Lisbon is the capital of Portugal. It was built on 7 hills, each one being a distinctive quarter. The city has rich architecture influenced by cultures from every corner of the world, an amazing night life, delicious food and pastries, and a museum of wide interest.
Baixa/Chiado – Shops and Restaurants
This restaurant and shop neighbourhood is very touristic but you can still find some very nice restaurants and shops there. It is very nice to have a little wander around the streets and maybe a Super Bock, a local beer, on one of the sunny terraces, and maybe a pastry from ‘Folar de Chaves’.
The main street of Lisbon, Rua Augusta is the most famous shopping street in Portugal and goes from “Rossio” to Praça de Comercio on the shores of Tagus River. One of the world’s best rated hostels, The Travellers House, is ideally situated on this street.
From Baixa you can take the elevator de Sta. Justa to go up hill to the Chiado quarter, or you can walk up the hill and enjoy the view of the city on the roof of the tower for half the price – walk up to the Museum of Archaeology where you will find the entrance to the tower on the right. The view from there is breath-taking and worth ten times its €1.50 charge.
The Carmo Archaeological Museum (2€ student price) is worth a look too. It is installed in the ruins of a church destroyed during the 1755 earthquake and only the primitive structures and elements remain nowadays. In the restored parts of the Church is a museum where archaeological discoveries can be found, from Prehistoric times to the era of the Pharaohs, and on to the present day.
Bairro Alto – Night Life of Lisbon
Party quarter during the night, restaurants during the day. The entire quarter comes to life around 10 PM and fills with party-goers. You have to take the funicular to go up the Bairro Alto hill. We didn’t… this quarter is appropriately named the “High Quarter” (literal translation of Bairro Alto), it was quite a walk, but at least the drinks were rewarding. When you arrive in the district just follow the flow of people; the party is concentrated in five parallel streets all going from downhill to uphill and linked transversely by small alleyways. There is no traffic except on the fifth street to the left, thankfully, since the streets are insanely busy. All you need to know, as we discovered, is that the upper part is where the boozer comes for a little lie down if things gets a bit too swirly around him and the lower part is for the ones that are still in good shape, dancing and having refreshing Mojitos.
There is this one pub that needs to be noted in this quarter, situated on the first street to the right This reggae bar called Pescador was one of the rare ones to have live music that night, the singer-guitarist was amazing and the hefty bartender (who barely fitted in this tiny room) made the best Caipirinha I have ever tasted. The pubs are very small, just enough space for the bar and a few chairs and in the biggest, maybe a Foosball table. Nobody stays inside, the party happens in the streets! Also, there is no law against smoking in Portugal so it is up to the restaurant or pub to decide whether it is no-smoker or not.
My suggestion: enjoy a nice dinner in Rua Portas de Santo Antonio – Restaurante Destino was lovely – then drift towards Bairro Alto. The little walk up will be perfect for digestion and the walk back perfect to sober up a bit.
Alfama – Historical Quarter and Fado Music
It is in this quarter that the Fado was born. This traditional Portuguese singing has melancholic tones waving from extremely sad to bitterly amused to frankly joyful, mostly in the recent Fado. The songs are generally about loves stories, unfaithful lovers and the irony of it all.
The quarter itself is a must-see in Lisbon. With its maze of narrow streets, endless stairs and the little houses looking like a hand of cards piled on the hillside.
First you can visit the Sé Patriarcal de Lisboa (or Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa). This Roman Catholic cathedral is situated up the hill. The visit is free for the main part of the cathedral, except for the sacristy or the balcony (€2.50 students). Contemplating the inside of the cathedral, its architecture and detailed ornaments, from the balcony is quite amazing. After the visit, sit on the steps and watch the ballet of old red and yellow trams running up and down the hill. On the right hand side of the cathedral there is a little café-restaurant, called Cruzes Credo Café, where you can have panini sandwiches or delicious salads in the shade of the trees and cathedral’s walls.
One of the main sites to visit is the Castle of Sao Jorge; it is better to visit it during the week as there is an endless queue during weekends. The Castle offers an unobstructed view of Lisbon.
Near the Castle, on Campo de Santa Clara, you can stop by the flea market also called Feira da Ladra or “Thieves Market” (feminine thieves in Portuguese). The name gets its origins from the 17th century when it was the place where thieves were selling their loot, but nowadays it is an ordinary flea market where you can find a bit of everything.
After the flea market you can head to Portas Do Sol to enjoy the view over the city and the river, it is exceptional.
For another culinary and refreshing halt, stop by Restô do Chapitô for some fresh sea food tapas and a Super Bock, the beautiful view over the roofs of the city opening far to the outskirts and the river. This colourful little hidden paradise has a quirky atmosphere: it is part of the circus and theatre company Chapitô, hints of the circus life are hidden everywhere and palm trees contrast beautifully with the plaster coloured in a gradation of yellow, orange, red and brown ochre.
At night Alfama slips on a new costume, the quarter lights up and the voices of Fado singers fill the streets. Fado is for Lisboans what “trad’ music” is for the Irish, and has become more of a tourist attraction, so it is quite hard not to find a restaurant that hasn’t sky high prices. Ask some locals to point you to the restaurant called Dragao de Alfama: family-run, it welcomes singers performing all night from 9h30 until 3am on weekends, the singer Henriqueta da Batista was particularly talented.
Some advice: do not try to find your way in this labyrinth, you will get annoyed. Enjoy wandering the cobble-stoned streets under the shade of orange trees and admire the architecture, the colours and busy coming and going of the Lisboans.
Belém – Museum quarter
Belém is the cultural quarter of the city. 10 min away along the river by tramway, this quarter is well known for its monuments and museums as well as its delicious pastries – Pasteis de Belém.
The first monument to visit just off the tramway stop in Belém is the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, this monastery facing the river and bordered by beautiful parks is a masterpiece of architecture and art. The late-Gothic monument is a classified World Heritage Site since 1983, along with the Torre de Belém. The tour has both a defensive role, with its ideal situation at the mouth of the Tagus River, and a ceremonial role. The base of the tower used to be a prison and when the tide is high it is situated under sea level. The bastion has a multitude of little towers to which you can gain access by climbing steep narrow stairs. The view of the bridge and the ocean from the towers’ windows is unbelievable.
In front of the monastery, by the river, the colossal sculpture Padras dos Descobrimientos overhangs the esplanade. The monument is a symbol of the Portuguese ‘Age of Exploration’ where ships left to conquer new worlds during the 15th and 16th centuries.
The Museu da Electricidade – Electricity Museum — is situated on the other side of the quays in the direction of the bridge. The museum exhibits giant steam-powered generators from the Industrialisation of Portugal. It also has an excellent “kid” section where you can play with electricity, instructive for kids and so much fun for grownups.
You will also find the Belém Cultural Centre here where you can find one of the world’s most acclaimed museums of Modern and Contemporary Art called Museu Colecção Berardo or the Museu dos Coches – Coach Museum, to name just a few.
If you have time you should also try to visit a little village called Sintra. We had the chance to discover this beautiful village thanks to the Travellers House hostel who organises small tours in Lisbon’s countryside with one of the quirkiest and funniest guides I have ever met!
The countryside surrounding the village is dotted with dreamy places and magnificent parks. One I particularly liked was the Parque e Palácio da Pena. The park is a maze of tunnels, and was built as a metaphor for Dante’s Inferno. At the start of the park you have to cross a little lake to enter the first underground tunnel, Hell.
The way out is through a giant well several meters high which represents the ascent from hell through Purgatory and finally to Heaven. At the end of the well the beautiful landscape appears in front of your eyes: the park with the enchanted blooming trees and plants seems to be out of a fairy tale. Welcome to Paradise!
In the village itself, you can visit a few buildings, enjoy the view over the valley, eat delicious pastries in Panisintra and have what I think was the best shots I have ever tasted: Ginja (Cherry) alcohol in a chocolate cup; you first have to drink a little and then throw the rest in your mouth, alcohol and cup. Delicious.
The country is still experiencing the harsh consequences of the economic crisis. Tourism is Lisbon’s main income. The city is the living proof of the magnificent history and the rich cultural heritage of Portugal. If by simply being a tourist and spending great holidays we can help this country to get out of the economic mess, well, I say let’s pack up and leave now! Plus you might finally experience what “Summer” feels like outside our rainy island. I’ll give you a hint: it’s warm and sunny!
Also on the GTI Gazette