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 is one of several monasteries 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.

Brief history

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.

The discoveries

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 financed a series of funicular street lifts 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, the hosting of the European Championships in 2004 and Lisbon’s new-found status as a hub for low-cost airlines – have seen  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 city’s erstwhile lost-in-time feel, it has also injected a wave of optimism that has made Lisbon one of Europe’s most exciting capitals.

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