Lisbon maintains an air of Old World charm, a shadow of a bygone era when Portuguese sailors bravely explored oceans and lands around the globe. Unlike many of Europe’s impeccable capital cities, Lisbon is more like a crusty oyster than a porcelain vase, unpolished and rough around the edges, and waiting to be cracked open by those seeking hidden pearls instead of fine china. Yet, this sentinel of the Iberian Peninsula is no longer overlooked by travelers on their way to London, Paris or Rome – as was the case for many years. The secret is out: Lisboa is a treasured destination worthy of exploration.
Stationed at the mouth of the Tagus River (that’s Rio Tejo in Portuguese and Río Tajo in Spanish), this bustling port city is teeming with activity. The famously rickety trams clamor through the cobblestone streets. Tables and chairs sprawl across sidewalks so locals and visitors alike can enjoy a pastry, coffee or fried fish sandwich. Vendors selling antique trinkets line the arcade of the Augusta Arc near the expansive public square, Praça do Comércio. Without a doubt, there is much to take in when wandering through the streets of Lisbon.
DISCOVERING LISBON BY BAIRRO
Sometimes referred to by locals as A Cidade das Sete Colinas, the City of Seven Hills is an urban landscape divided into districts (bairros), each with its own distinct personality and compelling attractions. Visitors can take in the multilayered history of the oldest city in Western Europe by traversing a few of the colorful bairros de Lisboa on foot.
Located in the heart of Lisbon, plazas open up to feature fountains and statues of Portuguese politicians and poets. Cafes, shops, businesses, hotels, and restaurants – it’s all here. In Baixa.
The city plan and architecture seen today was designed in part by the Marquês de Pombal, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, who led the reconstruction efforts after a catastrophic earthquake, tidal wave and fire outbreak turned Lisbon into rubble in 1755. Thanks to the Marquês, you can amble down the pedestrian-only Rua Augusta and shop on Silver Street. And it goes without saying that you can not visit Lisbon without walking over the patterned pavers of Baixa.
Unphased by the natural disasters of 1755, the Alfama is a preserved piece of history, characterized by narrow, winding streets and fading displays of azulejo artwork, a technique mastered by the Portuguese centuries ago. If you can’t get enough of the colorful tile-work, make sure to visit The National Tile Museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo), which houses an impressive collection of Portuguese azulejos.
Over the ages, the Alfama was the residential area for Romans, Jews, Moors, and, later on, the poor fisherman and working class. Today, this bairro is a paradox, simultaneously antiquated and hopelessly modernized.
Standing guard over the city, El Castelo St. Jorge is the crown of the Alfama district and provides visitors with a spectacular panorama of the city and waterways. March across the castle ramparts and then linger on this lookout to soak up the afternoon sun while admiring the amazing views. It is certainly worth the hike!
Quando o fado era cantado
Pelas tabernas d’ Alfama
Ninguém diria que o fao,
Viesse a ter tanta fama
In this part of the city, you may hear forlorn female vocals waft through the air to the tune of a precisely picked Portuguese guitar, a musical tradition known as fado. Come to the Alfama to dine on dishes of bacalhau and watch expert musicians strum away the evening hours.
Meia noite e uma guitarra
Meia vida por viver
E a saudade que se agarra
Ao canta de uma mulher
CHIADO + BAIRRO ALTO
Both Chiado and Bairro Alto represent the contemporary and alternative undercurrent to the city’s heartbeat. Chaido is the lively locale for global-brand shopping and theatrical performances. Bairro Alto is particularly famous for waking up when the rest of the city goes to sleep. Venture here for a night out on the town where the bars are so packed that people simply take the party to the streets.
As is the case with many large cities, be aware of your surroundings at night – for Lisbon does have a seedy side. In fact, don’t be surprised if you are approached on the street and offered an illegal substance.
West of the city center are some of Lisbon’s most famous monuments, museums, and historical points of interest. Recall the age of explorers to the New World as you admire the Pradrão dos Descobrimentos (Discovery Monument) and the view of the waterways from the upper wall of the Torre de Belém.
Next, turn your thoughts inward as you slowly stroll through the prestigious and historic Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. Inside the complex, seek refuge in the two-story cloister which showcases a magnificent example of Manueline architecture.
Just down the street from the colossal cathedral and monastery is the National Coach Museum (Museu Nacional dos Coches), home to a large collection of the royal rides. If antique carriages don’t pique your interest, do make sure to try the famous custard tarts from the long-established Pasteis de Belém café before leaving Belém. The recipe for these golden delights is a well-guarded secret and a national treasure.
A Day Trip to Sintra
While there is much more to see and do in Lisbon, remove yourself from the city clamor for a day to enjoy stunning national parks and charming towns. Less than an hour by train and tucked away in a lush valley, the quaint village of Sintra is an excellent place to uncover more Portuguese gems.
Just a 10 minute walk from the train station sits the Palácio Nacional de Sintra. This small but pleasant palace is full of Portuguese particulars and – you guessed it – beautifully tiled walls.
If you are pressed for time, pass by this palácio and immediately catch the 434 Bus up the mountainside. Before moving on to the next royal residence, first enter the ruins of the Castelo dos Mouros, a 10th century fortress. Climb the stone steps up to the castle turrets for incredible panoramic views. Or, as my experience would have it, enjoy the sense of mystery and imagination through the thick clouds of grey.
Only a few hundred meters uphill from the Moorish Castle lie the Parque de Pena and Palácio da Pena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 19th century palace is almost comical in appearance with its bright yellow and red exterior and a myriad of architectural styles. Along with the aforementioned Jerónimos Monastery and Torre de Belém, the Palácio da Pena is one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal… and wonder you will at this quirky mansion.
Where to Stay in Lisbon
If you only have a few days to get acquainted with Portugal’s capital city, staying in or near the Baixa district is ideal, where lodging options are numerous and varied. To start, look for accommodation in or around the Praça do Rossio as it is centrally located to a walking-heavy itinerary.
For budget travelers, I recommend the Rossio Hostel, a top-notch establishment and one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in. The staff is welcoming, friendly and cooks up a fabulous breakfast. For a more romantic setting, try the Rossio Garden Hotel, a newly refurbished boutique hotel, and let me know what you think!
Love for Lisboa
Special thanks to Yadira Perez Rike for sharing some of her beautiful photos from our awesome weekend in Lisbon. All images were taken either by me or Yadira.
Hey readers! Have you ever visited Lisbon? If so, what did you enjoy about “The White City?” What was your favorite neighborhood? What do you want to share about Lisbon? If you haven’t visited the Portuguese capital yet, is it on your list now?