Posted by on 01 Nov 2019 , in Europe
Old meets new in the vibrant, majestic capital of Portugal. Lisbon or Lisboa, known as the oldest city in Western Europe with history predating Rome and Paris by centuries and the second oldest in the world after Athens, enchants travellers with its pastel-coloured buildings, Gothic structures, domed cathedrals and avenues bursting with life and art. Get lost in the magic of its narrow cobbled alleyways where you’ll likely stumble upon a nice café, a quaint bookshop or a pretty hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Like Edinburgh, Rome and Istanbul, Lisbon is also built on seven hills, inevitably making its foundation the subject of the many myths and legends shrouding the ancient city.
Travel to Lisbon and that easy-going Portuguese charm the capital city is known for will surely disarm you right off the bat! With a long rich history and different cultures converging in its streets, there’s an endless list of things to see and do in Lisbon. If you’re not sure where exactly to head to, this list of top places in Lisbon usually included in city tours will get you started!
1. BELÉM TOWER
Located in the civil parish of Santa Maria de Belém and officially named as the Tower of St. Vincent, the Belém Tower is an arresting sight on the waterfront near the mouth of the glittering River Tagus. This fortified naval defense tower is perhaps the most popular of all the attractions in Lisbon and the most iconic symbol of the city. Built in the 16th century on the order of King Manuel I to guard the entrance to the city’s harbour, the Torre de Belém rises at 30 metres and is lavished with beautiful details. Shield-shaped battlements and North African Moorish-styled watchtowers mark its exterior. You’ll even find the first European stone carving of a Rhinoceros there!
The tower’s lower floors used to be the old prison while the middle floors were used as armoury and storage for munitions. Climb to the top floors which used to be the royal residences and you’ll be rewarded with the best carvings and decorations the Belém Tower has to offer, as well as spectacular views over the Tejo River.
Here’s a tip: The tower, although quite beautiful up close, is best viewed from the banks of the Tejo. Try to see it at sunset when the tower’s intricate structure makes a striking outline against the dipping sun.
2. SÃO JORGE CASTLE
Perched on the hilltop commanding the historic centre of Lisbon and the Tagus River, the fortified São Jorge Castle or the Castelo de Sao Jorge makes for one great highlight in most panoramic views of the city and is one of the main places in Lisbon tourists make sure to visit. Walking to the castle can be quite exhausting but the views of the Baixa district alone from its worn battlements are oh so worth it.
The Moorish citadel we know today was erected in the mid-11th century as the last of the ruling elite’s defensive strongholds, but archaeological excavations suggest that the first fortifications were laid in place around 48 BC when the city was a Roman municipality. The citadel then became Portugal’s seat of power when it was modified and enlarged to receive Dom Afonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal, who conquered Lisbon in 1147. It would continue to serve as one of the Portuguese Kings’ power bases for well over 400 years.
Inside the Nucleo Meuseologico in the old palace buildings is a huge faint drawing showing Lisbon before the 1755 earthquake. Notice how it shows the Se cathedral with a tower and the Moorish walls of the city. You might also want to pass through the small nondescript door in the inner courtyard. Dubbed the traitors gate, it allowed deserters to escape or messengers to enter the fort.
3. Bairro Alto
No Lisbon trip is ever complete without a day (or night) in one of its lively neighbourhoods and nothing is more vibrant and energetic than Bairro Alto! Literally ‘upper town’, Bairro Alto has a sleepy, residential feel to it during the day, with just a few bohemian boutiques dotting its maze of narrow streets, but wait until the sun sets and watch it come alive as restaurants, small bars and fado clubs open for business. If you’re looking for a fun night in Lisbon, this is where you’ll find the best places to go party until late into the night!
Aside from being a nightlife hub, Bairro Alto is also known for orthogonal layout and old homes dating back to the 16th and 17th century. The nostalgic Tram 28 also links Bairro Alto to São Jorge Castle and is a tourist attraction in itself. You can catch this classic tram ride at Praça Luís de Camões but here’s a fair warning: it can be very crowded.
4. Padrao Dos Descobrimentos
There’s no way you’ll miss the imposing 52-metre tall Padrao Dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) on the banks of the River Tagus. Designed to represent a ship’s prow, this detailed and powerfully-styled monument honours the explorers and adventures whose exploits helped raise Portugal as a superpower in the 14th century and celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries. The statue of Henry the Navigator, which holds a model of a caravel and stares out towards the Atlantic Ocean, dominates the 32 other figures from the Discoveries. The monument’s location is also where most ships set off to explore and trade with the Orient and India, in case you’re wondering why it was placed there.
The original padrao was made of steel and cement white the statues were of wood and tow. It was built as a temporary piece for the 1940 World Fair which Lisbon hosted, but was later on turned as a permanent structure in 1960. Different types of limestone, including the rare lioz found only around Lisbon, make up the monument today.
5. PRACA DE COMERCIO
Known commonly as the Terreiro do Paço or Palace Yard, the Praca de Comercio is Lisbon’s primary square and where most tours of the city often start. It used to be where the Royal Ribeira Palace was located until the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 destroyed it, hence the name. A statue of Dom Jose I rises at its centre, hinting at the square’s royal roots. The king is shown on his horse, symbolically crushing several snakes. The stunning Rua Augusta Arch on the north side also commands attention with its several pillars and numerous statues representing prominent Portuguese figures such as the Marquis of Pombal and the renowned explorer, Vasco da Gama.
Walk to the centre of the square and let its grand 18th century arcades, mosaic cobbles and canary yellow facades dazzle you. The Praca de Comercio was designed to display pomp as the gateway to mighty Lisbon. Once the disembarkation point for arrivals by boat, it is easy to imagine the square rattling with trams and thronging with activity just like in the old times.
6. JERONIMOS MONASTERY
With scalloped arches, auger-shell turrets and graceful columns intertwined delicately with vines, leaves and knot, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is an absolute heart-stealer! The southern entrance to this highly ornate UNESCO-listed monastery is a 32-metre high stone portal rendered with detailed carvings of saints. Venture inside and you just can’t help but marvel at the massive vaulted ceiling supported by spindly columns leading to an ornamental altar. Climb up the upper choir and the view of the church with its rows of seats, the first Renaissance woodcarvings in Portugal, will surely floor you. You might also want to keep an eye out for some notable symbols inside, including the Military Order cross and the armillary sphere, not to mention the gargoyles and other fantastic creatures looking down from the upper balustrade.
Here’a bit more for history lovers out there. Big shots like the celebrated sailor and explorer Vasco da Gama and the 16th century poet Luís Vaz de Camões rest in the church’s lower chancel.
7. LISBON CATHEDRAL
The Lisbon Cathedral, often called simply as Sé, is the most important and emblematic religious building in Lisbon. With two imposing clock towers and massive solid walls, the fortress-like Sé cathedral is the timeless witness to the baptism, marriage and passing of countless Portuguese elites and nobles. It was built in 1150 soon after the city’s recapture by Christians, on the site where a mosque stood. The rib-vaulted interior features medieval statues and alcoves fills with decorative altars. Amble around the cathedral and you’ll surely spot leering gargoyles. Despite the noise of the masses outside, the grand interior lit by diffused sunlight passing through a rose window remains calm and solemn.
The remarkable details of the Sé will surely dazzle you but don’t stop there. Explore the Gothic cloister! This less-visited part of the cathedral opens onto a deep pit brimming with archaeological excavations dating more than 2000 years. The underlying foundations of the mosque which previously stood in the location can be seen, as well as a medieval cistern, an Islamic-era house and remnants of a Roman street and shopfronts.
8. AGUAS LIVRE AQUEDUCT
The Aguas Livre Aqueduct is one of the most notable examples of engineering in 18th century Portugal, with its main course stretching over a distance of 18 kilometres and the total canal network spanning 58 kilometres. Built in 1744 out of cut stone quarried around Lisbon and as solution to the lack of drinking water in the city, this historic aqueduct is a baroque architectural infrastructure with 109 pointed arches, with the highest standing at 65 metres making it the largest stone arch in the world. It is fed by 58 water sources and runs through five municipalities in Portugal: Amadora, Lisboa, Odivelas, Oeiras and Sintra.
If you don’t mind heights, a walk on the top of this extraordinary aqueduct is a must! The passageways are wide and the sweeping views of Lisbon below are spectacular. While at it, you might also want to take a look at Mãe d'Água (Mother of the Water) reservoir in the Amoreiras. Finished in 1834 with the capacity to hold 5,500 m³ of water, it is the largest of all the water reservoirs.