Recently dubbed 'the new Berlin' because of its exuberant nightlife and revived cultural clout, Lisbon is, in reality, an older, more majestic San Francisco. Aside from the obvious similarities – light-filled streets, hills sloping down to the water, the Golden Gate-esque Ponte 25 de Abril – there is also Lisbon's penchant for contemporary culture. Theatre (try Culturgest for experimental performances or the beautiful Teatro Praga for local productions) and visual art are particularly lively. Try gallery-hopping in the central district of Chiado or the less beautiful but fascinating neighbourhood of Alvalade. Where the two cities do differ is that on the European side of the Atlantic, all this activity is happening on ancient hills in a city that predates even Paris or Rome.
Lisbon is wonderfully compact. Moreover, its taxis are fabulously cheap – four euros can easily take you across town. Its cultural nexus has two cores. The first is the Museu Berardo, which opened in 2008 and is part of the Centro Cultural de Belém. Owned by the infamous collector José Berardo, its short life has already been plagued by questionable deals and political arguments. Yet for those interested in a one-stop art-historical shop of modern and contemporary work that includes the usual Warhol-Picasso bookending as well as some exciting Brazilian newcomers, it is one of the best in Europe.
The second must-see core establishment is the rather more refined Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, with its impressive collection of oriental tapestries, Islamic and Art Deco objects and a wonderful array of china. Like Berardo today, Gulbenkian only wanted "the best" in his collection, which includes Rembrandt, Renoir and a host of other master painters. It is always worth making time to visit ithe museum's room dedicated to René Lalique's jewellery and glasswork.
Of course, the one unmissable artwork in Lisbon is not by a Portuguese artist. Housed in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, The Temptation of St Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch, c.1500, is a flamboyantly bizarre triptych dealing with the torments of the artist's favourite saint, its central panel featuring a mass of bizarre creatures flanked by physical punishment on the left and cajoling debauchery on the right. If you thought Dali invented surrealism, think again.
The sprawling rooms that make up the rest of the museum, which is set on the western hills of the city, used to be the former residence of the Count of Alvor and later the Marquis of Pombal. It now houses similarly grandiose paintings, sculpture and furniture from pre-19th century Portugal (the Saint Vincent panels, by Nuno Gonçalves, a particular source of national pride) as well as European painters such as Jan Provost and Diego Velázquez. The museum's terraced garden, that overlooks the Tagus river, has to be my favourite in a city already overflowing with exceptional viewpoints.
Aside from its imposing international institutions, Lisbon has other, more original offerings. The Museu Nacional dos Coches has a grand display of historical carriages in the former horse-riding arena of the Belém Palace. The variety of its collection, which spans three centuries, makes it the only museum of its kind in the world, and there is also a chance to see some royal figures – oil renderings of Queen Amelia King João V smile down on visitors clacking through on the grand marble floors. In Chiado, MNAC – devoted to Portuguese 19th- and 20th-century art – is where the country's traditions of Romanticism and Modernism can be explored in an old convent that has been transformed into a centrally located contemporary space.
Another source of pride is the municipal museum in Campo Grande dedicated to the celebrated ceramicist and caricaturist Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro (1846-1905), a fascinating figure who produced the comic Zé Povinho, a Portuguese everyman, as well as ceramics in the city of Caldas da Rainha, still the Stoke-on-Trent of Portugal's porcelain industry. Pinheiro lived during the age of Fontism, and his work, from graphic illustrations for the press to pottery, often conveyed his trademark scepticism. Seminal ceramic pieces include the Jarra Manuelina and the Perfumador Árabe.
During the Salazar dictatorship, which ended in 1974, the only real art to view in Lisbon was in its churches, not galleries. One church that is still worth wandering into (and there are plenty to choose from), is the São Domingos church in Santa Justa, [above] part of a 13th-century convent that is either cursed or blessed – it barely survived both the devastating 1755 earthquake and a huge fire in 1959. Its cracked interior pillars, decrepit walls and looming sculptures were left by architect Manuel Caetano de Sousa, who directed the restoration second time round. As a bonus, the church is also round the corner from the fifth-generation store selling local ginginha – a sweet and syrupy cherry liqueur that serves as a good way to round up a tour of what Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes called the most beautiful city in the world.
Syma Tariq wrote the Wallpaper City Guide to Lisbon. She lives in Portugal.
When in Lisbon...
Where to stay
The Four Seasons Hotel Ritz (www.fourseasons.com/lisbon) is a Salazar-era towerblock, the exterior of which belies its interior classicism. This is the choice for visiting dignitaries, probably because of the frankly incredible spa services and rooftop running track. For something smaller and charming, there is As Janelas Verdes (www.asjanelasverdes.com), close to the Museu Arte Antigua. With just 29 rooms and a library, it has the feel of a genteel private home and is where Eça de Queirós, the 19th-century novelist and master of Portuguese realism, is said to have lived. High on a hilltop just off Alcantâra, the Pestana (www.pestana.com) may be a touch formal, but the beautifully restored main building in the former 19th-century neo-classical Valle Flôr palace makes the stuffiness forgivable. Otherwise, for all-out modernity, go to the Altis Belém (www.altishotels.com), developed by Portuguese architects Risco, where the shuttered rooms look out onto the banks of the Tagus.
Where to eat
Portuguese cuisine is not very well-known beyond the country or its former colonies, which is a shame because it offers bold flavours plus a number of contemporary establishments equal to any in continental Europe. José Avillez, one of the first local chefs to earn a Michelin star, has recently opened Belcanto (+351 342 06 07) next to Lisbon Opera House. This is modernist cuisine with a local twist. A few months earlier, he created Cantinho de Avillez (www.cantinhodoavillez.pt), an unpretentious place with superb local dishes such as partridge pie with bacon and onion. For a less formal meal, there is Bitoque (+315 213 965 636 ) which has a 1950s feel to it, with classic Portuguese dishes such as duck with rice or rabbit stew. One of the quirkiest places for seafood is Ramiro (www.cervejariaramirio.pt), which is like an old beer hall with large plates of whole crab, gooseneck barnacles and oysters. Service is brisk and the seats are cramped but it compensates with its enthusiastic tempo. The favoured destination for the moneyed art crowd is Bica do Sapato (www.bicadosapato.com) which is partially owned by actor John Malkovich. This stylish former boat factory has three different eating zones, with Portuguese cuisine and Asian influences predominating. Bruce Palling