Lisbon is the perfect Valentine’s date – bright, charismatic, naturally good-looking, fun-loving and ever the dreamer. Romance literally embraces you on every street corner here, be it the way the cobbles shimmer like silver after the rain, the plaintive wail of fado song drifting through open shutters in the alley-woven Alfama district, or the pure Atlantic light cascading across the facades of houses in a fresco painter’s palette of colours.
Stroll hand-in-hand through backstreets twisting up to hilltop miradouros, hidden courtyards and vintage funiculars and you’ll soon fall head over hills with the Portuguese capital, we swear.
Lisbon on high
If you are flying high with the promise of new love, Lisbon wings you even higher at its miradouros, or lookouts, many of which are tucked into the dimples of the city’s seven hills. For postcard views, make your way to Alfama, Castelo and Graça neighbourhoods. A brisk uphill walk brings you to lookouts to swoon over: bougainvillea-wreathed Miradouro de Santa Luzia and Moorish gateway Largo das Portas do Sol peer over rooftops staggering down to the Tagus River and across to the pearly white dome of the Panteão Nacional and twin-spired Igreja de São Vicente de Fora.
The higher you climb, the more Lisbon opens up like a pop-up book before you. Miradouro da Graça gazes across to the castle plump on the hillside, while the entire city unfurls before you at pine-shaded Miradouro Senhora do Monte – the ideal spot to steal a kiss.
Romancing the stone
Few architectural styles conjure such giddy romance as Manueline, a love letter to the 15th- and 16th-century Age of Discovery when Portugal ruled the colonial waves. With his coffers brimming with the gold, sugar and spice pilfered from distant lands, King Manuel I bankrolled a monastery to trumpet his triumphs – the now Unesco-listed Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Belém’s undisputed heart-stealer and Lisbon’s most evocative building. Once populated by monks of the Order of St Jerome whose spiritual job was to comfort sailors and pray for the king’s soul, the monastery is pure fantasy stuff. Hewn from pale limestone, its architecturally stunning cloister drips with stonework teased into lace fine designs: gracefully scalloped arches, columns intertwined with vines and wreathed with flowers and auger-shell turrets. The adjacent Igreja Santa Maria de Belém is a fine romance of a church, with tree-like columns that grow into the ceiling, itself a spider web of stone.
There’s no doubt about it – Lisbon is an old romantic at heart and is bound to woo you with the vintage trams that clatter and screech through its narrow backstreets and the old-fashioned funiculars that buzz up to miradouros with heavenly views. If this rock your love boat, you won’t want to miss a sight-laden spin of the city on tram 28 or a ride in the wrought-iron, neo-Gothic Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon’s only vertical street lift, designed by Gustave Eiffel protégée Raul Mésnier du Ponsard. To really rewind time, wander at leisure around Baixa’s backstreets, which are crammed with old-school stores trading in everything from retro-packaged conservas (canned fish) to bowler hats and buttons.
Fado, the brooding, melancholic folk music for which Portugal is famous, was born in Lisbon’s Alfama district. Tinged with saudade (nostalgia), it harks back to the ditties of homesick sailors and Moorish poetic ballads. Hear it in all its heart-wrenching glory at fado hotspots like Clube de Fado, Povo and former chapel Mesa de Frades.
Recipe for love
The way to Lisbon’s heart is certainly through its stomach. Days here begin sweetly over a bica (espresso) and pastries that flake just so at one of the city’s many pastelarias. Many locals have a soft spot for the irresistible pastéis de nata, crisp tartlets filled with silk-smooth custard cream and dusted with cinnamon, at the Manteigaria, housed in a former butter factory. More indulgent treats can be found at beautifully tiled Tease, which has elevated cupcakes to an art form.
Somewhere special for lunch or dinner? Keep it casual with petiscos (tapas) and wines at Grapes & Bites in Bairro Alto, or push out the boat at two-Michelin-starred Belcanto, where star chef José Avillez wows diners with creative, seasonal takes on Portuguese classics. Playing up the romance in slinky, modern surrounds, 100 Maneiras keeps the surprises coming with its imaginative 10-course tasting menu. For a novel Valentine’s experience, hook onto one of the lunchtime cookery courses with Kiss the Cook at the LX Factory.
For a last lingering look at Lisbon as day fades into watercolour dusk, you could head up to the Bairro Alto Hotel’s top-floor lounge bar for a sundowner and sweeping views over the rooftops to the river. Huddled away on the fringes of Bairro Alto nearby, Miradouro de Santa Catarina exudes a more alternative vibe, with loved-up couples, students and buskers mingling over the same gorgeous views, stretching from the river to the Ponte 25 de Abril and Cristo Rei. To enjoy them over drinks as Lisbon starts to twinkle, snag a table at the Noobai Café.
Love in a multi-storey car park might sound like a one-way street to dullsville or a dodgy blue movie, but Park is nothing of the sort. A parking lot revamped into a cool rooftop terrace, it attracts a hipster crowd with its DJ-spun tunes and dress-circle views of the city illuminated. For something a bit sexier, swing over to bordello-chic Pensão Amor in Cais do Sodré, the former red-light district where sailors once came for a bit of sleaze has been reborn as the city’s most happening nightlife hub. The scarlet walls and the graffiti murals of cavorting nudes are a dead giveaway – once a brothel, this is now a decadently frescoed bar full of intimate nooks perfect for canoodling with your Valentine.
Rooms with a View
It’s all about the view from the river-facing rooms of boutique Memmo Alfama, burrowed away in a backstreet behind Sé cathedral. Lodged in a strikingly converted shoe polish factory, it pairs slinky minimalist interiors with a roof terrace affording knockout city views. Doodle pads in every room allow you to sketch a reminder of loving moments spent there.
If you’re in the mood to splurge, you’ll find palatial suites with turreted, azulejo-tiled romance at Palácio Belmonte, snuggled behind the castle. But romance doesn’t have to cost a mint in one of Europe’s most affordable capitals – you can find a little love nest for less at Casa Amora, with rooms paying homage to Portuguese poets and painters and a pretty garden patio. Another sweet Valentine’s dream is B&B Casa do Bairro, wedged into the back alleys of Santa Catarina district.