There are few cityscapes as dazzling as that of Lisbon (Lisboa). Built on a switchback of hills above the broad Tejo estuary, its quarters are linked by an amazing network of cobbled streets with outrageous gradients, up which crank trams and funiculars. For visitors, it’s hard not to see the city as an urban funfair, a sense heightened by the brooding castle poised above the Alfama district’s medieval streets, the fantasy Manueline architecture of Belém, the vibrant mosaics of the central Rossio square, and the adventurous contemporary architecture in the Parque das Nações. Gentler than any port or capital should expect to be, laid-back and easy to get around, Lisbon is immediately likeable.
For much of the last century, the city stood apart from the European mainstream, an isolation that ended abruptly with the 1974 Revolution and the subsequent integration into the EU just over a decade later. Over the past hundred years, central Lisbon’s population has more than doubled to over a million, one tenth of all Portuguese, with numbers boosted considerably after the Revolution by the vast influx of refugees – retornados – from Portugal’s former African colonies. The retornados imposed a heavy burden on a strained economy, but their overall integration is one of the modern country’s chief triumphs. Portuguese Brazilians and Africans have had a significant effect on the capital’s culture, and alongside the traditional fado clubs of its Bairro Alto and Alfama quarters, Lisbon now has superb Latin and African bands and a panoply of international restaurants and bars.
The 1755 Great Earthquake destroyed many of Lisbon’s most historic buildings. The Romanesque Sé (cathedral) and the Moorish walls of the Castelo de São Jorge are fine early survivors, however, and there is one building from Portugal’s sixteenth-century Golden Age – the extraordinary Mosteiro dos Jerónimos at Belém – that is the equal of any in the country. Glimpses of pre-quake opulence are also visible in the old Moorish hillside of Alfama, which survived the destruction and is perhaps the most fascinating part of the city, with its winding lanes and anarchic stairways. The heart of the city is the lower town, the Baixa, which was entirely rebuilt after the earthquake and is Europe’s first great example of visionary urban planning. At the Baixa’s southern end, opening onto the Rio Tejo, is the broad, arcaded Praça do Comércio, with its grand triumphal arch. At the Baixa’s northern end – linked to the Praça do Comércio by almost any street you care to take – stands Praça Dom Pedro IV, popularly known as Rossio, the main square since medieval times and the only part of the rebuilt city to remain in its original place, slightly off-centre in the symmetrical design. Rossio merges with Praça da Figueira and Praça dos Restauradores and it is these squares, filled with cafés and lively with buskers, business people, and streetwise hawkers, which form the hub of Lisbon’s daily activity. At night the focus shifts to the Bairro Alto, or upper town, high above and to the west of the Baixa, and best reached by funicular (the Elevador da Glória or Elevador da Bica) or by the great street elevator, the Elevador de Santa Justa. Between the two districts, halfway up the hill, is Chiado, Lisbon’s most elegant shopping area.
From Rossio, the main, palm-lined Avenida da Liberdade runs north to the city’s central park, Parque Eduardo VII, beyond which spreads the rest of the modern city: the Fundação Gulbenkian, a combined museum and cultural complex with superb collections of ancient and modern art, is to the north, as is the zoo, bullring and the famous football stadia. No stay in Lisbon should neglect the futuristic Oceanário, one of Europe’s largest oceanariums, in the Parque das Nações, 5km to the east of the city centre, or the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, effectively Portugal’s national art gallery, close to the rejuvenated docks at Alcântara. Also not to be missed is the Berardo Collection, with some of the best contemporary art around. Perhaps more than anything, though, it’s the day-to-day life on display in the streets and squares that makes the city so enjoyable – from the shoe shiners of the Rossio to the multitude of Art Nouveau shops and cafés.
The defining event of Lisbon’s history was the Great Earthquake, which was felt as far away as Jamaica and struck Lisbon at 9.30am on November 1 (All Saints’ Day) 1755, when most of the city’s population was at Mass. Within the space of ten minutes there had been three major tremors and the candles of a hundred church altars had started fires that raged throughout the capital. A vast tidal wave swept the seafront, where refugees were seeking shelter, and, in all, 40,000 of the 270,000 population died. The destruction of the city shocked the continent, prompting Voltaire, who wrote an account of it in his novel Candide, into an intense debate with Rousseau on the operation of providence. For Portugal, and for the capital, it was a disaster that in retrospect seemed to seal an age.
Before the earthquake, eighteenth-century Lisbon had been arguably the most active port in Europe. The city had been prosperous since Roman, perhaps even Phoenician, times. In the Middle Ages, as Moorish Lishbuna, it thrived on its wide links with the Arab world, while exploiting the rich territories of the Alentejo and Algarve to the south. The country’s Reconquest by the Christians in 1147 was an early and dubious triumph of the Crusades, its one positive aspect being the appearance of the first true Portuguese monarch Afonso Henriques. It was not until 1255, however, that Lisbon took over from Coimbra as the capital.
Over the following centuries Lisbon was twice at the forefront of European development and trade, on a scale that is hard to envisage today. The first phase came with the great Portuguese discoveries of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, such as Vasco da Gama’s opening of the sea route to India. The second was in the opening decades of the eighteenth century, when the colonized Brazil yielded both gold and diamonds. These phases were the great ages of Portuguese patronage. The sixteenth century was dominated by Dom Manuel I, under whom the flamboyant national architectural style known as Manueline developed. Lisbon takes its principal monuments – the tower and monastery at Belém – from this era. The eighteenth century, more extravagant but with less brilliant effect, gave centre stage to Dom João V, best known as the obsessive builder of Mafra, which he created in response to Philip II’s El Escorial in Spain.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the city was more notable for its political upheavals – from the assassination of Carlos I in 1908 to the Revolution in 1974 – than for any architectural legacy, though the Art Nouveau movement made its mark on the capital. In the last two decades, however, Lisbon has once more echoed to the sounds of reconstruction on a scale not seen for two hundred years. The influx of EU cash for economic regeneration in the 1980s was followed by works associated with Lisbon’s status as European City of Culture in 1994, its hosting of the Expo in 1998 and the European Football Championships of 2004. These events boosted the transport infrastructure, bequeathing new rail and metro lines and Europe’s longest bridge – with another river crossing under construction to the north. The historic bairros (districts) and riverfront have also been given makeovers. If this nonstop rebuilding and 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.Read More
Lisbon’s events calendar
Lisbon’s events calendar
February/March The Carnival has been revived recently with Brazilian-style parades and costumes, mainly at Parque das Nações.
March/April Annual Super Bock Super Rock festival with local and international bands in various venues (wwww.superbock.pt).
May The five-day biannual Rock in Rio rock festival (even years; wwww.rockinrio-lisboa.sapo.pt) takes place in Parque Bela Vista to the north of the centre.
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. The main festival is for Santo António, a public holiday when the whole city is decked out in coloured ribbons, with pots of lucky basil on every window sill. There are festivals in each district on the evening of June 12, as well as the main parade down Avenida da Liberdade. The best street party is in Alfama, with food and drinks stalls in just about every square. On June 13, the “Brides of Santo António” sees a collective wedding ceremony at the Igreja de Santo António. In Sintra, the main festa is for São Pedro, starting on June 28.
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 (wwww.fil.pt), the main exhibition hall at the Parque das Nações, when international and Portuguese regional crafts are displayed and offered for sale. Also these months see the Sintra Music Festival with adventurous performances by international orchestras, musicians and dance groups in parks, gardens and palaces in and around Sintra, Estoril and Cascais. An offshoot of the festival is the “Noites de Bailado” held in the Centro Cultural Olga Cadaval near Sintra train station, a series of ballet, dance and operatic performances, again with top international names.
July A beer festival is held in the Castelo do São Jorge, with handicrafts, medieval markets, food stalls and lots of ale (wwww.centralcervejas.pt).
July/August The big annual Jazz Numa Noite de Verão (jazz on a summer night) festival is held at the Gulbenkian’s open-air amphitheatre (wwww.musica.gulbenkian.pt), with a similar event in Cascais. Also in August, the Oceans Festival has a series of concerts, environmental awareness events and fireworks at various riverside venues.
September The Lisbon marathon traces a route across Ponte Vasco da Gama with a finish in Parque das Nações (wwww.maratonclubeportugal.com).
November 11 Celebrated by the traditional tasting of the year’s wine downed with hot chestnuts, in memory of Saint 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”) appears in shops and pastelarias. Christmas Day itself remains a family affair, with traditional midnight Mass celebrated on December 24, followed by a meal of bacalhau. The best place to head for on New Year’s Eve is Praça do Comércio, where fireworks light up the riverfront. There are similar events at Cascais and the Parque das Nações.
Paula Rego (born 1935) shot to international prominence in 1990 when she was appointed as the National Gallery Artist in Residence in London, and she is now considered one of the world’s leading figurative painters. Although she has spent most of her life in England – she married English artist Vic Willing – her formative years were spent in Salazar’s Lisbon, where she was born. Her sheltered childhood was passed in the confines of a wealthy family home and she still feels bitter about the way her mother became a “casualty” of a society which encouraged wealthy women to be idle, leaving work to their servants. Her women are portrayed as typical of the servants of her childhood: stocky and solid. Other adults are usually viewed with the unsentimental eye of a child, and she avoids graceful forms, preferring hairy, bony yet powerful female figures. Power and dominance are major themes of her work; she revives the military outfits of postwar Portugal for her men and dresses many of her women like dolls in national costume. Several of her pictures convey sexual opposition, the result perhaps of a background dominated by the regimes of the Roman Catholic Church and a military dictatorship. Her images are rarely beautiful, but are undoubtedly amusing, disturbing and powerful. Her work is often displayed at galleries and temporary exhibitions around Lisbon, though the superb museum in Cascais, designed by eminent architect Eduardo Souto Moura, is the best place to see them.
Lisbon has no shortage of sumptuous places to stay, including historic buildings and palaces. Cheaper guesthouses can be found on the streets parallel to Avenida da Liberdade, such as Rua das Portas de Santo Antão and Rua da Glória. The Baixa grid, including the more upmarket area of the Chaido, has a fair selection of places, too, though rooms in the Bairro Alto – handy for nightlife – can be noisy. The most atmospheric part of town, around the Alfama and the castle, has some very attractive choices, though prices here are higher. Many hotels are located outside the historic centre, particularly along Avenida da Liberdade, around Parque Eduardo VII and in the prosperous suburb of Lapa.
Between June and September, rooms can be hard 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. At peak times, be prepared to take anything vacant and look around the next day for somewhere better or cheaper. The tourist offices will establish whether or not there’s space at a city pensão or hotel. Be aware that rooms facing onto the street can be unbearably noisy.
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, as well as a whole enclave of restaurants across the Rio Tejo at Cacilhas that specialize in it.
Lisbon’s cafés are its pride and joy, ranging from atmospheric turn-of-the-twentieth-century artists’ haunts to Art Deco wonders. The capital, naturally, also features some of the country’s best and most expensive restaurants, specializing for the most part in a hybrid French-Portuguese cuisine, as well as some beautifully tiled cervejarias (beer halls). If you tire of the local food, Lisbon has a rich vein of inexpensive foreign restaurants, in particular those featuring food from the former colonies: Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, Macão and Goa.
Drinking and nightlife
Drinking and nightlife
The traditional centre of Lisbon’s nightlife is the Bairro Alto, a blend of ageing taverns, designer bars, fado houses and restaurants. The quarter hosts one of Europe’s biggest weekly parties, with up to 50,000 people descending on the maze of streets over the weekend. Other downtown areas are not really on the bar and club circuit – you’ll be hard pushed to find a bar open late at night in the Baixa, though the Alfama and Graça have a few places catering for the crowds leaving the excellent local restaurants.
Instead, as the night progresses, Lisboetas seek out the classy venues around Santos station, or a little further west at Alcântara docks, near Ponte 25 de Abril. To the east, the world-famous club Lux sits on the riverfront by Santa Apolónia station. For all these outlying areas, you’ll need a taxi or nightbus to get you back to town again. Gay and lesbian nightlife focuses on the Bairro Alto and Praça do Prínçipe Real, where a generally laid-back group of clubs and bars attracts people of all ages.
Drinks are uniformly expensive in all fashionable clubs and music venues – from €4 for a beer – but the plus-side is that very few charge admission. Instead many places have a “minimum consumption” policy, designed to stop people dancing all night without buying a drink, which many Portuguese would happily do. Mostly, these fees are at the whim of the doorman, who will relax it if it’s a quiet night, or whack it up if it’s busy or if he doesn’t like the look of you. Generally, you can expect to pay anything from €10 to €50 (occasionally up to €150) which sometimes entitles you to your first drink, thereafter your purchases will be stamped each time you buy one; keep hold of your ticket to prove you have consumed enough (otherwise you pay on exit).
Although tourist brochures tend to suggest that live music in Lisbon begins and ends with fado – the city’s most traditional music – there’s no reason to miss out on other forms. Portuguese jazz can be good (there’s a big annual International Jazz Festival at the Gulbenkian in the summer), and rock offers an occasional surprise (look out for emerging bands at the March Super Bock rock festival and the giant biannual Rock in Rio festival in May). For Lisboetas, African music from the former colonies of Cabo Verde, Guinea Bissau, Angola and Mozambique is always popular, as is Brazilian and Latin music, with major artists touring frequently.
There’s often a crossover between musical styles at many places; it’s always worth checking the listings magazines and posters around the city to see what’s on. There’s a charge to get into most music clubs, which usually covers your first drink, and most of them stay open until around 4am. Touring bands and artists also play at a variety of larger venues. Tickets can be purchased from the book-and-music store FNAC (Rua do Nova do Almada 104–110, Chiado) as well as from the venues themselves or online at wwww.ticketline.pt.
Long popular in Portugal, fado has become better known internationally since the success of Mariza, who has won the BBC World Music Awards and frequently tours Europe. Alongside Coimbra (which has its own distinct tradition), Lisbon is still the best place to hear fado, which has its roots in the fado clubs in the Bairro Alto and particularly Alfama – either at a casa de fado or in an adega típica. There’s no real distinction between these places: all are small, all serve food (though you don’t always have to eat), and all open around 8pm, get going toward midnight, and stay open until 3 or 4am. Their drawbacks are inflated minimum charges – rarely below €15 – and, in the more touristy places, extreme tackiness.
Shops and markets
Shops and markets
The Bairro Alto and Chiado are the main centres for alternative designer clothes and crafts, while international designer names cluster along Avenida da Liberdade. Antique shops are concentrated along Rua do Alecrim in Chiado, Rua Dom Pedro V in the Bairro Alto, and along Rua de São Bento, between Rato and São Bento. As well as all these areas, don’t miss the city’s markets and major shopping centres or the Feira da Ladra flea market in the Alfama. Traditional shopping hours are Monday to Friday 9.30am to 7pm or 8pm (some shops close for an hour at lunch), Saturday 9am to 1pm. However, many of the Bairro Alto shops are open afternoons and evenings only, usually 2pm to 9pm or so. Many larger shops, especially in shopping centres, open all day until 11pm or midnight, some even on Sundays. Unless otherwise stated, the shops listed below are closed Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday, though the shopping centres are all open daily.
Other than traditional ceramics and carpets, perhaps the most Portuguese of items to take home is a bottle of port: check out the vintages at the Solar do Vinho do Porto, where you can also sample the stuff. Alternatively, you can buy port or the increasingly respected Portuguese wines from any delicatessen or supermarket.