Modern Lisbon is suffused with the memories of past centuries that emanate from the cobblestone streets and crenellated castle walls. The Gothic and Baroque architecture is complemented by sleek boutique hotels and waterfront development, and sunny days and warm weather — not to mention access to golden Atlantic beaches — make the Portuguese capital a permanent draw to the westernmost part of Europe’s Iberian Peninsula.

What is it known for?
Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Europe -- older than London and Paris -- and its position at the intersection of the Tagus River and the Atlantic Ocean made Lisbon the jumping off point for many 15th-century Portuguese explorers, including Vasco da Gama during the city’s golden age.

In the last 20 years, the city’s revival has been astonishing. As the 1994 European Capital of Culture and the host of the 1998 World Expo (for which Santiago Calatrava designed the soaring Oriente train station), Lisbon’s antique neighbourhoods got a facelift, while rundown areas around the port were completely revitalized. Many of the city’s derelict buildings have been renovated in the last decade.

Although the current economic climate has taken a bite out of Portugal’s economy and the country is facing a recession, Lisbon is still capable of putting on a fabulous time. From inexpensive, but delicious Portuguese wines to coffee and pastries in the cafes of the Alfama district (the city’s oldest), lisboetas do not shun the good life. Being further blessed with a subtropical climate, mostly sunny days and nearby beaches, the city’s main selling point is a high quality of life.

Where do you want to live?
Some of the most popular neighbourhoods to live in are those close to the Tagus River and the Alfama, such as Bairro Alto and Chiado, with their narrow streets and lively nightlife. Much of Chiado was destroyed in a fire in 1988, but has since been rebuilt and brought back to life. Also popular, especially with foreigners, are small neighbourhoods “uptown” that have a village-like feel, plus amenities like schools, pharmacies, restaurants and parks. “These include Alvalade closer to the airport, Amoreiras and the Avenidas Novas district,” said Pedro Ribeiro, general manager of Real Living Portugal, a real estate agency. “The site of the former World Expo near the river is also popular.”

There are areas of northern Lisbon that are gentrifying, but so far, they are more popular with locals than with foreigners. Lumiar is home to palaces of former aristocrats and the largest park in the city, Quinta das Conchas; Benfica is home to the Estadia da Luz football stadium and the Benfica football club; and Telheiras is between the two.

Side trips
When lisboetas want to get away, they go to the Atlantic coast. The wealthy resort town of Cascais to the west of the city is a short drive or train ride away and attracts locals and tourists for its beaches. Even closer is the Costa da Caparica on the south side of the river, with golden, sandy beaches and lively markets. Sintra, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is in the Sintra Mountains, close to Lisbon and filled with historic castles and ornate palaces.

Many people go farther afield for a longer holiday. “It’s common to rent a house or apartment in the Algarve where the sea isn’t as cold,” said Joël Le Déroff, a Frenchman who spent a year working in Lisbon. Lisbon Airport is inside the city (there are plans to replace it with one outside city limits) and provides flights to all over Europe and elsewhere. Lisbon is about a seven-hour flight to New York and a nine-hour flight to Rio de Janeiro.

Practical info
The recession has affected Lisbon’s property market and foreclosures are up across the country. Prices are mainly flat in the city, although in central Lisbon “they are hanging on”, according to Ribeiro. Mortgages are no longer easy to get which has put the brakes on many purchases. As a result, many people are renting rather than buying property.

In central Lisbon, the price of a two-bed flat ranges from 250,000 to 300,000 euros, while the rent for the same flat is around 2,000 euros a month. “People should keep in mind that we are very transparent now and there’s not a lot of red tape like there used to be,” said Ribeiro. “There is no danger you are buying something you shouldn’t.” And living in Lisbon still has its benefits, even today. “Lisbon has a holiday atmosphere,” said Le Déroff.

Further information:
The Portugal News: English-language news about Lisbon, the Algarve and other regions

Go Lisbon: comprehensive blog covering Lisbon’s neighbourhoods, nightlife, restaurants and shopping

Hey Portugal: news and lifestyle magazine for ex-pats