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Lisbon, Portugal

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Did You Know … ?

  • Lisbon’s name comes from Olissipo, which is based on Phoenician words for enchanting port.
  • Lisbon is north of San Francisco
  • The melancholy music called fado originated 200 years ago in Lisbon’s brothels and taverns.
  • Lisbon is said to be built on seven hills.
  • The Vasco de Gama Bridge is Europe’s longest (10.7 miles) including viaducts and access roads.

A city of many pasts

Strolling the streets of Lisbon, or moving from district to district in the city, is tantamount to reading a textbook devoted to Portugal’s history.

After Lisbon’s founding around 2,700 years ago, probably by Phoenicians, the Romans arrived in the second century B.C. and in turn were usurped by the Visigoths in the fifth century. Several Roman remains are below street level, but for the visitor, the National Archaeological Museum is generally the place to go to pursue this interest.

The Moors came in the early eighth century, staying long enough (until ousted in 1147) to place a lasting and visible mark on the city. The Alfama and Mouraria neighborhoods, with their mazes of narrow, winding streets, reflect that Arab influence. Located on the hillside below St. George’s Castle, Alfama — with its alleyways, courtyards and traditional shops — is deemed one of the most attractive parts of Lisbon. Further, the castle itself was built by the Moors.

The Bairro Alto (Upper Town) is another of the city’s older quarters, characterized by narrow streets and old houses — but it is newer, dating from the early 1500s. Today it is Lisbon’s bohemian section and dotted with shops and entertainment sites of all types, including fado houses.

The Bairro Alto was born at a time of prosperity. The country’s golden age came with Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India (1498) and saw development of the Manueline architectural style with its use of maritime motifs in grand structures. Surviving examples are the 16th century Monastery of Jeronimos and the Tower of Belem.

However, much was lost in a catastrophic 1755 earthquake. Reconstruction of the city center produced the Baixa (Lower Town) seen today, with a standard grid and streets lined with newer 18th century buildings. A shopping and banking district, Baixa extends to the Tagus River and sits on the low space between St. George’s Castle and the Bairro Alto.

Lisbon may have many tentacles attached to the past, but it has its au courant side, too — in modern art, 21st century nightspots, upscale shops and fine food and wine.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Hear fado in one of the seedy dives in the Alfama neighborhood; that is where the performances are the best. Also, check out a few bars in the Bairro Alto.
  • Go waterskiing at nearby Cascais Bay. Or try kite surfing or sailing on the Estoril Coast.
  • Compete in the Lisbon Half Marathon in March.
  • Ride a surfboard at Guincho, a tournament site for such things. Or, spare some time for windsurfing there.
  • Sample acorda de marisco (a seafood and bread dish).
  • International students can sign up for the Lisbon Jazz Summer School. Classes and concerts are scheduled for several sites.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Ride Lisbon’s trolleys on Route No. 28 through Bairro Alto and the Chiado to St. George’s Castle. The tram routes date back more than 100 years.
  • Check out food and wine in the Lisbon area. Tour the region’s Ribatejo wine country. Also in the Lisbon region, attend the National Gastronomy Festival in autumn at Santarem.
  • Treat yourself to a relaxed walking tour among the narrow and winding streets of the Alfama or Bairro Alto.
  • Head to the hilltop St. George’s Castle for great views of the city, either from its terrace or from one of its towers. Also, see the multimedia show inside the castle.
  • For an unusual way to deal with one of Lisbon’s hills, ride an elevator from Baixa (Lower Town) to the Bairro Alto (Upper Town). It is the Elevador de Santa Justa, an iron lift constructed more than 100 years ago by a student of Gustave Eiffel.
  • The Lisbon area offers several preserves with much to offer bird-watchers. For example, the chief appeal at the Natural Reserve of the Tejo Estuary is its winter bird population, including flamingos.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Tour the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (Museum of Painted Tiles) to see many fine examples of Portuguese tiles, used as decoration for generations and used to control the temperature of houses.
  • Attend a concert at Se Cathedral, Lisbon’s oldest church. Come early enough to visit the cloister and adjacent museum.
  • Head to the neighborhood of Belem to get a close look at, and photos of, the 16th century Monastery of Jeronimos and the Tower of Belem. They are among the few surviving examples of Manueline architecture.
  • Peek into any church that interests you. A couple of rewarding choices are the Igreja de Sao Roque, which is decorated with precious stones, and Igreja de Sao Vicente de Fora, which boasts outstanding painted tiles in its cloister.
  • Travel a few miles out of town to the resort of Estoril to try your luck at the Casino Estoril.
  • Delight in the 17th and 18th century coaches to be seen at the National Coach Museum.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Lisbon Tourism at and choose your language if necessary.