I must be completely honest with you: I didn’t expect much from my trip to Lisbon (and maybe this is the reason I visited this country only now). I knew that the city was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami in 1755, many important buildings were destroyed, and the city never returned to its original glory after that. How little did I know! I fell in love with Lisbon almost immediately, and now it’s one of my favourite European capitals. I’ve prepared a guide for you that would allow you to see Lisbon through my eyes (however I must note that my guide doesn’t include the museums of Lisbon and almost none of Portuguese dishes – and this is an important part of its cultural life and heritage).
This article is part one of my guide, the second part is coming soon too!
1. Explore Belém Tower
Torre de Belém, also known as Tower of Saint Vincent, an amazing castle-ish limestone building from a fairytale that you’ve probably seen on every Lisbon postcard, tops my guide. It consists of a bastion with bartizan turrets and the four-story tower and is built in Portuguese Manueline style, or Portugues late gothique style (many examples of it were lost during the earthquake but the Tower and the Jeronimo Monastery – see below – survived). Initially it served as a fortification guarding the entrance to Lisbon from on the Tagus river. Now it’s enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Be careful: it’s a very popular place and if you’d like to visit it tranquilly, you should choose the time of your visit very carefully.
2. Have a walk across Commerce Square
Commerce Square, or Praça do Comércio, is the main square of Lisbon. It’s open from one side overlooking the river Tagus, and its main landmarks are the bronze equestrian statue of Joseph I of Portugal (1750 – 1777) and the Triumphal arch (see below). This place played a very important role in the history of the country. This is where the Ribeira Palace, a royal residence destroyed in mid-18th century, stood once, and where one of the last kings of Portugal, Carlos I, and his heir were assassinated by the members of Republican Party in 1908 (the one that organised the Portuguese revolution of 1910 overthrowing the monarchy).
The sides of the square are covered with arches and arcades with many shops and restaurants as well as governmental and touristic offices.
3. Go under the Rua Augusta Arch
The Triumphal arch, or the Rua Augusta Arch, is no doubt the main attraction of the Commerce Square. It was finished in 1875 and connects the Commerce Square to Augusta Street which consequently leads directly to the Rossio Square, another important square of the city – see below. The statues featured on it include notable portugalians such as Vasco da Gama and Marquis of Pombal (an important portugues politician of the 18th century) and the symbolic representations of Glory, Genius (or Ingenuity) and Valour.
4. Climb up the St George’s Castle
St George’s Castle, or Castelo de São Jorge, is one of the most touristy spots in Lisbon. It’s visible from many points of the city as it sits on a high hill (and we went all the way up with our pram burning all the calories from pastel de nata!!). It had a turbulent past: its oldest parts date back to 5-6th century (some Phoenician, Greek and Carthaginian remnants were found too!), and it was used by Romans, Visigoths, the Moors, then it was ‘freed’ by the first portuguese king Afonso I of Portugal. But it wasn’t dedicated to St George until the 14th century when England had a pact with Portugal (St George is the patron saint of England as you know). It was a Portugal royal seat until the Royal family moved to the Ribeira palace on Commerce Square – the one ruined by the earthquake.
I recommend you to visit it to document the sunset over the city: the views are astonishing! But the thing that impressed me the most were…the peacocks. They were running around in large flocks and behaved more like chicken and even climbed the trees around the castle! I didn’t even imagine that they could ‘fly’ so high!
5. Be astonished by Jerónimos Monastery
The Jerónimos Monastery is a must see when you’re in Lisbon. It’s an astonishing piece of art in Manueline style (aka Portuguese late Gothic) whose construction began in the 16th century, now enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was previously used by the Order of Saint Jerome, and this is where the name is coming from.
Pop inside to explore the fantastic two-storey cloisters with impressive carvings: how do you like a grasshopper, birdie and fire-breathing creature?
You can visit the Church of Santa Maria de Belém where you can find the neo-gothic tombs of two of the most known persons of the Age of Discoveries: explorer Vasco da Gama (1468–1523) and poet Luís de Camões (1527–1580), their remains were transferred there in the 19th century. Also don’t miss the royal tombs (just look for the elephants holding the sarcophags!) where lay king Manuel I, his wife Maria of Aragon, king João III and his wife Catherine of Austria. There are two entrances to this church: the Western portal through which you actually enter it and the impressive Southern side entrance with mermaids that remains closed.
There are also two museums now located in the west wing of the monastery: National Archaeological Museum and Maritime Museum.
6. Learn at the Monument to the Discoveries
The Monument to the Discoveries, or Padrão dos Descobrimentos, is an impressive 52 metre high sculpture on the bank of the Tagus river located between the monastery and Belem Tower (see above). It is also dedicated to the Age of Discoveries featuring 32 historical figurines on a caravel ship. The main character there is Henry the Navigator (1394 – 1460), the person who has changed the history of navigation and without whom the Age of Discoveries might not have started like it was (for instance, he sent the ship missions out to explore what now is known as West African coast, the Azores and Madeira). The idea of the monument arose at the time of the Portuguese World Exhibition and in 1960, a couple of decades later, the monument was recreated in stone to mark 500 years since Henry’s death.
Other well-known personalities are Vasco da Gama, Pedro Alvares Cabral and Ferdinand Magellan and the only women featured is Queen Philippa of Lancaster, Henry’s mother. At the foot of the monument you can see the giant World Map, Mappa Mundi, with the most important dates of discoveries marked on it.
7. Adore the scenery of at Portas do Sol…
The terrace called Portas do Sol, or the Gates of the Sun, is one of the best points to admire the views of old Lisbon. Located in Alfama district not far away from Se Lisbon and St George’s castle, it’s a nice spacious area with a statue of St Vincent, patron saint of Lisbon.
You can have a coffee or a cocktail with a view over the Church São Vicente de Fora and the National Pantheon (see the second part of my guide!).
8. … or at the Santa Luzia viewpoint over Lisbon
Another viewpoint is just a few steps away and is called the Terrace of Santa Luzia. If you were wondering from where the ships sailed to America in Erich Maria Remarque’s A night in Lisbon, you can clearly see the port from here.
9. Collect the photos of the trams
Lisbon is famous for its colourful trams which, by the way, seem a very convenient way to overcome all the ups and downs of the city. In total there are five different routes with about five dozen trams -and two thirds of them are vintage! Tram 28 seems to be the most popular one as it covers the most historic area of Lisbon and tram 15 goes to Belem district (as you might’ve noticed, it has lots to see).
10. Explore Alfama District on foot
Although riding a tram is a really nice option and it is not easy to walk around the historical Alfama district, the oldest part of the city, by foot, I’d recommend exploring it on foot. It has lots of hidden corners and picturesque streets to see which you’ll miss if not discovering on your own!
11. Admire Lisbon Cathedral…
Another must-see, also located in Alfama district, is the Lisbon Cathedral, or Sé de Lisboa, or Santa Maria Maior. This is the oldest church of the city dating back to the 12th century, and after it survived the notorious earthquake, it was regarded even more special. Apart from exploring the cathedral itself, you can also see the cloisters and the treasury.
12. …and turn around to see the Church of Saint Anthony of Lisbon
Just alongside the road another church – St Antonio’s one, Igreja de Santo António de Lisboa – is located which is said to be built on the exact spot where St Antonio of Padua was born in 1195. You might’ve seen him on many pieces of art as his religious miracles were really loved by the painters. Moreover, the sardines, one of the main foods to try in Lisbon, come from his miracle of fish as well!
13. Go up or down by Santa Justa Elevator
I think you’ve already realised that Lisbon has lots of hills (it’s said to have seven like Rome but it feels like it has many more). So unsurprisingly it has some lifts and elevators, and the 45 metre high Santa Justa Elevator built in 1902 is the most famous of them connecting Baixa and Bairro Alto district. Santa Justa Elevator is also known as Elevador do Carmo (Carmo Lift).
14. Buy some food goodies at Mercado da Ribeira
Although I’ve promised myself not to talk about food in this article (I’ll write another one solely dedicated to Portuguese cuisine), Mercado da Ribeirahas has to be on my list. It has been functioning since 1892 and now consists of two parts: a more traditional one with local vendors and a pretty modern looking Time Out market of Lisbon hosting lots of individual stalls with delicious food.
15. See the nativity scene of Basílica da Estrela
For some reason Basílica da Estrela, or Royal Basilica and Convent of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, is not very popular among tourists but this is a gorgeous Baroque building with some treasures hidden inside. The interiors made out of various types of marble are truly astonishing but the most important part of the basilica is the tomb of Queen Mary I of Portugal and a huge nativity scene with five hundred figurines made by Joaquim Machado de Castro which are really worth a visit.
Just a few steps away there is a very tranquil and lovely Estrella Park with Banana cafe.
Hope you enjoyed the first of my Lisbon guide!