Located at the far western edge of Europe, Lisbon feels blessedly removed from the turmoil of current events. And despite tourism’s having increased in recent years, the distinctive character of the city remains strong. Stylish shops in azulejo-clad buildings give pride of place to Portuguese-made merchandise, and restaurants take full advantage of local produce and seafood, pairing them with excellent wines made from indigenous grape varieties.
Strolling through the neighborhoods of the historic center — Bairro Alto, Chiado, the Baixa and the Alfama — is one of the simplest and greatest pleasures of a visit. Each has its own distinct personality and geography. White cobblestones pave many of the streets, giving the city a strangely luminous quality. And along important routes, wood-paneled streetcars still trundle past.
Lisbon owes much of its current appearance to the massive earthquake and tsunami of 1755, which destroyed most of the city. The reconstruction gave Lisbon an appealing architectural harmony, but it obliterated the medieval street plan in favor of a grid. Since then, the wealth of Portugal’s empire slowly faded, and until the last decade or so, Lisbon, like Venice, seemed condemned to a sort of exquisite decay. The country’s recent economic troubles should have only exacerbated this state of affairs, but thanks in part to financial support from the European Union, the city now bursts with fresh energy. Travelers have rediscovered its beauty, and several stylish new hotels have recently opened to cater to them.
The 25-room Valverde Hotel occupies a townhouse in the middle of the grand Avenida da Liberdade, a broad, tree-shaded avenue lined with designer shops. Walking in feels like coming home to your smart Lisbon apartment building. The youthful staff at the door and front desk, dressed in cheerful Lacoste sport coats and trousers, greeted us with enthusiasm.
We had reserved one of the Junior Suites, all of which face the Avenida. The bedroom had a herringbone wood floor covered by an area rug, tan walls decorated with etchings and abstract prints, a love seat and a writing desk. French doors with heavy linen drapes admitted ample light, and a large walk-in closet provided sufficient storage. The black-marble bath came with a soaking tub and a spacious separate shower, but the lighting above the single vanity was too gloomy for my taste.
Public spaces include a library-like lounge just off the wood-paneled reception area, a sunken garden courtyard with a small swimming pool and hot tub and a fine restaurant, Sítio. There I enjoyed a dinner of Portuguese tapas — pea pod tempura, cones of smoked cod, pata negra ham wrapped around Azorean cheese — followed by sea bass over squid-ink risotto with asparagus and saffron cream. A Quinta da Romeira white blend from Bucelas, just north of Lisbon, provided an ideal accompaniment.
The Valverde has purchased an adjacent building and plans to expand in the coming years. Both the pool and the restaurant will move, and the space currently housing Sítio will become a bar. In the meantime, however, the hotel will delight those seeking a tranquil residential atmosphere.
The stylish and cheerful décor; the helpful staff; the courtyard garden; the fine restaurant; the location convenient to shopping.
The lighting above the sink in our bath was too dark; the current lack of a true bar space.
Avoid small Mini and Classic rooms. The hotel has a sleek yacht, the Windrose, on which you can sail along the Tagus. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, the restaurant hosts fado performances.
Several of Lisbon’s most important monuments and museums are located about 10 minutes by taxi from the center in the riverside neighborhood of Belém. Some travelers might feel tempted to stay there, because of major sights such as the flamboyantly decorated Jerónimos Monastery; the National Coach Museum, with its unparalleled collection of fabulously ornate horse-drawn carriages; the brand-new Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT); and the iconic Belém Tower, a 16th-century fortification beside the Tagus River.
It was with some anticipation, therefore, that I noted the opening of a new hotel: the 60-room Palácio do Governador. Its center is the former palace of the governor of the Belém Tower, which was built atop Roman ruins. Alas, the resulting hotel proved cold and charmless. Just off reception, the over-restored former chapel lacks both atmosphere and purpose. The nearby lounge contains a too-large television, as does the bar. SPA Felicitás has a Roman wall exposed above its large lap pool but feels sterile nevertheless. And our Júnior Suite seemed underfurnished. The staff were polite but not warm. The only bright spot was the restaurant, Anfora, which served elevated Portuguese cuisine.
The location within walking distance of Belém’s monuments; the well-run and atmospheric restaurant; the large indoor and outdoor pools.
The inexplicable sterility of the décor; the large televisions in the bar and lounge; the 2-euros charge for espresso pods in the room.
A handful of rooms overlook the water, but a major roadway mars the view; the only accommodations worth considering are the three suites.
For charm and character, head instead to the six-suite Palacete do Chafariz D’El Rei, a 19th-century neo-Moorish palace set above a 12th-century fountain (chafariz means “fountain”). The Palacete is set near the base of the Alfama neighborhood, Lisbon’s oldest. Tumbling down the hill from the Castelo de São Jorge, parts of the labyrinthine district can feel a little touristy, but staying there provides a pleasant change of pace from fashionable Chiado and Bairro Alto, or the more residential Lapa. Restaurants and shops tend to be small and casual, with stone walls, worn floors and hand-painted azulejo tiles. The neighborhood also boasts some of Lisbon’s best miradouros (viewpoints), numerous atmospheric bars for fado (a traditional form of Portuguese singing) and one of my favorite museums in the city, the Fundação Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva, which houses a collection of Portuguese decorative arts.
On arrival at the Palacete do Chafariz D’El Rei we were greeted with great warmth. Light from stained-glass windows and skylights flooded the triple-height entry hall. To the left we glimpsed a formal dining room — now used only occasionally for tea — and a jewel box of a dining nook with Mudéjar-style embellishments. To the right was an ornate lounge with elaborate moldings and fancifully eclectic furnishings.
Our Deluxe River View Suite was a sunlight-filled space, with wide plank floors and no fewer than four chandeliers. The living room had gilded Corinthian capitals capping marbled pilasters and double glass doors that opened to a narrow riverview balcony. Two cream sofas faced each other over a black-marble coffee table. An antique wardrobe provided plenty of storage. And the bath offered a clawfoot tub, a white-marble trough sink and a rainfall shower stall.
As one would expect at what is essentially a luxurious bed-and-breakfast, the morning meal was an event, complete with marvelous rolls and pastries, yogurt parfaits, eggs cooked to order and pitchers of fresh fruit juices. Although we had a splendid time at the Palacete do Chafariz D’El Rei, the hotel won’t appeal to everyone. It has no elevator, some of the furnishings (such as our sofas) showed signs of light wear, and because the doors to the rooms are original, the soundproofing is less than perfect. Nevertheless, the warm and helpful service and the bold décor make the hotel worth considering.
The extraordinarily well-preserved and richly ornate period details; the cozy atmosphere; the warm service; the very spacious suites; the rich breakfast; the good value.
Signs of wear in places in our suite; the poor soundproofing; the riverviews are currently somewhat compromised by construction work.
The hotel is not suited to those with mobility problems because of its lack of an elevator and its location in hilly Alfama.
Another converted palace, the 16-room Palácio Ramalhete, is located in the upscale Lapa neighborhood and just down the block from the National Museum of Ancient Art. In 2013, a top travel magazine named it one of the four best hotels in Lisbon, and our expectations were high as we rang the bell. A porter opened the door and carried our luggage up the stairs to the small front desk, surrounded by white walls with azulejo-tiled wainscoting. After check-in, he brought us to our accommodation, the Oak Suite. There he turned and said, “OK. Any questions?” As a room introduction it was a little more informal than those to which I have become accustomed.
The Oak Suite — in fact a junior suite — was beautiful, with wide plank floors, paneled walls, a rococo-revival ceiling and discreetly contemporary furnishings in charcoal gray. Accent pillows added welcome splashes of color. I liked the spacious room, but the bath, though decorated with vintage azulejos, felt small and a little spartan, with its single vanity and shower/tub combination.
A larger problem was the service, which did not improve after the perfunctory check-in. It felt inexplicably chilly and impersonal, and was occasionally incompetent. When I requested some restaurant recommendations via email, five of the six options the hotel suggested were closed the night of our stay. Our attractive room, plus amenities such as a garden and a small outdoor pool, could not make up for these failings.
The chic mix of period details and contemporary décor in our junior suite; the palace’s swaths of original azulejos; the garden and small outdoor pool.
The chilly staff; the somewhat-inconvenient location; the shower/tub combination in our bath; the careless concierge work.
There is no restaurant, but the hotel does offer a room service menu of simple dishes such as salads, burgers and spaghetti Bolognese.
Fortunately, service at the Pousada de Lisboa was in startlingly sharp contrast to that at the Palácio Ramalhete. The staff, to a person, could not have been friendlier or more helpful. The concierge team was particularly quick and tenacious, helping not only with restaurant reservations but also with arranging an appointment at a winery that proved extraordinarily difficult to contact. And it took less than 24 hours at this hotel of 90 rooms before many of the staff knew our names.
The Pousada’s location, too, could hardly be better. It occupies a former ministry on the northwest corner of the Praça do Comércio, a grand plaza between the Baixa and the Tagus. This is the heart of historic Lisbon, and it’s an easy walk from here to almost every neighborhood of interest. (Note that only a handful of rooms and suites overlook the plaza; most face either the surrounding streets or the Castelo de São Jorge.)
Our wood-floored Deluxe Room did indeed face the Praça do Comércio, and I loved relaxing on the chaise in the window well each morning, watching the square come to life. A comfortable king bed stood against a panel of padded chocolate-brown fabric. A simple writing desk and wood-framed armchair faced the bed and window, as did the marble-clad soaking tub. And therein lay the problem: The bath was not separate. Only a curtain partially shielded it from the rest of the room. The single vanity had minimal counter space, and the shower stall had no shelf for toiletries. Worse, a sliding door of frosted glass closed off either the shower stall or the neighboring toilet, but not both simultaneously. This room might suit a single traveler, but for a couple, it was too snug and too exposed. So it is important to book either a Mezzanine or, better yet, one of the suites.
The Pousada’s public spaces contain an appealing mix of both modern and traditional design elements. The lounge off the entrance, for example, has seating groups of clean-lined armless chairs as well as museum-quality antiques, including a bronze equestrian statue. Oversize reproductions of exploration-themed etchings decorate the ceiling panels above. And a soaring breakfast room occupying the former interior courtyard has contemporary brass chandeliers and massive Renaissance triptychs.
Next door, the commendable Lisboeta restaurant features brick vaults similar to those of the Palácio do Governador, but the service was much more personal. Our waiter not only knew our names but that we had recently arrived, and he inquired after our journey. Nor did the food disappoint. I very much enjoyed the jumbo Sagres prawns with a cuttlefish ink-crusted cheese croquette, and sea bass topped with julienned pork accompanied by polenta and trumpet mushrooms in red wine. Upstairs, a small spa has an indoor pool just large enough for laps and one treatment room, where Mrs. Harper enjoyed the massage included with our room rate.
The Pousada de Lisboa has admirable service and a peerless location, but I suggest you book elsewhere if you cannot secure a suite. Other Lisbon options that I have previously recommended and still endorse are the stylish 55-room Bairro Alto Hotel occupying an 1845 vintage building in the fashionable and atmospheric district of the same name, the 10-suite Palácio Belmonte set within an exquisitely restored 15th-century palace on a hillside in the ever-charming Alfama neighborhood, and the 109-room Olissippo Lapa Palace, which offers the traditional luxury of an old-world grand hotel (see my updated review below).
The perfectly central location on the corner of the Praça do Comércio; the extraordinarily helpful and personable staff; the excellent restaurant; the public spaces’ mix of contemporary décor and museum-quality antiques.
Our Deluxe Room’s lack of separation between the bath and the rest of the room.
The lobby lounge and the breakfast courtyard are often used for events.
I have long recommended Lisbon’s traditionally luxurious Lapa Palace (now officially the Olissippo Lapa Palace). To check how the property was holding up, I made a reservation for our last night in the city.
A formally dressed doorman ushered us into the marble expanse of the lobby, centerpieced by a round table topped with impressive bird-of-paradise arrangements. There a can-do staff manned the reception and concierge desks. During our stay, they graciously helped with requests ranging from mailing postcards to securing a challenging restaurant reservation.
Rooms on the hotel’s upper floors have dramatic views of the city and the river. Our Palace Superior Room (really more of a small suite) had a balcony just large enough for a table and two chairs, from which we could see the Castelo de São Jorge and the Bairro Alto neighborhood, as well as the shady gardens below. Inside, the room had dark-wood floors, a four-poster king bed, an armchair and a sofa, a large closet and an alcove with a work desk. Naval-themed prints decorated the walls, and a wood console at the foot of the bed concealed a television. The earth tones of the marble bath weren’t entirely to my taste, but the jetted tub and dual vanities were immaculate.
The spa was also pristine but looked a little dated. The walls around the small indoor pool were clad with rather saccharine pastel azulejo murals. Aside from minor décor quibbles, however, we greatly enjoyed our stay. With its well-trained spa therapists and mature gardens, the Lapa Palace makes for a relaxing finish to a Portuguese itinerary. Overall, the polished service and comfortable accommodations still place the hotel among Lisbon’s best.
The expanse of gardens; our spacious and comfortable accommodations; the panoramic views; the thoughtful service.
The somewhat-dated décor.
Though the hotel is a tad removed from the city center, it is within walking distance of the Michelin-starred restaurant LOCO and an atmospheric cocktail lounge, A Paródia.