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 (book tickets here), 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.
Continue reading to find out more about...
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 (book a heritage tour here). 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 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.
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
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
Carnival (February/March) Brazilian-style carnival parades and costumes, mainly at Parque das Nações.
Lisbon half-marathon (March) The half-marathon traces a route across Ponte Vasco da Gama, finishing in Parque das Nações.
Peixe em Lisboa (March/April) Fish festival held in Pátio da Galé, with masterclasses by top chefs.
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.
Sintra Music Festival (June/July) Performances by international orchestras, musicians and dance groups in parks, gardens and palaces in and around Sintra.
Santos Populares (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.
Arraial Pride (June) Gay Pride event, in various venues.
Handicrafts Fair (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, at the Parque das Nações.
Super Bock Super Rock (July) Rock festival featuring local and international bands in various venues.
Jazz em Augusto (August) Jazz festival at the Gulbenkian’s open-air amphitheatre, with a similar event in Cascais.
São Martinho (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.
Natal/Christmas (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.
Accommodation in Lisbon
Lisbon’s accommodation scene has exploded in recent years, with a host of new places opening, so there is no shortage of places to stay, from historic buildings and palaces to some excellent independent hostels. There are real bargains to be had in the off-season, though between June and September, prices are at their highest and it’s advisable to make an advance reservation to ensure you get a room. 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.
Eating in Lisbon
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.
Cais do Sodré and Bica
Down on the waterfront, Cais do Sodré (pronounced kaiysh doo sodray) is a colourful, but slightly down-at-heel suburb which has become hip thanks to some good restaurants, clubs and bars, many located along Rua Nova Carvalho, aka Rua Cor-de-Rosa or “pink street”, on account of the colour of its tarmac. Many of the area's waterfront warehouses have been converted into upmarket cafés and restaurants and by day, in particular, a stroll along its atmospheric riverfront is very enjoyable. Cais do Sodré is also the main departure point for ferries over the Tejo – a ride over to the little port of Cacilhas is recommended – while the eponymous station is the terminus for the rail line out to Cascais.
On the west side of the Baixa, the area known as Chiado – the nom de plume of the poet António Ribeiro and pronounced she-ah-doo – was Lisbon’s original upmarket shopping area. Many of its former stores were destroyed by a fire in 1988, although the original belle époque atmosphere has since been superbly re-created under the direction of eminent Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira.
Chiado remains a smart shopping district, famed for its cafés especially along Rua Garrett. Of these, A Brasileira, Rua Garrett 120, is the most famous, once frequented by Lisbon’s literary set and now usually mobbed by tourists. You can also see a fantastic fado show in this area.
Avenida da Liberdade and around
The grand, palm-lined Avenida da Liberdade is a 3km-long avenue climbing from the upper fringes of the Baixa to Lisbon’s main park, Parque Eduardo VII. Laid out in the late nineteenth century and modelled on the Champs-Élysées, the broad avenue and its little kiosks form the focal point of various events during the year, including a parade on June 12–13 for St Anthony. It was once was the exclusive address for some of Lisbon’s most respected figures, such as António Medeiros, whose rich art collections are on display in his former home. On the western side of the avenue it’s a short walk to the historic Praça das Amoreiras, the finishing point of the massive Aqueduto das Águas.
West of the Bairro Alto sits the leafy district of Estrela, best known for its gardens and enormous basílica. To the south lies opulent Lapa, Lisbon’s diplomatic quarter, where sumptuous mansions and grand embassy buildings peer out majestically towards the Tejo; it’s also home to the superb Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Portugal’s national gallery. Down below, on the riverfront, the regenerated district of Santos is known as “the design district”, with chic shops and bars.
Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga
Portugal’s national gallery, the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga is home to the largest collection of Portuguese fifteenth- and sixteenth-century paintings in the country, as well as European art from the fourteenth century to the present day, and a rich display of applied art showing the influence of Portugal’s colonial explorations. All of this is beautifully displayed in a seventeenth-century palace, once owned by the Marquês de Pombal. The palace was built over the remains of the Saint Albert monastery, most of which was razed in the 1755 earthquake, although its beautiful chapel can still be seen today. The attractive garden and café (hours as for museum; free entry) are worth a visit in their own right.
Alcântara and the docks
Loomed over by the enormous Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge, Lisbon’s docks at Alcântara have a decidedly industrial hue, with a tangle of railway lines, flyovers and cranes dominating the skyline. Nevertheless, the area is well known for its nightlife, mainly thanks to its dockside warehouse conversions that shelter cafés, restaurants and clubs. It’s also home to two good museums tracing Portugal’s trading links with the Orient.
On a steep slope to the north of the centre, Parque Eduardo VII is the city’s main park, whose views and tropical greenhouses make for a pleasant escape from the bustle of the city. Northwest, the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian is Portugal’s premier cultural centre, combining one of Europe’s richest art collections at the Museu Gulbenkian with Portuguese contemporary art at the Centro de Arte Moderna. Beyond are further attractions at Campo Pequeno’s Praça de Touros (bullring) and the Jardim Zoológico, the city’s zoo, which lies around 2km northwest of the Gulbenkian.
Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian was the Roman Abramovich of his era, making his millions from oil but investing in the world’s best art rather than footballers. Born of wealthy Armenian parents in Istanbul in 1869, he followed his father into the oil industry and became oil consultant to the Ottoman court. In 1911 he set up the Oil Petroleum Company, raking in five percent of the company’s vast profits, most of which he invested in England where he chose to live. During World War II, his Turkish background made him unwelcome in Britain, so Gulbenkian moved to Portugal, which offered him tax-free status and a secure home. By his death in 1955, he had accumulated one of the best private art collections in the world. His dying wish was that all his collection should be displayed in one place, and this was granted in 1969 – a century after his birth – with the opening of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian. The museum continues to buy works of art with his funds to this day, much of it for the Centro de Arte Moderna, which was opened in 1984.
The biggest pleasure of a visit to the Museu Gulbenkian is the chance it offers to compare and contrast pieces of art from so many places in the world and from so many different periods of history. The diverse collection ranges from ancient Egyptian sculptures to twentieth-century Lalique jewellery, via works by heavyweights such as Manet, Monet, Renoir, Turner and Rembrandt.
You start off in the small Egyptian room displaying art from the Old Empire (c.2700 BC) up to the Roman era, followed by the Greco-Roman room which features beautifully preserved glassware, jewellery and coins. Then move to the Eastern Islamic arts section with its Turkish tiles, mosque lamps, sumptuously illustrated manuscripts and fine carpets, while art from the Far East includes Chinese porcelain and stunning fourteenth-century lacquerwork from Japan.
The highlight, however, is the painting collection – a kind of romp through some of the best art from the European schools, including Flemish masters from the fifteenth century, Rubens’ graphic The Love of the Centaurs (1635) and eighteenth-century works by Fragonard, Francesco Guardi and Gainsborough – in particular the stunning Portrait of Mrs Lowndes-Stone. The big names of nineteenth- to twentieth-century France (Degas, Millet) are all represented, as are Sargent and Turner: don’t miss the latter's vivid Wreck of a Transport Ship (1810).
Leave time, too, to explore the Sèvres porcelain, Louis XV and Louis XVI furniture and assorted Italian tapestries and textiles. The final room features the amazing Art Nouveau jewellery of René Lalique (1860–1945); the highlight is the fantastical Peitoral-libélula (Dragonfly breastpiece) brooch, half-woman, half-dragonfly, decorated with enamel work, gold, diamonds and moonstones.
Parque das Nações
The former Expo 98 site, Parque das Nações – the Park of Nations – lies on the northeastern fringes of the city, and remains a huge attraction for Lisboetas who come here en masse at weekends – it’s also a popular riverfront residential area. The main highlight is the Oceanário (Oceanarium), though there are plenty of other attractions, from water gardens to a cable car, as well as bars, shops and restaurants, many overlooking Olivais docks and the 17km-long Vasco da Gama bridge. The park is also home to a couple of venues that host major international bands and sporting events: Meo Arena (aka Pavilhão Atlântico or Atlantic Pavilion) is Portugal’s largest indoor arena; while the elegant Pavilhão de Portugal (Portugal Pavilion), with its distinctive, sagging concrete roof, is a multipurpose arena designed by Álvaro Siza Vieira, Portugal’s best-known architect.
The Estoril coast
Stretching for over 30km west of Lisbon, the Estoril coast makes for an easily accessible and enjoyable trip from the city – the train line that hugs this dramatic coast is worth the trip alone. Much of the coast is backed by a seafront promenade, along which you can walk or cycle, and the lively resorts of Estoril and Cascais in particular make pleasant alternatives to staying in Lisbon.
The first suburb of any size after Belém is OEIRAS (pronounced oo-air-esh), where the Rio Tejo officially turns into the sea. The riverside walkways and the beach here have recently been cleaned up, though most people still swim in the ocean pool alongside the sands. The only reason to stop here is to see the grand, turreted Palácio do Marquês de Pombal, at Largo Marquês de Pombal, the erstwhile home of the rebuilder of Lisbon; you can also visit the beautifully ornate gardens.
The next town along the train line west of Oeiras, CARCAVELOS has the most extensive sandy beach on this part of the coast and is popular with surfers and windsurfers. To reach the beach, it’s a ten-minute walk from the station along the broad Avenida Jorge V. Try to visit Carcavelos on Thursday morning, when the town hosts a wonderful, rambling market on Rua Eduardo Maria Rodrigues, specializing in clothes and ceramics; turn right out of the station and follow the signs.
With its fine beach, casino and surviving grandiose villas dotted among the modern apartments, you can see why ESTORIL (pronounced é-stril) was the favoured haunt of exiled royalty during the earlier half of the last century. These days it’s a lively resort, its centre consisting of the palm-lined Parque do Estoril, surrounded by bars and restaurants and the enormous casino. The Feira Internacional Artesanato – handicrafts and folk music festival – is held here in July.
Paula Rego (born 1935) shot to international prominence in 1990 when she was appointed Artist in Residence at London’s National Gallery, and she is now considered one of the world’s leading figurative painters. In 2011, she was listed as one of the top 100 most influential living women in the UK's Guardian newspaper. 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. She had a sheltered childhood within 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. In Rego’s work, 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 paints hairy, bony, yet powerful female figures. Power and dominance are major themes; 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 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.
The Sintra coast
West of Sintra the road winds around through the hills to PRAIA GRANDE, the best beach on this section of coast, certainly for surfers. In August the World Bodyboarding Championships are held here, along with games such as volleyball and beach rugby. Plenty of inexpensive cafés and restaurants spread along the beachside road. Just north of Praia Grande is the larger resort of PRAIA DAS MAÇÃS, a lively little holiday village with plenty of bars and restaurants sprawled round a broad expanse of sand – a good place to spend a day or two. Sintra’s historic tramway offers the most picturesque, if rather slow, route to the coast: opened in 1904, the tram trundles along from the northeast part of Sintra to the coast at Praia das Maçãs via Colares.
The most visited part of this coast, however, is CABO DA ROCA, 14km southwest of Praia Grande and officially the most westerly point in mainland Europe – the tourist office in the souvenir shop and café here sells a certificate to prove it. It’s an enjoyable trip to get here, though the cape itself offers little more than a lighthouse below which Atlantic breakers slam the cliffs.
Palácio de Queluz
Around 13km northwest of Lisbon city centre and 16km southeast of Sintra, the Palácio de Queluz is one of Portugal’s most sumptuous palaces. Commissioned in 1747 by Dom Pedro, brother of King José I, its striking Rococo exterior and formal gardens were clearly influenced by the Palace of Versailles. It was built as a summer residence for the royals, but ended up being the permanent home of the Dona Maria I, aka Maria the Mad. She married her uncle Dom Pedro, and became queen after José I’s death in 1777, but after the death of her husband in 1786, Maria suffered severe psychiatric problems and is said to have alarmed visitors who could hear her screaming from her palace bedroom. The palace was occupied and pillaged by French forces during the Napoleonic wars, when the Portuguese royal family fled to Brazil, though plenty of priceless works of art survived. Palácio de Queluz is now preserved as a museum, with its original artwork displayed alongside pieces installed on the royal family’s return to the palace in 1821, and is still pressed into service now and again to accommodate state guests and dignitaries, as well as hosting events for the Sintra music festival.
South of the Rio Tejo
The south bank of the river Tejo was linked to Lisbon only by ferry until 1966, when the “Salazar Bridge” was built. Renamed the Ponte 25 de Abril after the 1974 Revolution, this huge suspension bridge opened up the south bank to the encroaching city. Cacilhas is the port you’ll arrive at if you come by ferry, while Caparica is the main resort along the superb Costa da Caparica, which stretches for some 20km to the south.
The most enjoyable way to approach the southern bank of the Rio Tejo is to take the ferry from Lisbon’s Cais do Sodré to the little port of CACILHAS. The blustery ride grants wonderful views of the city, as well as of the Ponte 25 de Abril, though it’s the line of seafood restaurants along the riverfront that attracts most Lisboetas to make the crossing. The moderately priced riverside Cervejaria Farol is a good bet, though if you head towards the bridge along the Cais do Ginjal you’ll find plenty of others with great Lisbon outlooks.
Parque Natural da Arrábida
Just 7km southwest of Setúbal, the craggy, scrub- and wood-covered slopes of the Serra da Arrábida rise to around 500m above a dramatic coastline dotted with cove beaches. It’s stunningly beautiful, though surprisingly little known to tourists: home to wildcats, badgers, polecats, buzzards and Bonelli’s eagles, the region has had protected status since 1976 and makes up the Parque Natural da Arrábida. Walking guides are available from the park’s main office in Setúbal, though to get the most from the park you’ll need a car – indeed, the spectacular N379-1 ranks as one of the most dramatic drives in Portugal. Note, however, that from July to August, a one-way system is in place on the narrow coastal road through the park, which operates westwards-only from 8am to 7pm (though the inland N10 and N379-1 roads operate both ways).
Top image: Lisbon's historic quarter © ESB Professional/Shutterstock