Before the pandemic, Lisbon had become one of the trendiest destinations in Europe, as visitors were drawn in by its special light, brilliant colours, warm weather, low prices and friendly people.
After living in the Portuguese capital for four years, these are my Lisbon highlights.
‘Lisbon’s special appeal lies elsewhere (beyond tourist attractions). Its secret is in the mix. That cosmopolitan legacy endows Lisbon with an intriguing, exotic flavour that is unique in Europe. Lisbon, for all its loss, still engages the imagination. Lisbon is a mood, and that cannot be captured in a travel brochure or photographs on a website.’Barry Hatton, ‘Queen of the Sea’
The centre of Lisbon is a collection of fascinating and unique historical neighbourhoods ranging from the medieval Islamic layout of Alfama to the Enlightenment-era Baixa to the Bohemian elegance of Chiado. One of the best ways to become oriented in Lisbon is by catching the famous No. 28 tram, which slowly creaks its way through most of these neighbourhoods to serve as a guide.
From its starting point at the Prazeres cemetery, the tram begins its eastwards traverse in Estrela, passing an imposing basilica and the Estrela gardens that form the most famous public park in the city. Continuing downhill, the tram passes the national parliament building and enters my suburb of São Bento, which has transformed itself into one of the world’s coolest neighbourhoods in the last few years with the introduction of wine bars and French bakeries.
Heading back uphill, the tram reaches Chiado with its stylish mosaic pavements (calçada portuguesa) and elegant buildings. It also contains a myriad of poet statues, including the two most celebrated poets in Portugal’s history, Luís de Camões and Fernando Pessoa (who actually has two statues in Chiado), as well as the ‘squeak’ himself, António Ribeiro, whose nickname of chiado owing to his squeaky voice eventually came to describe the entire neighbourhood.
From Chiado, the tram winds its way down to the Baixa, the lower part of the city that was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake and subsequently rebuilt in a grand and earthquake-proof fashion, culminating with the vast Praça do Comércio square on the riverfront. The grid pattern and wide (for the time) streets of the rebuilt Baixa represented a significant departure from the twisting medieval alleyways that defined the area before the earthquake – and still define the next place on the tram’s trajectory: Alfama.
Alfama is the oldest and most famous of Lisbon’s historical neighbourhoods, and its character and name – derived from the Arabic al-hamma, meaning bath or fountain, because of the natural springs that once existed there – reach far back into Lisbon’s Muslim era. Alfama is a fascinating warren of narrow alleyways and steps, with laundry hanging from windows and neighbours chatting across balconies. ‘The tourist who can spend a few days in Lisbon should not omit to visit this quarter,’ Fernando Pessoa wrote about Alfama in 1925. ‘He will get a notion no other place can give him of what Lisbon was like in the past. Everything will evoke that past here – the architecture, the type of streets, the arches and stairways, the wooden balconies, the very habits of the people who live there a life full of noise, of talk, of songs, of poverty and of dirt.’
The tram passes by Lisbon’s cathedral and continues on its winding journey through Alfama before climbing to the even higher neighbourhood of Graça. This is the traditional endpoint of the 28’s journey, but some trams continue as far as the square of Martim Moniz, dropping passengers at the doorstep of Mouraria, the quarter that emerged as a ghetto for defeated Muslims after the Christian triumph in the 1147 siege and that is now Lisbon’s most multicultural and non-gentrified historical neighbourhood.
Lisbon is said to be built on seven hills, a topography that traces its creation back to the mythical founding of the city by the Homeric hero Odysseus, whose Latin name, Ulysses, lends itself pretty well to a city that was once called Olisipo. The convenient figure of seven is a way of tying Lisbon to Rome, but whatever the exact number, Lisbon is undeniably a hilly city, and the main benefit of this is that numerous viewpoints (miradouros) offer stunning views of the historical neighbourhoods and the Tagus river.
In Alfama, the twin lookouts of Santa Luzia and Portas do Sol are perhaps the most famous of all Lisbon’s viewpoints, and Portas do Sol is my personal favourite. From here, the picture-perfect view east over the tiled rooftops and hodge-podge architecture of Alfama, the dome of the National Pantheon and the single remaining tower of the church of St. Stephen is one of Lisbon’s iconic images.
Higher up, the Miradouro de Graça looks west over Mouraria, the Baixa and beyond as far as the 25th of April Bridge, Lisbon’s version of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, in the distance. It’s a wonderful spot for sunset, with a kiosk serving drinks at tables on the terrace to complete the atmosphere. Nearby, Senhora do Monte is Lisbon’s highest lookout spot, but it’s further away from the historical neighbourhoods and the view isn’t as impressive as the one from Graça.
In the Bairro Alto (‘high neighbourhood’) on the other side of the Baixa, São Pedro de Alcântara is a double-level viewpoint-garden that looks back east over the Baixa and St. George’s Castle above Alfama. If you have a big night in the student bars of the Bairro Alto, it’s a great spot for sunrise!
While kiosks serve drinks at most of these miradouros, there are also numerous rooftop bars offering beautiful views of the city. To mention just a couple, Bar Terraço de Santa Luzia is accessed from the Santa Luzia viewpoint and sits atop the Roman and medieval walls above the Portas do Sol. My favourite bar view, however, is from the Hotel Mundial in Martim Moniz at the base of the castle. Because it’s situated in the basin of the Baixa itself rather than on one of the surrounding hills as the miradouros are, there are 360-degree views from the expansive rooftop terrace, taking in many of Lisbon’s famous sites and offering a stunning panorama.
Lisbon is full of beautiful Baroque churches that were built after the 1755 earthquake destroyed most of the city and almost resulted in its abandonment. The most interesting churches, however, predate the earthquake, and three in particular are still among the most prominent in the city and are eternally linked by the disaster.
In Alfama, the fortified medieval cathedral – also known as the Sé – was built in the aftermath of the Christian reconquest in the 12th century and bridges the transition between the Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles. After suffering damage in three separate earthquakes in the 14th century, it lost its roof in 1755, but the walls and framework of the building remained intact and the cathedral was repaired. Today, the imposing Romanesque façade, the castle-like crenellated exterior and the Gothic cloister are among the Sé’s most impressive aspects. It’s also the starting point for the Portuguese route of the Camino de Santiago, indicated by the yellow arrow on the lower right side of the façade.
Less fortunate than the Cathedral was the Convento do Carmo in Chiado, which became the symbol of the earthquake after its ceiling, tower and cloister collapsed when the tremors hit during an All Saints Day service, killing hundreds of people inside. Today, the 14th-15th century Gothic church still stands in ruins as an eerie reminder of the disaster. An archeological museum is housed inside the church, and in summer, open-air concerts are held in the ruins.
Finally, the Church of São Domingos in the Baixa has been described as both cursed and blessed. It was originally built in the 13th century, and an incident at the church was the catalyst for the infamous Jewish massacre of 1506. The church was remodelled in 1748 only to be largely destroyed in the earthquake and subsequent fire that raged throughout Lisbon just seven years later. After being rebuilt in Baroque style, it was gutted by fire again in 1959, and the interior has been restored in an atmospheric if haunting way that retains elements of the burnt-out shell.
In a city where you can see statues of three poets from a single vantage point – with that point being on a street named after a fourth poet – it should come as no surprise that Lisbon is a literary town and is full of bookstores. And not just standard, chain-style bookstores (although it has those too) but old, quirky ones that you can lose yourself in for hours.
Chiado is the centre of Lisbon’s book culture and has a large concentration of bookstores as well as a twice-weekly book market. On Rua Garrett, Bertrand’s has been open since 1732 and is the oldest continuously operating bookstore in the world – recognised as such by Guinness World Records. These days it’s a modernised but classy bookstore with beautiful wooden shelving and many English titles, including books about Lisbon and Portugal.
Despite its age and fame, however, Bertrand’s is not even the most interesting bookstore on its street. That honour goes to Livraria Sá da Costa, an endlessly fascinating shop full of old books, maps and magazines with a few world globes and African masks thrown in for good measure. Thick tomes on a huge range of subjects fill the creaky shelves, and you never know what you might come across. As a friend said to me after a recent visit, ‘They should make you wear gloves before you can touch some of the things in there.’
Outside Chiado, my two favourite bookstores in Lisbon are Palavra de Viajante (‘Word of the Traveller’) in São Bento, which focuses on travel books, including many titles in English, and Ler Devagar (‘Read Slowly’), a multi-level bookstore with an unusual bicycle hanging from the ceiling at LX Factory, an old warehouse district that has been reimagined in recent years as one of Lisbon’s coolest places. At Ler Devagar, don’t miss the old man’s proud tour of his weird and wonderful mechanical toys on the second floor.
Lisbon has become a hot spot for street art in recent years, boasting the largest open air art gallery in Europe and innovative artists such as Vhils and Bordalo II whose techniques involve a lot more than paint and a brush.
‘Probably the most famous of all Portuguese street artists, Vhils is famous for his unusual technique of creative destruction,’ writes my wife and street art enthusiast Wendy on her blog The Nomadic Vegan. ‘Instead of painting onto a wall, he creates art by chipping away at the wall, using drills or even explosives, to carve out an image.’ Although not a standard Vhils piece, one of his most famous Lisbon works is his mosaic of fado singer Amália Rodrigues in Alfama. For more typical Vhils art, look for his collaboration with Shepard Fairey on a mural in Graça.
Bordalo II uses what he calls ‘artivism’ to draw attention to environmental issues. ‘To highlight the destructive nature of our materialistic, throw-away society, Bordalo II makes all of his art out of trash,’ Wendy writes. ‘And moreover, he uses this trash to create images of the animals whose habitats are in danger because of our destructive habits.’ The result is his Big Trash Animals series, of which several works can be seen in Lisbon. The most centrally located piece features two pelicans on a wall at the base of the Santa Justa lift in Chiado, though my favourite is the Iberian lynx at Parque das Nações.
To see works by both of these artists and plenty more, consider a trip to Quinta do Mocho, a housing project neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lisbon. In recent years, Quinta do Mocho has shed its reputation as a dangerous, crime-riddled suburb and has transformed itself into a riot of colour, with more than 100 murals creating a street art utopia.
Lisbon may not boast the world-famous museums that some other European capitals can offer, but there are two in particular that focus on specific aspects of Portuguese culture and identity and are well worth seeking out, especially if you are spending more time in the country as a tourist or pilgrim.
The National Tile Museum explores the art and history of the ubiquitous glazed tiles found throughout Portugal and known as azulejos. Both the name (from the Arabic al-zulaij) and technique of making these tiles is part of the legacy of the Islamic presence in Portugal from the 8th to the 13th centuries. While the Portuguese have continued the Moorish tradition of producing tiles with geometric patterns for building exteriors, they also took the art form in another direction after the Renaissance and created sweeping artistic scenes inside churches, palaces and other stately buildings. The tile museum explores all of this history, and displays include a quirky 17th-century panel known as ‘The Chicken’s Wedding’ and a beautiful blue-and-white tiled panorama of Lisbon on the top floor.
Another famous Portuguese art form, the musical genre fado, is celebrated at the Fado Museum in Alfama. The origins of fado are shrouded in mystery, but it was born in the Mouraria neighbourhood of Lisbon in the early to mid 19th century. Fado means fate, and the music is tied to the Portuguese concept of saudade, which is untranslatable but related to a feeling of longing and nostalgia. One of the highlights of the museum is a video (in Portuguese with English subtitles) featuring interviews with fado singers, who struggle to answer the seemingly simple question of what fado is and eventually describe it not as music but as emotion.
For a sense of the grandeur of Portugal during the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, a visit to Belém, on the western outskirts of Lisbon and easily reachable from the city centre by public transport, is a must.
The Jerónimos Monastery in Belém is the most impressive church in greater Lisbon and the finest remaining example of Manueline architecture in Portugal. This late Gothic style, named after the Portuguese king Manuel who ruled during some of the most significant moments of the Age of Discovery, glorifies the era by incorporating navigational motifs, including anchors, armillary spheres and twisting ropes, into architectural features such as arches, windows and columns. Beyond this striking style, the Jerónimos church contains the elaborate tombs of possibly the two most famous figures in the history of Portugal, the explorer Vasco da Gama and the poet Luís de Camões, as well as less fanciful tombs for several kings, including Manuel.
‘A masterpiece in stone, which all tourists visit and which they can never forget. It is, as a matter of fact, the most remarkable monument which the capital contains. All the beauties it contains must be carefully examined.’Fernando Pessoa on the Jerónimos Monastery in ‘Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See’
A short walk away, the Belém Tower is another early 16th-century Manueline building and has become one of the symbols of Portugal. Built in the Tagus as part of the river’s defensive system, it is now accessible via a footbridge. In the late afternoon, the silhouette of the tower against the backdrop of the setting sun fizzing into the ocean is one of Lisbon’s magical images.
The third major monument in Belém is more recent but no less thematic: the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries), which honours 33 Portuguese heroes from the Age of Discovery. The monument takes the form of a stylised sailboat with 16 larger-than-life figures on each side, led by the father figure of Portuguese exploration, Henry the Navigator, standing at the prow. Other famous figures sculpted on the monument include da Gama, Camões, Ferdinand Magellan, Bartholomew Dias and only one woman, Philippa of Lancaster, Henry’s mother and queen of Portugal following her marriage to King João I.
Despite all this historical flavour that permeates Belém, it’s often another delicacy that draws visitors in: the Portuguese tarts that have been made since 1837 at the Pastéis de Belém bakery according to a secret recipe from the nearby monastery. The long lines outside are testament to the pastries’ reputation and popularity, and the delight of biting into one may just be your fondest memory of Lisbon.