A long weekend in Lisbon with Alexandra Champalimaud

The Portuguese-born interior designer divulges the best of her hometown’s timeless charms, architecture and delectable food to Christina Ohly Evans. Portrait by Pedro Guimaraes

Alexandra Champalimaud with Lisbon’s enchanting Alfama district in the background
Alexandra Champalimaud with Lisbon’s enchanting Alfama district in the background | Image: Pedro Guimaraes

I was born in Lisbon and lived in this magnificent city until my mid-20s, so to me it will always be home. It sits at the edge of the wild Atlantic Ocean, on the scenic Tagus River, and is built across seven hills, so it’s like no other city in the world – because of the extraordinary light, the diverse architectural styles and, most importantly, the people. The Portuguese are truly warm, welcoming and nurturing – playing host is second nature to them. 

Much of Lisbon was built between the 16th and 18th centuries. Portugal was one of the great trading nations and had some of the most prolific navigators, including Vasco da Gama; it imported silks from Asia and India, and exotic wood from Brazil, and also craftsmanship that can be seen in the romantic detailing that graces the romanesque, baroque and manueline [late gothic] churches that are found everywhere.

A Cevicheria in Baixa – a great place for fish
A Cevicheria in Baixa – a great place for fish | Image: Francisco Rivotti

The city is like a conglomeration of small villages – each one rooted by a church – that contain real architectural charms hidden behind doors, often exquisitely carved. You’ll find buildings with glorious scaled windows reminiscent of the English Georgian period. The cobblestone streets are like labyrinths, and the brightly coloured façades and abundant sunshine add to the historic atmosphere. 

Visitors are spoilt for choice with hotels – they run the gamut from large and lavish to much more intimate. One of my favourites is the Bairro Alto Hotel between atmospheric Bairro Alto and Chiado. It’s full of charm, with incredible views of the Tagus; it’s basically the embodiment of the Portuguese lifestyle. I highly recommend sitting at its Terraço BA bar at sunset – glass of port in hand, of course – before moving on to the excellent Flores do Bairro restaurant downstairs for its roasted octopus and tomato rice. Another favourite is the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz, which is absolutely glorious – I often find inspiration for my own work in this hotel. It was built in the late 1950s and is incredibly elegant; it overlooks Eduardo VII park with its very stylised terraces, and is close to all the chic shopping on Avenida da Liberdade. For a quieter setting, I’d suggest the Olissippo Lapa Palace hotel. It’s in a very tranquil residential area, has a lovely pool, ocean views and a casual restaurant called Le Pavillon that’s perfect for a light alfresco lunch.

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The Baixa-Chiado district – the city centre – is great for its mix of small shops; there are lots of silversmiths and assorted artisans. Leitão & Irmão on Largo do Chiado is a traditional gold- and silversmith that specialises in jewellery and decorative objects. Vista Alegre is a must for old Portuguese porcelain, especially the gorgeous blue variety, but also for the green cabbage-motif plates that are so popular – they originated in Portugal. This area is also home to numerous antiques shops, where you’ll find maritime artefacts from the East India Company’s explorations of China. And one of my favourite sources of fine linens is here: Paris em Lisboa, a charming shop in the Chiado that specialises in white-on-white embroidered sheets and linen hand towels. 

This neighbourhood is also a great spot for lunch, and Belcanto, with its chic setting, is probably its best place. The chef, José Avillez, has two Michelin stars, and his delicious food has Portuguese flavours but reflects a global approach to cooking. For a traditional bica – espresso – I always recommend the art deco-style Café a Brasileira. It exudes old-world elegance and there are works by important Portuguese painters such as José de Almada Negreiros. To just sit here on a long bench with pleasant strangers and savour a pastéis de nata– a traditional egg-custard tart – is a very Lisboan thing to do. As you explore, you’ll notice that the pavements are dotted with beautiful black and white cobblestones. I always tell friends to wear comfortable flats, because while Portuguese women have mastered the art of wearing heels on these uneven stones, most tourists have not.

Café and pastry shop Pastéis de Belém, a great spot for local colour
Café and pastry shop Pastéis de Belém, a great spot for local colour | Image: TPHOTOS

Another must is a walk – or tram ride – up to Alfama, which is the city’s oldest quarter. You’ll be met with gorgeous views of rolling greenery, the Tagus and all the towering churches below. At the very top sits the Portas do Sol [Doors to the Sun] garden and the majestic citadel Castelo de São Jorge. This area is home to some of the most incredible Portuguese crafts; you can view them at the Decorative Arts Museum and its adjacent workshop. It’s amazing to watch the centuries-old gilding, leather binding, inlaying and woodworking still going on; such is the level of skill here that the Louvre entrusts the restoration of its books to these artisans. You can have a perfect lunch on the terrace at Chapitô à Mesa – an incredibly charming place with several different rooms and wide city views – before exploring the area’s churches. The 12th-century Sé Cathedral and the Magdalena Church are two of my favourites – so intimate and full of beautiful tile work.

Fado is Lisbon’s traditional folk music, incorporating mandolins and guitars, and you’ll probably hear it wafting through the streets in Bairro Alto and Alfama. You can just step into any casual tavern for a simple meal and listen to this wonderful singing; it sounds a bit like country music – the lyrics are usually about love and loss – and is always telling a big story.

The reception at Bairro Alto Hotel is overlooked by a mezzanine bar
The reception at Bairro Alto Hotel is overlooked by a mezzanine bar

It’s worth a quick trip just outside town to see the 15th-century Jerónimos Monastery, a glorious white marble cathedral built in the manueline style, with its intricate gothic detailing and classic gardens. You can also wander across the nearby bridge to explore the yachting centre; the seaside atmosphere is perfectly Portuguese, as is a lunch of battered fish or octopus and potato salad at Alcântara. My other choice, always, for seafood is the bustling Doc Cod, located at Santo Amaro docks, overlooking the river and the iconic 25 de Abril Bridge.

Once you’ve fuelled up, why not go to see the nearby Torre de Belém, which is an ode to the Age of Discovery. The modern concert hall is a beautiful, Carlo Scarpa-type structure with incredible acoustics. Afterwards, a great spot for local colour is café and pastry shop Pastéis de Belém; its signature Bolo Rei fruitcake is legendary.

The view of the ocean from the Torre de Belém
The view of the ocean from the Torre de Belém | Image: Gabriele Croppi/ SIME/ 4Corners Images

If you only do one museum, it should be the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, also called the Museu das Janelas Verdes for its location on the “Street of Green Windows”. It’s in the Palácio de Alvor, a former palace of the Count of Alvor, and exhibits incredible jewellery and precious stones from the 18th century, as well as inlaid furniture and decorative arts that date from the Middle Ages through to the 19th century. The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum is much smaller – a real gem – and contains one of the world’s greatest collections of Lalique jewellery. 

But any visit to Lisbon should focus on food and drink. Anything involving cod, particularly bacalhau that’s been salted and dried, often takes centre stage on a menu. One of the best restaurants for authentic Portuguese food, and generally a festive night out, is A Travessa in the Bairro da Madragoa area. It’s housed in a 17th-century convent and the atmosphere is magical. Gambrinus in Baixa is the place to go for fresh fish – try the olive oil‑marinated mackerel or the amazing shellfish soup. The unassuming A Cevicheria is another great spot to enjoy fish, such as grouper or corvina [croaker] ceviche marinated in lime juice, along with a delicious Pisco Sour.  

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Unlike other European cities, Lisbon remains remarkably unchanged through history. Its slower pace of life is centred around family and friends. From the beautiful architecture to the artisanal shops and gourmet delights, I can’t think of any other capital city that still truly charms the way it does – and that feels so personal. When you come here, stress will feel a million miles away.

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