Lisbon is the largest city and capital of Portugal, facing the Atlantic Ocean, with a wide part of River Tagus crossing. The city is known for its port, that is one of Europe’s busiest, and historic seamen like Vasco da Gama.
It is one of the most visited cities in Europe, but still a bit of a hidden gem. Lisbon is a very hilly city, the most hilly I visited ever. Especially the old part have steep hills. Significant for Lisbon are the old yellow trams that goes on very narrow paths. Some are funiculars, riding the steepest hills.
Lisbon has two long, impressive bridges that spans over the Tagus River; Ponte de Vasco da Gama (North of central Lisbon) is Europe’s 2nd longest bridge (12.3km long, 155m high, built 1998), and Ponte de 25 de Abril (25th of April Bridge, South of central Lisbon, just North of Belem) is very similar to the Golden Gate Bridge, it is red, a suspension bridge with similar design. The 25th of April bridge was completed in 1974 and has both a road and a railway, and an observation deck with a museum near the west edge. It is 2277m long. Pilar 7 Bridge Expericence is a very cool exhibition with elevators that goes up to the level of the road of the bridge, with glass floors with views over Lisbon.
There is a high Christ Statue in the municipality of Alamada on the other side, just like in Rio. The statue’s observation deck can be visited, and looks over central Lisbon and the river.
Praca de Comercio (Commerce Square) is the main square of Lisbon, facing the water. In the middle of the square is an equestrian statue of King José I. Around the square you find imposing yellow buildings with important museums (Lisboa Story and the National Museum), a statue and an arch, Arco da Rua Augusta, that marks the entrance to the commercial pedestrian street Rua Augusta. It leads to Elevador de Santa Justa, a beautiful tower with a historical elevator, designed by one of Gustav Eiffel’s pupils. It leads to the Carmo Convent, a beautiful white ruin church that can be visited.
The historical Castelo de São Jorge (St George’s Castle) overlooks the city, situated in the highest part of the old town. The first fortification of the city dates back to the 1st century BC. The location has served fortifications occupied successively by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, and Moors, before its conquest by the Portuguese in the 1147 Siege of Lisbon. The current castle’s stone walls and towers was constructed during the Moorish occupation. It is a popular tourist attraction, with views over the city.
Sé (or Metropolitan Cathedral of St Mary Major, Lisbon’s gothic/Romanesque/baroque cathedral from the 12th-13th centuries) is built in stone and is situated on a hill in Alfama.
Panteao Nacional (National Pantheon), also called Igreja de Santa Engrácia is a 17th century monument and church, situated on another hill in Alfama. It is a white building with a dome.
You might think that Lisbon is a quite small city, but nothing could be more wrong; it is spread out and consists of mainly 3 tourist centers, the Old Town center, Belém and Parque das Nacoes.
Bairro Alto and Alfama are the old parts, on the East part of the city center. These are very hilly and the small apartment buildings are picturesque, yet bohemic with laundry hanging above the narrow streets. Mouraria, Madragoa and Estrela are other picturesque neighbourhoods, gritty with colourful old buildings. Alfama is to the east of the immediate city center, where you find the cathedral, Sao Jorge Castle and many other churches. Bairro Alto (Old Town) is very hilly and popular with tourists, with its narrow lanes. In Madragoa we hired an apartment, in a typical bohemic residence building with laundry above the street, but top modern.
Lisbon is a city with many museums with international standard: Museu Nacional do Arte Antiga (art), Museu Nacional dos Coches (wagons), Museu Calouste Gulbenkian (art, Sao Sebastiao), Museu do Oriente (Asian pieces), Museu Berado (modern art, Belém), Casa das Histórias (art, history), Palácio Nacional da Ajuda (former royal residence turned museum of decorative arts, Ajuda suburb), Museu Nacional do Azulejo (mosaics), MAAT – Museu de Arte, Arquitectura e Tecnologia (futuristic modern art exhibition, Belém), Museu de Arte Contemporanea do Chiado (art in a palace in the suburb of Chiado), MUDE (design, fashion) and Lisboa Story (that tells the story about the city right in the heart of Lisbon, at Praca do Comércio). There are many palaces in Lisbon, two of the most popular are the Palace Of The Marquis De La Frontera Garden, a blue palace with mosaic and gardens in the Northern outskirts of Lisbon, and Palace of Queluz, a baroque palace in the Queluz suburb.
Avenida da Liberdade, an avenue that goes North of the city center, is one of the most expensive shopping streets in Europe. It begins at the square Praca de Restauradores, where you find the Rossio Station, Lisbon’s main railway station (with an art nouveau façade), the postmodern/art deco Eden Aparthotel, the Monumento aos Restauradores and Hard Rock Café. Next to Restauradores is another large square, Praca Dom Pedro IV, where you find the National Theater (Teatro Nacional de Maria III), and yet another square, Praca da Figueira. Av. Liberdade leads to Parque Eduardo VII, an elegant park that is sloping downwards towards the Tagus river and old town, a gracious sight from its highest peak since there are very few trees. Around the park you find some of the most expensive hotels in Lisbon, such as the Ritz Four Seasons and the InterContinental. Between the park and the avenue is Praca de Marquês de Pombal, a circular trafficated square with a high sculpture of Marquês de Pombal in the middle. Northeast of this circle is Avenida Republica and some other avenues that are among the widest and most trafficated in Lisbon. This area is called Avenidas Novas. That character is here changing from the small scale old town style to grandiose buildings and roads a la Paris. Our second hotel, Holiday Inn Continental, a 4-star postmodern highrise building, is situated in this modern area, with a mix of beautiful historic and modern buildings. The hotel is adjancent to the 15-storey postmodern 80s building Antiga sede do BNU, with peach marble and glass. Museu Calouste Gulbenkien (a large private arts museum) and Campo Pequeno, a rare beautiful round, red-brick building, that is now not only a bullfighting arena, but also is a shopping center, live venue, cinema, restaurants and parking lot. Unlike Spanish bullfighting, the bull is not killed in the end in the Portugese version. In the Avenidas Novas neighbourhood is also a large, rare beautiful, modern art deco church, Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário de Fátima, a beautiful students library, Biblioteca Palácio Galveias and an enormous bank building with an impressive mix of brutalism and art deco, Caixa Geral de Depósitos. It is the headquarters of Portugal’s largest bank.
Belém, that means Bethlehem, is a former suburb, now a district, to the West of the city center. It can be reached by Westbound trains. It is a wealthy district with many old, colourful buildings hills and some famous sights; Torre de Belém (a historical former customs tower that is situated in the water on the banks of River Tagus, and one of Lisbon’s most famous landmarks, it was built in the 16th century and is one of the finest examples of Portugese Manueline style), Mosteiro dos Jerónimos ( a huge cloister in gothic style with a beautiful church where you find the tomb of Vasco da Gama and the poet Camões, and a museum of natural history), Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument of Discoveries, a 52m high monument from 1958 on the bank of Tagus River with an observation deck and sculptures of historical seamen) and Palácio de Nacional de Belém. MAAT, the futuristic modern art museum, that opened in 2016, is also situated here.The building has curved shapes that harmonizes with the nearby 25 April Bridge. The old part of the museum, now an electricity museum, is situated in a former powerstation. During our visit there was a cool exhibition about robots in the old wing.
Parque das Nacões (Park of the Nations) is a very modern area in the Northeast part of Lisbon, along the coast of Tagus River. This is where the 1998 World Fair (Expo ’98) took place. This is the most modern part of Lisbon, and the closest you come to a modern highrise district, in a city with very few skyscrapers, the tallest buildings have just around 25 floors. A railway station, hotels, shopping malls, office buildings, apartment buildings, restaurant and pavilions from the world fair have been constructed in sweeping futuristic styles.
More then 20 cableways (we took a ride for only 5 euro), Telecabine Lisboa, trafficates along the coast line of Parque das Nacoes, high above the Tagus River, with views of the area and the nearby Vasco da Gama Bridge (17.3km long Europe’s longest bridge after the Crimean Bridge in Russia). They were opened for the Expo ’98.
Torre Vasco da Gama, a futuristic skyscraper hotel with external glass elevators, a high atrium with chandeliers and a revolving rooftop restaurant, is situated in the park’s Northern end, facing the Vasco da Gama Bridge. It is Portugal’s tallest building at a height of 145m to the spire. Built in 1998 for the world fair the observation tower stood empty for years until the hotel was completed in 2012.
Gare do Oriente (Lisbon Oriente Station) is the futuristic railway station designed by Santiago Calatrava, inspired by gothic architecture. Opened in 1994, its is white and grey and has sweeping lines. The outdoor platforms on the top floor has a famous white roof. Gare de Oriente also has a metro and a bus station. Centro Vasco da Gama, is a modern shopping mall opposite the station. The futuristic, circular 24-storey twin towers, Torre São Rafael and Torre São Gabriel, built in 2000 and 2002, are situated on the sides of the mall.
The Portugese pavilion, Pavilion of Portugal, is left from the world fair, with its sweeping roof, hanging above the plaza. It was designed by the Portugese architect Alvaro Siza Vieira. It is currently used the University of Lisbon for exhibitions. Several highrise hotels have been built in the area, like Hotel Tivoli Orient and Tryp Oriente. Oceanário de Lisboa, one of Europe’s largest aquariums, is also situated in Parque das Nacoes, right next to the water. It was, as many of the other buildings in the area, opened for the Expo ’98 (World Fair). Designed by Peter Chermayeff and hosts over one million visitors a year, and 16 000 animals.
Lisbon has, besides historical trams and buses, even modern trams, and a subway (metro). The subway, inaugurated in 1959 (and renovated and extended for the 1998 World Fair), has 4 lines and connects the airport with the city center, but has few stations in the historical heart. The Lisbon metro is the largest and oldest subway system in Portugal. Many of the stations features art, often a bit 70ish. Lisbon also have lots of taxis (painted in black and green), and tuk tuks, a popular sort of 3-wheeld taxi that is otherwise mostly popular in developing countries lika India, African countries and Central America. Some of the tuk tuks are modern versions with seatbelt and modern looks.
Portela Airport, Portugal’s main international airport is quite centrally located, just North of the Northern end of central Lisbon, in the suburb of Olivais. The airport, opened in 1942, is also called Humberto Delgado. It is the 18th busiest airport in Europe (29 million passengers annually) and very modern, one of the two terminals features an atrium with a food court. Terminal 2 opened only a few years ago. There are plans to expand Portela Airport, and build a second one in the suburb of Montijo.
University of Lisbon is a popular university with several historical buildings.
Monsanto Forest Park is a huge (almost 1000 ha) protected forest, situated just Northwest of central Lisbon. It is quite hilly, and offers views of the city. Monsanto features a prizon, several tall TV masts and towers, and a very rundown observation deck.
Estádio José Alvalade is a large footbal stadium, built for the 94 European Championships. Estadio da Luz is however the most important football, built for Benfica. Next to this stadium is Centro Colombo, the largest shopping mall on the Iberian peninsula, built in 1997. It has 340 stores, 9 cinema screens and 60 restaurants! Next are the red/glass Towers of Colombo.
Amoreiras is another large modern shopping center, and a large postmodern with adjancent office highrises with glass facades. It has more then 200 stores on 45 000 m2 and opened in 1985 in the modern Northwest part of Lisbon. Nearby is a large historical 1700s aqueduct, Aqueduto das Aguas Livres, Today it passes above a highway and can only be reached by foot through the Water Museum. We only saw it very briefly from the train.
Lisbon is known for a less developed city then many other Western European capitals. But that is not true; Lisbon is a very beautiful, historical, well developed city with both tons of historical buildings, museums, but also neighbourhoods with very modern buildings, and the roads are in a good condition. Many of the facades inm the old parts might look gritty on the outside, but can be modern and comfortable inside. Lisbon is one of the European capitals that has most attractions to visit, and among the most beautiful ones. Several people I met claim that this is Europe’s most beautiful city.
It is easy to like Lisbon, it is a very picturesque city with steep hills, panoramic views, colourful historical buildings, yellow historic trams, cable-cars in the sky, proximity to the water of Tagus River, luxury cruisers, tuk tuks, nearby beaches and mostly friendly people. The city has many sunny days, and as it is situated next to the Atlantic Ocena it is not dry as many other southern cities.
Visiting in March, the climate was about 20 degrees C, and sunny all days except the last one.
We arrived at the Portela Airport in the early evening and took the subway to Avenida Liberdade in the city center, where we caught our key to our apartment. An Uber taxi had hard times to find our address in Madragoa in the old town.
But there are also negative aspects of the city - On all major squares, drug dealers approach people, even tourists and families, to sell drugs - even in broad daylight; a bit wicked that the police don’t care and very unusual for a modern city, I have travelled a lot and that never happened anywhere else, at least not in public places, so that is something the police and government really needs to develop!
Portugal is also one of the weakest of Europe’s economy, that leads to low prices for the tourists. It is one of Western Europe’s cheapest capitals. People in general are friendly, and most people know at least a few phrases in English, even if few people talk fluent, we were impressed by the citizens willingness to talk English. Typical Portugese food is fish, meat and potatoes but there are also many foreign restaurants in the city.
Lisbon is generally a safe city, one of the safest in Europe. We never felt unsafe in any areas, not even at night. The traffic is probably more of an issue then the crime, during our visit we saw three car accidents, of which one serious one.
The citizens consist of Portugese people, and immigrants from Brazil, Macau and other former Portugese coloines. About 70% of the population are roman catholic, most of them not practicing their religion. There are many churches in the city, but we also saw a large mosque and a synagogue.
Small boys take free rides on the exterior of the trams. Some parts, especially train stations are very worn, dirty and filled with graffiti. The subway system is not so well developed, probably because of all the hills, here you have to trust trams and buses. It is very appealing to take a tram ride up the beautiful hills of Alfama from Praca do Comercio, and it is easy to get lost, but that is part of the Lisbon experience. The yellow trams are around 100 years old.
We stayed at rented apartments, Madragoa Apartments, in the old fashioned Madragoa district in central Lisbon for the first nights, and the switched to a 4-star highrise hotel with postmodern glass exterior, the Holiday Inn Continental in the modern Avenidas Novas area in the North end of central Lisbon, not far from the airport.
We only visited one museum, MAAT (the new modern art museum in Belém), the only reason for not visiting more museums was that the weather was really good, and there were so many appealing things to see on the streets of Lisbon; the architecture, square, people, markets , churches, bridges, scenery etc. We took the famous tram ride climbing the steep hills of Alfama and visited many interiors of churches and other buildings. After one week we got a feeling of just scratching the surface of the city, there are so much to see. At least 10 days in Lisbon would highly be recommended, including two daytrips.
Pilar 7 Bridge Expericence is a very cool exhibition with elevators that goes up to the level of the road of the 25th of April Bridge, with glass floors with views over Lisbon. It is one of the top attractions of Lisbon. We also went up the famous, historical elevator Elevador de Santa Justa, with views of Lisbon. After going up to the higher level at Bairro Alto, we entered the ruin church, Carmen Convent.
Popular daytrips are beach cities in the Portugese Riviera as Cascais and Estoril, only about 30min North of Lisbon by train, and Sintra, in the mountains Northwest of Lisbon. In Sintra you find several stunning beautiful castles, palaces and ruins. Cabo da Roca is a high rock that is Europe’s Westernmost point, a short busride from Cascais. Trains go to Cascais, Estoril and other beach towns, only 30min from central Lisbon. Cascais-Estoril is a twin town. Cascais is bigger and a bit more fashionable then Estoril, that is mostly known for its casino.
We made one daytrip to Sintra (with train) and one to Cabo da Roca (with train to Cascais, and bus from there), including a brief visit to Cascais and Estoril in the evening. The buses in Sintra and Cabo da Roca/Cascais climbed very high cliffs and mountains, with winding narrow roads. You can read more about the daytrips in separate parts.
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