Europe’s westernmost capital has blossomed in recent years, attracting visitors to its world class restaurants as well as its culture and history. Despite the old-world feel with its network of antiquated trams, Lisbon definitely has a modern edge.
Portugal’s hilly capital, is a coastal city known for many things – from the blue-and-white azulejo architecture, to the spectacular views that can be seen from anywhere on top of the seven hills to the imposing São Jorge Castle. The rambling alleyway are lined with pastel colored houses covered in pretty flower boxes. The sweet citrus smells drift over the walls, hiding a fruit-laden lemon tree in the courtyard. Even though the streets are confusing, it’s definitely walk-able, just make sure you bring your running shoes along. Here are a few places to explore in Lisbon’s labyrinthine streets:
1. Lisbon is known as the city of seven hills, and to fully appreciate the beauty of the city, you have to go up those hills to the lookout places known as Miradouros. Here is a list of our favorites.
Cost: Mostly Free
2. Visit the Church of São Vicente de Fora, founded by the first Portuguese King in 1147. The Augustinian monastery was built right after the city was captured from the Moors and dedicated to St. Vincent, the patron Saint of Lisbon. On the outside, the austere façade is decorated with statues of saints and flanked by two towers. Inside, the highlights include the ornate altarpiece designed by Portugal’s famous sculptor, Joaquim Machado de Castro. The historic church and monastery is located in the old Alfama district which was outside of the city wall at the time of construction, hence the name “de Fora”.
3. Also in the neighborhood of Alfama, you can find Feira da Ladra (translated to: Thief Fair), the oldest market in Lisbon dating all the way back to the Middle Ages. This popular street fair is held every Tuesday and Saturday, from dawn to dusk. Here you’ll find hundreds of small stalls that sell all kinds of things from hand-painted ceramics to used vinyl records to antique furniture and old clothing. The flea market is organized into different sections for the types of items sold, making it easier to find what you’re looking for. This market is frequented by both the locals and tourists. There are a lot of things to peruse, and if you’re lucky you’ll find a hidden gem. I bought a beautiful tile from the 1840s. Just remember to haggle on the price for every item.
4. Climb to the top of the hill and visit the ruins of a Moorish Castle. In 1147, Dom Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, captured both the castle and the city from the Moors. Castelo de Sao Jorges was the seat of power in Portugal for over 400 years. The strong fortification, combined with the high vantage point made this the perfect stronghold to guard the city and its occupants. Today, all that remains of the once formidable battlement are the towers over looking the city. Sitting at the highest of the seven hills, the castle has the best view of the city, and from the Medieval walls you can see over the Baixa district all the way to the Tagus River.
Cost: € 8.5 admission fee
5. Praça Dom Pedro IV, more commonly known as Rossio Square, has been Lisbon’s main square since the Middle Ages when the city expanded to the lower area surrounding the Castle Hill. It is located in the heart of the city and has served as a meet-up place for centuries. At center of the square, you’ll find a twenty-three meter tall column with a statue of Dom Pedro IV, a former king of Portugal and the first emperor of Brazil. On either side of the monument are two elaborate Baroque fountains. These important landmarks were severely damaged during the earthquake and rebuilt at a later time. The well known wave-patterned cobblestone pavement was the first to be made in Lisbon.
Rossio square is a major hub with its proximity to the main train stations. The area is surrounded by restaurants and shops, making it the ideal place to congregate. Here you’ll always find people, either rushing to catch the tram, singing by the fountain, or protesting in the square. It’s impossible not to pass by this plaza during your stay in Lisbon, even if for a short time.
6. The downtown area, Pombaline Baixa, was constructed after the devastating earthquake of 1755. The city blocks are organized into a grid structure, comprising of streets from the Praça do Comércio all the way to Rossio Square. In the very center is the wide mosaic-tiled promenade, Rue Augusta, a pedestrian friendly area. The long road leading down to the water is filled with shops, restaurants, and cafes. There is lots of outdoor seating making it an ideal place to grab a drink and people watch. The area is always lively and fill with music from the local performers. At the end of the busy street is the Rua Augusta Arch built to commemorate the city’s reconstruction after the 1755 earthquake.
7. The riverfront Praça do Comércio, located at the end of Rua Augusta is one of the grandest squares in Lisbon with its mosaic cobblestones and imposing archway. At its center is the equestrian statue of Dom José I, the only reminder that this used to be the site of the Royal Ribeira Palace before the earthquake. The place is steeped in history and has bared witness to many momentous events like the 1908 assassination of Dom Carlos I and his son – signaling the end of the monarchy.
Walk further down the marble steps towards the river where you’ll find the Cais das Colunas erected at the edge of the water, serving as a gateway to the city. From here, you can see all the way to the 25 de Abril Bridge.
8. Igreja do Carmo, located atop of one of Lisbon’s seven hills was once the largest church in the city, built in 1389. A magnitude 9 earthquake and the subsequent fires destroyed most of the building in 1755. The disaster struck on All Saint’s day with the roof caving in on the congregation as they were attending mass. The catastrophe left the church in ruins, with its skeletal remains and soaring arches as a reminder of the worst day in Lisbon’s history.
It was a clear day on our visit, and looking up I could see the clouds drifting across the roofless nave. The blazing sun cast stark shadows against the walls. The place was surprisingly quiet even though it’s in the middle of a bustling city. I wandered through the heart of the building, admiring the tall marble columns, striking statues and watchful gargoyles, all that remained from a tragedy that happened centuries ago. The ruin is a testament to the power of nature as well as the endurance of humans.
Cost: € 3.5 admission fee
9. Belém is a district south west of Lisbon. Located at the entrance to the Atlantic Ocean, it is the launching point for many great Portuguese explorers. Lisbon flourished as riches poured in from the different corners of the World. It was during this period that saw the construction of great monuments like the Belem Tower and Jerónimos Monastery, a symbol of Portugal’s wealth and power during the Age of Discovery.
Getting to Belem from Lisbon is quite easy. You can either take the 15E tram or the 714 bus from Praca Figueira, that comes every 15 minutes. The bus only costs 1.80 Euro per person and seems to be taken mostly by the locals while the tram is filled with tourists. The journey takes about 30 minutes.
Jerónimos Monastery was built in 1502 by King Manuel I. It was here that Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer and his crew spent their last night in prayer before beginning their treacherous voyage to India. The Monastery, now serving as a church, is a celebration of Manueline architecture, filled with decorative stonework that has strong maritime motifs. Its is considered one of Portugal’s most cherished historical buildings with its grand facade and stunning interior. The church is free for visitors, but the museum next door is not.
10. From the monastery, head towards the water to the Monument to Discoveries, and keep walking along the shore until you get to the Torres de Belem. On the pier, you’ll find locals spending the day leisurely fishing. The Torres de Belem was originally built in the 1500s as a fortress to guard the entrance to Lisbon’s harbor. It is the starting point of many of the voyages to the new world. The white limestone tower is usually the last thing the sailors set their sights on before heading out into the unknown. Today the structure mostly exists as a monument and tourist attraction.
The 6 Euro admission fee and the hour long line deterred us from going in. From the outside you can still see the beautiful stonework. It’s a great place to sit and watch the world go by. While we were at the Torres de Belem, there was a guy playing Hotel California, my dad’s favorite song, on the electric violin and it made me miss home.
Cost: € 6 admission fee