Lisbon is a city of beauty, history and variety with proud and friendly people, a picturesque waterfront and near-perfect weather. Most visitors to Europe leave it out of their itineraries because it's tucked away in the continent's southwestern corner, making it less crowded than Europe's bigger, brassier, pricier cities. That's one of many reasons to visit soon — before more people discover this hidden gem.
Lisbon is often compared to San Francisco — and not only because of its look-alike two-span River Tagus (Rio Tejo). Both cities feature steep hills that soar high above a vibrant waterfront, boast charming 19th-century electric cable cars built to make the trek up the hills and have large wooded city parks. If you like San Francisco, you will most likely enjoy Lisbon.
The comparisons end with the two cities' histories. San Francisco is young compared to Lisbon, which is Europe's second-oldest major city — older than Rome, London and Paris — and younger only than Athens. Lisbon's past, dating to at least 1200 B.C., can be seen in the city's architecture. Portugal's neutrality during World War II prevented the bombings that destroyed so many other European cities. Among the most impressive relics of Lisbon's labyrinthine history are Belem Tower and the Jeronimos Monastery, both 16th-century UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the Roman Theater Museum where most of the ruins of the first-century theater are preserved and displayed.
Lisbon is a bustling, compact city, with approximately 550,000 residents sharing 39 square miles. Among the neighborhoods to explore are the Belém (many historic sites), Estrela (Estrela Basilica, national palace, parliament buildings), Parque de Nacões (Casino Lisbon), Chiado (shopping), Alfama/Moorish Quarter (Sao Jorge castle) and Bairro Alto/Upper Quarter (nightlife) districts.
On the waterfront
The Lisbon Oceanarium, Europe's largest indoor aquarium, is among the attractions on the city's expansive waterfront. This is also where the city's two major bridges commence: the Golden Gate-look-alike 25 de Abril Bridge and the 10.7-mile-long Vasco da Gama Bridge — Europe's longest — completed in 1998. The Atlantic coastline surrounding Lisbon, meanwhile, is popular with sunbathers for its many beaches and known to golfers as the Golf Coast.
Fresh Cockle clams with wine sauce
Food and wine
Portuguese love their fish, consuming the most seafood per capita in Europe, and this is reflected on Lisbon's menus. Cod, sardines and many kinds of shellfish are all wildly popular. So is wine; Portuguese wines (most famously port wines) are highly regarded worldwide. Several Portuguese wine regions dotted with tasting rooms can be found near Lisbon.
Summer festival in Alfama
The free Festival of the Sea (August 21–30) in Cascais bay, near Lisbon, features nightly concerts plus a parade and fireworks on the final night. In the fall, the Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival (November 4–13) attracts such celebrities as famed Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar and legendary French actress Catherine Deneuve.
Lisbon's mild Mediterranean climate is the envy of Europe, with winter highs typically in the low 60s and summer highs in the low 80s. Rain is confined mostly to the winter months, making fall a good time to go with smaller crowds and lower hotel prices than in the summer months.
If you go
United Airlines flies nonstop to Lisbon from Newark, plus new seasonal service from Washington Dulles through September 6th.