Story by Boyd Farrow | Photography by Pedro Guimarães | Hemispheres Magazine July 2016

It's easy to see why so many people are besotted with Lisbon. It's as gorgeous as Paris, without the attitude; it's as enchanting as Istanbul, without the traffic; and it has the vibrancy of Berlin, with better weather. Each year, more than 4 million visitors come to the city—home to a mere 550,000 people—to get lost in its lively neighborhoods, marvel at its exquisite architecture, and indulge in its thriving culinary and cultural scenes. Indeed, many are moving here permanently, lured in part by the proliferating startup companies, but also by the way of life. The Portuguese capital is steeped in history, much of which concerns the devastating earthquake of 1755 and the subsequent reconstruction—but this former naval power is in the midst of a different kind of revival, one that has as much to do with the spirit of the place as it does with the infrastructure. Famously gloomy Lisbonites, it seems, are rediscovering their sense of fun.

Day 1 Reclining in my Empire-style suite at the Pestana Palace—a fondant-iced mansion in the riverside district of Belém—I'm torn. Do I go for a dip in the garden pool or read the paper in my clawfoot tub? I don't often get to soak under a chandelier. I can swim later.

Breakfast is in a salon that has even more frescoes than my room. Anywhere else, the monster ham burdening the buffet table would be a talking point. I refill my plate so many times I'm pretty sure a cherub is glaring at me.

A short cab ride takes me to Torre de Belém, a dinky fort at the mouth of the Tagus. A launching point for many naval adventures, the structure bears as much symbolism as Game of Thrones—and is just as camp. Maritime motifs meet Moorish and Italian touches in an exuberant architectural mashup known as Manueline, after the 16th-century king Manuel I. Near the fort's tiny drawbridge, a busker plays the Star Wars theme on an electric violin.

the Padrão dos Descobrimentos monumentPadrão dos Descobrimentos, in Belém

In the 1520s, the fort was farther from the shore, but the 1755 earthquake, which leveled much of the city, also shifted the river. A stroll along its bank leads to Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a 180-foot-tall, ship-shaped monument to the Age of Discovery. Nearby is Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, the blingiest symbol of Portugal's status in that era. With its gables and pinnacles, its lavish altar and atmospheric chapel, the Mosteiro could rival any cathedral in the world. The big draw is its network of cloisters, not least because the delicate stonework withstood the quake. As I pass through a vaulted archway, a boy thwacks a soccer ball against a spindly column. The structure endures this, too.

Outside is another hallowed site, Pastéis de Belém, which has made Portugal's insanely delicious pastel de nata custard tarts since 1837. You see the line snaking around the tiled shopfront long before the buttery waft hits you. With monklike abstemiousness, I buy just one and realize my mistake with the first warm and wobbly bite.

Next to the monastery is Lisbon's blandest building—though, admittedly, the Fundação Centro Cultural de Belém was built to accommodate EU officials. At its core is the Museu Berardo, which houses one of the world's most impressive modern art collections, with around 250 works from the likes of Picasso, Warhol, and Dalí. Amazingly, security seems nonexistent. I resist the temptation to leave with a Miró in my tote.

José Avillez, who is a chef in LisbonJosé Avillez, chef

A 20-minute ride on a pleasantly tilting yellow tram takes me to Pap'Açorda, a popular restaurant recently transplanted to premises above the Mercado da Ribeira, the city's historic food market. Pap'Açorda is named after its specialty, açorda, a massively filling bread-and-vegetable stew. I get one as a starter, followed by a fillet steak, sautéed Portuguese-style in wine and bacon. Dessert is chocolate mousse, which the waiter serves from a mixing bowl, encouraging me to scrape off the spoon. It would be rude not to.

I walk off the mousse by exploring Praça do Comércio, the mosaic-cobbled waterfront square, where custard-colored 18th-century buildings flank a statue of King José I. At the northern end looms the Arco da Rua Augusta, a 100-foot-high, dizzyingly ornate archway celebrating the city's post-earthquake reconstruction. From its frilly summit, reached via corkscrew staircases and an elevator, I survey Baixa, the dense downtown heart of the city, and the rust-roofed clutter of Chiado and Bairro Alto. Chiado, with its theaters, bookshops, and cafés, has long been seen as the city's Montmartre, a magnet for creative types. Bairro Alto is known for its bars, graffiti, and laundry draped on ornate balconies.

“Portuguese food culture is so rich because it is based on stories and history—two things we are hardly short on—and of course there's our fantastic climate. What the Portuguese are not so good at is promoting ourselves. This is why there are French and Italian restaurants everywhere." —José Avillez

No matter where you go here, everything is far more beautiful than it needs to be. The streets are lit by Baroque lanterns. The trams are basically Art Deco cocktail cabinets on rails. Refreshment kiosks are fairground carousels. That tiled facade? The entrance to an underground garage. The shop with the carved columns? Oh, they repair dishwashers. That magnificent Eiffel Tower–like structure? That's the Elevador de Santa Justa; it transports passengers in polished wooden carriages to a wrought-iron skyway, so they can explore the sublime ruins of Carmo Convent without schlepping up the hill.

It's almost a relief to duck into the Igreja de São Domingos, the world's unluckiest church. Having been patched up after two major quakes, the interior was destroyed again by a fire in 1959. This time they just left it: a cavernous, sooty—and poignant—shell. As I leave, a heavily sweating man enters and crosses himself so vigorously I suspect he might have done something really bad.

Outside, the air is aromatic with dried cod, shards of which are stacked in the crammed Manteigaria Silva produce shop, as they have been for more than a century. Inside, the ancient Mr. Silva points to a framed photograph dated 1923. “My father," he explains. “The shop looks exactly the same."

The aerial view of a busy street in LisbonThe bustle of Rua Augusta

I've arranged to meet 36-year-old super-chef José Avillez outside the 18th-century São Carlos opera house. Avillez owns five restaurants within a mile of here, including the two-Michelin-starred Belcanto—a first for Lisbon—and a snazzy pizza joint. He lives in Chiado, too, with his young family. “It's my favorite area," he says. “Everything you need is within a few blocks—a cinema, ordinary shops, an old-fashioned barber. Lisbon is not showy or frantic like other cities. You still see people getting their shoes shined in the street, or their umbrellas repaired." We pass a chichi interior design store, and Avillez frowns. “That's new."

While Lisbon is clearly becoming a global city, Avillez says locals are increasingly returning to tradition. “The recent economic woes reminded people what is important: food, family, history, shared experiences." We pass a group of youngsters stumbling into a bar. “See," he says, drily. “We are learning to go out and enjoy ourselves."

For dinner, I visit Avillez's Mini Bar, in Chiado's old Teatro São Luiz, now an arts venue. The tasting menu is as much magic show as gastronomy. It begins with the “Caipirinha," a small green sphere with a crisp shell that bursts in my mouth, and continues through several courses that include a Ferrero Rocher made of foie gras and a scoop of spicy raw tuna in a rolled seaweed cone. It ends with lime cream and dry ice inside another green sphere.

Feeling pretty spherical myself, I'm ready to roll down the hill to my bed. I vow to eat far less tomorrow.

Day 2 I'm having breakfast at Delfina, an all-day Portuguese deli in the AlmaLusa, a stylish hotel recently opened on Praça do Município. I'm here with Miguel Simões de Almeida, who acquired the property in the aftermath of Lisbon's most recent quake—the financial one of 2008. The 18th-century building, with its stone floors and exposed beams, had stood empty for years. Simões de Almeida wants my opinion on the entire menu, which is a worry. Everything's great—including the two types of açorda—but the dishes keep on coming. I smile at the waiter, but my eyes are screaming.

I plod outside and cab it to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, which houses a vast collection of Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Islamic, Asian, and European objects. I browse a mishmash of busy rugs and dainty furniture until I can browse no more. It's like being in Ancient Ikea. In the garden outside, I glimpse a rhinoceros. I'm hallucinating. No, it's part of the sculpture park. Close by, in the modern wing, I also spot a Renoir and a Hockney.

From here, I walk south to Mãe D'Água Amoreiras, the “temple of water" that was once Lisbon's main reservoir. The interior comprises a huge marble chamber with central columns and a deep, clear pool replenished by a waterfall fountain. Now I want that swim—but instead I make do with the view from the building's panoramic terrace. With all these interwoven roofs to scamper over, surely they'll shoot a Bourne movie here.

the red rooftops of Alfama, LisbonThe Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora and the rooftops of Alfama

Just west of Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon's chic shopping boulevard, is leafy Principe Real, which has recently seen an influx of antique shops, designer boutiques, and well-groomed men walking French bulldogs. Several people proudly tell me this is “Lisbon's Soho," sweetly unaware that Soho is now all chain stores and underwear billboards. Here, every inch of pavement is abuzz with artisanal startups and collectives, many showcased in the Embaixada, a new emporium fashioned out of the Venetian-style Ribeiro da Cunha Palace.

I pop into a padaria (bakery) for a caffeine hit and discover that for an extra buck I can get a ham and cheese sandwich. I buckle. As I guiltily chew my second breakfast at the stand-up counter, I realize the ceiling is painted with an exquisite fresco of some 18th-century babe. With bakeries like this, who needs palaces?

two nightlife entrepreneurs surrounded by albumsFrancisco Rebelo de Andrade, nightlife entrepreneur

Just east of here is Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcantara, a lovely lookout terrace that has gardens, a fountain, and a load of statues I'm too tired to investigate. I'm starting to understand that in Lisbon the phrase “amazing view" is redundant. I pop into the Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Encarnação, built in 1708 and rebuilt after the quake. It's low-key on the outside, like Liberace's boudoir within.

I buy some Cohibas from the nearby Casa Havaneza, a grand old cigar store next to A Brasileira, an Art Deco café that opened in 1905. Its historic rival, the 19th-century Café Benard, is two doors away. Many locals say the Benard has better coffee, but visitors are inevitably drawn to A Brasileira's sunny outdoor tables. I sit at one and am immediately set upon by a toothless accordion player. The Benard crowd looks on smugly.

“The financial crash actually did a lot of good. It made young people very proactive and entrepreneurial. It seems everyone here is launching their own business. There is a real creative buzz in Lisbon now, which feeds through the whole city." —Francisco Rebelo de Andrade

Now, onward to the Castle! Well, to lunch, inside the castle walls—at Casa do Leão, a stone-arched restaurant on the site where the Romans kept their lions. First, I have to catch my breath. As if the hills leading to the Castelo de São Jorge weren't steep enough, security-conscious royals have periodically increased the gradient. I recuperate over a seafood risotto, cod steak with vegetables, and most of the dessert trolley. There are no lions here these days, but I do spot a couple of peacocks.

It turns out that most of what I've been admiring for two days was rebuilt in the 1920s, based on medieval plans. While the oldest part dates from the sixth century—before the Visigoths and Moors—most of the walls collapsed in 1755. I light a Cohiba and take in the view for a bit. Then I hop on a tram back to the AlmaLusa to freshen up. I'm hoping Simões de Almeida hasn't left a selection of mints on my pillow for me to try.

Shortly afterward, I'm back in the hilltop muddle of Bairro Alto—life in Lisbon really is a roller coaster. The cab driver is perplexed dropping me at a seven-story parking lot. I squeeze into a graffitied elevator with six excitable Eastern European lads and ascend to Park, the rooftop bar, which, inevitably, offers fine views of the city, including the bell towers of the nearby Santa Catarina church.

Among the improbably beautiful people at Park is Francisco Rebelo de Andrade, a former lawyer who has augmented his food and club empire with the annual music festival Lisb-ON. “We don't have a nightlife in Lisbon," he says over vodka tonics. “We have a multiday life. People surf, work hard, eat well, then go out." On cue, three attractive young women breeze past. “People aren't moping around listening to fado anymore," he adds. “There is a real get-up-and-go spirit."

The ruins of the Convento da Ordem do CarmoThe ruins of the Convento da Ordem do Carmo, which was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake

Speaking of get up and go: Dinner tonight is at Duplex, in Cais do Sodré, once one of Lisbon's seedier areas but now transformed by the forces of hipsterdom. The moody, modern restaurant is the latest from hot young chef Nuno Bergonse. I opt to eat at the chef's table, in the tiny kitchen, where the music is loud and the tattooed chefs take the odd slug of wine. The result is creative comfort food: scallops with hazelnuts and coconut, grilled octopus with a vegetable fricassè. Afterward, Bergonse joins me for a drink and a mille-feuille with honey custard. “We make exactly what we want to eat," he says. “That's our business plan."

For all its rejuvenation, Cais do Sodré is still raw in places—hipsters in other cities can only dream of such soulful decay. I roam around for a bit, stopping off at a couple of artfully decrepit bars, including one that, as far as I can tell, doesn't have a name. I have a shot of ginjinha, a traditional sticky-sweet cherry liqueur. Then I have a couple more. Then I leave the bar-with-no-name while I can still remember my own.

Day 3 Midmorning at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, and I'm jumping up and down with some children, trying to jiggle a priceless antique. (Hey, they started it.) The wonderfully named Monstrance of Belém is a sacrament repository bearing figures of the apostles under a swinging dove. The kids want to see it move. Clearly, all these big meals are paying off: The enameled bird practically leaves the building.

An hour ago I left my third hotel, the Santiago de Alfama—a delightful boutique in a 15th-century palace near Castelo de São Jorge—to wander the knotted streets of Alfama, Lisbon's oldest quarter. Every turn brings another crooked alleyway, another expanse of exquisite tilework, another ledge of precarious flowerpots, another near-vertical flight of steps. Thankfully, I'm heading down.

Few buildings have had such a tortuous history as the Igreja de Santa Engrácia, whose sky-high, chalk-white dome is a fixture of the Alfama skyline. Begun in 1681, the church wasn't completed until 1966, as a succession of monarchs and municipalities lost interest. Today, it's a pantheon of national heroes, such as the 15th-century explorer-by-proxy Henry the Navigator and Amália Rodrigues, the country's most famous fado diva.

View of The Praça do Comércio, from the top of the Arco Rua da AugustaThe Praça do Comércio, seen from the top of the Arco Rua da Augusta

Next, I check out the Sé de Lisboa, the city's oldest cathedral. Though its Romanesque towers have been a landmark since 1150, its significance has increased with the discovery of Roman ruins in the cloisters. After I've explored these pre-Christian relics, the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, opened a mere 132 years ago, feels like an Apple store. The museum has several major artworks, spanning from medieval times until now, including pieces by Bosch, Dürer, and Raphael. Portugal's most important painting—Nuno Gonçalves's Veneration of St. Vincent, which depicts prominent 15th-century Portuguese figures—is also here. To my eye, it looks as if one face has been repeated, like a Baldwin family photo. I round off my visit with a stroll through the cathedral's beautiful statue garden, with its view across Alcântara's harbor.

After a rustic ham sandwich and a hot chocolate at Café Tati, a shabby-chic joint in a warehouse close to the Cais do Sodré railway terminal, I take the short train trip to Cascais, a coastal suburb 20 miles west that has long been a summer playground for Lisboners.

In its psychedelically mosaicked town square, I meet Miguel Champalimaud, of the Montez Champalimaud wine dynasty, which owns a nearby equestrian center and five-star hotel. We spend an hour pootling around the cobbled old town, but Champalimaud wants to show me the sea. “This is the best thing about Lisbon," he says as his Volvo tears up the coastal highway.

Miguel Champalimaud at his hotel in LisbonMiguel Champalimaud, hotelier

We pass Praia da Crismina, a small, sandy strip bracketed by cliffs, before reaching Praia do Guincho, which is popular with surfers. There are about 30 people out on boards right now, and they are on them only briefly. We lounge in the sun for a while, savoring the salty air. Then, to my dismay, Champalimaud produces a wetsuit. “Do you surf?" he says, politely ignoring my physique. “Only the Internet," I reply. “Who's hungry?"

Lunch is a feast of fresh hake fillets with cockle rice, consumed on a terrace overlooking the Atlantic at Monte Mar, one of the world's top seafood restaurants. Watching all that surfing has given me an appetite. “Lisbon is so crowded," Champalimaud says, as if it were Tokyo. “Many visitors are now staying in Cascais and going into Lisbon at night. My family has a big responsibility to preserve the beauty of this place and restrict development."

“Everyone leaves Lisbon impressed with our work-life balance. We work hard, but we will go surfing before going to the office, or leave the office to enjoy the sunset. We are also conservative: We might go out on Saturday night, but most people still sit down with their family for Sunday lunch." —Miguel Champalimaud

Fish is still on my mind when I return to the city. Never one to pass up a good cannery, I'm back in Baixa to visit the Loja das Conservas,or House of Canned Goods, a colorful shop-cum-museum that celebrates Portugal's love affair with seafood. There are about 300 varieties of canned fish for sale here, each container adorned with vivid colors, retro images, and exquisite typography. There is also a vending machine shaped like a giant tin and a machine that lets you can anything you like. “Anything?" I ask, and the assistant eyes me suspiciously.

Carrying several tins of incorruptible seafood, I swing by Rua do Carmo to buy gloves at Luvaria Ulisses. The shop has a big reputation, but is only four feet wide. The owner, Carlos Carvalho, studies me for two seconds before stretching a fine black calfskin pair over my hands. In this cubbyhole are 1,200 pairs in tiny drawers. “Organization is everything," he says. I pop my purchase into my pocket, suddenly aware that my fingers smell faintly of sardines.

From here, I head to hilly Mouraria, the former Moorish ghetto, which still resembles a medieval medina. The cobbled Rua São Cristóvão, named after the sweet 16th-century church at one end, might be the last place you'd expect to find the experimental and exceptional cuisine served at Leopold, a white-tiled former bakery. Then again, six months ago a gallery called Ó! opened a few doors along, and the area is being tipped as the city's next hotspot.

Several sand dunes leading to the beach at Praia do GuinchoThe beach at Praia do Guincho

For a maximum of 12 people, chef Tiago Feio offers a seven-course menu that reinterprets Portuguese standards. For one thing, there is no stove here. Instead, all food is either served raw or cooked the sous vide way—placed in vacuum bags, given a hot bath, then seared if necessary. The idea is that the flavors are preserved more fully, and the first bite bears this out. I have blowtorched beef, with mizuna and seaweed, which is so good that only the proximity of other diners stops me from licking my plate. The same goes for the soft-boiled egg with shiitakes, buckwheat, and thyme, and the banana cream dessert with shavings of São Jorge cheese. The most impressive thing of all is how they carry the ingredients up all those steep hills.

I leave Leopold after midnight, but the air is still balmy, bathed in a yellow glow. As I stroll toward my hotel, I hear a twanging acoustic guitar. It's late, but there are moments in Lisbon when you hardly know what century it is, let alone what time. I find the source of the music—a small, dim bar on a ludicrously precipitous hill—and head inside. As Vasco da Gama might have said, “It would be a shame to turn back now."

Berlin-based writer Boyd Farrow was so thoroughly fed while in Lisbon that he can now do a passing impression of the city's Eighth Hill.

If you go

Come see why millions of people visit each year. Visit united.com or use the United app to book your getaway to Lisbon.