbon beckons

The Portuguese capital has been quietly gaining traction among discerning tourists

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Melody Zaccheus on 23 Feb 2020

The Straits Times

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Lisbon is often an afterthought for travellers, compared with European favourites such as Rome, Paris and London.

 

But Lisbon - which predates the three popular continental cities - has been quietly gaining traction among discerning tourists. It has been topping several travel lists and has claimed titles such as Europe's Leading City Break Destination as recently as last year.

 

And rightly so.

 

Lisbon is steeped in a richly multi-layered culture that beckons visitors to discover the worlds within. Bits and pieces of the world seem to cling to the city's pavements, esplanades and plazas, as Lisbon has been shaped by international influences.

 

This is a legacy of the Age of Discovery, when Portugal's great voyagers sailed into the unknown and discovered new lands 500 years ago.

 

The most visible example of this global culture is the city's liberal use of azulejo tiles across the facades of buildings. The decorative tiles, Arabic in origin, were introduced to the Iberian peninsula following the Moorish invasion of Spain.

 

Also outstanding is the Compass Rose, a gift from South Africa. Fashioned from marble, the map decorates a riverside square and depicts the expanse of the former Portuguese empire, which included slices of Africa, Asia, Oceania and South America.

 

Then, there is the 25 de Abril suspension bridge that straddles Lisbon's Tagus River. It looks like a replica of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. American hands - the American Bridge Company - were behind its construction.

 

There is even a "Christ the Redeemer" statue inspired by Rio de Janerio's world-famous landmark. At 110m tall, Lisbon's version, called Christ the King, overlooks the city with outstretched arms.

 

Instagrammers will be overwhelmed by the endless photo opportunities here. Awash in pastels, the Portuguese capital offers plenty of #accidentallywesanderson moments.

 

Lisbon is also home to vibrant street art, sumptuous pastry displays and aromas at every turn - from coffee to cinnamon to freshly prepared seafood.

 

Just an hour outside the city centre lie quirky castles, rolling hills, lush forests and beaches popular with surfers the world over.

 

Meanwhile, culturally hungry visitors will love the feeling of being on a hunt for Lisbon's multicultural "Easter eggs" and more.

 

I spent just four days in this underrated city and its surrounding towns, but that was sufficient for a sampling of its diverse appeal.

 

I was also able to fill my Instagram feed with architectural and landscape eye candy.

 

Here are seven recommended photogenic places for the Gram.

 

• The writer's trip was hosted by Qatar Airways and Turismo de Lisboa.

 

1 TRAM SPOTTING AT RUA DA BICA DE DUARTE BELO

 

Images of Lisbon's charming yellow Remodelado trams winding through the hilly street Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo, with the River Tagus in the background, have featured in many postcards and Instagram accounts.

 

For an even more epic shot, try capturing the tram and Lisbon's beauty at sunset or sunrise.

 

2 SINTRA

 

This fairy-tale hilltop town is embraced by woods filled with sun-dappled clearings and babbling brooks.

 

It was the first centre of European Romantic architecture. Numerous parks and gardens dot the Unesco World Heritage Site.

 

Just like any good fairy tale, there are castles to be explored.

 

The Palacio da Pena looks like an over-the-top wedding cake, while the Palacio Nacional de Sintra is a well-preserved, 19th-century royal palace. Both are Instagram-perfect backdrops.

 

3 ST JORGE'S CASTLE

 

There is something magical about viewing a city from its peak.

 

Lisbon's St Jorge's Castle is one such vantage point. I grabbed a tipple from a little booth at the castle which offered "Wine with a View" for a few euros.

 

Our guide, Carmo, had emphasised that Portuguese wine was little known but incredibly tasty and cheap.

 

The site was occupied by indigenous Celtic tribes, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Moors, before the Portuguese took over Lisbon in 1147.

 

Since the 12th century, the castle has served as a royal palace and a military barrack, among other things. Some of these remnants still stand today.

 

4 ALFAMA

 

This hilly labyrinth of side streets and steps is Lisbon's oldest quarter. It is where St Jorge's Castle lies.

 

Plazas abound, as do trendy cafes and hip art installations.

 

One standout installation is a series of candid portraits of the neighbourhood's long-time residents affixed or imprinted onto the old walls of Alfama.

 

In this enclave, we also stopped for snapshots and Insta-story videos of passionate buskers and street art.

 

Look out for an eye-catching mural by illustrator Nuno Saraiva, which depicts Lisbon's history in comic-strip form, along the walls of a short tunnel overlooking the Lisbon coast.

 

5 MAFRA CONVENT AND ERICEIRA

 

Heard of monument fatigue? Not in Lisbon. The city's architectural diversity kept me wanting more.

 

I was mesmerised by the 300-year-old Mafra Convent - a Baroque and Neoclassical palace-convent outside the Lisbon city centre. As I approached the building, I was struck by its sheer length. It greatly contrasted with its surrounds - the sleepy, almost desolate farming community of Mafra.

 

I later found out that the convent is Portugal's largest monument, with more than 1,200 rooms all along its length.

 

According to records, 45,000 people worked on its construction. Everything was imported, save for the marble transported from nearby quarries.

 

Its pastel interiors, lined with stone in light pink and blue and accented with delicate frescos, was a pleasant backdrop for our media group's photo reel.

 

The convent is home to a grand, 85m-long library guaranteed to excite photography buffs and bibliophiles. Some websites rank it as one of the worl'ds most beautiful libraries.

 

Wooden Rococo bookshelves hold more than 36,000 leather-bound volumes covering topics such as medicine, history, philosophy and literature from the 14th to 19th centuries, making it one of the most significant Enlightenment-era libraries in Europe.

 

Some distance away lies the Portuguese holiday seaside town of Ericeria. Its narrow streets, dotted with pretty houses, bestow on it a windswept antique flavour. Pop into one of its restaurants or cafes for lunch.

 

6 LX FACTORY

 

Below an abandoned train track in Lisbon's Alcantara district lies a network of hip art studios, homeware retailers, music houses, vintage fashion boutiques and gastronomic joints such as Mexican restaurant Mez Cais LX.

 

Many of these establishments occupy defunct and repurposed factory buildings. It is a hipster's dream.

 

I enjoyed a few solitary hours wandering the streets of LX Factory. There, I had a light bite and purchased organic body oils from a shop called Organii LX Factory.

 

One ideal photo opportunity is the Ler Devagar bookshop and cafe, which is housed in an old industrial factory. Its tall walls are lined with bookshelves. Staircases and narrow passageways lend the multi-storied space a maze-like quality. Many Instagrammers and influencers flock there for photos.

 

Open-air markets take place on Sundays on the grounds of LX Factory. Expect to find vintage items, shoes, plants and more Instagram possibilities.

 

7 PASTEIS DE BELEM

 

This confectionery and coffee house, its interiors lined with azulejo tiles, is a destination in itself.

 

The 1837 establishment in the Belem district is known for its divine pasteis de nata cream cakes (custard egg tarts), which are baked on the spot.

 

A trip there would satisfy both foodies and photography enthusiasts.

 

8 BELEM BEAUTIES

 

The riverfront district of Belem is book-ended by landmarks that often reflect Portugal's zest to connect with the world.

 

The best testament to this fervour, played out over the centuries, is the Monument of Discoveries. Perched on the Tagus River, the 56m-tall structure takes the form of a caravel - a ship developed in the 15th century by the Portuguese to explore the West African coast and Atlantic Ocean.

 

Lining both sides of the monument are larger-than-life sculptures of Portugal's "superheroes" - painters, missionaries, mathematicians and cartographers who explored new frontiers from the mid-1400s to the early 17th century.

 

At the foot of this open-air pantheon lies the massive rose-coloured compass. It is a reminder of the layers of civilisation here, where crowds once gathered to welcome ships from elsewhere laden with pepper, mace, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and even horses from Arabia.

 

My favourite monument is Belem Tower, a fortification with a "beach-front" location on the river.

 

A wooden bridge leads into the tower, which has nautical symbols and crosses across its facade. The explorers of yesteryear embarked on adventures from this 1514 tower.

 

I asked a young boy to snap a sunset photo of me posing with the Unesco World Heritage Site.

 

Other photogenic spots are the ornate Jeronimos Monastery and the futuristic Maat (the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology).

 

I also liked the defunct red-brick Tejo Power Station. It has been repurposed into a museum that tells the story of energy. It bears some resemblance to Singapore's Pasir Panjang power stations and looks good in my social media feed.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

 

 

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