The hodgepodge of historical periods and cultures represented in Lisbon, Portugal, is a major source of its charm and travel appeal. A sprawling city on the banks of the Tagus River, Lisbon constantly reminds travelers that Portugal has been conquered several times, that it developed (and lost) its own illustrious empire and that, for much of the 20th century, it isolated itself from the rest of the world.
But when Portugal joined the European Union in 1986, it experienced a major economic boost. A completely new quarter sprang up on the banks of the Tagus. Lisbon is modernizing fast as a European travel destination.
As visitors to Portugal walk Lisbon's hills—or, better, take one of Lisbon's vintage trams—they'll find restored medieval facades, wonderful art-nouveau buildings, black-and-white mosaic sidewalks (known as calcada), fine museums and plenty of modern shops.
Lisbon's citizens seem to have absorbed their city's many-sided character. Visitors can witness the popularity of fado, the melancholy music that developed in Lisbon in the early-19th century. Though the performers sing about tragedy and distant glory, the audience is very much a part of modern Lisbon—a flourishing, fashionable business and leisure center.
The heart of Lisbon is the historical center, which borders the Tagus River (known as the Tejo in Portuguese). After an earthquake destroyed most of the city in 1755, Lisbon was rebuilt around one of Europe's most beautiful piazzas: the Praca do Comercio, dominated by the equestrian statue of King Jose. The area surrounding the Praca do Comercio is called Baixa. Immediately to the north is the old Rossio Square. Much of this area is now a pedestrian zone, with metro links, as well as plenty of outdoor cafes and shops.
To the west of the Praca do Comercio is the trendy shopping district of Chiado and, farther west, the Bairro Alto, with its creative shops, fado bars and small businesses crowded in the old, twisted streets. To the east of Praca do Comercio is Castelo de Sao Jorge (St. George's Castle), which dominates the view toward the river. The castle was built upon the old Arab part of town. Spreading out from the castle, the neighborhoods of Alfama and Mouraria have narrow and winding streets that remind visitors of the Arab influence on the city.
The long riverfront, with its converted dock warehouses, is one of the many hot spots of Lisbon's nightlife. The docks extend westward under the 25 de Abril Bridge, which resembles San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
Farther west is the neighborhood of Belem, once a small fishing town. It was there in the 1500s that the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (Monastery of Jeronimos) was built, along with the Torre de Belem (Tower of Belem), a fortress dominating the entrance to the river. Today, Belem is the location of Centro Cultural de Belem, the area's most important contemporary and performing-arts venue.
To the north of Lisbon's town center is the large and busy boulevard of Avenida da Liberdade, where the city's most fashionable shops and most active businesses are located.
Northeast of the city center is Parque das Nacoes, site of the 1998 World Expo. In this sprawling park, you'll find the Oceanario de Lisboa, as well as a massive shopping mall, good hotels, theme restaurants and some bars—this is a good area to stay in if you need to be close to the airport, but it isn't representative of the city and has none of the charm and history that makes Lisbon so popular.
Other neighborhoods worth noting are Lapa (the diplomatic quarter), Principe Real and the Santos Design District. All of them appear on most maps of the city.
There is evidence of civilization in the area from as far back as the seventh century BC, but it wasn't until the second century BC that the Romans arrived. Around 60 BC, the Romans founded the colony of Felicitas Julia, which prospered as a trading center until the fifth century AD, when the Visigoths invaded. Their domination lasted more than 250 years, until Arabs and Berbers arrived from North Africa. The Arabs preserved what remained of the Roman civilization and developed their own cultural system.
In 1147, the Muslims who had settled in Lisbon were expelled by the Christians. Around 1256, Lisbon became the capital of the kingdom of Portugal, which by then had clearly defined its borders. Over the years, Lisbon grew into a prosperous capital, boosted by the riches taken from its colonies. It endured two major earthquakes (in 1531 and 1755), which destroyed two-thirds of the city.
The Marques de Pombal rebuilt Lisbon. Instead of restoring damaged buildings, he opted to demolish anything unstable. He also designed Lisbon's grid system, which runs from the Praca do Comercio up to his statue on the Marques de Pombal roundabout—it constitutes the central hub for the old quarter.
In the 20th century, Lisbon was still the capital of a colonial empire, but it was no longer wealthy and powerful. After a series of costly wars with Spain, the Portuguese monarchy gradually lost the respect of its citizens, who ousted the last king in 1910. After two decades of turmoil, Dr. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar emerged as Portugal's unquestioned leader. Salazar, who ruled as prime minister for more than 35 years, isolated Portugal from the rest of Europe (thus keeping the country out of World War II) and clung to power through a brutal secret police force that censored virtually anyone who opposed him.
Salazar suffered a stroke in 1968 and was succeded by Marcelo Caetano who maintained the dictatorial government until being overthrown by a military coup known as Carnation Revolution or the 25 April Revolution in 1974 that led to the establishment of democracy and a new Constitution. Consequently, the liberation of the Portuguese colonies in Africa provoked a boom in immigration to Portugal, creating a substantial African community in Lisbon. In 1986 Portugal joined the European Union.
Since the 1980s, Portugal has shifted from a fundamentally conservative policy influenced by the Catholic Church to adopting more liberal policies such as the legalization of abortion and gay marriage and the decriminalization of drugs.
Economically, Portugal had a boom after joining the EU. Major new highways improved connections within the country and to the rest of Europe. Railroads and other public transportation were modernized. Unemployment reached a record low of 3.7% in 2000, and the percentage of the population with higher education increased dramatically.
Severe austerity measures adopted as a result of a three-year IMF bailout that started in 2011 have had an impact on daily life in Portugal, but should not affect visitors to the country except when there are transportion or general strikes.
Much of Lisbon is still relatively free of tourist traps. You can go inside lots of churches without being asked for an admission fee. In fact, among the dozens of churches scattered throughout the city, a few are authentic jewels. Igreja de Sao Roque, for example, is decorated with precious stones, and Igreja de Sao Vicente de Fora has extraordinary azulejos (painted tiles) in its cloister. If you find an open church, peek inside—you may find a very pleasant surprise.
Portuguese tiles, including the blue and white azulejos, are also on display at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, one of our favorite museums in the city. Other prominent museums are the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, which displays the country's artworks from the 1300s through the 1900s, and the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, which also has an impressive and wide-ranging collection.
Be sure not to miss the Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Discoveries Monument) or Castelo de Sao Jorge, which hovers over the city and provides a breathtaking view. Today very little remains of Lisbon's pre-earthquake Manueline architecture—exceptions include the Torre de Belem and the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos.
The best way to visit these sites and to get a real sense of Lisbon is to walk. In fact, old neighborhoods, such as the Alfama and the Bairro Alto, are the proverbial mazes of twisting streets—sometimes so narrow that no car could possibly get through. Most tourist maps don't name all the streets, so relax and enjoy getting lost for a while.
If you are planning on covering a lot of ground, consider the Lisboa Card, a multipass that can save you money on transportation. It provides access to most public transportation, as well as discounted admission at various attractions.
Lisbon's nightlife options include everything from cozy bars, chic nightclubs and frenetic discos to great live-music spots (especially African music). But many tourists in Lisbon spend their evenings listening to fado, the distinctly Portuguese music known for its wistful style. We think a night or two of fado is an absolute must: The music is not heard much outside the capital (except in the city of Coimbra), and it's easy to enjoy, even if you don't speak a word of Portuguese.
Fado, which translates loosely as "fate," is more about feelings than lyrics. Fado was first heard two centuries ago in brothels and taverns across Lisbon, and seedy dives in the Alfama neighborhood still provide the best performances.
Late-night hot spots include bars and restaurants in converted warehouses along the riverfront docks (the docas area); Parque das Nacoes, with a wide variety of bars along the river; and Bairro Alto, Lisbon's bohemian quarter and home to many bars of all persuasions. Cais do Sodre, the former red-light district, has become Lisbon's coolest nightspot.
Don't worry if a club has a sign at the door asking for a minimum consumption (consumo minimo) of 150 euros or even 500 euros. This is just to deter unwanted guests, as Portuguese law technically doesn't allow the restriction of public access to public places. Usually the consumo minimo is much less or is not charged at all.
Lisbon offers everything from refined delicacies to humble regional recipes. Local ingredients, including seafood, are the base for most dishes. The most popular dining neighborhoods, with the biggest variety of restaurants, are Bairro Alto and Chiado.
Despite the depth of their traditional cuisine, Lisboans are fond of food from other parts of the world—especially dishes from former Portuguese colonies. Africa, Asia and the Americas are all represented in Lisbon's restaurant choices. Vegetarians will be glad to know that there are several excellent vegetarian restaurants in the city.
If you order regional food, be prepared for big servings. In quite a few places you can avoid those by ordering uma meia dose (half a meal).
Lisboans rarely sit down for a real breakfast. They'd rather stand by the counter, drinking a bica (espresso) and eating a pastry. Brunch, however, has become quite popular on weekends.
Lunch is no longer the event it used to be, but many people still go to a restaurant for a midday meal. Dinner, however, is becoming more important. Some people dress up when they go out for dinner, although in most places there are no strict dress codes.
Breakfast is usually eaten 7-10 am. Lunch is served noon-3 pm, with most people eating between 1 and 2 pm. Dinner is served 7:30-10:30 pm, though most restaurants remain open until the last customers have finished their coffee—usually around midnight.
Expect to pay the following for a single dinner, excluding drinks, tax and tip: $ = less than 15 euros; $$ = 15 euros-25 euros; $$$ = 26 euros-50 euros; $$$$ = more than 50 euros.
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