An overview of Lisbon and some of it’s attractions including neighborhoods, museums and nightlife with plenty of things to do.
Everyone has heard of the Eiffel Tower, but not everyone is familiar with Gustav Eiffel’s other landmark. The Elevador de Santa Justa is a 100 foot high metal elevator, originally powered by steam, which connects Lisbon’s main shopping area to the Barrio Alto district on the hillside. The elevator was actually designed by one of Eiffel’s students, but there is no mistaking it’s similarity to the Eiffel Tower. It’s just one of the surprises in this relatively undiscovered and delightful European capital.
Lisbon is a city built on hills, like Rome and it’s the hilly neighborhoods that give the city much of its character. Lisbon is one of the smallest capitals in Europe, with a population of around a million, and the city center is compact enough to be explored on foot. Lisbon is a colorful city – most of the houses are painted in bright pink, yellow, green or dazzling white, and they all complement the red roofs of the city. The colorful effect is added to by rows of laundry strung across the narrow streets, and flower boxes on many of the balconies. Lisbon is a city on a human scale; rather than dramatic monuments, the appeal of the city lies in the small details – there are intriguing doorways offering a glimpse into a smoke filled bar, an intimate restaurant or just someone’s front room. Along the narrow streets rattle trams, usually giving no warning of their approach, that look as if they have been in service for at least 50 years.
The oldest and most fascinating area of the city is called the Alfama ,which has changed little since the Moors conquered the city over 1000 years ago. The Alfama is a labyrinth of alleyways and staircases that most of the time don’t seem to lead anywhere. Small ragged children and dogs roam in the streets, and old ladies dressed in black shuffle along with huge baskets of fruit or bread on their heads. The centre of this picturesque district is the Rue de Sao Pedro, lined with small bars and shops. Another landmark in the neighborhood is the unusual Casa dos Bicos (House of the Pointed Stones), a 16th century house with a façade of diamond-shaped stones. At the top of the Alfama district is the Castelo de Sao Jorge, which is largely a ruin, but gives spectacular views over Lisbon and the River Tagus.
A short walk from here is the old commercial part of the city, the Baixa. This area was rebuilt in 1755 to withstand earthquakes and the shops and arcades here are as stylish as any in Milan or Paris. The streets in this area are laid out in a grid pattern and to the north and south are two of the citie’s most attractive squares. The Praca de Commercia with the River Tagus literally lapping at its stone steps is lined with 18th century buildings on 3 sides; the arcades underneath are often occupied by street vendors. The Rossio at the north end of the Baixa, with its pavement cafes and restaurants is one of the liveliest places in the city and makes a good place to sit and watch the world go by. The Rossio leads into the Avenida de Liberdade, Lisbon’s equivalent of 5th Avenue. This lively street is lined with attractive gardens as well as shops and restaurants.
The Portuguese have always been great explorers and the Belem neighborhood, on the west side of the city is a reminder of that great age when Portuguese sailors set out from here to explore the known world. One of the attractions in Belem is the Tower of Belem, a monument to Portugal’s age of discovery. The tower is almost 500 years old, and stands close to the very spot where ships sailed from. Inside is a collection of antique furniture; it is also worth visiting to climb to the top of the tower just for the spectacular views. Two museums in the Belem area are amongst the best in the country – the Maritime Museum and the small but fascinating National Coach museum. The Maritime Museum contains hundreds of models of ships, depicting Portugal’s maritime heritage from the 1500s to the present day. It also has a display of Portuguese Naval uniforms. The national coach museum is the most visited attraction in Lisbon; it contains ornate and elaborate coaches and carriages dating from the 17th to the 19th century.
Eating out is relatively inexpensive in Lisbon. Not surprisingly, given Portugal’s links to the sea, there are many sea food restaurants, especially in the suburb of Cacilhas which is a short ferry ride away across the river. There are also plenty of Indian restaurants too, a reminder of Portugal’s links with the former colonies of Goa and Macao. A typically Portuguese way of spending the evening is in one of the many Fado bars. The Fado is the old seafarers’ song of tragedy and despair, usually sung by women when their husbands were away at sea. Most of the authentic Fado bars are found in the older neighborhoods, such as the Alfama.
Most visitors use Lisbon as a base for day trips up and down the coast, or as a gateway to the popular beaches of Portugal’s Algarve coast. But as a destination in its own right, it remains one of Europe’s best-kept secrets.