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Lisbon on a high: daring street art and hilltop lookouts in Portugal's capital

May 10, 2023

Trams and tuk-tuks roller coaster through the hills of the Portuguese capital, a city of enticing lookouts, al fresco lunches and daring street art.

Morning breaks over Lisbon's seven hills. In the medina-like lanes of Alfama — one of the city's oldest, loftiest neighbourhoods — the light is beginning to creep through window shutters, washing over the azulejo tiles and bathing the terracotta rooftops in an amber glow; in the distance, the Tagus river glitters.

Slowly, pearl-white domes and spires come into focus, and then the facades in a fresco painter's palette of pastels. At this hour, there isn't another soul with me at the Largo das Portas do Sol, the original Moorish gateway to the district. It's a vantage point that offers views over Lisbon's historic heart that are worth rising early for.

Ever since the Moors built their castle here in the 11th century, this has been a city that has made the most of its lofty position. Miradouros (viewpoints) cling to the hilltops like eyries, each one giving a different eagle's-eye view. You’re forever climbing, catching your breath and trying to keep your footing on the steep, cobbled lanes.

When an earthquake razed most of Lisbon to the ground in 1755, Alfama remained resolutely standing. As I wander deeper into its alleys, the aroma of coffee, the crackles of a poorly tuned radio and the barking of a dog drift towards me through open windows. A woman in a floral pinafore beats a rug against a wall, greeting me with a broad, toothless smile and a ‘bom dia’. The district feels timeless — but in nearby Graça, the situation couldn't be more different.

While Alfama is high, Graça is even higher still, set on the tallest hill. Over the past decade, the district has been reimagined as a blank canvas for street artists, enabling it to reach new heights on Lisbon's cultural scene.

"To understand this city, look at its walls," Véro Léon van Grieken tells me with a shy smile when we meet later that morning. She's a Belgian expat working as a guide with Lisbon Street Art Tours, wrapped in layers of hand-knitted cardigans. As we trudge uphill from Alfama to Graça — Véro's little dog trotting obediently in our wake — she points out Half Young Panda: a shockingly bright 3D mural of a panda, created from street rubbish by Lisbon-born ‘trash art king’ Bordalo II, otherwise known as Artur Bordalo.

Afterwards, we admire the intricacy of homegrown artist Vhils’ portrait of fado superstar Amália Rodrigues. It's a tidal wave of hundreds of cobblestones rolling halfway up a wall, pieced together in collaboration with an expert team of calçada portuguesa (Portuguese paving) masters.

"Vhils started as a tagger but got his big break collaborating with Banksy at the Cans Festival in 2008," Véro explains. "Now he uses explosives, demolition tools and chemicals to carve the city walls, in a process he calls ‘creative destruction’." You might think this would ruffle local feathers, but Lisboetas hardly bat an eyelid, she assures me.

Such daring street art contrasts with the graceful Renaissance spires of Graça's Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, overlooking the broad, blue arm of the river and the dome of the baroque National Pantheon. We round a bend and reach Campo de Santa Clara square, where the Feira da Ladra flea market springs up on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Here, an azulejo panel running along a 188-metre-long wall catches my eye. It depicts a fantastical cityscape filled with rainbows, crenellated towers and hot air balloons, accompanied by a doodle of a spindly legged, top-hatted man — the hallmark of Swedish-French street artist André Saraiva. Véro calls him the "godfather of contemporary urban art", as he was one of the first to break onto the street art scene, having covered Paris in illegal graffiti in the 1980s.

Next, we venture off-piste to a car park behind a block of flats, to contemplate murals of giant cats and cubist, Picasso-like portraits, painted during a festival devoted to female street artists. After that, it's on to Shepard Fairey's Revolution Woman, which depicts a freedom fighter holding a machine gun with a flower inserted into the barrel — a nod to 1974 military coup the Carnation Revolution, which ended over 40 years of dictatorship in Portugal. But most arresting of all is Tropical Fado in RGB, by Lisbon-based street artist OzeArv, a rainbow-bright eruption of birds and flowers that spreads up the side of a three-storey apartment block.

I meet OzeArv, aka José Carvalho, over a pancake brunch in retro-cool cafe Maria Limão, in the heart of Graça, where his intricate foliage murals grow wildly up the walls. A warm, charismatic, softly spoken man with a crop of curly hair and an easy, childlike smile, José started tagging in the 1990s, then took his colourful street art all over the world. Lisbon is now, once again, his canvas.

"With street art, you can paint wherever you want," he says. "It creates a cultural dialogue with communities and gives underrepresented people a voice — even a sense of pride. In this way, it can be a catalyst for social change. It's a shared experience — people feel free to give their opinions."

He continues: "I get much pleasure from being up on the crane or on climbing ropes, high above ground level, drawing my dreams. I like to combine the graphic with the realistic, use clashing colours and hide stories within stories. And Lisbon has the best light to paint. India is the only other country I know with this kind of golden light."

In search of that same light, I make it my mission to seek out Lisbon's most enticing lookouts to best take it in. I begin, a quick tram ride south of Graça, with a leisurely, city-gazing breakfast on the roof terrace of boho The Lumiares Hotel & Spa. It's shoehorned into the sloping, bar-rammed lanes of the Bairro Alto district, where Lisbon parties by night and quietly nurses a hangover by day. Set in an 18th-century former palace, the hotel is an ode to Lisbon's light, with painter and muralist Jacqueline de Montaigne's huge, dreamlike murals of gold-haloed women framed by fluttering swallows sweeping up staircases.

At the nearby Miradouro São Pedro de Alcântara, people are already sipping piña coladas to reggae beats mid-morning, with the city spread at their feet. There's a hint of spring in the air, with the first puffs of blossom evident on the trees between the tinkling fountains scattered around.

Backtracking through the shuttered lanes of Bairro Alto towards the river, I follow steps down to the gardens of Miradouro de Santa Catarina, where locals chat, drink beer, play guitar and smoke beneath the burly statue of Adamastor, the storm-battling giant in Portuguese poet Luís de Camões’ epic poem Os Lusíadas. The city views here at cafe Noobai are beautiful at this time of day, although the bartender tells me they’re even better in the purple haze of sunset.

Lisbon's hills have made fairground rides out of its public transport. Bee-yellow vintage trams — including the famous tram 28, which rumbles through much of the historic centre — roller coaster along the streets, while elevadores (funiculars) buzz up the steepest inclines, just as they have for more than a century. In downtown Baixa, Lisbon's only street lift, the neo-gothic Elevador de Santa Justa (designed by Raul Mésnier, Gustave Eiffel's protégé) presents passengers with 360-degree views of the skyline. Much newer on the scene is Lisbon's fleet of tuk-tuks.

"Your limo has arrived," chuckles Eduardo Carvalho, of Tuk Tuk Tejo, the next morning. He's a fast-talking, passionate man with a broad grin and a jumper that matches his sky-blue, open-sided tuk-tuk, which I hop into. "Lisbon is mountainous but compact, and the cobbles can be slippery — many struggle to walk here," Eduardo says. "Electric tuk-tuks arrived in the city 10 years ago, and initially taxi drivers and cars overtook us impatiently; they thought we were just a fad. But now we’ve been accepted."

We trundle up to the pine-shaded Miradouro Senhora do Monte, Lisbon's highest viewpoint, where the wide-angle vistas reveal the city in all its multi-tiered glory — sweeping from the castle across the river to Cristo Rei, a late 1950s tribute to Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer, and beyond to the forested mountains of Sintra. I recognise the historic centre, fading where the skyscrapers of modern Lisbon sprout up.

"Tuk-tuks let you see all the detail without the uphill slog and crowds. We can get to the places trams and taxis can't, fill you in on the history, show you secret spots," shouts Eduardo as we rattle through the noisy Alcântara docks.

He suddenly swings around a corner to one of these secret spots, puttering up a boneshaker of a hill to Miradouro de Santo Amaro, where a wizened Renaissance chapel has withered like the 400-year-old olive trees surrounding it. But it's the Ponte 25 de Abril, leaping boldly across the Tagus, that fills the frame. Completed in 1966, the suspension bridge is the spitting image of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. And as staggering as the view is, we’re the only ones here — it's silent but for the distant roar of traffic and the gulls wheeling on the breeze.

"Nice, huh?" says Eduardo with a smile, more to himself than to me, seemingly lost in his own thoughts. I nod and trace the line of the hills with my hand down to the sunlit river, which in turn drifts to the deep blue of the Atlantic. From up here, you can have all of Lisbon at your fingertips.

The Lumiares Hotel & Spa, Bairro Alto. From £218, B&B.

The Vintage, Avenida da Liberdade. From £160, B&B.

Lisbon is ripe for exploring in spring, with comfortable average daytime temperatures of 18C to 24C and the parks in full bloom. Avoid summer, when temperatures can leap above 30C and the big-hitting sights are crowded. Autumn can be golden and glorious, with highs of up to 23C in October. Winter is quieter, cooler and wetter, with lows of around 9C.