Wander down (to save your legs) through Alfama's steep, narrow, cobble stoned streets and catch a glimpse of the more traditional side of Lisbon before it too is gentrified. Linger in a backstreet cafe along the way and experience some local bonhomie without the tourist gloss. Early morning is the best time to catch a more traditional scene, when women sell fresh fish from their doorways. For a real rough-and-tumble atmosphere, visit during the Festas dos Santos Populares in June.
As far back as the 5th century, the Alfama was inhabited by the Visigoths, and remnants of a Visigothic town wall remain. But it was the Moors who gave the district its shape and atmosphere. In Moorish times this was an upper-class residential area. After earthquakes brought down many of its mansions (and post-Moorish churches) it reverted to a working-class, fisher folk quarter. It was one of the few districts to ride out the 1755 earthquake.
Portugal's caravels sailed off to conquer the great unknown from Belém, and today this leafy riverside precinct is a giant monument to the nation's Age of Discoveries. Belém Tower, or Torre de Belém, the much-photographed symbol of Portugal's maritime glory, is a stone fortress on the bank of the river Tagus dating from 1514 - 19. You can climb the tower, and look into the dungeons from when it was a military prison. UNESCO have listed it as a World Heritage Site.
The imposing limestone Monument to the Discoveries, also facing the river nearby, is shaped like a caravel and features key players from the era. If you have time, look around the Centro Cultural de Belém, one of Lisbon's main cultural venues, which houses the Museu do Design, a collection of 20th century mind-bogglers.
Vasco da Gama's discovery of a sea route to India inspired the glorious Monastery of St. Jerome or Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a UNESCO World Heritage site with an architectural exuberance that trumpets 'navigational triumph.' Work began around 1501, following a Gothic design by architect Diogo de Boitaca, considered a Manueline originator. After his death in 1517, building resumed with a Renaissance flavor under Spaniard João de Castilho and, later, with classical overtones under Diogo de Torralva and Jérome de Rouen (Jerónimo de Ruão). The monastery was completed in 1541, a riverside masterpiece - the waters have since receded.
The monastery was populated with monks of the Order of St. Jerome, whose spiritual job for about four centuries was to give comfort and guidance to sailors - and to pray for the king's soul. When the order was dissolved in 1833 the monastery was used as a school and orphanage until about 1940.
This massive suspension bridge is an icon of Lisbon, connecting the city to the Almada area over the narrowest section of the River Tagus. Its color, size and structure draw close comparison to the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco, California, but the bridge was actually more structurally modeled to the Bay Bridge, also in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The 25th of April Bridge was completed in 1966 and was at the time named for the dictator Salazar. It was renamed following his displacement, with its new name given by the revolution that began on April 25. There are levels for both cars and trains, but unlike the Golden Gate Bridge, there is no passage for pedestrians. The bridge has the longest main span in Continental Europe and the world’s deepest bridge foundation. Riding across presents one of the best aerial views of Lisbon.
Crouched over the River Tagus like a stick insect, the elegant spines of the Vasco da Gama Bridge unite Lisbon’s modernistic Parque das Nações with Samouco as it curves across 17.2 km (10.7 miles) east of the city center. This road bridge was constructed to ease commuter congestion when the 25th of April Bridge (Ponte 25 de Abril) was no longer able to cope with traffic volume. Costing nearly US $1 billion, it was designed by a consortium of architects and more than 3,000 workers were involved in its construction, which took 18 months. The bridge was completed in 1998 in the nick of time for Portugal’s Expo98.
An austere Romanesque building from the outside, the Lisbon Cathedral (Sé de Lisboa) has some lovely treasures inside. It dates from 1150 and was built this solidly to repel attacks from the Moors. It didn't do much to ward off earthquake damage in 1344 and 1755 and the cathedral we see today has been much repaired.
Inside you'll find the font where Saint Anthony of Padua is said to have been baptized in 1195 and a 14th century chapel by Bartholomeu Joanes. But its in the sacristy that the real treasures are found: relics, icons and 15th and 16th century religious art. The medieval cloister is also worth a look.
The ocher-colored, imposing St George’s Castle is an iconic landmark standing high in Alfama with views over Lisbon and the Tagus waterfront from its turreted, fortified walls. With only a few Moorish wall fragments dating from the sixth century still remaining, the castle we see now was redeveloped over the centuries following King Afonso Henriques’ re-conquest of Lisbon in 1147.
There’s enough to see at the castle to keep everyone happy for several hours. Walks around the ramparts provide far-reaching views of the city below. As much of the medieval castle was given over to housing troops and resisting siege, the fortified ramparts were dotted with defense towers. Now only 11 of the original 18 are still standing and most interesting among these is the Torre de Ulísses (Tower of Ulysses) as it contains a gigantic periscope offering visitors a 360° view of Lisbon.
On the northeastern riverfront lies the Parque das Nações. Built for Expo 98, the development includes a huge world-of-its-own aquarium, the Oceanário, plus the Pavilhão do Conhecimento, and a landscaped riverside park with restaurants and bars. There's some stunning modern architecture here: the ribbed Death Star structure of Gare do Oriente and the Pavilhão de Portugal by Portugal's leading architect, Álvaro Siza Vieira.
A riverside teleférico, more than 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) long and 66 ft (20 m) high, gives stunning views of the river and the Vasco da Gama bridge. The 1.2 mi (2 km) long park site sometimes feels as if you have wandered into an architectural model, but it's an entertaining place to visit, particularly for families. A mini-train trundles around hourly, and you can even rent bikes.
To see evidence of the damage inflicted upon Lisbon by the destructive earthquake of 1755, the restored medieval Carmo Convent stands next to the ruins of its great barn of a Gothic church. It was founded in 1389 for the Carmelite order by the great military leader Álvares Pereira, who played a large part in securing Portugal’s independence from Spain before joining the convent himself in 1423.
Thanks to its obliteration in the earthquake, the convent’s library of thousands of rare books and manuscripts was lost; while that was rebuilt and became the HQ of Lisbon’s Municipal Guard (Guarda Republicana), the church has never been fully rebuilt. It was used as a wood storage facility before being turned into a small archaeological museum (the Museu Arqueologico do Carmo) in 1864.
Still known locally as Terreiro do Paço (Palace Square) thanks to its being the former location of Lisbon’s Royal Palace until its destruction in the great earthquake of 1755, Praça do Comércio was completely rebuilt in the late 18th century and is today an elegant square hugging the banks of the River Tagus.
Thanks to the vision of Portuguese architect Eugénio dos Santos, this vast square was built in a sweeping ‘U’ shape and is full of ornate arches and overblown civic buildings. It is dominated by a massive equestrian statue of King Jose I, while sights around the square include Lisbon’s historic Café Martinho da Arcada, dating right back to 1782 and famous for its coffees, pastries and ports. Lisbon’s main tourist information office is on the north side of the arcaded square, which is largely lined with outdoor restaurants. Along the riverbanks great marble steps lead down to the Tagus and historically formed the main entry to the city.
Along the northern bank of the Tagus River lies this large stone monument celebrating Portugal’s Age of Discovery and sitting on the location that ships bound for Asia used to depart from in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was constructed for the Portuguese World Fair in 1940, inaugurated in 1960 upon the anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death, and has been a Cultural Center of Discovery since 1985. The monument depicts 33 sculpted historical figures including explorers, monarchs, artists and missionaries, all led by Henry the Navigator at the front. The figures are spread along both sides of a ship, intentionally looking forward and facing the sea.
Outside of viewing the monument itself, there is a large marble wind rose embedded in the pavement containing a world map that illustrates the locations of Portugal’s various explorations. There is also a museum with exhibition rooms in the monument, with panoramic views of Lisbon and the Tagus River from its rooftop.
Located in Lisbon’s city center, Praça Martim Moniz is a spacious plaza, lined with trees and filled with bars and restaurants with outdoor seating. Fantastic fountains and pools are set amid modern sculptures and are spread throughout the plaza. Some of the fountains are open for children to play in and are especially popular on hot days.
The plaza’s contemporary design contrasts against Lisbon’s centuries-old buildings that make up the majority of the city. The plaza is home to other works of modern art, including a recognizable chicken sculpture made largely of newspaper. The plaza and its fountains are well lit at night, making it an atmospheric place for dinner or a drink. Frequently on Saturdays and Sundays, the plaza is transformed into an open-air market known as Mercado Fusão. Street food stalls serve up cuisine from all over the world, and are representative of Lisbon’s multicultural side.
Housed within a late seventeenth century yellow-hued Palácio Alvor, the National Museum of Ancient Art was created in 1884 to protect and display a collection of European and Asian works of art. The current collection comprises more than 40,000 items — paintings, sculpture, furniture, ceramics and textiles, among others — most of it dating from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.
Highlights of the permanent collection include the naturalistic Panels of St. Vincent, considered Nuno Gonçalves’ masterpiece, as well as a set of sixteenth century Japanese folding screens that depict the arrival of Portuguese ships in Nagasaki. The Monstrance of Belem, a stunning work of gold and enamel by Gil Vicente, was originally brought to Portugal by Vasco da Gama on return from his second voyage to India; this piece is also on display in the museum.
A sweeping viewpoint atop a hill in Lisbon’s Graça neighborhood, Miradouro da Senhora do Monte offers panoramic views across Lisbon, including stellar views of the castle atop a neighboring hill. As the highest lookout point in the city, it’s a fantastic spot for photographing - or simply appreciating - the surrounding landscape. It’s particularly popular come sunset.
The name of the lookout translates to Our Lady of the Hill, and visitors will find a small chapel and statue of the Virgin Mary on the grounds of the miradouro. Dedicated to Saint Gens, Nossa Senhora do Monte Chapel attracts expectant mothers seeking divine protection during childbirth.
The Ajuda National Palace is a neoclassical monument, collection of decorative arts, and an unfinished palace in the Belem district of Lisbon. The interior is richly furnished with tapestries, statues, chandeliers, artwork and extravagant furniture. Historically, the palace served as the official residence of the Portuguese royal family from the reign of King Louis I in the early 19th century until 1910, when Portugal became a republic.
Today visitors can tour the impressive estate, complete with ornate ballroom, dining room, throne room, and winter garden. Open to the public as a museum since 1968, the rooms and hallways maintain their historic feel despite undergoing renovations. There are dozens of luxurious formal rooms to wander through, with the splendor of the 18th- and 19th-century decor apparent throughout. Visitors can get a sense of how Portuguese royalty lived at that time. In fact, the Portuguese government holds official functions in the palace to this day.
Located on the waterfront of the Tagus River, Lisbon’s Electricity Museum is as beautiful and scenic as it is interesting and educational. A beautiful brick building with long-spanning windows with the 25 de Abril Bridge as its backdrop, the Electricity Museum is an iconic structure of Lisbon.
Many visitors stop in while on a riverfront stroll and are surprised with all this museum has to offer. Inaugurated in 1900, the building was once a coal power plant that supplied electricity to the city of Lisbon. The building and its machinery have been well maintained and today the museum offers visitors a glimpse into the inner workings of an early 20th century coal power plant. There’s tons of original equipment like boilers, alternators, condensers and the control room, complemented with explanatory videos, models and photographs.
The burial place of the great and good of Portugal, the gleaming white National Pantheon has its roots in the 17th century but was only finally completed in 1966. Constructed to a design by Lisbon’s Baroque master-craftsman João Antunes, it is a mini-me of St Peters in Rome, with a highly intricate, colonnaded exterior topped with a central dome. Climb six flights of steps up to the top for matchless views over the city to the River Tagus.
Inside the church is a riot of highly patterned mosaic flooring, gleaming white marble adorned with gilt, and memorial cenotaphs to Vasco da Gama and Henry the Navigator. The vast, 18th-century Baroque organ was moved here from Sé Cathedral in the 1940s, and famous names interred in the nave include a string of Portuguese statesmen and the revered fado singer Amalia Rodrigues.
With views across to hilltop St George’s Castle (Castello de São Jorge) to Baixa and the gleaming waters of the River Tagus, the viewpoint at São Pedro de Alcantara is an exotic two-tier balustraded garden in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto. Created in the 19th century, the upper gardens are focused around a large fountain and scattered with benches from which to admire the panorama; a map created from azulejo tiles shows all the city landmarks. The lower gardens are classical in style, packed with statues of Roman deities and famous historic Portuguese figures.
Quite the most scenic way to get to São Pedro de Alcantara is by the Elevador da Glória, a funicular that first opened in 1885 and connects the Bairro Alto with Restauradores Square in the city center. Across the street from the mirador is the almost-sacred Port Wine Institute (Solar do Vinho do Porto), where rare vintages can be sampled along with a choice selection of Portuguese cheeses.
Belem Palace was the official residence of Portugal's monarchs, and since 1910 it has been the home of the country's Presidents. It is located in the Belem neighborhood on a hill near the banks of the Tagus River. It consists of five buildings and was constructed in the late 16th century. There are manicured gardens and a statue of Afonso de Albuquerque, the Viceroy of India, standing on a 20 meter high pedestal in front of the palace. The changing of the guard takes place at 11am on the third Sunday of each month near the Patio dos Bichos entrance.
Today the palace also houses the Presidency Museum, which examines the history of the Portuguese Republic and its presidents. It has a permanent exhibit that explains the history of the country's symbols, such as the flag and the national anthem. Another section looks at the role of the presidents through a collection of photographs.
Squeezed between downtown Baixa and the nightlife party-central of the Bairro Alto, glossy Chiado is within shouting distance of the romantic ruins of Carmo Church (Igreja do Carmo) and the hidden treasures in the Church of St Rocco (Igreja de São Roque). It is also home to glorious Art Nouveau shops, old-world Lisboa cafés with window displays brimming with delicious pastries, and timeless antiquarian bookshops. Amid the fine 19th-century townhouses fronted with wrought-iron balconies and the piazzas with madly patterned mosaic sidewalks stand top-end fashion designers, jewelers, theaters, concert halls and posh boutique hotels. An eclectic mix of restaurants – from Michelin stars at Belcanto to basic snacks at neighborhood tapas bars – adds to the cultural soup of this sleek hillside enclave.
Home of Portugal’s mournful fado singing, Lisbon’s 500-hundred-year-old Bairro Alto (this translates as ‘upper district’) sits at the working-class heart of the city, a district of steep, narrow lanes lined with cramped townhouses and jumping with a quirky mix of stores, barbers’ shops, bars, restaurants and late-night clubs.
By day Bairro Alto’s attractions include the Port Wine Institute – the best place to taste and buy port in Lisbon – and it is accessible from the circular route taken by Lisbon’s famous touristy Tram 28. Don’t dismiss a visit to the Jesuit church of São Roque on Largo Trindade Coelho; built at the height of Jesuit power in Portugal in the 16th century, its bland, whitewashed exterior conceals an interior of breath-taking Baroque indulgence. The riot of ceiling paintings, gilded ornamentation and John the Baptist’s chapel, which is studded with mosaics of ivory, gold and silver, has earned it a reputation as the world’s most expensive church.
Estrela Basilica is a basilica and convent in Lisbon, Portugal that was built in the late 1700s to fulfill a vow by Queen Maria I after she gave birth to a son. The basilica has a huge white rococo dome and twin bell towers decorated with statues of saints and allegorical figures. It sits on top of a hill, so the basilica can be seen from quite a distance. One of the most impressive features inside the basilica is the Christmas manger created by sculptor Joaquim Machado de Castro, which is made of cork and terra cotta and contains more than 500 figures.
The elaborate Empire-style tomb of Queen Maria I is also located inside the basilica. The interior of the basilica is decorated with pink and black marble. Another important feature is the altarpiece, which was created in 1870 by the Italian painter Pompeo Batoni. Visitors can go up to the top of the dome for views of the city.
A shaded square surrounded by classic architecture, Carmo Square is the perfect place to stop for a break while exploring Lisbon’s Bairro Alto and Chiado neighborhoods. Park benches line the area as well as small tables and a few kiosks serving up drinks, beers, sangria, and snacks. In the center of the square there’s a trickling fountain, with a tall gazebo over it. During the spring and summer, the square comes alive with purple blooming jacaranda trees and is always filled with tourists and locals alike—an excellent place for people watching.
The square is also home to the Carmo Convent, a gothic-style convent built in the late 14th and 15th centuries. Parts of the convent were destroyed in an earthquake in 1755, leaving ruins to explore. In the rehabilitated parts of the convent, there is an Archeological Museum that displays artifacts and art from throughout Portuguese history.