Lisbon, Europe’s westernmost capital and Portugal’s cultural hub, lies on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Tagus River. The city is a delightful mix of must-see museums, castles and cathedrals. Its charming neighborhoods feature residences decorated with colorful tiled facades, sidewalk cafes along pedestrian thoroughfares and enchantingly original boutiques. The sidewalks are often paved with black and white volcanic stones in patterns specific to this city.
Lisbon has a refreshingly noncommercial feel, old-fashioned and relaxed, and exploring on foot is a delight. Portugal enjoyed its heyday long ago, and some of the older buildings that reflect this era are as opulent as they get. However, much of the city was leveled in the devastating earthquake of 1755, so visitors will notice that the city’s architecture is not as old as that found in some European capitals. Prices tend to be lower than in the rest of Europe, especially for meals, wine and entrance fees to the main attractions. If you like fish and shellfish, you’ve come to the right city. Pastry shops abound, many with lovely storefronts, providing sit-down respite for coffee, tea and something sweet.
Lisbon is a city of hills, and the up-and-down geography adds to its charm. One of the best ways to experience it is via a tram ride through the medieval Alfama district, Baixa (the central business district) and the Bairro Alto (the major restaurant and nightlife area). Both the Alfama and Bairro Alto districts have wonderful miradoures, or viewpoints, to take in the city below, the nearby hills and the wide Tagus River.
Lisbon is a perfect jumping-off point for day trips to Portugal’s resort towns — such as Estoril, near the mouth of the Tagus, and lovely Sintra, with its palaces up in the hills — or a Catholic pilgrimage to Fatima.
Alfama, the ancient Moorish quarter, is the oldest in Lisbon — though some of it had to be rebuilt in the 18th century, following the devastating earthquake of 1755. It’s fun for its cafes, little shops and labyrinthine streets.
The main attraction there is the 10-towered Castelo de Sao Jorge, or Castle of St. George. Built in the 11th century, then expanded into a royal palace in the 13th century, it’s one of the few structures that survived the quake. The views down to the Baixa district, across to the Bairro Alto and out along the Tagus River are splendid. Geese and ducks roam around the castle gardens, which are surrounded by native trees. Be sure to visit the relatively new museum that displays the artifacts collected on the site, from the Romans to the Moors.
Directly above Santa Apolonia sits Igreja de Santa Engracia e Panteao Nacional (also known as the National Pantheon), a whitish Baroque marble church with pink and brown marble interiors, built over almost 300 years (1681 to 1966). Since the beginning of the 20th century, many rulers and national heroes have been buried there. Entry is free, but you can pay a small fee to climb 181 shallow steps to the inside of the great dome and onto the roof for a 360-degree view.
Also, check out Lisbon Cathedral which dates to the 12th century. The interior features are more impressive than the exterior because the structure was rebuilt after the earthquake.
The Baixa and Rossio districts are the central shopping and tourist areas. Several attractive parallel streets run between Rossio Square and Praca do Commercio, and it’s worth picking ones with little car traffic for a peaceful wander on foot. Some of the older storefronts are simply beautiful, with art nouveau facades. Note that most small shops take long siestas, so be prepared for a lunch break between 1 and 3 p.m. On nice days, cafes set up tables in the center of the traffic-free Rua Augusta, which is a better place for a drink than a meal.
The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum houses the art collection of this Armenian oil industry tycoon. He moved from Paris to Lisbon in 1942 during WWII and died there in 1955. His foundation created this outstanding museum in 1969, located in a lovely park just outside the center but easily reached by metro. The collection is almost encyclopedic, including Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian, Far Eastern, Asian and European art and sculpture, as well as fabulous carpets, extraordinary silverware and an outstanding collection of Rene Lalique jewelry. Black and white photos show some items in his original Paris home, but there is no crowding of objects — just lots of space for showcasing the art and artifacts.
Tram 28 might just provide the most popular ride of its type in all of Europe. The ancient, tiny cars begin the run near the Castelo de Sao Jorge and twist and turn down into the Baixa district, then up again into the narrow streets of Bairro Alto. The journey ends at Praca da Estrela (30 minutes) or Parada dos Prazeres (45 minutes). As some streets are so narrow, steep and curvy, no bus could possibly replace the trams. They’re often crowded and targeted by pickpockets, so stay alert. If you see two trams coming along together and the first one looks full, let it go by, and you’ll have a better chance of getting a seat. Pay onboard, or use your day pass to hop on and off.
The Bairro Alto is a rabbit warren of cobbled, winding alleyways with beautiful tiled houses and small squares. It’s a great location for a peaceful wander during the day. (It gets livelier at night.) The hilly neighborhood is home to some of Lisbon’s more intriguing restaurants. To get there, take Tram 28 or, to avoid the steep climb, use the Elevador de Santa Justa at the end of the street of the same name. Opened in 1902, it often has long lines in the warmer months.
Located five miles along the Tagus River west of Lisbon’s city center, Belem (which means Bethlehem in Portuguese) offers lots of space, excellent museums, and plenty of snacking and dining options. The well-defined cultural district is set around elegant parks along the Tagus River waterfront. For snacking, head for Rua de Belem, which has plenty of cafes and pastelarias (bakeries).
Belem is anchored by its dramatic 16th-century tower. The Torre de Belem was built in the powerful Manueline architectural style, employing elaborate carvings with religious, natural, royal and maritime themes. Also on the riverfront stand, the Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Discoveries Monument) marks 500 years since the death of Henry the Navigator, Portugal’s great 15th-century explorer. The monument depicts a caravel — an early sailing ship that could maneuver in all wind conditions, allowing some of the first world explorations by sea — and other important navigators, such as Vasco da Gama.
Belem’s cultural highlights include the 16th-century Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, or Hieronymites Monastery, built by Dom Manuel I in his Manueline style. It features elaborate carvings, cloisters, a church with three naves and the tomb of Vaso da Gama. Ascend to the choir level to view the church from on high. The Museu Nacional de Arqueologia (Archeological Museum) features a range of antiquities, coins, jewelry and Roman mosaics. The Museu da Marinha (Maritime Museum) focuses on Portugal’s Golden Age of Discoveries, with models of merchant, naval, sailing and fishing ships and royal yachts. All three are located in one continuous line along the Praca do Imperio. The Centro Cultural de Belem across the street exhibits contemporary forms of art, music and theater in a modern stone building.
Gorgeous, lush and green, Sintra is another city worth a visit. Its main attraction is an elaborate Moorish castle, but it’s also famous as Portugal’s only city with three palaces and a castle within town limits. You can visit the Pena Palace, an eclectic fantasy built in the 19th century with Moorish features and bright colors. It once served as royalty’s summer home. At the Castle of the Moors, built around the ninth century, walk the ramparts for views of the surrounding palaces. Also, explore the cobbled town center, with its sidewalk cafes and shops. Viator offers day trips to Sintra.
The turn-of-the-last-century resort town of Estoril, located just to the west of Lisbon, is easily reached by frequent trains from Cais do Sodre station. Roman ruins are found there, but the big attraction is the Estoril Casino — likely the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel “Casino Royale.” Viator offers day trips to Estoril.
Fatima is an important Roman Catholic pilgrimage site, located 88 miles north of Lisbon. In May 1917, three Portuguese children there reportedly saw the Virgin Mary, who instructed them to pray. Since that time, devout Catholics and other interested travelers have gone to the site to see the huge neoclassical Our Lady of Fatima Basilica and the Chapel of Apparitions, built on the ground where the children said they saw the Virgin Mary standing. Viator offers a variety of Fatima day trips, many also stopping in the coastal town of Nazare and the medieval village of Obidos.
Portuguese cuisine features lots of fish, soft-shell crabs, and meat and rice dishes. When you sit down, the server may put bread, butter, one or two kinds of cheese and an hors d’oeuvre on your table. You will be charged for each one, so politely say “no, thank you” to anything you don’t want, and it will be taken away.
Lisbon’s most interesting restaurants are located in the hilly Bairro Alto neighborhood, adjacent to and above Baixa. The restaurants are intimate, indoors (no room for sidewalk cafes) and full of charm — usually with a bar to one side for the locals and table seating on the other.
Ha Piteu is one of our favorite spots in the aforementioned Bairro Alto neighborhood, serving up classic Portuguese dishes such as fava beans with pork ribs and sausage, roasted codfish and Algarve-style panfried cuttlefish.
Another good spot for local cuisine, Cocheira Alentejana, sporting a peasant-style decor, is full most nights. Specialty of the house is dogfish soup and migas with pork.
Pap’Acorda, a popular place for hobnobbing, is a two-room restaurant with bar that serves classic Portuguese seafood and ribs. Try the Spanish mussels, shellfish and rice, or acorda — a seafood dish with eggs, bread, garlic, olive oil and coriander. Reservations are required.
The fixed-price lunch menus at Tagide, a funky tapas bar, offer good value, but if you prefer to order separately, there are a wide range of options — such as clams in olive oil and garlic, codfish tenderloin, and vegetarian pumpkin risotto.
If you want to combine a meal with some live fado — a soulful genre of music native to Portugal — pay a visit to Mascote da Atalaia. Open till the wee hours, this intimate restaurant offers reasonably priced food and drinks to accompany authentic musical performances.
In a city with countless bakeries, Manteigaria is one of the best. This family-owned cafe on Rua do Loreto serves up warm, ultra-fresh custard tarts.
Shopping in Lisbon
Port, the fortified sweet wine for which Portugal is famous, makes for a marvelous souvenir to bring home. Before you go on a shopping spree, though, check your country’s custom restrictions on bringing liquor home from abroad. Hand-painted tiles and cotton embroidery are other classic Portuguese trademarks.
One of our favorite things to buy in Portugal is cork products — which could include anything from shoes and belts to handbags and furniture. Pelcor Lisboa and CORK & CO are two specialty shops where you can pick up just about anything made from one of Portugal’s most abundant resources.
If you’re looking for upscale boutiques, head to Chiado, where Rua do Carmo and Rua Garrett are lined with big international shops as well as a few local favorites — such as Bertrand, the world’s oldest bookstore (opened in 1732).
If a flea market is more your speed, don’t miss Fiera da Ladra, which starts at the Arco de Sao Vicente near the National Pantheon. The market runs from dawn to dusk on Tuesdays and Saturdays, with vendors peddling a mix of handmade goods (baskets, clothing), antiques, books, music and more.
The narrow streets of Bairro Alto are a good spot to browse antique stores (especially Rua Dom Pedro V) and fashion boutiques.
–by Theodore W. Scull