Travel: Discover delights of Lisbon city break at the Bairro Alto hotel

The Bairro Alto hotel in Lisbon

The Bairro Alto hotel in Lisbon - Credit: Archant

Gustavo Pinto Basto had just been singing about how much he missed his horse - the most beautiful to ever live.

Fado singer Gustavo Pinto Basto accompanied by Ricardo Rocha (Portuguese guitar) and Mário Estorninh

Fado singer Gustavo Pinto Basto accompanied by Ricardo Rocha (Portuguese guitar) and Mário Estorninho (classical guitar), photo Esteban Damiani - Credit: Archant

I hadn’t understood a word of the Portuguese until my friend translated, but I was moved by the way he poured his heart into the Fado folk song, and the beautiful acoustic guitars accompanying him.

We were in Estafado, a Fado house off the beaten tourist track in Lisbon’s Calçada da Estrela, half way through a delicious meal of octopus stew and slow cooked beef.

Fado means destiny, and it’s the Portuguese equivalent of the blues, with beautiful melancholic lyrics about broken hearts, or things you miss or have lost, like heart breakers – and horses.

Singers don’t fake their emotion, and apparently if you talk while they are singing they might stop.

Bairro Alto's famous rooftop terrace

Bairro Alto's famous rooftop terrace - Credit: Archant

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Fado’s roots are believed to stem back to the devastating impact of the 1755 earthquake and ensuing tsunami which destroyed 80 per cent of Lisbon.

The religious Portuguese believed it was punishment for their bad behaviour, and as a nation apparently became more melancholic, dwelling on the past rather than the present or future.

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Estafado is just a stroll through Lisbon’s beautiful streets - where the mosaic pavements are all hand made from lime marble and the buildings are decorated with Moorish tiles – away from the hotel where we were staying, the Bairro Alto.

The five star boutique haunt in the Luís de Camões Square is famous for its terrace boasting views over the rooftops and sunset behind the bridge over the Rio Tejo.

A superiour room in Bairro Alto

A superiour room in Bairro Alto - Credit: Archant

Each luxurious room here has a bird hand painted on its warm yellow wall, a heavy bed spread hand woven by artisans, and the elegant bathrooms are marble and dark wood affairs.

Breakfast is served in the contemporary Flores do Bairro restaurant, , and it’s tempting to stay awhile, feasting on the homemade sticky marmalade jam and fresh bread, and the pastel de nata the city is so well known for – the ones here are the best in town.

The food is so good it’s worth returning for lunch and dinner too.

Starters involve delicacies like deep fried string beans and Romesco sauce, octopus salad and beef with sake and kimchee, while we tried a divine main course of sea bass cooked in the Flores do barrio style.

The 28 tram travels through Alfama, photo Emma Bartholomew

The 28 tram travels through Alfama, photo Emma Bartholomew - Credit: Archant

Prices are incredible and the most delicious and beautifully presented traditional Portuguese desert here costs just 4.50 euros.

The hotel is an unbeatable choice for its understated luxury, as well as its prime location in the heart of historic downtown between Lisbon’s two most emblematic districts.

Bohemian Bairro Alto is similar to London’s edgy Shoreditch with a vibrant nightlife while the chic, cultural and trendy Chiado, is much like Covent Garden with theatres and opera houses.

The hotel lays on free daily tours with Ines Ramiro, who will tell you fascinating stories about the city’s history, point out the most enticing artisan stores and tell you everything you need to know to make you feel attached to this remarkable city.

Fortifications of the Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon, photo Esteban Damiani

Fortifications of the Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon, photo Esteban Damiani - Credit: Archant

Bairro Alto sits on the line of the 28 tram – a beautiful old fashioned form of transport with wooden interiors.

Day tickets cost just six euros and it’s a magical way to see the city, as it rattles through the streets, screeching around the corners.

Lisbon is built on seven hills, just like Rome, and it’s worth jumping out at the castle where Lisbon was ‘born’ - San Jorge.

We visited close to dusk to catch the wonderful sunset, listening to the distant sound of traffic from far below which made it feel all the more peaceful up here with the birds chirping in the trees.

Alfama is the oldest part of the city dating back to medieval times, apparently because the earth here is tougher and the buildings survived the earthquake.

We happened to catch a religious parade led by a priest, and chanced upon a charming tea house built in one of the old palaces, Palacete Chafariz d’El Rei, where you feel like you stepped back a hundred years.

Lisbon is so accessible for a weekend trip, with just a two hour plane journey, and a short hop on the simple tube system once you’re at the airport to reach the hotel.

I’ve got a certain “fado” feeling for Lisbon, but I’m sure it won’t be long before I return.

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