Looking at Lisbon from the sky, you will be amazed by two things: a great deal of water all around the city, and a tiny, fragile building standing proudly on the bank of the River Tagus: Belem Tower. Thirty years ago in Lisbon, you would feel like Sleeping Beauty waking up in a forgotten city. It looked like Europe but it seemed that the modern age has not reached it yet. Then a world economic crisis badly struck Portugal. However, a new strong spirit grew from the ashes. Nowadays, Lisbon offers everything you can expect from a European city plus a very warm welcome from Lisboetas. You will feel ‘saudade’ when you leave – all the more reason to enjoy your time there! So, book your Lisbon apartment, check out our list of the best things to do and finally, have the time of your life.
Three landmarks you can’t miss!
Lisbon is better when you know a bit about its history, especially the Portuguese discoveries that happened during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Portuguese are responsible for discovering new routes (to Africa and India) and countries (Japan). There is also the belief that the mysterious Christopher Colombus might have been Portuguese or at least lived in Portugal.
P.S. Before you dive into the attractions, know it is worth purchasing the Lisboa Card. The card allows you to travel free on the Lisbon Metro subway and buses, trams and lifts of CARRIS lines. It also provides free access to 29 places of interest and various discounts in a selection of shops. For one day it costs €19, €32 for two days and €40 for three days. There are discounted prices for children.
Start your tour in the Belém district and stop at Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Discoveries Monument). This beautiful stone monument, modern and ancient at the same time, was built during the 20th century to commemorate the 5th centennial anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death. Before going inside the monument, don’t miss the enormous compass rose on the ground and the planisphere, which will show you the routes that the Portuguese explorers took. Then go upstairs to the terrace and enjoy a breathtaking view over the city, taking in Jeronimos Monastery and Belém Tower. There is an audiovisual film about the history and a temporary exhibition on the first level. The entrance fee is €5 for adults, €12.50 for 2 adults and 2 children and €2.50 for students or seniors. If you purchased a Lisboa Card, you will get a 30% discount.
Walk 950 metres along the river where the Portuguese caravels were docked at the Age of the Discoveries to find Belém Tower. The tower was built in 1514 during King Manuel I’s reign, on the northern bank of the River Tagus to protect the city from invaders. Its architectural mark is the unique Manueline style impelled by King Manuel I, which is a kind of late Gothic style that emerged from this time and has the particularity to include maritime elements. In 1983, the tower was classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It is a 4-storey building and includes the Governor’s room, the King’s room, the audience room and a chapel. The fortress opens to a yard with Gothic arches containing 17 holes for cannons. The entrance is free with the Lisboa Card.
Before crossing the roads using a subterranean hallway from the Discoveries Monument to Jeronimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos), have a look at it from this distance and take your pictures. Once there you will lose the monumental aspect of the building. Ordered by King Manuel I, the monastery was built as a tribute to Henry the Navigator, who was responsible for the development of the discoveries explorations. It was given to the Hieronymite Order from which it derives its name. Start with the south portal and admire its delicate sculptures. Then go to the main portal from which you will enter the monastery. Discover the church of Santa Maria, the high altar, cloister, refectory, chapter room, sacristy, high choir and library. Entry is also free with the Lisboa Card. It is closed on Mondays.
Three districts you can’t miss!
Now that you learnt some history, it is time to live like a Lisboeta for one day at least. June is the best time to visit Lisbon because, on top of being the beginning of a gorgeous summer, celebrations called Festas Juninas run for the whole month. Lisbon’s patron saint, Santo António, is celebrated on June 13th but the festivities take place the night before. The city streets are dressed with brightly coloured garlands, equipped with temporary barbecue grills and filled with the smell of grilled sardines. At each corner, ladies sell pots of basil, a tradition linked to Santo António as a symbol of love.
If you can’t visit for this celebration, it is still possible to experience local life at its fullest. All you need to do is visit one of the city’s popular neighbourhoods!
Alfama: São Jorge Castle and the Fado Museum
One of the oldest quarters in Lisbon, Alfama is a village inserted in the city. It is a maze of winding and narrow streets and you will be charmed by its authentic atmosphere. Look up to see wrought iron balconies, linen hanging from windows, drinking fountains, azulejos (Portuguese porcelains) of Santo António at the entrance of the buildings.
There are many things you can do in Alfama. Start by taking a trip to the Moorish São Jorge Castle, Lisbon’s most popular tourist attraction. Although most of the present castle is a result of renovations in the 1920s, the former seat of Portuguese power hasn’t lost its charm. Before reaching the castle, quite high up, you can stop at Portas do Sol or Santa Luzia observatories. Both offer breathtaking views over Lisbon and the River Tagus. Prepare your camera and sit on a terrace to enjoy a refreshing drink before continuing on.
Another place worth visiting in Alfama is the Fado Museum. It is home to many, many items related to the tradition of fado music.
Bairro Alto: São Roque Church and the Santa Catarina viewing point
Bairro Alto is known as the artist’s district, where the nightlife is. Hundreds of people stand in the streets having a drink, there are many bars and restaurants present (click here for a guide to eating and drinking in Lisbon), some esplanades and San Pedro de Alcântara Observatory with its nice garden-terrace. Worth a visit for its baroque interior is São Roque Church, as well as the Carmo Convent ruins.
One of our top tips is the Santa Catarina viewing point. Many pretty pastel houses, as well as a variety of bars and restaurants, are found in the area. It is worth getting a spot in one of the cafes or restaurants on the platform to see the sunset.
Baixa: Avenida da Liberdade and Dona Maria II National Theater
The Baixa quarter is the downtown area of Lisbon. It was completely rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake and now boasts some wonderful architecture. Start your exploration at the end of the famous Avenida da Liberdade, following it to the impressive Praça do Comércio Square facing the River Tagus. Throughout you will find pedestrian streets, the most famous being Rua Augusta, Rua do Ouro and Rua da Prata. At the edge of these streets are two large squares, Praça da Figueira and Praça do Rossio, with lots of cafes and terraces from which you can admire the façade of the Dona Maria II National Theater.
Lisbon is progressively becoming trendier, resulting in thousands of tourists pouring in from all over the world. With beautiful weather most of the year and a very peculiar light that falls onto the colourful buildings, the city is enchanting. Another wonderful asset of Lisbon is the versatility of its inhabitants who easily speak English but also French, Spanish, and Italian. Go on, get to know this little jewel along the Atlantic Ocean.