On the morning of November 1755, Lisbon was struck by one of the deadliest earthquakes in history. It measured between 8.5 and 9.0 on the Richter scale, split the city center with fissures 16 feet wide, and killed perhaps 40,000 people (out of a population of 200,000). Shocked survivors gathered by the docks on the River Tagus, which had turned to a giant mudflat, littered with wreckage, as the sea mysteriously retreated. Many of them were killed by the tsunami that engulfed the city center 40 minutes later.
Still, every cloud has a silver lining. It means that Lisbon is a more perfect weekend destination than perhaps any other European capital: almost all the major architectural sites you might otherwise have had to see from its 15th-century golden era as the capital of the world’s preeminent seafaring, exploring and gold-mining nation have been obliterated. All that is left to do is stroll, relax and pig out on endless Pastel de Nata custard cakes.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I highly recommend the Jerónimos monastery, which somehow survived the quake. It was richly funded by a royal tax on the proceeds of trade in Africa and the Orient and built in the 16th century in a delicate, ornate and very beautiful architectural style called Manueline, after Manuel I (1495-1521), the king who founded it. You should definitely wander around the cloisters — check out the treasury of gold and jeweled artifacts in the attached museum, if you can be bothered to wait in line — and also pop into the chapel so you can tick the tomb of Vasco da Gama, the first European to sail to India, off your bucket list.
So now that leaves you well over half your long weekend free to do very little. Lisbon is perfect for this. We spent a lot of our time just chilling by the pool of our hotel, a former 16th-century palace called The One Palácio da Anunciada, whose central location made it very easy to dip in and out of cultural excursions and foodie or café trips according to our whim.
By ‘we’ I mean myself and my wife, aka the Fawn, whose very big birthday it was. Because I’m an utterly hopeless husband, I’d been quite incapable of finding her a decent present. But I thought a boutique hotel, with massage, lots of nice food and a bit of sun would just about get me off the hook. And so they all did.
What we both loved about Lisbon, apart from the absence of culture-pressure, was its easygoing friendliness. Nobody was trying to rip you off. Every restaurant you went to was at least good enough, and often much better than that, like the place not far from my hotel where I had some of the best grilled octopus I’d ever eaten. Just as well really, because it could also be the last octopus I’ll ever eat: not long afterwards I watched a television documentary which revealed that octopuses are just about the most intelligent creatures on the planet after humans, with emotions and moods and clever thoughts and everything. Ah well.
One more tip: make sure to get yourself a Lisboa card, which will get you in to all the main attractions without having to wait in maddening lines. And that’s it. You’re set. Go!
This article is in The Spectator’s July 2020 US edition.