A city of writers and seafarers, the capital of Portugal is one of the liveliest and most visited cities in Europe, on account of its important role in finance, commerce, publishing, art, international trade, education and tourism.
Lisbon (whose original name meant “enchanted port“) is the only European capital that faces the Atlantic Ocean and is located at the mouth of the Tagus River. The banks of the river are connected by two large bridges: the 25 de Abril bridge inaugurated in 1966 and the Vasco da Gama bridge, inaugurated in 1998 during the 1998 EXPO, which also marked the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the maritime passage to India by the explorer Vasco da Gama.
In order to truly understand the beauty and charm of the Portuguese capital, a visit to the historic neighbourhoods of the city (the so-called Bairros) is a must – from Bairro Alto to Baixa, up to Belèm and then Chiado.
Bairro Alto is considered the city’s artists quarter of Lisbon, where in the morning you can stroll through the shopping area and admire Lisbon from above. In the evening, the neighbourhood turns into an explosion of bars and clubs where the Lisbonites regularly meet and enjoy the famous Portuguese wine. One of the main tourist attractions of the neighbourhood is certainly the “Elevador da Gloria” funicular that connects Bairro-Alto to Baixa, from Praça Restauradores up to the panoramic viewpoint of gardens called Jardim de São Pedro de Alcântara.
Baixa, also know as the lower town, is considered one of the oldest and most elegant neighbourhoods in Lisbon. Completely rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1755, walking through this part of the city you have to the chance to admire the elegance of this architecture, as well as the squares and the streets of the Portuguese capital. The heart of Baixa is the square Praça do Comércio (Square of Commerce), defined by elegant and sophisticated neoclassical buildings and overlooking the Tagus River along one side. The square can be accessed through the Arco Triumfal da Rua Augusta that connects the square to the main commercial artery of the city. Started in 1755, however completed only in 1873, the Arch is decorated with statues depicting important figures from the history of Lisbon including the explorer Vasco de Gama and the Marquis de Pombal. In the middle of the square stands the bronze statue of King José I, the work of Joaquim Machado de Castro and completed in 1775.
In the neighbourhood of Belém you’ll find the magnificent Torre de Bélem, undoubtedly the tried and true symbol of Lisbon. Declared a Unesco World Heritage site, this old watchtower (a 30-meter bastion with four small towers) and also called Bethlehem tower or San Vincenzo tower, was built around 1500 on the banks of the Tagus River by King John II as a defensive fortification. However, and perhaps above all, it was created as a gateway to the city for travellers returning from their travels and explorations around the world. The project was desgned by the military architect Francisco de Arruda and Diogo de Boitaca, who also worked on the design of the nearby Monastero dos Jerónimos (“Hieronymites Monastery”). The monastery was built in 1500 by King Manuel I to celebrate the return of the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama, after discovering the route to India. Inside the Monastery we find the tomb of Vasco de Gama, immense halls with an endless number of vaults and columns, decorations that appear to have been made of sand, and the most beautiful cloisters in the world. Art critics consider this monastery as a triumph of the Manueline style and one of Lisbon’s most important monuments.
One of the most evocative places in Lisbon is the Convento do Carmo (the Carmo Convent), an ancient building dating back to 1389, built at the behest of Nuno Alvares Pereira. The convent’s church is located near Castelo de São Jorge and, at the time, was the largest Gothic church in the city. It was destroyed by the 1755 earthquake that struck the Portuguese capital. The apse and façade of the portal with six pointed arches are all that remain of the imposing Gothic church, while the arches of the three naves rebuilt after the earthquake rise up to the open sky. The Lisbon Archaeological Museum is located in the apse of the chapel.
You certainly can’t leave Lisbon without visiting the Castelo de São Jorge (Saint George Castle). This awe-inspiring ancient fortified castle is perched on the hill overlooking the Alfama neighbourhood – inside there is an archaeological museum, and the castle’s towers offer an extraordinary view of the entire city.
Last but not least, a special mention should be given to the Gulbenkian Museum, home to a collection of modern and ancient art from around the world: from Egyptian mummies and Persian rugs to Rembrandt, Degas and Turner.