By Jim Ferri
You can thank a 1755 earthquake in for making Lisbon the pleasing city it is today.
Following that catastrophe – the shocks of which were felt as far away as Italy – Lisbon’s city center was carefully re-planned and rebuilt in a grid pattern with elegant streets. That 18th-century rebirth now provides the 21st-century traveler with one of the more pleasant urban experiences in Europe.
The following is a list, in no specific order, of the top 10 places to see on a visit to Lisbon, a beautiful city that takes much more than a day or two to experience and enjoy. The list of all top places in the city, as one might expect, is much longer and includes such gems as the Museu Arte Antiga (Portugal’s National Gallery) and the Palácio Nacional de Queluz (described by some as a “miniature Versailles”). Note also that this list does not include such popular sites as Sintra and Estoril, both outside of the city.
The Alfama is the old hilly area of Lisbon where the steep, cobblestone narrow streets seem to run off in every direction. Wrapped around the hill below St. George’s Fort, it was once the most upscale residential area of the city back in Moorish times.
Even though it’s upscale residents moved elsewhere in the city long ago, the area still retains Casbah-like feeling and design. Its winding narrow streets and lanes are lined with compact homes, grocery stores and little cafés, as well as Fado clubs that come alive long after the sun has set. Wander about here and you’ll feel like you’re walking about some little village that time has forgotten.
St George’s Castle
Along with Belém Tower, Castelo de São Jorge is one of Lisbon’s most recognized sights. Built by the Moors to defend against invading Christian forces it occupies the top of the hill above Alfama. Inside one of its towers a camera obscura offers a unique 360-degree of the city.
Despite its imposing battlements and museum, most visitors only visit the castle for its superb view of the city. The best thing to do is take a taxi, bus 737 from Praça Figueira or Tram 28 up to the castle (although the latter doesn’t go all the way up) and then wander back down to the city through charming Alfama.
About halfway back down to the city from St. Georges you’ll some to the Sé, the city’s fortified Romanesque cathedral. The 1755 earthquake destroyed much of the original 12th-century cathedral and what stands today is an amalgam of architectural styles.
Nevertheless, it is a beautiful building that was built atop Roman and Moorish buildings (the city’s main mosque) that previously stood on the site. You can view the archaeological excavation if you pay the fee to visit the cloister. The closest metro station is Baixa-Chiada.
Praça do Comércio and Baixa
After the devastating earthquake this was the area of the city that was so beautifully rebuilt. It’s a wonderful walking area stretching from the Praça do Comércio on the river up past Rossio, site of the neoclassical Teatro Nacional de Dona Maria II and the statue of Dom Pedro IV, Brazil’s first emperor.
Start on the river at Praça do Comércio, where boat passengers used to disembark to enter the city. Stand in the square and then walk beneath the huge Arco da Rua Augusta and you’ll feel as though you’re making a triumphal entrance yourself.
Continue on up along Rua Augusta, a pedestrian-only street lined with tourist-filled cafes and shops and covered with patterned cobblestones. When you come to Rua Sta. Justa turn left and walk a block or two to the old Santa Justa Elevator.
Santa Justa Elevator
It seems a bit odd, a wrought-iron frame elevator in the center of Lisbon that looks as if it were plucked from the Eiffel Tower in Paris. There is a connection here, however: it was built by an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel.
The outdoor elevator was built in 1901 to connect Baixa with the Bairro Alto neighborhood above, an area of pricy shops, restaurants and Fado houses.
It’s rather eccentric but interesting nevertheless, with its wood cabin and original brass fixtures. As you’d expect, today it’s mostly used by tourists, not locals, for the 105-foot ride to the top and even in the off-season you sometimes find a queue.
Tram # 28
Yes, it’s part of the city’s transportation system, but it’s also one of the most popular attractions in the city, as well. Tram 28 is an old wooden trolley that the city fathers keep in use mainly because it’s so popular with tourists. Hop aboard and you’ll find out why for yourself.
It’s a fun ride aboard this rickety old wooden tram as it rocks and rolls its way through the streets taking you up to the Alfama. It tends to get quite crowded (watch out for pickpockets, especially at night) but it’s part of the wonderful Lisbon experience.
One of the most popular areas of Lisbon is Belém, which lies downriver from Praça do Comércio and closer to the Atlantic. It’s where you’ll find the Belém Tower, to many the symbol of Lisbon. When built as a fortress in the 16th century it sat in the middle of the river although today, due to land reclamation and the shifting river it’s now accessible from land.
A newer monument, built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator and the Golden Age of Discovery, is the Monument to the Discoveries, a large waterside monolith resembling the prow of an old Portuguese caravel, the ships the Portuguese used in their explorations of the world.
Also in the Belém area is the famous Jerónimos Monastery and, further up river, the very good Museu de Arte Antiga.
St. Jerome Monastery
The 16th-century Jerónimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) is a stunning place of great cultural and historic importance. It was built by King Manuel I (for whom the ornate Manueline style of architecture, found here and at the Belém Tower, is named) to commemorate Vasco da Gama’s 1498 discovery of the sea route to India. Inside you’ll find Vasco da Gama’s tomb.
The monastery was built for the Order of St Jerome, the duty of its monks being to pray for the king’s soul and comfort sailors. After the order was dissolved in the mid-19th century the beautiful building was used as a school and orphanage.
Although it is less than 60 years old, the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian is one of Europe’s celebrated museums. Set in a park on the northern side of the city, it’s a gem that houses the collection of an oil magnate who bequeathed his collection to Portugal. Although the collection is vast, the museum remains manageable for visitors.
Its collection includes such treasures as a 4,000-year-old Egyptian bowl; Roman medallions commemorating the Olympic games held in Macedonia in AD 242; and works by Rembrandt, van der Weyden, Van Dyck, Rubens and Edouard Manet, among others. It also is home to a large collection of Lalique and some of the best-preserved Persian and Turkish 17th-century carpets in the world.
Europe’s largest indoor aquarium, the Lisbon Oceanarium is one of the city’s most family-oriented attractions. Set in a building that has been described as resembling an aircraft carrier, the complex represents the habitats of the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Antarctic oceans.
The exhibits surround a nearly two-million-gallon tank of seawater that is home to 8,000 species including rays, sunfish, sharks, sea dragons, clownfish and neon fish, among many, many others, as well as sea otters, penguins, etc. You may want to visit it early in the day or on a weekday to avoid the large crowds it attracts.
If you go: