Cradled by hills, offering picture-perfect panoramas, Portugal’s largest and capital city Lisbon is located on the Western Iberian Peninsula, where the Tagus River empties into the Atlantic Ocean – a prime location, which once supported the nation’s rich seafaring past.
Cobbled streets and alleys, imposing cathedrals, ancient ruins and numerous other landmarks and attractions come together to make this seductive city an excellent tourist destination.
This westernmost city on continental Europe boasts a 3,000-year-old history, predating cities like London, Paris, and Rome.
Lisbon has had a long history of shifting fortunes, right from its early days as a Phoenician settlement to its status as a 16th-century trading giant; and from the devastation brought about by the Great Earthquake of 1755 to its glorious reconstruction and growth.
The earthquake, and the ensuing tsunami and five-day firestorm, had reduced most of Lisbon into rubble and cinders.
However, with calamity came the desire and fortitude to rebuild, and in less than a year the reconstruction of Lisbon was moving full steam ahead.
Lessons learned from the sweeping devastation gave birth to a new style of elegant, earthquake-resistant architecture called Pombaline, named after the first Marquês de Pombal, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, whose contributions to the rebuilding of Lisbon is well documented.
The earthquake also shook the city free from the stranglehold of old religious doctrines and beliefs, giving way to the “Age of Enlightenment.”
However, in keeping with its history of shifting fortunes, much of the twentieth century saw this great European city flounder yet again.
But, gone are the days of fading glory and insecurities of the last century; 21st-century Lisbon is, once again, brimming with many possibilities and opportunities.
Before we explore Lisbon and soak up its amazing ambiance, here’s a few interesting trivia about this charming city.
Lisbon is the second oldest capital in Europe. The only European capital older than Portugal is Athens, the capital of Greece.
Unlike other capitals, Lisbon has never been officially confirmed as the capital of Portugal on any official document. It became Portugal’s default capital from the time King Alfonso III moved his court, in the thirteenth century, to what had become the largest and most important city in the country.
Lisbon is not ‘the city on seven hills,’ as it is, incorrectly, referred to.
In fact, it’s Rome that sits on seven hills and is the rightful owner of the title. Lisbon is actually located on eight hills but even locals prefer to call it by the same name. It is generally believed that the nickname developed to match the importance of Rome. Ironically, the hill that’s omitted from the official list happens to be the highest in the city.
Although Portugal remained neutral in World War II, Lisbon became the breeding ground for spies, earning it the nickname – ‘the capital of espionage’, at the time.
The Vasco da Gama Bridge in Lisbon, spanning the Tagus River, is Europe’s longest bridge. The six-lane bridge is more than 12 kilometers long and connects the north and the south banks of the Tagus.
One of the city’s most popular landmarks, the Torre de Belem, has served as a fortress, jail, custom house, telegraph post and lighthouse in the past. Today, this 16th-century monument is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Torre de Belém
Standing proud in the shallows near the mouth of the Tagus River, the 16th-century Torre de Belém is, probably, Lisbon’s most symbolic monument – a testament to Portugal’s Age of Discovery.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site was originally built as a fortress in the middle of the river but now finds itself in the shallows due to the shift in the river’s course over the years. As already mentioned, it has also served as a jail, custom house, telegraph post and lighthouse in the past.
Oceanário de Lisboa
Designed by Peter Chermayeff and built for the Expo 98 World Exposition, The Oceanário de Lisboa or the Lisbon Oceanarium is one of the largest aquariums in the world holding an incredible collection of marine life. Not only that, it also serves as an aviary to dozens of species of birds from all over the world.
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian
The Museu Calouste Gulbenkian is one of the most famous museums in Europe with a massive collection of priceless Western and Eastern art. The museum is named after an American oil tycoon who donated his vast private art collection to the museum before his death in 1955.
Gulbenkian’s mind-boggling collection includes priceless works of art from around the world spanning 4000 years, all the way from ancient Egyptian times to the late 20th century.
Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga
Portuguese for ‘National Museum of Ancient Art’, the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga is another priceless gem in Lisbon’s cultural crown – a “not-to-be-missed” attraction on any tourist itinerary.
The museum is housed within a 17th-century palace west of the city center. It is home to the largest collection of 15th and 16th-century Portuguese paintings in addition to a more than impressive array of European, Oriental, and African art.
Elevador de Santa Justa
The Elevador de Santa Justa is an antique elevator looming over the city’s downtown area, the Baixa district.
Designed by French architect Raoul Mésnier du Ponsard, the tower was opened to the public in 1901 with the purpose of linking Baixa with the Largo do Carmo in the Bairro Alto neighborhood, a happening locality in the city known for its expensive shops, Fado houses, and small restaurants.
Some of the other important and tourist-worthy landmarks in Lisbon are:
Museu do Oriente
Housed in a refurbished industrial building on the Alcântara waterfront, the Museu do Oriente is home to an expansive collection of oriental celebrating Portugal’s presence in Asia and the Far East.
Set over two levels, the museum chronicles arts and artifacts, mostly from countries that Portugal had established trade links with, including China, India, Japan, Macau and Timor.
Some of the mentionable works of art among many are:
- An incredibly large 17th-century teak door from India, embellished with iron and bronze, that opens into a hall brimming with some of the finest collections of art.
- The Nanban Screen depicting Portuguese mariners disembarking from the “Kurofune” in Japan
- A collection of Chinese snuff boxes
- Silver alloy bracelets from Timor
- Terracotta figurines from the Ming and Qing dynasties
- Kwok Collection of over 13,000 depictions of figures and mythological beings cut from cowhide and parchment, used by puppeteers in shadow theaters from Turkey to Thailand
- A representation of the one-time Portuguese colony of Macau with “eye-catching pieces like the suspended boat-shaped cradle (c.1877) made from carved, lacquered, and golden oriental wood, cane, and iron.”
Castelo de São Jorge: 11th-century, hilltop Moorish castle & royal residence with palace ruins & archaeological museum
Museu Nacional do Azulejo: Dedicated to the art of Decorative Tilework
Padrão dos Descobrimentos: A Tribute to the Age of Discovery
Arco da Rua Augusta: Iconic 19th-century arch.
Lisboa Story Centre: Interactive cultural center
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos: Built in Honor of Portugal’s Age of Discovery
Rossio Square: Rossio Square is the popular name of the Pedro IV Square, one of Lisbon’s main squares in the Pombaline downtown area
Praça do Comércio: Waterfront public plaza with a notable arch & statue, lined with outdoor cafes & shopping venues.
Carmo Convent: Ruined Gothic church destroyed by an earthquake in 1755, with an evocative roofless nave & museum
Gare do Oriente: Modern, Gothic-influenced railway hub, designed by Santiago Calatrava, with local transport links
Berardo Collection Museum: Modern & contemporary art museum, with works by Picasso, Bacon & Warhol plus temporary exhibitions
(Source: Wikipedia, Planetware)