History of Lisbon
Lisbon, also known as the City of Seven Hills, is the capital city of Portugal. Located at the mouth of the Tagus River, it is also mainland Europe’s westernmost capital. It’s strategic location for seafaring and being a gateway to Europe for South America and Africa has led to its cultured history.
It has been influenced by the Iberians, Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, and Christians. Between the various rulers and the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 that virtually razed the city, Lisbon features layers of heritage and architecture.
Each of its neighborhoods, some atop hills and others at sea level have their own vibes. During our visit to Lisbon, we spent most of our time in the Baixa, Alfama, and Belém neighborhoods. We also took several walks along the Avenida da Liberdade, due to our hotel location (more on this later).
Oeste Region of Portugal
My stint in Lisbon was reduced to 1.5 days after American Airlines stranded me overnight in Philadelphia. I spent ½ a day touring Lisbon with my friends Jon and Jackie after three days Exploring the Oeste Region of Portugal. And then connected with our Mountain Travel Sobek Historic Village Hiking Tour Group, for a day tour of Lisbon.
Remarkably, we squeezed in a lot, despite making a variety of mistakes before our guides, Carla and Pedro took over. Fortunately, with their help, we captured the flavor of Lisbon in just 1.5 days.
Side Trip From Lisbon
As I mentioned, Jon, Jackie and I spent three days north of Lisbon in Nazaré, Óbidos, Pinche and the surrounding area. Upon our return to Lisbon, we stopped in Torres Vedras, about 25 miles north of the city.
Jon, being interested in the Napoleonic Wars, wanted to see Fort of São Vicente, which was the first of 152 forts, redoubts and other defenses constructed in 1809 to protect Lisbon and Portugal from the French and Spanish. The fortifications which utilized Portugal’s mountainous landscape overlooking deep valleys and wide ravines became known as the Lines of Torres Vedras.
Eventually, under the command of Englishman Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, the Portuguese secretly constructed a three lines defense system and utilized a scorched earth policy to defeat the French. Given I was always terrible in history, I received a crash course on the Napoleonic Wars at the Fort of São Vicente.
Upon our arrival, we found limited parking and pulled off the side of the road in a turn out. A small entrance gate led to the remains of the fort which were a few walls, a moat, and mostly mounds of dirt. All I could think was how miserable it would have been to be a soldier stationed here in all the weather elements. At least it provided nice views!
There was also a small visitor center with displays describing the types of forts, the construction efforts, and how the system defeated the demoralized French troops.
Where to Stay in Lisbon
After our brief visit, we returned our car to the airport, got a taxi into Lisbon, and checked into our hotel, The PortoBay Marquês, located one block off the Marquês de Pombal Square. The PortoBay Marquês was the hotel chosen by Mountain Travel Sobek, the tour company leading our upcoming seven-day hiking tour through historic villages.
It was perfect for one night because it provided us the opportunity to visit Parque Eduardo VII and stroll down Avenida da Liberdade, but for additional nights a more convenient place to stay in Lisbon would be at the Internacional Design Hotel on Rossio Square, as it is closer to most the tourist attractions. Unfortunately, thanks to American Airlines, I didn’t get to try the hotel out.
That said, the metro station and several bus lines service the Marquês de Pombal Square, an important roundabout in Lisbon.
Avenida da Liberdade
With only half a day on our own, however, we didn’t bother trying to learn the public transportation system and as a result, took many walks along the famed Avenida da Liberdade. The super wide avenue, with both one-way traffic on either side and two-way traffic down the middle connects to Rossio Square.
The tree covered avenue with black and white cobblestone sidewalks is lined by posh retail stores and features open air cafes in the center medians. It’s a lovely place to walk, but perhaps not four times in less than 24 hours like I did!
Public Transportation in Lisbon
Getting to know the public transportation system in Lisbon is a good idea, as with its many hills, you can accidentally end up on a steep climb. Not to mention, a few main attractions are farther away. The two best public transportation in Lisbon options for tourists are the Lisboa Card and the Viva Vieagem Card.
The Lisboa Card includes unlimited rides on the buses, trams, funiculars, trains, and metro in Lisbon. In addition, it gives tourists access to 38 different attractions with skip the line benefits and includes train rides to Sintra and Cascais, popular side trips from Lisbon. It may be purchased for 24, 48, or 72 hour time periods. The price begins are 22 Euros and the card must be ordered in advance.
For just transportation, the Viva Vieagem Card is the best choice. The card may be purchased at the metro for 0.50 Euros and a 24-hour ticket costs 6.60 Euros. Other transportation alternatives include tuk tuks and taxis. The tuk tuks require a pricey tour, though they would be a fun option for a family with kids. The taxis are affordable, especially when split between three people like we did when going to Belém.
Don’t Make Our Mistake
Since we knew we were touring the Alfama District with our guides the following day, we visited Belém for the afternoon. But first we started with a walk down Avenida da Liberdade to Rossio Square for lunch at the historic Café Nicola. This was an alternative to the food hall we couldn’t find near our hotel.
I have to give the Moon Portugal Travel Guide published in September of 2021 two strikes on the restaurant suggestions. Not only was the food hall out of business, but lunch at Café Nicola was flavorless and slow. Its history did not outweigh our bland lunch. While it dates back to the 18th century and was one of the first cafes in Lisbon, its history and unique décor didn’t make up for the meal. We should have referred to the Google reviews!
Places to See in Baixa
Praça do Comércio
Chalking lunch up to mistake number 1, we continued to the Praça do Comércio. The giant square features a statue of King Jose I and is flanked by cafes to the west, a museum to the east, and the Arco da Rua Augusta to the north. To the south are tuk tuk and taxi drivers as well as the ferry port on the Tagus River. The best photo opportunity is from the southwest corner as it captures the São Jorge Castle on the hill.
Arco da Rua Augusta
The Arco da Rua Augusta is a stone memorial arch which was constructed to commemorate Lisbon’s reconstruction after the 1755 earthquake. Originally designed as a belltower, the arch is now adorned with statues of historical figures.
King Jose I Statue and Elephant
The equestrian statue of King Jose I was inaugurated in 1775 for the monarch’s birthday. Designed by Machado de Castro, Portugal’s foremost sculptor at the time, the monument was the first in Lisbon and Portugal.
The bronze statue sits atop a limestone pedestal carved with a white elephant. It is said that the king, who took the throne at 36 and who ruled during both the Franco-Spanish invasion and the Great Lisbon Earthquake, tsunami, and fire, once held an exhibition for the people.
He released a rhino and an elephant in the Praça do Comércio with the intent for the animals to fight. The elephant had none of it and walked away. The rhino has its own story, though such story coincides with a different time period coinciding with King Manuel I rule (1495-1521).
Manueline Period Rhino Story
The rhino was a diplomatic gift to King Manuel I from India and was the first rhino to set foot on European soil since the Roman days. After a 120-day voyage, it was unloaded near the construction site of the Belém Tower. After a few months, the king tired of the rhino and shipped it to Pope Leo X from whom he needed political favors. He had already sent him a rare white elephant. Sadly, the rhino drowned in a shipwreck!
Places to Visit in Belém
The Belém Tower
The rhino, however, is immortalized in the carvings on the Belém Tower. Its decorative exterior also features motifs inspired by the Age of Discovery along with other exotic animals and nautical symbols.
After a short taxi ride, we finally made it to the Belém Tower around 3 pm, our second mistake. We arrived way too late. The ticket booth was no longer selling entry tickets for the day. I doubt if we would have waited in the long line anyway. The Lisboa Card would have come in handy at this 16th century fortification of Manueline style architecture.
While we missed out on the view from the top of Belém Tower, I understand, the inside of the UNESCO World Heritage Site is rather stark.
25th of April Bridge
After snapping a few photos of Belém Tower, we briefly strolled along the river, taking in the view of the 25th of April Bridge. The bridge, which looks similar to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, was constructed by the same company. The bridge got its unique name after the Portuguese Carnation Revolution overthrew the government in a peaceful coup on April 25, 1974.
Soon we left the riverbanks, crossed the skyway, and meandered aside the tram tracks toward Jerónimos Monastery. Along the way we stumbled across a giant raccoon, trash art installation. The artist, Bordalo II creates animals out of trash that could cause the animal to perish. He has used over 60 tons of recycled materials to install almost 200 animals worldwide.
Minutes from the Big Raccoon is the Jerónimos Monastery. The monastery is another example of ornate Manueline architecture as well as a UNESCO Heritage Site. Construction began on the extravagant landmark in 1901 and took over 100 years to complete.
Inside is the Church of Santa Maria, the final resting place of explorer Vasco da Gama and Portugal’s famous poet, Luís Vaz de Camões. Its expansive wings are home to the National Archaeology Museum and the Maritime Museum. This National Monument is also on the Lisboa Card.
Pastéis de Belém
Next to Jerónimos Monastery is the Pastéis de Belém. The bakery is famous for being the birthplace of Portugal’s custard tart called pastel de nata. The sweet treat’s secretly guarded recipe comes from workers at the convent who turned to selling the pastel de Belém to make a living when the monastery closed in 1834.
Still today, the creamy, eggy filled tart is handmade and attracts lines of tourists. Fortunately, there is a “to go” section for just the pastries that may be ordered individually or in a box of six. We purchased a box of six that were still warm when we got back to the hotel, though I suggest enjoying them with a sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar in the shade on a nearby park bench.
Things to Do in Lisbon
After a full day, we took a much-needed break at the hotel. Since my flight cancelation caused me to miss an entire day in Lisbon, I eventually mustered up some energy to visit some more sights in the evening. Those attractions included the funicular, Miradouro São Pedro de Alcântara, Pink Street, and Time Out Market.
Elevador da Glória and Miradouro São Pedro de Alcântara
Lisbon has three funiculars. The most popular one, which connects Restauradores Square with Barrio Alto, is Elevador da Glória. Elevador de Glória provides access to the Miradouro São Pedro de Alcântara which affords magnificent views of Lisbon. I scanned the skyline for São Jorge Castle and the Lisbon Cathedral while waiting for the sun to set over Alfama and the Tagus River.
Pink Street and Time Out Market
Then I strolled down the hill to Pink Street and Time Out Market. Both places, with their many eateries, were hopping on a Friday night. I had planned to grab something quick at the food hall, but I wasn’t the least bit hungry after constantly eating the last few days of vacation.
Of course, after I walked all the way back up the Avenida da Liberdade, I got hungry. It was after 9pm, so I swung into the McDonalds on Marquês de Pombal Square. I know some people that go to McDonalds in every country just to see what is different. I, on the other hand hardly set foot in McDonalds in America, much less a foreign country. I was surprised to see the selections, but ended up with a “Happy Meal”, and I was happy with a childhood favorite, complete with a Pokemon card.
Parque Eduardo VII
The following day, we were scheduled to meet up with our Mountain Travel Sobek Tour Group at noon. With some free time in the morning, I met up with Jon and Jackie for a walk in Parque Eduardo VII. I love nature, so I was excited to decompress among the “sprawling manicured garden with box hedges that provide a regal feel,” as described by my guidebook.
While the park provides great views of Baixa and the Tagus River, I found the condition of the park underwhelming, especially given the recent event hosting the Pope, attended by 300,000 people. There was not a flower in sight and many of the box hedges were overgrown with weeds. I was very surprised by all the excellent reviews on google. Perhaps, I was spoiled by my summer hiking on my Wyoming Road Trip.
Or maybe I needed to the visit the Estufa Fria, a cold greenhouse that includes “lakes, waterfalls, brooks, statues and hundreds of different plant specimens.” Oh well, the park was still green space in a big city, so I’ll take it.
Breakfast at Hygge Kaffe
After our walk, I split with Jon and Jackie, who had already eaten breakfast, and tried Hygge Kaffe. What a delight! My sunny side up eggs with salad, avocado cream, and spicy tomatoes certainly helped the café earn its 4.6 star review online.
Strolling the Streets of Lisbon
I still had a few hours left before our noon-time meeting, so once more I trekked down the Avenida da Liberdade, knowing full well I’d be making the stroll again with our tour group this afternoon. Remarkably, despite seeing some of the same places on my own and with the group, I hardly ever ended up on the same street twice.
While I wandered with the help of Google maps, the maze of back streets sometime proved difficult to follow as the map is flat and the City of Lisbon is not! Should I take the stairs or follow the road became a constant question. Usually, I had to take the stairs.
The Squares of Lisbon
Saturday morning was far quieter than the afternoon. I took advantage of the peaceful atmosphere and explored Lisbon’s many squares decorated in white and black cobblestone patterns. Rossio Square, Praça dos Restauradores, and Praça da Figueira are very close together.
Praça da Figueira
Praça da Figueira is unique because its center piece statue of King Joao I is offset to one corner rather than in the middle. But not to worry, a craft market and food stalls fill the center.
Rossio Square is one of the most frequented squares in Lisbon and popular among tourists. The train station sprawls near its northwest corner while cafes and souvenir shops like the Fantastic World of Portuguese Sardines line the southwest area. The square itself features two fountains and a statue honoring King Pedro IV.
Praça dos Restauradores
Praça dos Restauradores is just a few minutes’ walk from Rossio Square and shares the presence of the train station. It is also where the Elevador da Gloria originates. The square, named for Portugal’s liberation from Spain, is marked with a 90-foot high obelisk honoring those who died in the Restoration War during the 1600’s.
Lisbon Street Art in Alfama
After strolling through all the squares, I climbed upward toward the São Jorge Castle and some of Lisbon’s viewpoints. Given our Mountain Travel Sobek guides were leading us through the castle, I saved it for later and wandered from its entrance to a building with giant red doors. After passing through, I ended up in corridors of street art across from a cute little dog park. It is always fun to find things off the beaten path.
Portas do Sol Viewpoint
I descended the stairs painted with eyeballs, and finally made it to the Portas do Sol Viewpoint which was my biggest reason for logging 17,000 steps this morning. It overlooks the charismatic Alfama neighborhood as well as the Tagus River. While most people prefer the famous São Pedro de Alcântara Viewpoint, I liked Portas do Sol, likely because I loved the contrast of the blue river to the white houses with terracotta roofs.
While I patiently waited for the young Asian lady to take 27 selfies, I snapped photos of the locks of love hanging from the railing. There were just a few as compared to those on the Coastal Trail from Monterosso to Vernazza, Italy and Paris, France. Eventually, I captured the panoramic view before making my way back toward the hotel for our next stroll around Lisbon.
É Um Restaurante
After a short introduction, our group of eight and two guides ventured to lunch at É Um Restaurante, just a few blocks from our hotel. I wish we knew about this place yesterday. The food was tasty and decoratively plated. Apparently we ate it all too fast for me to get any good pictures.
On top of delicious food and friendly service, the restaurant supports a good cause. It provides work and training to people who live or have lived in chronic homelessness. I know of a few restaurants like this in the states, though based on the homeless population in the USA, we could use some more. While walking all over Lisbon, I only saw three homeless. One had a pet rabbit and another had a pet ferret!
Igreja de São Domingos
From lunch, we walked to Igreja de São Domingos, located on the Largo de São Domingos Square. It is the location of the 1506 massacre of 4,000 jews. The jews were “New Christians,” converted by royal decree after King Manuel I fought the Catholic Monarchs of Spain to keep the jews in Portugal. They were killed by churchgoers who became disgruntled when someone ridiculed the claims of miracle at the church.
The massacre as well as looting lasted several days and took place while King Manuel I, fleeing the plague, was out of the country. Upon his return, he executed approximately 500 rioters without a trial and stripped two Dominican friars of their religious orders. Many New Christians fled Portugal despite a royal decree that forbade emigration from Portugal until approximately one year later when it was legalized.
Not only was the Igreja de São Domingos home to the massacre, but it was also subject to many disasters. The church suffered damage from the 1531 earthquake and was almost completely destroyed by the November, 1, 1755 earthquake and subsequent fire from all the candles lit on All Saints Day. It again was damaged by fire in 1959. As a result, the once ornate church is somewhat macabre. While the roof was replaced, the historic walls were left with burn marks. It is an interesting place to see in Lisbon.
Praça Martim Moniz
From the church, we carried on to another square called Praça Martim Moniz, located in Mouraria, the Moorish quarter of Lisbon. The square is a tribute to the soldier who risked his life to help King Alfonso Henriques conquer Lisbon from the Moors. He threw his body in the open door of the São Jorge Castle to keep it from being closed, sacrificing own life while allowing Christian soldiers to invade. Despite the popular Tram 28 terminal being located at the Praça Martim Moniz, the square felt less touristy than other areas of Lisbon.
São Jorge Castle
From the square, we ascended an escalator, which I somehow missed this morning, as part of our climb to São Jorge Castle. It pays to have a guide in Lisbon! Anyway, with our pre-purchased tickets, we passed through the turn styles into the broad complex.
The fortress was originally constructed by the Visigoths in the 5th century, expanded by the Moors in the 11th century, and expanded again during the Christian rule. The complex includes the castle ruins, gardens, a museum and archaeological center, a camera obscura, and affords magnificent views.
Views on Lisbon from the São Jorge Castle
WOW to the views! The São Jorge Castle, located atop a hill in the center of Lisbon, provides views all around. We could see the nearby Elevador de Santa Justa and ruins of the Carmo Convent tucked in between a multitude of terracotta roofs and all the way beyond the 25th of April Bridge in Belém to Christ the Redeemer Statue across the Tagus River.
Elevador de Santa Justa
Both the Elevador de Santa Justa and the Christ the Redeemer Statue, inspired by the one in Brazil, also provide excellent views of Lisbon. The Elevador de Santa Justa was a 19th century industrial marvel. Once part of Lisbon’s public transportation network, the wrought iron elevator serves mostly as a tourist attraction, carrying passengers 135 feet from the Baixa District to the Largo do Carmo.
The Carmo Convent was once one of the greatest medieval buildings in Lisbon. Now the ruins stand as a reminder of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Its roof collapsed on the congregation during mass on All Saints Day, and it has never been rebuilt. Its remaining gothic arches and Manueline windows and décor now house a small archaeological museum.
As we meandered through the remaining ruins of the castle dotted with olive trees, we climbed its few of its towers for additional views of Lisbon that stretch north to the modern section of the city and northeast over the Igreja de São Vicente de Fora, the National Pantheon, and the Tagus River.
When we weren’t busy enjoying the sweeping views, we were checking out the unique royal peacocks that strutted around the grounds and roosted in the trees. I think that is the first time I’ve ever seen a peacock fly. After a short stroll through the museum and quick bathroom break, we continued our tour of Lisbon with a stop at an Old Roman Theater.
Old Roman Theater
The remains of the theater popped up from beneath a cobble stone street. It was completely covered, kind of like the path of Jesus in Jerusalem. I couldn’t help but ask how it was discovered. Don’t you know the current builder was dismayed to find the site of his planned parking garage being cordoned off to showcase historic ruins, as it should be!
Not far from the Roman Theater is the Sé Cathedral, also known as the Lisbon Cathedral. The Cathedral was constructed in the 12th century and is the oldest church in Lisbon. I passed by the cathedral earlier in the day while it was being prepared for a wedding. Police directed traffic as a camera crew made its way to the red-carpet entrance. It seemed like someone famous was tying the knot.
St. Anthony Weddings of Lisbon
An even better story about weddings at the Sé Cathedral, however, coincides with St. Anthony’s Day, the 13th of June, which is a holiday in Lisbon. Back in 1958, Lisbon started a mass wedding celebration and selected 26 couples with little money to wed for free on St. Anthony’s Day. The tradition continued until the Carnation Revolution in 1974, and after a 30-year break, was reinstated in 2004 with 16 couples.
St. Anthony, commonly regarded as a holy matchmaker lived just a stone’s throw away from the Sé Catedral at the site where the Igreja Santo Antonio stands. These weddings, paid for by the municipality and private sponsors, were originally held at St. Anthony’s church, but now are held at the Sé Cathedral with the reception at the Estufa Fria, as the celebrations have grown so large. They are televised and widely followed in Portugal.
St. Anthony’s Day and Santo Antonio Festival
Today, the festivities begin on the 12th with each neighborhood in Lisbon competing in a parade on Avenida da Liberdade. Contestants from each District dress in themed costumes and dance to music. A jury decides the winner of the Santo Antonio Festival.
I’m beginning to wish we visited Lisbon in June, to see these parties on St. Anthony’s Day. I’m reminded of the Fat Tuesday celebrations in Pátzcuaro, where each neighborhood parades down the streets in competition. They dress in drag and evil Halloween costumes. Though the celebration is on a much smaller scale and doesn’t last the entire month of June as it does in Lisbon.
During the St. Anthony parties in Lisbon, the streets are decorated in colorful paper flowers while sardines are grilled on every corner. What a lovely tradition, except for the wafting smell of sardines!
Evening in Lisbon
We finished off our day tour of Lisbon by dropping into the Comércio Square and strolling back up the extremely crowded Rua Augusta where we enjoyed a pastel de nata before freshening up for dinner.
We enjoyed dinner at Faz Figura in Alfama. The contemporary restaurant provides a floor to ceiling window view of the river and sunset. The food was good and plated beautifully. It was a nice way to end a long day touring Lisbon, particularly for those in our group that had just landed from the USA the same morning. Kudos to Jim, Roger, Terry and LeaAnn for powering through. Jon, Jackie, Christie and I at least had a two-day head start.
Fado in Lisbon
For the next week, we hiked to historic villages in the central portion of Portugal, but upon returning to Lisbon for our final night in Portugal, we spent the evening at Maria da Mouraria Restaurant enjoying a night of Fado.
Maria da Mouraria Restaurant is a famous fado house in Mouraria and is named for Maria Severa who is widely considered the first “fadista”. She used to play her guitar and sing music which evoked pain and melancholy. She died at the young age of 26 in 1846.
Anyone interested in culture and music should book a fado show at Maria da Mouraria, located in the birthplace of fado music. The owner is a fantastic fado singer himself, so he hosts excellent musicians and performers at his fado house. Performances that take place Wednesday to Sunday. Generally, three to four performers sing, expressing their emotions through body language and tone, while musicians strum the 12-string guitar. A three-course meal is served in between the recitals.
Overall, we crammed a lot into our sightseeing day in Lisbon. I feel like we gained a good glimpse into both the history and culture of Portugal in the short time we visited the City of Seven Hills. ETB