Lisbon: Portugal's 'City by the Bay'

Convivial, rustic bars are the best venues to Convivial, rustic bars are the best venues to enjoy a night of "fado," Lisbon's version of the blues. Photo Credit: Rick Steves Europe / Dominic Bonuccelli

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Portugal's capital city of Lisbon feels to me like Europe's San Francisco -- it has rattling trolleys, a famous suspension bridge, a heritage dominated by a horrific earthquake and lots of fog. And, like San Francisco, it's a charming mix of now and then.

Lisbon's glory days were in the 15th and 16th centuries, when Vasco da Gama and other explorers opened new trade routes to India and Asia, making Lisbon the queen of Europe. Later, the riches of colonial Brazil boosted Lisbon even higher -- until an earthquake in 1755 leveled the city, leaving a smoldering pile of rubble.

Rua Augusta, the triumphal gateway arch to the city, signals the city's rebirth and affords a grand view down the main drag. Climbing to the top of the arch, you can see that the center of town was rebuilt in a strict grid plan with broad boulevards and inviting squares.

Downtown Lisbon fills a valley flanked by two hills along the banks of the Rio Tejo. Three characteristic neighborhoods line the downtown harborfront: the modern-feeling Baixa, or lower town; the Alfama, the tangle of medieval streets on the hill to the east; and the Bairro Alto, or high town, on the hill to the west, whose old lanes brim with restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

Do-it-yourself tour

The city's trolleys provide a fun do-it-yourself orientation tour. Many of the cars are vintage models from the 1920s. Shaking and shivering through the old parts of town, they somehow safely weave within inches of parked cars, climb steep hills and offer breezy views of the city (rubberneck out the window and you will die).

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The essential Lisbon, however, is easily covered and best enjoyed on foot. The Alfama's tangled street plan, a cobbled playground of old-world color, is one of the few bits of Lisbon to survive the earthquake. Its main square, Largo de São Miguel, is the best place to observe this atmospheric quarter.

Bent Alfama houses comfort each other in their romantic shabbiness, and the air drips with laundry and the smell of clams. Favorite saints decorate doors to protect families (St. Peter, protector of fishermen, is big here).

Today, young people are choosing to live elsewhere, lured by modern conveniences, and the old flats are congested with immigrant laborers.

Despite the change in demographics, the city's back streets still host halls for Lisbon's traditional folk music, fado -- mournfully beautiful and haunting ballads about lost sailors and broken hearts. I like fado vadio, a kind of open-mic fado evening where amateurs line up at the door of neighborhood dives for their chance to warble. Fado can make a stout 60-year-old widow -- wearing blood-red lipstick, big hair, and a black mourning shawl over her black dress -- invitingly sexy.

A national dish that's imported

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On my must-do list in Lisbon is stopping at a bar to have pastel de bacalhau, a fried potato-and-cod croquet. Bacalhau, or salted cod, is Portugal's national dish, imported from Norway. Portugal might have the only national dish that's imported from far away -- strange, and yet befitting of a nation known for seafaring explorers.

Another Lisbon tradition is ginjinha, a cherry brandy, sold by the shot. After a drink or two, I find myself doing laps up and down the pedestrian streets in a people-watching stupor. The sidewalks here are set in a mosaic of limestone and basalt. They're an icon of the city, but the cobbles are slippery and expensive to maintain. The city government is talking about replacing them with modern pavement. Lisboners are saying "no way."

One welcome evolution is the kiosk cafe (quiosque in Portuguese). These old renovated newsstands are now mini-restaurants surrounded by tables and chairs, creating neighborhood hangouts and places for alfresco dining.

Though ever-changing, Lisbon's heritage survives. With a rich culture, stunning vistas, friendly people and a salty setting on the edge of Europe, Portugal remains a rewarding destination for travelers.

IF YOU GO

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SLEEPING The five-star Hotel Avenida Palace has elegant rooms with 21st-century comforts (hotelavenidapalace.pt). Grande Pensão Alcobia offers some rooms with views of São Jorge Castle (pensaoalcobia.com).

EATING Canto do Camões has live fado music (phone: 213-465-464). Aqui Há Peixe serves quality fish dishes under antique arches (phone: 213-432-154).

GETTING AROUND The best way to explore is on foot, but trolleys and funiculars are fun and practical (carris.pt), plus there are taxis and a simple subway system.

INFO visitlisboa.com

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