How best to describe Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal?
A trusted old cliché will do the job for us: Lisbon is a place with a becoming modesty.
It doesn't feel like a capital city, simply because people appear to have time for you, even when it's obvious that you are a tourist. Maybe it's a hangover from its intensely introverted 20th century – when Lisbon all but vanished from the European mainstream for decade after decade – but the place doesn't feel modern. There's bustle to the place, but no hustle. Lisbon feels the way Dublin used to feel back in the 1980s, when the Irish were modest.
There is a charm to the place, because there is a charm to the people: after a couple of aeroplane hours in the trashy corporate culture of Ryanair, the Portugese quickly restore your sanity when you get your feet on the ground: human after all. You find yourself asking how two towering narcissists like Christiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho could ever have hailed from this country.
The city is built on a series of seven hills, and a week of walking the streets will have you decently fit. And you need to walk because the Portugese have invented a taste bomb so delicious that a daily addiction begins on day one. The taste bomb is the pasteis de nata – the Portugese custard tart – that is baked and served everywhere.
We demonstrated our devotion with daily visits to a store called Manteigaria, on the Praça Luis de Camoes. The shop is tall but small, with a narrow counter running along in front of a glass wall that houses the kitchen. Here you can see the pasteis de nata being made and baked, as you eat a pasteis de nata and enjoy a good cup of coffee.
The shop makes between 4,000 to 6,000 pasteis every day, and they don't make anything else. People stand and eat them first thing in the morning, and they stand and eat them last thing at night. The secret of pasteis nirvana is the balance, the proportionality, between custard and pastry. The pastry must be flaky, yet yielding. The custard should still be slightly warm, and the consistency should incline to a slight wobble, whilst remaining dense.
Get it right, as they do with unnerving accuracy in Manteigaria, and the result is not just one of the best things you can eat, anywhere, but also one of the most addictive things you can eat, and the rhythm of a few days in Lisbon quickly becomes the rhythm of the daily pasteis moment.
But pasteis aren't the only delicious thing that Lisbon offers. The city has several thousand restaurants, from starry gastronauts to simple wine bars. Here are several places we enjoyed:
Garrafeira Alfaia (Rua Diario de Noticias)
Pedro Jorge and his team run the wine bar branch of the Alfaia restaurant. It's a cluster of close-packed tables, with a short menu. The cooking comes from the restaurant kitchen across the road, and with the help of Pedro you can discover the most sublime Portugese wines to match with the food.
Vintage Gourmet & Gin House (Rua Horta da Seca, Praca Luis de Camoes)
80 varieties of gin is just the start of the magic here: it's how they match and dress the gin you choose to make their gin tonicos that is the wow! factor. Everything is outsized – glasses, ice cubes, measures, flavourings – and the theatre of it all is a blast. Just across the square from Manteigaria.
Loja das Conservas (Rua do Arsenal)
A shop that sells tinned fish, and only tinned fish. Gorgeous.
Museu de Cerveja (Praça de Comércio)
There is a rather nice bar and a good outdoor terrace with views of the Praça de Comércio in this museum dedicated to beer. The beers are culled from all over the world, so this may be your best chance to get a brew from Mozambique.
Marcado de Ribeira (Avenida 24 de Julho 49)
Time Out redeveloped this old market space in 2014, creating a fabulous array of food vendors housed around a elegant courtyard of tables and counters.
Restaurante Ponto Final (Cais do Ginjal 72, Cacilhas)
Overlooking the 25 April Bridge and right on the Tagus, Poto Final is on the south side of the river, near the ferry stop. Walk along the river, beside the tumbledown warehouses until you see their tables and genuine menu.