Empire Square, with Jeronimos Monastery.
Situated at the mouth of the Tagus River about a third of the way up the Atlantic coast, Lisbon is Portugal’s capital and most important seaport. It’s a compact people-oriented city, inexpensive to visit by European standards. Like San Francisco. it is built on several hills, and has known a series of earthquakes. The latest, the “Great Quake” of 1755, was felt as far away as Sweden, and only the hilltop areas and a few historic buildings in the heart of the city escaped its devastation.
Thus, most of what you see today is relatively new by European standards, but it certainly doesn’t lack interest. The best overall view of the city is from Europe’s longest suspension bridge, which crosses the Tagus close to “downtown”. The overall impression is one of hands cupped around a flat central area that contains most of the tourist attractions.
Like many European settlements, Lisbon’s history goes back at least as far as the Romans, and it was occupied later by a succession of conquerors, most notably the Moors, until it became the capital of the new nation in 1147. Because of the earthquakes only a few vestiges of the earlier occupiers still exist.
Momument to The Discoveries.
As the chronicles of 1755 put it: “The earth opened and swallowed Lisbon”. In a way the Quake did the city a favour, since it obliterated much of the hodge-podge of houses and shops that was typical of the time, and made it possible to replace them with something better. Fortunately one of the 18th century’s most visionary urban planners, the Marques de Pombal, was on hand to plan and oversee the reconstruction. (Later he was also the mastermind behind the world’s first prefabricated town, as explained in an earlier article The Rest of the Algarve.)
In the area below the hills and stretching to the river he laid out a magnificent boulevard, a fine commemorative square, a rectangular grid on which shops would be located, and a magnificent waterfront area to display some of Portugal’s finest architecture and to greet visitors arriving by ship. It is within or adjacent to the reconstructed area that most of the city’s administrative, cultural and historical artifacts are found today. Finally, at the north end of the new boulevard he had a huge white column erected, graced with larger-than-life marble statues of heroic figures, and topped off with a huge one of himself standing beside a lion.
Long the capital of an empire that stretched around the globe, Lisbon once was one of Europe’s most glittering capitals. Since Portugal only recently emerged from a stultifying dictatorship to become a free democratic member of the European Community, much of the glitter is gone, but it has always remained a city which values its artistic and cultural heritage. It has more than 30 museums and cultural centres, many world-class, and some quite unique. A complete list in English may be found at this website.
Classic funicular tramway.
Perhaps the most logical place to begin exploring the city is at the western end of its waterfront, an area of great historical significance called Belém. That is where ships departed for their great voyages of discovery, where defences against pirates were built, and where you’ll find two great examples of “Manueline” (filigreed stone-carving) architecture that survived the Quake. They are the finely-adorned Belém Tower and the massive Jerónimos Monastery. Both were built in the early 16th century, and both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I found the detail in the carved stone arches within the monastery and its double-decker cloisters to be extraordinary. Most impressive, though, are the sculpted marble tombs of the great explorer Vasco da Gama and the poet Camões. The multi-disciplinary Cultural Centre, Planetarium, Coach Museum (with gold carriages used by the Kings and Emperors of Europe) and Nautical Museum are also in Belém . Finally, there are Empire Square, containing coats of arms of the various colonies that once formed Portugal’s empire, and a contemporary Monument to the Discoveries.
Moving eastward along the waterfront we come to Commerce Square, an enormous welcoming plaza. Farther east is the Military Museum and still farther is the site of Expo 98, the last World’s Fair of the 20th century. Its theme, appropriately, was “The Sea”, and its giant oceanarium is Europe’s largest. Nearby is the new Vasco da Gama Bridge, which provides a very welcome and speedy connection between the airport and the highway to the Algarve.
Behind Commerce Square are the “Baixa” district, with its multitude of banks and specialty shops (goldsmiths, silversmiths, shoemakers, etc.) and the adjoining Chiado, a ritzy shopping area. Venturing farther inland you come to the Rossio, a grand square containing many of the city’s administrative buildings, and the main entrance to the subway system. Beyond the Rossio, the Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s equivalent of the Champs Élysées, stretches to Pombal’s monument and Edward VII Park, a large formal garden and leisure area. We’ve always stayed at the Miraparque Hotel right beside the park: it’s cosy, unpretentious, inexpensive, and within walking distance of everything mentioned so far.
Standing with a lion atop his monument, Pombal surveys his work.
To provide easy access to its higher levels, Lisbon’s downtown area has funicular tramways (something like San Francisco’s cable cars), and a unique steel elevator tower designed by Eiffel. The best known of the hilltop areas is the sprawling and convoluted Alfama, site of both Moorish fort and Christian cathedral, birthplace of Saint Anthony of Padua, favorite haunt of sailors over the centuries, and today the best place to enjoy fado music and traditional cuisine. For some unknown reason I was instantly attracted to its Moorish fort, and always have an uncanny feeling of “déjà vu” whenever I visit it.
Recreation and leisure have not been overlooked. The enormous 1000 hectare (5 sq.mi.) Monsanto Forest Park in the western part of the city is a refuge of urban tranquillity. Created in 1934, it is filled with pines, every conceivable type of oak and many other trees, plus a small fort. Adjacent to its boundaries are recreational parks, lookouts, restaurants, swimming pools, a campground and a children’s park. The stadium, Lisbon Zoo, Gulbenkian Museum and university are nearby.
Lisbon is definitely a city that deserves more than a cursory glance on the way to the sunny Algarve. So do its immediate surroundings, including the “Portuguese Riviera,” which will be the subject of the next article.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Europe Insiders page.