It’s easy to love Lisbon.
I don’t know what it is about Lisbon (or Lisboa as it’s called in Portuguese). Having read a lot about the city, I had resolved to one day make a trip and see the fabled Portuguese capital for myself. I finally did last October. My thoughts? Let’s just say that Lisbon lives up to the hype.
One of Europe’s older and more fascinating cities, the capital of Portugal is filled with amazing things to see and do. The city presents a mix of old, narrow streets with buildings that are several centuries old next to modern boulevards, apartments and office buildings. There’s really a lot to do here and compared to larger European cities (London, Paris, Munich), Lisbon is relatively cheap.
Below though are some of what I believe are the best and must-see sites that you should explore should you find yourself in Lisbon.
First though, a little background.
The History of Lisbon
I know you probably want to dive in and learn more about what there is actually to see in Lisbon. I’m of the belief though that putting into context what you’re exploring only enhances your experience, which is why I’ve included a bit of Lisbon history below. If you want to go directly to Lisbon’s attractions, Click here or simply scroll down.
While the Tagus river valley was inhabited during prehistoric times, Lisbon’s recorded history begins around 800 BCE. It was around this time that groups of Phoenicians set up trading posts in the region, with the Greeks arriving a few hundred years later and doing the same. By the year 220 BCE, the Romans moved in and became permanent settlers in the region.
Their main purpose for venturing so far from the Italian peninsula was to prevent their archenemy, Carthaginians, from settling the Iberian Peninsula. In order to aid with this, the Romans exempted the local inhabitants from taxes and granted them Roman citizenship. They also set up garrisons which grew into towns and cities, one of them becoming the municipality of Felicitus Julia, the site of today’s Lisbon.
Though it possessed a good harbor, due to its distance from Rome, Lisbon remained a rather insignificant town during its Roman years. When the Roman Empire finally collapsed in the 5th century, the area around Lisbon was overrun by various “barbarian” tribes, Most notable of these were the Alans, Vandals and later the Visigoths, who ruled the area from the capital city of Toledo.
Ulishbona, as Lisbon was known as during Visigoth rule, remained a quiet town until the arrival in 711 of the Moors, North African Muslims of Arab and Berber origin. Their occupation saw the town expand into a city. Recognizing its strategic importance as a port, the Moors built up the fortifications of the Lisbon including the construction of a massive city wall, parts of which can still be seen today.
Though the rulers were Muslims, the population of the city remained predominantly Christian for several centuries after the Moorish conquest. The Moors continued to rule uninterrupted until 1108 when the Norwegian crusader-king Sigurd I raided the Lisbon on his way to the Holy Land. Sigurd though could not hold onto the city and barely three years later, Muslim forces under the Almoravid dynasty took it back.
Lisbon and the Reconquista
Though Sigurd had been defeated, Moorish rule of Lisbon was slowly coming to an end. The Reconquista, or the “re-conquest” of Iberia by Christian forces was bashing through the Muslim kingdoms of the peninsula like a battering ram on an increasingly feeble wooden door. By the 11th century, the armies of Catholic kings had smashed through and conquered most of northern and eastern Spain. Finally in 1147, a crusader army led by Alfonso I, the man who would become Portugal’s first king, laid siege to the city and eventually conquered it. This ended Muslim rule of Lisbon once and for all.
In 1255, Lisbon was made the capital of the Kingdom of Portugal, a distinction that it holds to this day.
Lisbon during Portugal’s Golden Age
Though made the capital of the newly founded Kingdom of Portugal, Lisbon remained a relatively quiet city that didn’t really see a lot of action between the 1200s and early 1400s. At the time, Portugal was not an extremely wealthy kingdom and its rulers were more focused on battling the remaining Moorish fiefdoms on the Iberian Peninsula. It was really only after the 1450s that Lisbon began to develop into the cultural and commercial center that it is today.
It was from Lisbon that the famed explorer Vasco da Gama embarked on his voyage around the continent of Africa to the western shores of India. A few years earlier, Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered what is today the country of Brazil. Such exploration and expansion fueled Portugal’s rise as a medieval superpower and allowed it to set up valuable colonies in South America, South Asia, swaths of Africa and in Asia. In time, the wealth that was found and taken from these lands fueled and financed Portugal’s vast seaborne empire, making it one of the most powerful countries in the world. Due to this, Lisbon became an extremely prosperous city.
Succession crisis and Spanish rule
The end of the 16th century brought a succession crisis to Portugal. It began with Portuguese King Sebastião I and his wars with the Muslim kingdoms of North Africa. Sebastião’s piousness and valor in battle was the stuff of legend; his foresight when it came to family planning was not. Fighting against a Muslim army in what is now Ksar el-Kebir in Morocco, Sebastião flung himself into the heart of a battle. Outnumbered, Sebastião was killed, though his body never conclusively identified. His successor and elderly relative, the Cardinal Henrique, was given the throne upon the sad news of Sebastião’s death but as luck would have it, he died barely two years later. Being a Cardinal, he also didn’t have an heir.
This brought into the picture Sebastião’s great uncle, King Philip II. Of course Philip was no ordinary king. A more proper and representative title for him would have been “Emperor of the Majority of the Known World” because in reality, that’s what he was. He arguably the most powerful monarch of his time (until a British Queen named Elizabeth destroyed his precious Spanish Armada). Being the most powerful member of Sebastião’s extended family, Philip declared that he was the rightful heir to the Portuguese throne. This claim though didn’t go very well with the Portuguese nobles, but there was little that they could do to resist; Philip after all was the most powerful man in Europe and was accustomed to getting his way. In order to save face, the Portuguese nobles temporarily accepted Philip as their ruler on the conditions that he governed the country according to the already established laws as well as keep Portuguese the official language of the country. In essence, the union between the two countries was to be in name only; the Portuguese would recognize Phillip II as their king but more or less govern themselves, at least until a proper heir could be agreed on.
Philip II agreed to terms and for the rest of his reign, kept his part of the bargain. His successors however did not. Under his heir Philip III, Portugal and Lisbon’s prosperity started to decline. In addition, the autonomy that had originally between promised to the country had also weakened as the Spanish Crown further centralized rule of all if its territories. By the time of Philip IV, the Crown considered Portugal to be little more than a Spanish province with a different language, much like the Basque or Catalan regions of Spain.
Finally after 60 years of lackluster Spanish rule, the Portuguese nobles decided to take action. In 1640, a revolt broke out that declared the Duke of Braganza, John II, as the rightful King of Portugal. Ruling as John IV of Portugal and founding a new dynasty, the House of Braganza, he declared Portugal’s independence from Spain. A war broke out with the Spanish resisting the John IV, but after 28 years of fighting, Spain finally let go of Portugal as one of its own.
Earthquake of 1755
With independence and Portugal’s colonial empire restored, the century or so after the succession crisis were good years for Lisbon. In the mid 1750s, Lisbon was still one of the wealthiest cities in world. However, that changed in 1755 when a massive earthquake and an ensuing tsunami devastated most of the city. It is believed that close to 100,000 people may have perished in what has been deemed one of the most deadly natural disasters in human history.
Despite this nearly crippling blow, life went on and much of Lisbon was rebuilt. This was due in part to Portugal’s then Prime Minister, Marquês de Pombal. Much of what you see today in Lisbon is due to his leadership and vision (more of these sites below).
Napoleon’s invasion and French occupation
In the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte’s French dictatorship was pretty much at war with everyone. Hating Great Britain more than any other nation, in 1807, Napoleon “strongly encouraged” the Portuguese to both close their ports to British ships and confiscate any property held by British citizens. The Portuguese government ignored this command, which obviously enraged Napoleon. In retaliation, Napoleon signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau with Spain. This new agreement allowed the French to invade Portugal through Spain should they deem it necessary, which the insulted Napoleon did. In 1808, a French army crossed the Spanish frontier into Portugal. With a fleet of British warships defending them, the Portuguese Royal Family fled Lisbon and sailed to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. From there they ruled Portugal in exile, though with Napoleon in power, this was in name only. However after Napoleon’s defeat, the Royal Family returned to Lisbon and once again established itself as the head of government.
Though much of the European continent was politically unstable during the revolutions of the 19th century and more or less obliterated by the 20th century’s two World Wars, Lisbon, due to its location on the periphery of Europe, remained stable and without any damage. This has allowed the city to naturally progress into the modern and commercially prosperous center that it is today. Despite modernization, Lisbon still retains much of its old world charm and is by far one of the coolest and most interesting cities of the world.
Main Neighborhoods of Lisbon
Like any large city, Lisbon has many neighborhoods, each with their own character.
Alfama – This is the oldest and in my opinion, the most interesting of all of Lisbon’s neighborhoods. If you like history, it’s a section of the city not to be missed. Originally built by the Moors, Alfama is where the Sé Cathedral and other early medieval buildings can be found.
Baixa – This is the main commercial district of Lisbon. Rebuilt in its present form after the great earthquake of 1755, Baixa is home to Praça do Comércio and Rossio Square. A rather elegant area, it is here that one can find chic stores, restaurants and the offices of multinational corporations such as international banks.
Chiado – West of Baixa is Chiado, Lisbon’s main shopping district. Some of the country’s most exclusive shops are located here including the famed Vista Alegre china and porcelain boutique. Another popular spot is A Brasileira, a coffeehouse that was once a gathering place for the Portuguese literati.
Bairro Alto – The name literally translates to “Upper City” and it is atop of one of the legendary seven hills of Lisbon. Despite being on a hill, this neighborhood miraculously suffered little damage in the earthquake of 1755. It’s also a place filled with some of Lisbon’s trendiest bars, restaurants and antique shops.
What to See and Do in Lisbon
If there’s one section of the city that should be visited in Lisbon, it’s the Alfama neighborhood. Consisting of multiple hills and windy streets, Alfama is hands down the most fascinating part of the city, at least from a historical perspective. In fact back in the day, Alfama use to be the city. Right on the riverfront, this used to be the area where wealthy Moorish families used to live until the Middle Ages when residents stated to fear earthquakes (it’s a pretty hilly area where building foundations were believed to have been weak). As the rich moved out, poorer fishermen moved in. Ironically though during the devastating earthquake of 1755, the Alfama neighborhood was one of the few areas of Lisbon that was left standing. There are several buildings here whose foundations date back over 1100 years. It is here that you’ll find the Castle of St. George, the Lisbon Cathedral (Sé), the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, the Church of Santa Engrácia, several small but interesting museums and the Alfama’s famous Tram 28.
Though a good number of Lisbon’s most significant historical sites are located here, Alfama is like any other neighborhood in that it’s an area thriving with local markets, residents living their colorful houses, churches and traditional taverns and eateries. In fact, some of Lisbon’s best restaurants with more traditional Portuguese cuisine are located here. You’ll also find many small venues featuring live Fado, a melancholy but popular style of Portuguese folk music.
The neighborhood of late has become a bit trendy with chic organic only cafés and boutiques springing up, but overall, Alfama still maintains its old world charm. Let’s see what the neighborhood has in store…
Castle of São Jorge
From a historical perspective, the Castle of São Jorge (a.k.a. Castle of St. George) is the most interesting and impressive structure in Lisbon. Following the capture of Lisbon by Portugal’s first king, Alfonso I, renamed the Moorish citadel after St. George and transformed it into a castle where the Portuguese Royal Family lived until 1511. After this, the castle was used as a theatre, arms depot and even a prison.
Today though, the Castle of St. George is one of the most popular tourist spots in Lisbon, and it’s not hard to see why. Not only is what remains of the castle and its museum fun to explore, but also the views of Lisbon from its ramparts are pretty awesome.
Castle of São Jorge Official Website
Rua de Santa Cruz do Castelo, 1100-129
The other great monument in the Alfama neighborhood is Cathedral of Sé. You could call it the “Notre Dame” of Lisbon. Built on top of what used to be a mosque, the cathedral’s construction goes back to 1150, just three years after Lisbon was conquered from the Moors. However due to several earthquakes since then, parts of the cathedral have gone through repair and renovation. With its two tall bell towers, the exterior of the building is in traditional Romanesque style. While also impressive, the interior of the cathedral is a bit simpler and contains nine gothic-style chapels. There are several sarcophagi of various nobles and knights with intricately carved stone caskets.
The cloister is one of the really impressive parts of the cathedral as it’s been turned into an archaeological site and reveals multiple layers from Lisbon’s history. The earliest known parts date from the Roman era. Visigoth and Moorish elements have also been uncovered.
The other cool part of the Sé cathedral is the old treasury. Located at the top of a stone staircase towards the front of the structure, the treasury contains religious objects made of gold and silver, plenty of colorful old manuscripts on display, old paintings and impressive works of art, ornately decorated ecclesiastical robes and even some relics that are believed to be from St. Vincent.
Largo da Sé, 1100-585
Church of Santo Antonio
This little church’s claim to fame is that it is allegedly built on the site where Santo Antonio (St. Anthony) was born. Most of the church was destroyed in the earthquake of 1855, but Santo Antonio’s crypt survived. It has remained a popular place for devotees of the saint as well as newlyweds, since St. Anthony is believed to bring good luck to married couples.
It is said that the rebuilding of the church was partially funded from the collection of coins by local children. As a reminder of their devotion and service to the rebuilding of the church, there are coins spread out across the floor of the crypt’s small chapel. There is also a small museum dedicated to St. Anthony. It houses a few exhibits, the most noteworthy being a titled panel depicting the saint preaching to the fishes.
Rua das Pedras Negras 1, 1100-401
São Vicente da Fora
Named after St. Vincent, Lisbon’s patron saint, this strikingly beautiful church and monastery is most famous for being the final resting place of Portugal’s kings and queens from the Bragança Dynasty (save for two). One of the more famous tombs is that of King Carlos I and his son Luis Felipe, watched over by a stone statue of a woman praying for them. Both royals were assassinated in Lisbon’s Praça do Comércio in 1908. Also inside the complex is the Museu do Patriarcado, a small museum that contains a good collection of sacred art. Outside are life-sized statues of St. Vincent, St. Augustine and St. Sebastian.
Largo de São Vicente, 1170
Feira da Ladra
The name Feira da Ladra literally means “thieves market” in Portuguese, though I’m not sure just why it earned this name. However, it’s an interesting place to visit because it gives you a glimpse of what daily life in Alfama was like for centuries before the modern age. It is here that you can peruse the flea market’s busy stalls and buy anything from fresh fish, fruits, vegetables and collectibles such as crafts, jewelry, old coins and books, toys, azulejos and clothes.
Campo de Santa Clara, 1100-472
Lisbon’s Baxia, or lower district, was built after the devastating earthquake of 1755. The credit for this goes to the country’s influential Prime Minster of the time, Marquês de Pombol. Well organized and using a grid system (you’ll find this refreshing after walking through the meandering streets of Alfama), Baixa contains Lisbon’s Praça do Comércio, Rossio Square, the Baixa Tower and a bunch of good restaurants and cafés. Being probably the busiest part of the Lisbon, during the day and on weekends its quite crowded. At night though it becomes a bit of a ghost town, save perhaps for Rossio Square.
Rossio Square (Pedro IV Square)
Rossio or Pedro IV Square is one of Lisbon’s most popular spaces. It has been the city’s main gathering place since medieval times when sorts of events took place here: joyous celebrations, large anti-government protests and even some executions. Today though it’s a relatively calm place frequented by families and friends for walks or to just hang out and dine at one of the squares many restaurants. Just north of Rossio Square is the Teatro Nacional, Portugal’s most prestigious venue for the performing arts.
Baixa Tower (Elevador de Santa Justa)
This is as the name suggests, a tower that also functions as an elevator. While it’s Neo-Gothic façade is not something I’m too hot about, the elevator does a good job of transporting individuals from Baixa to the neighborhood of Largo do Carmo in the Barrio Alto district. In addition, the views from the top of downtown Lisbon, the Castle of St. George (see above) and the ruined Carmo Church make vising Santa Justa worth it.
This is one of Lisbon’s prettier hilltop neighborhoods with a great view of Alfama and the Tagus River. It also contains some really good traditional restaurants along with trendy bars and some clubs. At the moment though we’ll just focus on the more historical aspects of the neighborhood.
Carmo Church and Convent (Igreja do Carmo)
Back in the day, the Carmo Church was quite a site. Built between 1389 to 1423, this was once one of the most beautiful religious structures in the land. Unfortunately the devastating earthquake of 1755 destroyed most of the church during mass, killing most of the worshippers who were in attendence that day. The church was never rebuilt to be kept as a reminder of the destructive events of that day infamous day.
Today, what’s left of the ruins has been converted into an archaeological museum, the Museu Arqueológico do Carmo. It contains the church’s old nave, some tombs, azulejos and some Roman and South American artifacts.
Largo do Carmo,
The Belem Tower (a.k.a. St. Vincent’s Tower) is essentially a baby castle that was first constructed in 1515 to help defend the Lisbon harbor. It’s a bit hard to see just how such a small structure at the mouth of the Tagus River could aid in defending what at the time was the capital of one of the world’s mightiest colonial empires. However, what the tower lacks in intimidation it makes up for with it’s intricate Manueline-style design. During the Portuguese Age of Discovery, the Belem tower was one of the last things that sailors saw as they left Lisbon for their adventures abroad.
You can venture to the top of this one by climbing its 120 stairs for better view of Lisbon’s harbor. The tower looks especially nice when lit up at night.
Av. Brasília, 1400-038
Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos)
Not too far from the Belem Tower is the majestic “Monument to the Discoveries,” known locally as Padrão dos Descobrimentos. Being 50 meters or so in height, this huge structure is really hard to miss. The monument is in the shape of a caravel and is graced with 33 statues of famous Portuguese explorers including Vasco da Gama, Pedro Álvares Cabral, Ferdinand Magellan and others. It was built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th death anniversary of the one who really started Portugal’s exploratory quest, Prince Henry the Navigator. The area around the monument is also a great place for taking a stroll.
Av. Brasília, 1400-038
Jeronimo Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos)
Built on the foundations of a modest chapel in the 1500s, the gigantic Gothic and Moorish-style structure Jeronimo Monastery is one of a kind. At around 300 yards in length, it’s one of the largest limestone religious buildings in the world.
The monastery actually started as a chapel that sailors were known to frequent for prayer before their long and dangerous voyages abroad. Due to the riches that many of them were bringing back from places as far away as India and Brazil, King Manuel decided to reward them (as well as inspire future sailors) by building a place of worship that was worthy of his ever-expanding empire. In 1501, Manuel commissioned the construction of a larger church with a monastery and filled it with monks of Order of Saint Jerome (hence the name “Jeronimo”). The main purpose of the monastery was to care to the spiritual needs of embarking sailors. The monastery is also the final resting place for royals from the House of Aviz and other notables such as the famed explorer, Vasco da Gama.
Praça do Império 1400-206
A good way to learn more about Portugal’s history is through Lisbon’s many museums. Below are some of the more popular ones:
The National Museum of Ancient Art
The National Museum of Ancient Art (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga) is one of Lisbon’s best museums. Located in part of an old 17th-century palace set atop the remains of the old St. Albert Carmelite monastery, the museum was opened in 1884 and called the Museu das Janelas Verdes (meaning “Museum of the Green Windows”).
The museum is best known for its collections of European Art (mostly Gothic and Renaissance works), Portuguese painting and sculpture, Chinese ceramics, Asian and African art and gold and silver jewelry and ecclesiastical artifacts.
Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga
R. das Janelas Verdes, 1249-017
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian
I said above that the National Museum of Ancient Art is one of Lisbon’s best, but the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian might actually be the best of all of Lisbon’s museums. It without a doubt has one of the finest private art collections in the world. Opened in 1969, the museum is part of the Gulbenkian Foundation, named after Colouste Gulbenkian, an Armenian oil tycoon who bequeathed much of his fortune to start it. Along with the museum, the foundation supports many cultural endeavors and has its own concert halls, orchestra, modern art galleries and a library.
The museum’s collection of works of art and archeology spans the entire globe and over 4,000 years of history.
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian
Av. de Berna 45
Museum of the Orient
Recently opened in 2008, the Museum of the Orient (Fundação Oriente Museu) is really one of a kind. The exhibits are thoughtfully displayed and consist of everything from intricate wooden carvings taken from Portugal’s African colonies to Japanese screen art and golden religious objects from parts of China. Another highlight of the museum is the Kowk On Collection that houses something like 13,000 exhibits and interesting artifacts. These come from from a range of geographic regions including the Middle East, India and the Far East. If you’re even remotely interested in Portugal’s colonial history, this is definitely the place for you.
There is also a cultural center that is part of the museum complex where a diversity of events, ranging from drama to cooking, are held.
Musuem of the Orient (a.k.a. Fundação Oriente Museu)
Av. Brasília Doca de Alcântara Norte, 1350-362
National Tile Museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo)
Like the Museu do Oriente (see above), the National Tile Museum is something that is unique to Portugal. Known locally as the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, this museum houses one of the best collections of azulejos, a style of decorative tile famous in both Portugal and Spain. The only one of its kind in Portugal, the museum displays the story of azulejos from the time of the Moors up to 20th century. Tiles may seem a bit boring, but the ones here are strikingly awesome with their picturesque scenes and dazzling colors.
National Tile Museum Official Site
R. Me. Deus 4
So, stick with these sites and you’ll have a historically satisfying time exploring Lisbon.
Sources and Further Reading:
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