Mainland Europe’s westernmost capital, Lisbon is a fascinating and inspiring place to spend a few days, thanks to its wonderful waterfront location, balmy climate and quirky range of attractions that combine a place-that-time-forgot feel with a modern vibrancy that few European cities can match. Although its modern suburbs are ungainly, the historic centre is relatively compact and easy to explore in just a day or two. The oldest part of the city, the warren of streets that make up the Alfama, sits below the spectacularly sited Moorish Castelo de São Jorge, its ruined walls facing another hill, the Bairro Alto or upper town, famed for its bars, restaurants and vibrant nightlife. The valley between these hills makes up the Baixa, or lower town. This neat grid of grand eighteenth-century buildings was erected on the rubble of the earthquake which flattened much of the city in 1755, a planned commercial district rebuilt around the historic squares of Praça do Comércio, on the riverfront, and the broad Rossio. From here, the palm-lined Avenida da Liberdade is the main artery inland, rising to the green slopes of the city’s central Parque Eduardo VII. Key attractions beyond the historic centre include the fantastic art collection of the Museu Gulbenkian, just north of the park; the Museu de Arte Antiga west of the centre; and the modern art of the Berardo Collection, 6km to the west in Belém, the suburb from which Portugal’s great navigators set sail: the sublime Mosteiro dos Jerónimos monastery is one of several monuments built here to celebrate their achievements. Finally, 5km to the east lies the Parque das Nações, the futuristic site of Lisbon’s Expo 98, whose main attraction is one of Europe’s largest oceanariums.
A short way inland from Lisbon, the UNESCO heritage site of Sintra enjoys a cool mountainside location, which made it a favoured summer destination for Portugal’s royals – their ornate and extravagant palaces make for a fascinating day-trip. It is also just a short hop from Lisbon to some fantastic Atlantic beaches: locals favour the southern coast, with miles of sands along the Costa da Caparica or the small cove beaches between the historic port of Setúbal and the resort of Sesimbra. Easiest to reach, however, are the town beaches of bustling Estoril and the former fishing village of Cascais, both easily accessible by train.
Named Allis Ubbo (calm harbour) by the Phoenicians, the administrative capital of Lusitania was renamed Olisipo by the Romans when they settled in the western half of Iberia in 210 BC. During the early 700s, Moors from North Africa began to exploit trading links from the city they called Lishbuna to their territories to the south, and the city flourished. The Moors set up the Alcáçova – a Muslim palace – on the site of today’s castle and settled around some hot springs (alhama, today’s Alfama). In 1147, Catholics from the north under Afonso Henriques laid siege to Lisbon’s castle with a band of ruthless European crusaders and, after seventeen weeks of resistance, the Moors finally gave in – they were either killed or forced to live as “New Christians” in the quarter still known as Mouraria. In 1150, with Afonso Henriques now Portugal’s first monarch, the Sé (cathedral) was established on the site of the main mosque, and in 1255 Lisbon became the capital of a Christian country.
By the fifteenth century, Lisbon was the capital of an expansionist country whose navigational expertise had set up trading routes round half the world. Vasco da Gama sailed from Belém to open up a sea route to India in 1498, and within sixty years Lisbon controlled ports from Brazil in the west to Macau in the east. Lisbon became one of the wealthiest cities in Europe, able to fund lavish buildings such as the Torre de Belém, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the palace at Terreiro do Paço. By the early eighteenth century, further funds flooded in from newly discovered gold in Brazil, but this second “golden age” came to a sudden halt with the Great Earthquake of 1755. Under the Marquês de Pombal, a new city was rapidly rebuilt in a grid pattern (today’s Baixa district), but Lisbon never recovered its economic clout. The city briefly flourished in the mid-nineteenth century when the Botanical Gardens were considered the best in Europe. A public works programme laid out the Avenida da Liberdade and a series of funicular street lifts were built to serve its hills.
The Salazar era
Political turmoil in the early 1900s saw the end of the Portuguese monarchy and ushered in the reign of Dr António de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled Portugal with an iron fist from 1928–68. An economist, Salazar’s policies generated sufficient wealth to fund a wartime Expo in Belém in 1940, the Cristo Rei statue overlooking the Tagus and the impressive Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge (originally named the Ponte Salazar). But most of the population failed to prosper under his rule, and by the 1974 revolution which ushered in democracy, most of Lisbon was stuck in a time warp with little or no economic development.
The modern city
Entry into the EU and a series of events – including Expo 98 and hosting the European Championships in 2004 – saw money and development pour into the city, bequeathing new rail and metro lines and Europe’s longest bridge, Ponte Vasco da Gama. The historic bairros (districts) and riverfront have also been given makeovers. If some of the renovation has somewhat diminished the erstwhile lost-in-time feel of the city, it has also injected a wave of optimism that has made Lisbon one of Europe’s most exciting capitals.
Lisbon has some of Portugal’s best azulejos – brightly coloured, decorative ceramic tiles – and you can see a variety of styles decorating houses, shops, monuments and even metro stations. The craft of decorative tile-making was brought over by the Moors in the eighth century. Originally, the tiles were painted using thin ridges of clay to prevent the lead-based colours from running into each other, and the early Portuguese tiles were produced using the same techniques: the early sixteenth-century geometric tiles in the Palácio Nacional in Sintra are a fine example. Portuguese azulejos developed their own style around the mid-sixteenth century when a new Italian method – introduced to Iberia by Francisco Niculoso – enabled images to be painted directly onto the clay thanks to a tin oxide coating which prevented running.
At first, religious imagery was the favoured form – such as those in the Bairro Alto’s Igreja de São Roque – but during the seventeenth century decadent and colourful images became popular. The wealthy Portuguese began to commission large azulejo panels displaying battles, hunting scenes and fantastic images influenced by Vasco da Gama’s voyages to the East, while huge panels were also commissioned for churches – these often covered an entire wall and became known as tapetes (carpets) because of their resemblance to rugs. By the late seventeenth century, blue and white tiles influenced by Dutch tile-makers were popular with Portugal’s aristocracy, and their favoured images were flowers and fruit. The early eighteenth century saw highly-trained artists producing elaborately decorated, multicoloured ceramic mosaics, often with Rococo themes.
After the Great Earthquake, more prosaic tiled facades, often with Neoclassical designs, were considered good insulation devices, as well as protecting buildings from rain and fire. By the mid-nineteenth century, azulejos were being mass-produced to decorate shops and factories, while the end of the century saw the reappearance of figurative designs, typified by the work in the Cervejaria da Trindade, a vaulted beer-hall in the Bairro Alto. By the 1900s, Portugal had become the world’s leading producer of decorative tiles, with Art Deco designs taking hold in the 1920s. Lisbon’s metro stations boast some of the best of the more modern tiles, with work by artists such as Eduardo Nehry, whose tiles light up Campo Grande, and António da Coata, whose Alice-in-Wonderland-inspired white rabbit can be seen at Cais do Sodré station.
The great earthquake
The great earthquake
Anyone who witnessed the shocking images of Japan’s tsunami in 2011 will have some idea of the disaster which befell Lisbon on November 1, 1755. A quake of around 8.7 on the Richter scale – the largest earthquake ever to hit Europe – struck at 9.30am when many people were attending Mass for All Souls’ Day. Survivors fled to the open spaces of the riverfront, many to be engulfed by a giant tsunami that followed some forty minutes later. Fires then burned for up to five days and tens of thousands of people lost their lives. The event put a halt to Portuguese colonial expansion, but also led to the development of the study of seismology.
Lisbon’s events calendar
Lisbon’s events calendar
February/March: Brazilian-style carnival parades and costumes, mainly at Parque das Nações.
March: The half-marathon traces a route across Ponte Vasco da Gama, finishing in Parque das Nações (wmaratonaclubeportugal.com).
Peixe em Lisboa
March/April: Fish festival held in Pátio da Galé, with masterclasses by top chefs (wpeixemlisboa.com).
Rock in Rio
May: A five-day biannual mega rock festival held in even years, in Parque Bela Vista to the north of the centre (wrockinriolisboa.sapo.pt/en).
June: Street-partying to celebrate the saints’ days – António (June 13), João (June 24) and Pedro (June 29). Celebrations for each begin on the evening before the actual day. Santo António is Lisbon’s main event.
June: Gay Pride event, in various venues (warraialpride.ilga-portugal.pt).
June/July: A state-run handicrafts fair, with live folk music, is held in Estoril on the Avenida de Portugal, near the Casino. A similar event occurs during the same period at FIL (wfil.pt), at the Parque das Nações.
Sintra Music Festival
June/July: Performances by international orchestras, musicians and dance groups in parks, gardens and palaces in and around Sintra (westorilportugal.com/events).
Super Bock Super Rock
July: Rock festival featuring local and international bands in various venues (wsuperbock.pt).
Jazz em Augusto
August: Jazz festival at the Gulbenkian’s open-air amphitheatre (wmusica.gulbenkian.pt), with a similar event in Cascais.
Festival dos Oceanos
August: Ocean-themed festival featuring concerts, environmental awareness events and fireworks at various riverside venues (wfestivaldosoceanos.com).
November 11: Saint’s day celebrated by the traditional tasting of the year’s wine which is drunk with hot chestnuts, in memory of St Martinho, who shared his cape with a poor man.
December: The build-up to Christmas begins in early December with Europe’s tallest Christmas tree filling the centre of Praça da Comércio. Distinctive hooped bolo-rei (dried-fruit “king cake”) appear in shops and pastelarias.
New Year’s Eve
December 31: There are usually fireworks in Praça do Comércio, at Cascais and the Parque das Nações.
Lisbon has no shortage of sumptuous places to stay, including historic buildings and palaces. It also has a reputation for some excellent independent hostels. Between June and September, rooms can be harder to find without an advance reservation and prices are at their highest – though August can be less expensive as many people head for the beach. Many of Lisbon’s top hotels are lined up along and around the Avenida da Liberdade, while the Baixa and the Chiado also have a fair selection of more upmarket places which could not be more central. The most atmospheric part of town is around the Alfama and the castle, while the Bairro Alto is ideal for nightlife, but can be noisy after dark.
Lisbon has some of the best-value cafés and restaurants of any European city, serving large portions of good Portuguese food at sensible prices. A set menu (ementa turística) at lunch or dinner will get you a three-course meal for around €15, though you can eat for even less than this by sticking to the ample main dishes and choosing the daily specials. Seafood is widely available – there’s an entire central street, Rua das Portas de Santo Antão that specializes in it. Options for vegetarians are somewhat limited, though Tão and Terra are worth seeking out. Indian and Chinese restaurants also offer good vegetarian options, as do some of the museum cafés, such as at the Centro de Arte Moderna at the Gulbenkian.
Drinking and nightlife
Drinking and nightlife
Lisbon’s nightlife is legendary, though don’t expect to see any action much before midnight. There are some great bars where you can get a drink at any time of the day, but clubs – which may not open much before 11pm – generally operate on a “minimum consumption” policy: you buy a ticket at the door which you can get stamped each time you buy a drink at the bar. Designed to stop people dancing all night without buying a drink, which many Portuguese would happily do, the price varies hugely: perhaps €10 if it’s a quiet night, more likely around €20–30; keep hold of your ticket to prove you have “consumed” enough (otherwise you pay on exit). The traditional centre of Lisbon’s nightlife is the Bairro Alto, an intriguing blend of student bars, designer clubs, fado houses and restaurants. The slightly seedy Cais do Sodré district can best be described as up and coming, while neighbouring Santos is rapidly gaining a trendy reputation, with some established names. Bars and clubs in Alcântara and the docks tend to attract a slightly older, wealthier crowd to those in the centre.