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The tall, imposing buildings that make up the Baixa (Lower Town; pronounced bye-sha) house some of Lisbon’s most interesting shops and cafés. Many of the streets are pedestrianized and, by day, they thrum with business folk and street entertainers.
Facing the river, these streets felt the full force of the 1755 earthquake that destroyed much of the capital. The king’s minister, the Marquês de Pombal, swiftly redesigned the sector with the grid pattern that is evident today, framed by a triangle of broad squares, Praça do Comércio to the south, with Praça da Figueira and Rossio to the north. Within this triangle, three main streets are dissected by nine smaller streets, many of which took their names from the crafts and businesses carried out there, like Rua da Prata (Silversmiths’ Street) and Rua dos Sapateiros (Cobblers’ Street). Today, banks, chain stores and numerous hotels and guesthouses disturb these divisions somewhat, though plenty of traditional stores remain.
Praça Dom Pedro IV (popularly known as Rossio) has been the city’s main square since medieval times, and it remains the hub of commercial Lisbon. Its central space sparkles with Baroque fountains and polished, mosaic-cobbled pavements. During the nineteenth century, Rossio’s plethora of cafés attracted Lisbon’s painters and writers, though many of the artists’ haunts were converted to banks in the 1970s. Nevertheless, the outdoor seats of the square’s remaining cafés are perennially popular meeting-points.
On the northwestern side of the square, there’s a horseshoe-shaped entrance to Rossio station, a mock-Manueline complex with the train platforms an escalator ride above the street-level entrances. Opposite, the square’s grandest building is the Teatro Nacional de Dona Maria II, built in the 1840s. Here, prior to the earthquake, stood the Inquisitional Palace, in front of which public hangings, autos-da-fé (ritual burnings of heretics) and bullfights used to take place.
One of Lisbon’s first streets to be pedestrianized, Rua das Portas de Santo Antão is also its liveliest. Running north from the Teatro Nacional de Dona Maria II, the cobbled street is lined with seafood restaurants and theatres and is usually packed with a healthy mix of tourists and locals. Most of its restaurants have tables outside which are great for people-watching. The portas in the name refer to the town gates through which the street once passed, and though the gates have long gone, it still exudes a sense of history.
A restaurant, café-bar and cultural centre, the Casa do Alentejo is a sumptuously decorated pseudo-Moorish palace, little-changed for decades. Originally a seventeenth-century mansion and later a casino, it has been dedicated to culture from the Alentejo district since the 1930s. You can just wander in and look around the beautifully tiled interior – some of the decorative tiles are from the original mansion – but most visitors head upstairs to the dining room or the café-bar, with its neighbouring ballroom, an amazing, slightly run-down room hung with chandeliers.
Built in 1902 by a disciple of Gustav Eiffel, Raul Mésnier, the impressive and eccentric-looking Elevador de Santa Justa street lift creaks its way up 32m above the Baixa. The exit at the top comes out next to the Bairro Alto’s Convento do Carmo, but you can stop first for a drink at the elevador’s own pricey rooftop café, which has great views over the city and the elaborate metal framework of the lift itself.
One of Lisbon’s smallest but most fascinating museums, the Núcleo Arqueológico lies beneath the Baixa’s streets. During the construction of the BCP bank in the 1990s, excavations revealed the remains of Roman fish-preserving tanks, a fifth-century Christian burial place and Moorish ceramics, which can all be seen in this tiny museum.
If you’re interested in discovering more about Lisbon’s underground ruins, ask museum staff about early summer visits to the amazing 2000-year-old Roman tunnels that lie beneath the Baixa, whose purpose remains unclear. As the tunnels are usually flooded, they’re open to visitors for just three days a year, when they attract enormous queues. Watching people enter the tunnels, accessible only through a manhole cover between tram tracks on Rua da Conceição, is a bizarre sight.
Inside a grand former bank, the Museu Design Moda houses an impressive collection of design and fashion classics from the 1930s to today, amassed by former stockbroker and media mogul Francisco Capelo. Exbibits include design classics by Charles and Ray Eames and Phillipe Starck, as well as Capelo’s collection of haute couture from the 1950s, 1960s street fashion and designer brands of the 1990s, from Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin to Alexander McQueen.
The Baixa’s most impressive building is a huge arch, the Arco da Rua Augusta, adorned with statues of historical figures, including the Marquês de Pombal and Vasco da Gama. Acting as a gateway to the city, the arch was built to celebrate Lisbon’s reconstruction after the earthquake. You can take a lift up the structure to just below the Clock Room, a small exhibition space centred around the workings of a nineteenth-century clock. From here, you can squeeze up a spiral staircase to the flat roof of the monument, where you’ll be greeted by unmissable views across the Baixa and Praça do Comércio. Don’t be tempted to stand under the deafening bell here when it strikes – you’ll regret it.
Heading north from the arch, the mosaic-paved Rua Augusta is the Baixa grid’s main pedestrianized thoroughfare, filled with shops, cafés, market stalls and buskers.
Originally built on the site of a royal palace, the arcaded Praça do Comércio is Lisbon’s main riverfront square, and it was here that Dom Carlos I was assassinated in 1908 during the country’s attempts to become a republic. One of Portugal’s monarchs is still honoured here, however: the statue at the centre of the square is Dom José, who was king when the city was redeveloped following the 1755 earthquake.
The square has been partly pedestrianized in a successful attempt to make it more tourist-friendly, with a panoply of cafés and shops on either side. The secluded Patio da Galé, tucked into the western arcades, hosts frequent events, including the alluring Peixe em Lisboa Fish Festival in March/April. The north side of the square is the departure point for tram tours of the city, but it’s the riverfront side that is perhaps most appealing. This is especially so in the hour or two before sunset, when people linger in the golden light to watch the orange ferries ply between the Estação Fluvial ferry station and Barreiro on the other side of the Tejo. For a scenic walk, head west along the pedestrianized riverfront to Cais do Sodré.
The eastern arcades of Praça do Comércio were renovated in 2012 to become Ala Nascente, a hub of somewhat touristy cafés and shops, the highlight of which is the Lisbon Story Centre. This gives a potted, visual account of the city’s history – good for a rainy day, though somewhat pricey for what you get.