E. Tresmontant - 2008-04-21
With its steps, old tramways (eléctricos), narrow streets where washing still hangs from windows, bookshops open late at night, and booths where you can drink a bica (little coffee) or ginginha (cherry liqueur), Lisbon is a place to be experienced.
Lisbon can seem to close in on itself when invaded by crowds of cruise passengers who think they can 'do the town' in a day, refusing to reveal its secrets... A useful piece of advice therefore is not to follow the guide!
Like its great author, Fernando Pessoa, give yourself up to slowness and daydreaming. Covering three to four half days, this itinerary follows the right bank of the Tagus, allowing you to stroll through the city off the beaten track. First, the shopping part of the city (Baixa), then the sophisticated town (Chiado), and finally the western district (Belém) where Vasco de Gama's ships set off in 1497 to discover the sea route to India.
As soon as you arrive in Lisbon, the first thing to do is to cross the Tagus, known locally as the 'straw sea' due to its golden reflections. Celebrated by painters and poets, this river has its source in Spain and flows for 500 miles before ending in the Atlantic.
The port of Lisbon, which in the 16th century received gold and ivory from Africa, pepper and cinnamon from the Indies, silks from China and tobacco from America, is still one of Europe's major ports-of-call with docks, quays and warehouses along its 13 mile waterfront. Ferries (cacilheiros) offer 2 hour cruises past the main tourist sights every day.
The approach to Praça do Comércio (the most beautiful square in the city) is unforgettable: it's as if you are entering the very heart of the city!
If you want to take photos of Lisbon at sunset, go to the 25 de Abril suspension bridge (7,403 ft long, 227 ft high): you'll get a beautiful view over the medieval district of Alfama, dominated by São Jorge Castle, and the neoclassical residences of Baixa built along the Tagus.
The Baixa district
Whipped by the Atlantic air, this 'low' district was completely rebuilt after the earthquake of 1755. Best explored on foot, start from the central bustling PraçadoRossio. This famous square has several must-see' sights hidden away in charming courtyards, such as two enormous chimneys dating back to 1509, built on top of the palace of the Almada counts.
On a more tragic note, the neoclassical Dona Maria II theatre was built in 1842 on the site of the former Inquisition palace where processions, auto-da-fés and public executions took place from 1531 to 1777. To the left of the theatre, go into the luxurious Hotel Avenida Palace. Built in 1887, at the same time as the international station to the right of the theatre, it features a rococo main lounge lit by a magnificent glass roof. Perfect for sipping a glass of old port and smoking a good Havana!
Praça do Rossio is also known for its unusual boutiques, such as Portugal's last hat maker at no. 73. All levels of society buy their hats from here, from labourers to the president of the republic!
Where to go for a drink in the Baixa district?
The revered café Martinho da Arcada, 3 Praça do Comércio, is one of the oldest establishments in Lisbon. Classified as a national monument since 1910, it dates back to 1782 when the square was still unfinished. Towards the end of his life, Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) was a regular customer.
The lesser known Ginjinha Rubi, 27 Rua Barros Queiroz, is an excellent small café where you can enjoy a ginginha.
However, where would Lisbon be without its picturesque tramway no. 28 dating back to 1901? Despite its agonising rattle, this iron legend climbs the hill up to São Jorge Castle every day. Catch it from Rua do Conceição.
The area around São Jorge Castle forms the oldest part of Lisbon where the Phoenicians and Romans laid the first stones. Crossing through this labyrinth of squares, narrow streets and flights of steps, you'll come across a perfectly preserved traffic sign at 26 Rua do Salvador that reads: 'In the year of 1686, His Majesty orders that coaches, horse-drawn vehicles and litters...should return to where they came from'. So traffic jams in Lisbon are nothing new!
Slightly further down the slope, the belvedere of Santa Lucia church offers one of the capital's most beautiful views over the roofs and the Tagus. On the outside wall of the church is a beautiful panel of azulejos* representing the popular Saint Lucia: to avoid marrying a fiancé imposed by her family, she tore an eye out and carried it on a tray.
The Chiado district
The equivalent of Montmartre in Paris and West Hampstead in London, this has been Lisbon's smart and artistic district since 1755. Despite a fire in 1988, it has been carefully restored by the famous Portuguese architect, Álvaro Siza, who opened up pleasant patios between the blocks of flats. Tearooms, famous fashion designers, like Ana Salazar, and bookshops have since opened up here and given the district new life.
Close to the ruins of the Carmel monastery founded in 1389, stop for a drink on the terrace of the famous Café A Brasileira where Fernando Pessoa used to write. Next door, Casa Havaneza is devoted to the art of cigar smoking.
Another place with a good reputation, the Confeitaria Nacional, founded in 1829, is situated in the former stables of the vast palace of the Valadares counts. This bright bar-cum-restaurant offers a wide choice of traditional cakes and pastries such as pastéis de nata, delicious small cream custard tarts which are eaten with a bica, a small cup of very strong coffee.
To get to the Chiado, take Rua do Carmo, starting from Praça do Rossio: here you'll discover one of the capital's curiosities, the Santa Justalift.
Built in 1902 by a French engineer, Raúl Mesnier de Ponsard, a disciple of Gustave Eiffel, this 146 ft high metallic lift was previously powered by a steam machine. Take a ride up to its platform to see a truly unique panoramic view!
Take our word: don't forget a sweater!
Contrary to what you might imagine, the climate in Lisbon is more oceanic than Mediterranean. Cool and humid from November to April, from May to October, it is hot enough to enjoy the beach. Don't forget however that with cold currents passing along the coastline, Lisbon is often crossed by cold winds from the sea...pleasant during the summer! Evenings are always cool.
The Belém district
Belém, to the west of Lisbon, is the district where Portuguese explorers sailed from, resulting in the discovery of Madeira (1419), the Azores (1427), the Congo (1482), Cape of Good Hope (1488), the sea route to India (1497), Brazil (1500), Newfoundland (1501) and Japan (1581)...
When visiting this historic site, it is best to leave in the morning from Cais do Sodré station or catch tramway no. 15. The latter will take you to one of the capital's most famous monuments, Belém Tower, situated on the banks of the Tagus.
Built between 1515 and 1519, this square artillery tower is decorated with Venetian balconies and domes recalling Morocco. On the ground floor, you'll see the openings through which prisoners were thrown into pits full of water...
Near by is the restored Hiéronymites Monastery (mosteirodos Jerónimos), a masterpiece of 16th century Portuguese architecture. Devoted to the major discoveries, it has riches brought back from the Indies by Vasco de Gama. The honey coloured stone enhances its finely chiselled sculptures.
A few museums
Launched in 2007, this museum hosts permanent and temporary retrospective exhibitions showcasing a broad selection of the most important movements in European and American art of the 20C and 21C. A bit startling at times!
Museu do Chiado
This museum’s atrium tells a story: gigantic stone pillars supporting substantial brick arches are remnants of the monastery this once was.
Restored in 1994 by the architect J. M. Wilmotte, three permanent and temporary galleries present a collection of paintings and sculptures dating from 1850 to the present. Together, the pieces reflect the major national and international tendencies and movements - political, social and cultural - of this period.
Museu e Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian
Cosily nestled in a pleasant English garden, this museum inaugurated in 1969 holds a collection of more than 6,000 masterpieces of all genres dating from antiquity to the early 20C.
They were judiciously chosen by C. Gulbenkian (1869-1955), an exceptionally wealthy and cultivated Armenian who played a major role in the development of the petroleum industry in the Middle East.
* Of Arabic origin, azulejos (zuléija) were imported from Seville in the 15th century. These blue enamelled terracotta tiles are used to cover house façades and still remain to this day, an essential part of Portuguese architecture.
Thank you to Claire Baudoin who helped us discover Lisbon, a city she knows well having there since email@example.com
Cruises on the River Tagus
Daily departures at 3 pm from the Praça do Comércio/Terreiro do Paço,
1 April through 31 October.
Fee: €20/adult, €10/child, including beverage.
Different languages. Length: 2½ hrs.
Museu Colecção Berardo
Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
Praça do Império
Open daily from 10 am to 7 pm, Fridays until 10 pm.
No charge. Guided tours available.
Museu do Chiado
National Museum of Contemporary Art
4, Rua Serpa Pinto
Open Tuesday 2 pm to 6 pm; Wednesday through Sunday 10 am to 6 pm.
Fee: €3.00. No charge on Sundays from 10 am to 2 pm. Guided tours available; reservations required.
Museu e Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian
45, Av. de Berna
1067-001 Lisboa Codex
Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 6 pm.
Fee: €4.00. No charge on Sundays. Guided tours available; reservations required.