For a few decades now, Lisbon has been one of Europe’s best-kept secrets.
Nestled in the mouth of a Tagus river, Portugal’s majestic capital rests on seven hills that provide breathtaking views of natural scenery and red terracotta-tiled buildings.
Portugal’s imperial legacy has given Lisbon added character as well. Impressive monuments, palaces and churches loom tall in the city’s skyline.
A burgeoning nightlife, affordable prices and a growing artistic scene has made early 21st century Lisbon one of Europe’s most intriguing destinations.
Castelo de São Jorge and Alfama – Website
Perched on top of the highest point of Lisbon, this Moorish-style castle provides the best views of the city and is an absolute must for tourists. Inside the castle walls are restaurants, exhibits, and a periscope. There is also a beautifully preserved medieval village that is very much worth seeing.
The surrounding Alfama neighborhood probably has the most character of any Lisbon neighbourhood. The Lisbon Cathedral, São Vicente de Fora Church, and the Church of Santa Engrácia (National Pantheon) are some of the city’s most impressive civic sites. The Miradouro de Santa Luzia provides some great views of the city and Tagus River.
The best way to get to the Castelo de São Jorge from the centre of the city is to take Tram 28 from either Praça Luís de Camões or Praça da Figueira, and get off at Miradouro de Santa Luzia. From there, it is a short walk up a hill to the castle walls. Alfama is also famous for its Fado houses. Clube de Fado, Parreirinha de Alfama and Sr. Fado are among the most famous. Senhor Vinho in Lapa district is also highly regarded.
Once central Lisbon’s most dilapidated neighbourhood, Bairro Alto has undergone a vast transformation over the last few decades. A subculture of artists and writers are turning the area into one of the city’s most attractive areas. Shops, cafes, restaurants and independent art galleries are opening up everywhere. And at night Bairro Alto’s night clubs and bars come alive.
São Roque Church is another of Lisbon’s impressive monuments. The near-by Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara offers some incredible panoramic views of the city. Principe Real with its beautiful foliage and architectural marvels is also very much worth seeing, particularly during the day.
Just south of Bairro Alto is the opulent neighbourhood of Chiado. The district is primarily known for its bustling street life, lavish storefronts and high-end fashion boutiques. The Rua Garrett has long been considered one of the city’s most famous streets, and includes the cafe A Brasileira, which was once frequented by famous writers and intellectuals. A statue of early 20th century poet Fernando Pessoa is situated in front of the entrance.
Other main attractions include the recently renovated Armazéns do Chiado, an impressive shopping complex. The Convento do Carmo is a historical building damaged during the 1755 earthquake that survives today as a open air archaeological museum. Chiado also includes beautiful squares devoted to the memory of Luis de Camões and Eça de Queiroz that are also very much worth visiting.
In the centre of the city lies Baixa which is sometimes referred to as the Baixa Pombalina, named after the Portuguese ruler Marquess of Pombal. Baixa is a cluster of narrow streets that are perfectly symmetrical to one another. And several of the streets are pedestrian-only, although tourists need to be mindful of trams and automobiles that cross at certain intersections. The neighbourhood is full of cafes, pastry shops, restaurants and fashion boutiques.
The Santa Justa Elevator offers some good views of the city. But the recently opened lookout point on the top of the triumphal arch at Praça do Comércio offers great views of the Baixa district and the River Tagus as well. The Praça do Comércio, Rua Augusta, not to mention near-by Praça dos Restauradores , Rua das Portas de Santo Antão, Praça da Figueira, and Praça do Rossio are all essential. Further north, the Avenida da Liberdade is a tree-lined boulevard, designed with the Champs-Élysées in mind. The street is home to the city’s most famous hotels, shops and designer brands.
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian – Website
Armenian-Turkish businessman Calouste Gulbenkian amassed an impressive collection of art over his lifetime. He accepted political asylum in Portugal in 1942 and died in Lisbon in 1955. Upon his death, Gulbenkian entrusted his assets to the Portuguese state. This museum opened in 1969 to house his personal collection. Admission to the permanent exhibition is only €5, which makes it an excellent value considering the number of artifacts, paintings, and sculptures the museum has. If you want to see the temporary exhibits as well, prices go up to as much as €14.
On display are artifacts from Ancient Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, Persia, the Far East and more. There are also paintings and sculptures from many famous artists, including Rubens, Rembrandt, Auguste Rodin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Édouard Manet, and Claude Monet. It is worth mentioning that some of the items were attained after Gulbenkian’s death by the foundation that bares his name. The museum is located just north of São Sebastião metro station. Or use Praça de Espanha metro station, head east by crossing the major intersection.
Oceanário de Lisboa and Parque das Nações – Website
Built for the 1998 World Exposition, the Parque das Nações area is just east of the centre of Lisbon. It is often cited as one of the finest examples of urban re-development in recent decades. Many of the buildings used during the event have been converted to government offices, cultural centres and for other practical uses. Vasco da Gama shopping mall, Altice Arena, Gare do Oriente train station and the Vasco da Gama Tower are all impressive architectural marvels.
The city’s Oceanarium is also located in the area. Oceanário de Lisboa is the largest indoor aquarium in Europe and one of the biggest in the world. It also claims to be the single most visited attraction is Lisbon. The building itself is another architectural marvel and it has a wide variety of sea life and exhibits to enjoy. General adult admission is €16.20. It is easily accessible from Oriente metro station which is located at the north side of Parque das Nações.
Jerónimos Monastery – Website
Commissioned by Manuel I, The monastery was built as a monument to Portugal’s great seafaring achievements of the late 15th century, early 16th century. It remains the finest example of Manueline architecture anywhere in the world. The massive complex includes several exhibits, tombs, paintings and an impressive cathedral. It is a great mystery why Jerónimos is not more famous outside Portugal.
The monastery includes the tombs of many Portuguese kings including Manuel I, but also explorer Vasco da Gama and poet Luís de Camões. Located in the western suburb of Santa Maria de Belém (Often referred to as just ‘Belém’), the building and its near-by attractions are easily accessible by car. There is no metro station near-by. But if you catch Tram 15 from Praça da Figueira or Praça do Comércio it will take you there. It is well worth it.
Torre de Belém and Padrão dos Descobrimentos
Just a short walk south from the Jerónimos Monastery, lies these two great attractions. Torre de Belém (Belém Tower) is another excellent example of Manueline architecture. It was originally commissioned as a part of a defense network for the city by John II. Today, it remains one of Lisbon’s most recognizable symbols. Although largely empty inside, the tower’s main features are its impressive design and its amazing views of the Tagus River.
The near-by Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) was built under the Antonio Salazar regime for the 1940 Portuguese World Fair. The craftsmanship is probably the most striking feature of this beautiful monument. All the major figures of Portugal’s age of discovery are represented here. It is purposely designed to look like a ship sailing out to sea. At the front is Henry the Navigator, holding a model ship in his hands. The sunsets in this part of the city offer endless photo opportunities.
Cristo Rei – Website
It might not be as famous as the one in Rio de Janieiro but if you are in the city for a few days, its well worth the visit. The shrine is actually located south of the river in the town of Almada. It was built in gratitude to Portugal being spared from invasion during the Second World War. The building itself is not particularly impressive but the view of the 25 April Bridge, Tagus river and Lisbon in the distance is what makes the trip memorable.
The statue is about 5 kilometers from Lisbon centre. Driving there is just a matter of heading to the 25 April Bridge and a short drive to the site from there. If you are taking public transportation, you must know that the metro does not extend that far but there is a train service. Take the Fertagus line to Pragal station. It will take you across the river. There are several buses that will take you into town from there.
Sintra – Website
If you have time for a day trip while in the Portuguese capital, then Sintra is the top destination. It is often called Portugal’s Versailles and with good reason. It was the former haunt of the Portuguese crown and aristocracy. However, there are multiple sites to see with National Palace, Pena Palace and Moorish Castle being the highlights.
Sintra is between 30-45 minutes from the centre of Lisbon, depending on the time of day and which station you get on. But getting there is not especially difficult. Again, the Metro does not extend that far north but luckily there is the Comboios de Portugal system. Take the orange line that begins at Oriente until the end of the line at Mira Sintra-Meleças. There are several buses available that will take you to where you want to go. Do not walk because the sites are quite a long way out.
All photos in this article were taken by Rui Miguel Martins