Editor’s note: I was fortunate to spend a full month in Lisbon in early 2020, prior to the onset of Covid. Like Sam, I loved the city, and you can click here to read my guide to it, which in turn links to other in-depth articles about specific neighborhoods and aspects of life in Lisbon. For more of Sam’s articles, click here to visit his index page.
Have you heard about revenge travel? It is the theme of the summer of 2022. So many of us had trips canceled during the height of COVID, and this summer, many people are doing those trips now or even going bigger. One of the trips that we had canceled was to Barcelona, and so we booked a flight there. We saw that the best deal was through TAP Airline, the Portuguese budget airliner, and that TAP has a special deal where you can add a multi-day layover at no additional cost in Lisbon or Porto, Portugal. We took that offer and spent an incredible four days in Portugal, which I wrote was the most baby friendly destination I have been to. While we ended up liking Barcelona a lot, my wife and I agreed that Portugal was the top spot on our trip, and we had a special love for the city of Lisbon.
Lisbon is Portugal’s capital and largest city; however, the population is less than 600,000 people, making the city not at all overwhelming. Located on the Tagus River and the Atlantic Ocean, Lisbon is a beautiful city built on hills that feels reminiscent of San Francisco in many ways. The most notable features that anyone will notice are the cable cars and the 25 de Abril Bridge, which looks nearly identical to the Golden Gate Bridge, towering over the Tagus River. The suspension bridge was designed by the same company that built its San Francisco counterpart and painted the same bright red color. Not far from the bridge is the neighborhood of Belem. Belem has two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Portugal’s most famous landmark, the Tower of Belem. The 30-meter bright white limestone tower is built in the Manueline architectural style, the architectural style of the 16th century in Portugal, leading from the Gothic era into the Renaissance era. The most noticeable feature of this style is the imagery of seashells and ships in the architecture, representing Portugal’s focus on exploration and sea trade during the time. The Belem Tower was built in 1519 initially on an island in the Tagus River and was the launch point for many of the explorers during the Age of Exploration. With Moorish turrets, this tower was the site of many battles with invading ships trying to penetrate the river. The reason I say that the Tower of Belem was “initially” built on an island is because of the result of the biggest event to happen in Lisbon’s history.
In 1755, Lisbon was practically destroyed by an estimated 9.0 earthquake and tsunami. The earthquake was so powerful that it diverted the Tagus River’s flowing direction. As a result, the Tower of Belem is now on the riverbank of Lisbon with a tiny beach instead of in the middle of the river. It is one of the few buildings in the city that predates the earthquake; though Lisbon is Europe’s second oldest city after Athens at 3200-years-old, most of the buildings in the city are relatively new for a European capital. The Jeronimos Monastery, built in 1495, is down the street from the Tower of Belem and is the most important religious site in the city. Also built in the Manueline style, which is most evident with its two-story cloisters, the sprawling monastery is a wonder to walk through. Built by the Order of Christ, the monks of the monastery would house explorers who would pray for safe and successful voyages the night before their departure. One of these explorers was Vasco da Gama, whose tomb is located inside the church. The monastery also houses the necropolis for many of the Portuguese royalty, as well as the Maritime Museum, and the National Architecture Museum. Across the street from the monastery and also on the riverbank is the Monument to the Discoveries, a ship-shaped monument showing the great Portuguese explorers at the location where they would often depart. It is interesting to see and then to walk around the surrounding plaza, which contains a large map showing their voyages.
Before leaving Belem, your trip must include a trip to eat one of the country’s most famous pastries. Pasteis de nata are delicious egg custard pastries dusted with cinnamon and sugar. These treats are sold all over Lisbon, but the best and most famous place to get them is the Fabrica de Pasteis de Belem. Opened in 1837, this shop invented the dessert and keeps the original recipe in a secret room and will not divulge it to anyone. Each day, this shop a block down from the monastery sells 20,000 of these pastries. There are many culinary delights in Lisbon, many of which can be explored at the Time Out Market, a food hall opened up in the Mercado de Ribeira former marketplace building. Among the 36 stalls, there are many chances to try famous Portuguese dishes including a stand that sells a variety of delicious croquettes, a store that sells nothing but canned sardines and cod (a Portuguese delicacy), and many restaurants that have the national dish of Portugal, bacalau, a salted cod. At this food hall are many kiosks run by celebrity chefs.
Not far from the Time Out Market is the Baixa (Downtown) district. On the riverbank is a massive plaza called the Praca do Comercio. With a large statue of King Jose I on horseback in the center of this square plaza, there are beautiful views of the river as the plaza welcomes people into the rebuilt, post-1755 Lisbon. Beyond the plaza’s Arca Triunfal (Triumph Arch) is the Rua de Augusta street, which has, along with the surrounding streets, many souvenir shops and wonderful restaurants. At the top of the street is the Rossio Plaza, one of Europe’s largest plazas and a central meeting point in Lisbon. Off of the Rua de Augusta you will see a bizarre looking structure called the Santa Justa Lift, an elevator built in 1899 that brings pedestrians from the lower streets of Baixa to the upper ones atop a hill, connected by a skybridge. The elevator was inspired by the Eiffel Tower and has become another of Portugal’s most famous landmarks.
After taking in the views from the elevator of Baixa, make your way to the Convento do Carmo, which was a monastery that had been built in 1389. The large monastery was significantly damaged and partially destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. Since then, the walls and columns of the southern façade have continued to stand while the ceiling collapsed. The monastery is the city’s greatest reminder of the earthquake, and going into the open-air convent gives a sense of awe both in imagining the grandeur of Lisbon prior to 1755 and also the magnitude of the earthquake.
The final highlight neighborhood of Lisbon is the Alfama district, famous for its Fado music. The neighborhood is where you can see many examples of azulejos, Portugal’s famous blue tiles, of which there is even a museum in the area. Take a tuk tuk, or, even better, the #28 cable car tram which goes up the tall, steep hill, past the city’s famous cathedral to the Sao Jorge Castle. On the site of the castle, there has been human civilization since the 8th century BCE, and fortifications for over two thousand years. The castle offers the best views of the entire city from shaded gardens. Enjoy wandering around the sprawling castles, crossing the dry moats, and watching the many beautiful peacocks roam. Look out at the city and the Tagus River at sunset to cap off a wonderful couple of days discovering a city that feels ancient and new, that is beautiful and still humble. While maybe overshadowed by the only two cities larger than it on the Iberian Peninsula, Madrid and Barcelona, in Lisbon you will discover a charm that will make an impression and make it stand alone as one of the best cities in Europe, if not the world.
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