One of my favorite cities – the one I often gush about at the mere mention of its name, and the one in a country I had absolutely no plans to visit – was Lisboa.
The capital city of Portugal, Lisboa – or Lisbon – sits on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, at the mouth of the Tagus. Its white limestone buildings, quirky and narrow alleyways and streets, and hilly landscape framed by the surrounding body of water enchants visitors all year round.
Like much of the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal has a diverse cultural history, with both Roman and Moorish influence. In 714, Lisbon was conquered by Islamic Moors, making Portugal a part of the Caliphate of Córdoba (a name you might recall from other cities conquered in nearby Spain).
Christian rule returned in 1147 and in 1256, Afonso III made Lisbon the capitol. During the explorations of the 15th and 16th centuries, Lisbon flourished, its strategic port position fostering maritime exploration and trade.
In the famous earthquake of 1755 (which was followed by countless fires and even a tsunami), the city was almost completely destroyed. The city went through a rebuilding process, and few of the its older buildings survived.
The city was also occupied by Napoleon’s forces for about four years during the Peninsular War. In 1814, at the end of the war, a constitution was put into place and Brazil was granted independence.
Since then, there have been many changes of power in Portugal (around 45 just from 1910 to 1926). Today, Portugal is a part of the European Community, and the city is under continuing urban renewal projects.
My favorite part of being in Lisbon was really just wandering around the city; exploring the twisting pathways throughout the different neighborhoods. The main districts in Lisbon:
- Rossio – a main square in the center of the city
- Principe Real – a fancy district with many shops
- Chiado – includes Bairro Alto, which reflects everyday life in Lisbon, but also features a nice nightlife scene
- Baixa – the downtown area, full of shops, banks, and touristy cafes
- Alfama – The highest neighborhood, and home to the Castelo de São Jorge
- Praça do Comércio – the plaza leading up to Baixa; it sits right on the river and is very active throughout the day
- Belém – a neighborhood a little out of the city, but home to sights such as the Belem Tower, Jerónimos Monastery, and the Monument to the Discoveries
I spent most of my time exploring the hilly Alfama neighborhood, walking up and down new sets of stairs every day, and finding new paths to my favorite destinations. If you walk around and explore frequently, the city will start revealing some of her secrets to you: different street art on every turn, local restaurants hidden in the turns of the alleyways, and secret patios and parks that look over the gorgeous city.
There are museums and galleries to check out (although I’m sad to say that in my time there I only visited one archaeology exhibit). Some of the notable ones include the Museu Nacional de Arte Antigua, and the Museu do Azulejo (a museum dedicated to Tile, it expresses the different parts of Portuguese culture). And, take the Metro (the subway system). There are pieces of art scattered throughout the stations – a free art gallery!
You might also want to see Cristo Rei – the little brother to the statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro. The statue stands over 100 meters tall, and offers amazing views. The statue is on the opposite bank of the city and can be reached via the ferry to Cacilhas from Cais do Sodre and Bus 101 (which comes to about 2 Euros).
Within Lisbon, it is more than easy enough to get around solely by walking. It is a little hilly, but I really think you will get more out of the city by exploring on foot.
If you’re going to take any from of public transportation, make sure you get a chance to ride on the old traditional yellow trams. Take tram 28; it is only one of three traditional lines lefts (and will cost a normal price – about 1 Euro – rather than an inflated tourist price). The tram is a little slow and noisy, but it runs through some of the oldest parts of the city, and is definitely worth the time.
Otherwise, the best way to get around is with the bus and metro system. The metro is clearly mapped out, and easy to navigate. It (along with a bus or two) can easily get you to destinations around Lisbon that are perfect for day trips, namely, Cascais, Sintra, and Cabo da Roca. And I definitely recommend trips to all three places.
Sintra, home to amazing castles and used by Portuguese Royalty until 1910, and Cabo da Roca, the western-most point of continental Europe (go for sunsets – it is absolutely gorgeous) can be done in one day; make sure you visit the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace in Sintra (a UNESCO heritage site). Cascais is a seaside town perfect for exploring, beaching, and watching incredible sunsets.
You can take a metro train toward Sintra from the Rossi Station (every 30 minutes). The main attractions are a little bit of a walk from the station when you arrive; take the 434 bus to the top of the hill to see the two castles (it’s a big hill – you do not want to walk it). From Sintra, take the 403 bus to Cabo da Roca just in time for sunset.
Getting to other places in Portugal is also incredibly easy; there are comfy buses that run to Porto, Lagos, and Faro frequently. You can also catch cheap flights to other places in Europe from Lisbon’s international airport.
Enjoy getting to know Lisbon and the rest of beautiful Portugal. And as always, happy travels!