Lisbon’s central pedestrianised area of Baixa with Praca do Comercio in the background.
Why holiday in Lisbon?
Azulejos tiling along with morbid humour, a Portuguese speciality.
Not as big or extravagant as neighbouring capitals, Lisbon/Lisboa has, nevertheless, a faded elegance and quite a few unique attractions to keep a tourist busy for a while, with a bonus of some superb beaches less than an hour away.
Food variety and value is excellent, local wine and beer is acceptable, coffee is fantastic and there are plenty of interesting walks to aid the digestion or clubs to wail away the night.
Portugal’s unique art forms, azulejos and Manueline (Gothic) decorationare at their best in this city and there’s no shortage of striking buildings and monuments, particularly churches and monasteries.
The streets are safer than in most European cities, the taxis are decent value and the museums magnificent.
Within very easy hire-car distance on spanking new motorways are surfing beaches, climbing castles, medieval walled towns, national parks, a zillion churches/monasteries and even the Algarve in three hours.
Smoking in public places is prohibited.
• Driving and parking in Lisbon is a pain so park the wheels ASAP and get walking.
• Beware pickpockets, especially on Tram 28.
• Tired of looking at churches? Yup!
• The city is not exactly packed with grand old sights, having lost a spectacular amount in the massive quake of 1755.
Things to Do
Sights are conveniently clustered around central Lisbon. Also see museums further below.
Baixa, the city’s central valley and its heart, sweeps more or less from the pleasant Avenida Liberdade, past the gorgeous Rossio train station to two plazas, Dom Pedro and da Figueira, before hitting tourist overload in the pedestrian area around the odd elevator of Santa Justa. Baixa terminates at Praca do Comercio by the river, a good place to catch trams or open-top tourist buses.
Chiado and Barrio Alto are on a low hill west of Baixa and showcase the posh side of the city – smart shops and good restaurants, with a couple of museums and two special churches – roofless but superbly atmospheric Carmo Church and gold, marble, azuleja packed Sao Roque.
Igreja do Carmo, Chiado
A reminder of the power of nature, this huge church, built in 1423, was zapped by the great quake of 1755 and remains roofless to this day. The spectacular external ambience lends itself perfectly to occasional theatrical performances, while the interior bit that still stands houses an interesting little archeological museum with some bizarre religious relics.
The best time for tourists to visit is early or late when shadows exaggerate the oddity of the open-top structure. Open 10am-5pm in winter (Oct-March) and 10am-6pm in summer (April-Septemeber).
The Bairro Alto, on a hill looking across Baixa to dishevelled Alfama, is Lisbon’s alternative and arty tourist zone, an area of more-or-less wide streets, interesting shops, restaurants, bars and clubs. It also contains a couple of museums, several churches including Igreja de Sao Roque with its amazingly luxurious interior, and some excellent viewpoints.
Sao Jorge Castle viewpoint.
Alfama, Castelo and Graca, on hills east of Baixa, offer the dark side of life – tangled little medieval streets, decaying tenements, and clubs of every description including saddo Fado.
Topping the hill is the city’s best viewpoint, Sao Jorge Castle and the splendid story-telling azulejos of the Monastery of Sao Vicente de Fora.
Belem, a little further west and Vasco da Gama’s departure point for his Discovery tour, Belem contains the fabulous Jeronimos Monastery (see below), the quaintly elaborate Belem tower (see below) – both Manueline classics, the ship-like Monument to the Discoveries (also below), some excellent museums and a clutch of funky clubs.
Manueline architecture is one of Portugal’s most unique artistic offerings
Mosteiro dos Jeronimos cloister and its florid Manueline decoration.
A highly elaborate form of late Gothic style it evolved during the reign of Dom Manuel I (1495 – 1521) and was consequently labelled Manueline though Manuel didn’t have a whole lot to do with the design apart from agreeing to fund it.
This was Portugal’s ‘Age of Discoveries’ period led by Vasco da Gama, when colonies such as Brazil brought in huge resources and inspired a spending spree unlike any before or since in the country.
The sailing ships and men that discovered these riches that led to extravagant new constructions were celebrated in many Manueline works that featured coral, thick ropes, anchors and seaweed.
Some of the most famous Manueline sights are
– The cloisters of the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, Lisbon.
– The Torre de Belem, Lisbon (near Jeronimos), Lisbon.
– On the exterior walls of Palacio da Pena in Sintra, near Lisbon.
– The unfinished chapels of Mosteiro da Batalha.
– A window outside the Chapter House of the Convent of Christ, Tomar.
Some outstanding museums are: Calouste Gulbenkian (superb artefacts from all over the world), Nacional do Azulejos, MUDE (modern art), the Berardo Museum (modern art), the Paula Rego Museum (a famously ‘disturbing’ Portuguese artist) in Cascais and the Nacional de Arte Antiga (mainly Portuguese painters).
Europe’s largest collection of marine life are grandly displayed in the Oceanario in the huge Parque das Nacoes. There is also an excellent interactive Science Museum that kids love.
Sad Fado music failed to move the Bugcrew but if you want to try for a tear head for Alfama or Bairro Alto districts in the evenings.
Torre de Belem
Torre de Belem, the Belem Tower, built in 1515
More Manueline work, this time on a fort guarding Lisbon’s harbour. The tower is only just offshore thanks to the moving sands and silt of time, and has free entry. For tourists with functioning legs it’s about a kilometre (half a mile) from the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos and the Discoveries Monument.
Detail from the Dicoveries Monument.
Also in the Belem riverside district, along with the Torre de Belem and the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos is this modern but no less impressive sculpture celebrating Portugal’s high times during the Age of Discoveries when Prince Henry the Navigator, Vasco de Gama and many others sailed from Belem in caravels – shaped like the monument – and immeasurably enriched the country.
The leading figure on the sculpture is Prince Henry, with Vasco da Gama behind him, followed by a bunch of pushy tourists.
Feb/March, Carnival. Various colourful festivities during the last days before Lent.
12-13 June, Festa de Santo Antonio, a night long street fair, esp. in Alfama and Mouraria districts.
23-24 June, Festa de Sao Joao, nationwide, but longer in Porto.
Walking is the clear choice and generally pleasant in spite of the hills; joggers enjoy the Belem riverbank. Note that areas of Lisbon are paved with uneven cobbles and scattered with steep hills so good walking shoes or sandals are an essentia travel requirement. On nights out, put your heels in a bag until you reach your smart destination.
Swimming: a couple of pools are available in the city centre but great beaches are less than an hour away.
Golf: head west towards Estoril and you’ll stumble across a pile of great courses, including Golf do Estoril, an Open Championship course.
As usual driving and parking in a foreign city is no fun, so avoid it if possible.
The Lisbon airport bus is efficient, frequent and good value, and taxis are also reasonably priced though a tourist should keep an eye on the meter – insist it’s used for a start!
The city is fully supplied with an excellent metro, buses and trams. Trams, particularly No. 28, are popular with tourists and consequently also with pickpockets.
Lisbon best seasons
Best: May-September, the dry season, but it may get oppressively hot and humid during July-August with average highs of 28C (82F) and lows of 18C (64F), but can easily rise to 32C (90C).
Not so good: November-March, mild but with plenty of rain throughout. Winter average lows of around 8C (46F), highs of 15C (59F)