Things to Do in Lisbon
Once a hotspot destination for Portuguese royalty, Sintra is offers beautiful greenery, gorgeous mountains and amazing neo-Gothic structures.
In Sintra there are a number of places to experience the culture from the Museum of Modern Art, to the exotic villa and the Palacio de Monderrate. Then at Quinta da Regaleira and its Palace you can see the best architecture of the Gothic era with gargoyles, towers and amazing stone facades.
Also be sure to make your way up to the 10th-century Castle of the Moors, where you can walk along the castle walls and take in the great scenery and the castle's impressive history.
Portugal's caravels sailed off to conquer the great unknown from Belém, and today this leafy riverside precinct is a giant monument to the nation's Age of Discoveries. Belém Tower, or Torre de Belém, the much-photographed symbol of Portugal's maritime glory, is a stone fortress on the bank of the river Tagus dating from 1514 - 19. You can climb the tower, and look into the dungeons from when it was a military prison. UNESCO have listed it as a World Heritage Site.
The imposing limestone Monument to the Discoveries, also facing the river nearby, is shaped like a caravel and features key players from the era. If you have time, look around the Centro Cultural de Belém, one of Lisbon's main cultural venues, which houses the Museu do Design, a collection of 20th century mind-bogglers.
Still known locally as Terreiro do Paço (Palace Square) thanks to its being the former location of Lisbon’s Royal Palace until its destruction in the great earthquake of 1755, Praça do Comércio was completely rebuilt in the late 18th century and is today an elegant square hugging the banks of the River Tagus.
Thanks to the vision of Portuguese architect Eugénio dos Santos, this vast square was built in a sweeping ‘U’ shape and is full of ornate arches and overblown civic buildings. It is dominated by a massive equestrian statue of King Jose I, while sights around the square include Lisbon’s historic Café Martinho da Arcada, dating right back to 1782 and famous for its coffees, pastries and ports. Lisbon’s main tourist information office is on the north side of the arcaded square, which is largely lined with outdoor restaurants. Along the riverbanks great marble steps lead down to the Tagus and historically formed the main entry to the city.
Cabo da Roca is considered by some as one of the most, if not the best, scenic coastal walks in Europe. Located on the westernmost point of mainland Portugal, it therefore acts as continental Europe and the Eurasian landmass’ westernmost point as well. Because of its outstanding natural beauty and historical significance, Cabo da Roca is part of the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, one of 13 natural parks in Portugal. Tourists flock to the area to see the rugged Atlantic coast and its dramatic cliffs overlooking sandy beaches a dizzying 100 meters below. But there is more than meets the eye at these rocky precipices; the white-washed lighthouse, possibly one of the most photographed landmarks in Portugal, was part of a defensive line built in the 16th century as part of a fort that guarded the approach to the Portuguese capital.
This massive suspension bridge is an icon of Lisbon, connecting the city to the Almada area over the narrowest section of the River Tagus. Its color, size and structure draw close comparison to the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco, California, but the bridge was actually more structurally modeled to the Bay Bridge, also in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The 25th of April Bridge was completed in 1966 and was at the time named for the dictator Salazar. It was renamed following his displacement, with its new name given by the revolution that began on April 25. There are levels for both cars and trains, but unlike the Golden Gate Bridge, there is no passage for pedestrians. The bridge has the longest main span in Continental Europe and the world’s deepest bridge foundation. Riding across presents one of the best aerial views of Lisbon.
Vasco da Gama's discovery of a sea route to India inspired the glorious Monastery of St. Jerome or Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a UNESCO World Heritage site with an architectural exuberance that trumpets 'navigational triumph.' Work began around 1501, following a Gothic design by architect Diogo de Boitaca, considered a Manueline originator. After his death in 1517, building resumed with a Renaissance flavor under Spaniard João de Castilho and, later, with classical overtones under Diogo de Torralva and Jérome de Rouen (Jerónimo de Ruão). The monastery was completed in 1541, a riverside masterpiece - the waters have since receded.
The monastery was populated with monks of the Order of St. Jerome, whose spiritual job for about four centuries was to give comfort and guidance to sailors - and to pray for the king's soul. When the order was dissolved in 1833 the monastery was used as a school and orphanage until about 1940.
Wander down (to save your legs) through Alfama's steep, narrow, cobble stoned streets and catch a glimpse of the more traditional side of Lisbon before it too is gentrified. Linger in a backstreet cafe along the way and experience some local bonhomie without the tourist gloss. Early morning is the best time to catch a more traditional scene, when women sell fresh fish from their doorways. For a real rough-and-tumble atmosphere, visit during the Festas dos Santos Populares in June.
As far back as the 5th century, the Alfama was inhabited by the Visigoths, and remnants of a Visigothic town wall remain. But it was the Moors who gave the district its shape and atmosphere. In Moorish times this was an upper-class residential area. After earthquakes brought down many of its mansions (and post-Moorish churches) it reverted to a working-class, fisher folk quarter. It was one of the few districts to ride out the 1755 earthquake.
The ocher-colored, imposing St George’s Castle is an iconic landmark standing high in Alfama with views over Lisbon and the Tagus waterfront from its turreted, fortified walls. With only a few Moorish wall fragments dating from the sixth century still remaining, the castle we see now was redeveloped over the centuries following King Afonso Henriques’ re-conquest of Lisbon in 1147.
There’s enough to see at the castle to keep everyone happy for several hours. Walks around the ramparts provide far-reaching views of the city below. As much of the medieval castle was given over to housing troops and resisting siege, the fortified ramparts were dotted with defense towers. Now only 11 of the original 18 are still standing and most interesting among these is the Torre de Ulísses (Tower of Ulysses) as it contains a gigantic periscope offering visitors a 360° view of Lisbon.
Along the northern bank of the Tagus River lies this large stone monument celebrating Portugal’s Age of Discovery and sitting on the location that ships bound for Asia used to depart from in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was constructed for the Portuguese World Fair in 1940, inaugurated in 1960 upon the anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death, and has been a Cultural Center of Discovery since 1985. The monument depicts 33 sculpted historical figures including explorers, monarchs, artists and missionaries, all led by Henry the Navigator at the front. The figures are spread along both sides of a ship, intentionally looking forward and facing the sea.
Outside of viewing the monument itself, there is a large marble wind rose embedded in the pavement containing a world map that illustrates the locations of Portugal’s various explorations. There is also a museum with exhibition rooms in the monument, with panoramic views of Lisbon and the Tagus River from its rooftop.
In Fatima you will find the Basilica, the House of Our Lady Dolours and the Chapel of Apparitions. Four million pilgrims make the journey each year to see the exact spot, where 70,000 people witnessed the Virgin Mary miraculously appear. Now marked with a statue of Our Lady, there is also accommodation for up to 250 pilgrims in the House of Our Lady of Carmel and a monument to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
More Things to Do in Lisbon
Technically, UNESCO considers the entire cultural landscape of Sintra the World Heritage Site here, but the crown jewel is the royal Pena National Palace. Considered the greatest example of 19th-century Romanticism in the world, the palace sprawls on a hilltop high above Sintra, and can often be seen from Lisbon, 17 miles away. Commissioned by then-king Ferdinand II on the site of a ruined 15th-century monastery and completed in 1854, the fanciful red-and-yellow palace is an exotic mix of Gothic, Egyptian, Moorish and Renaissance style elements.
Designed by mining engineer and amateur architect Baron Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege as a summer house for the royal family, the interior of Pena features ornate stuccos, multi-patterned columns, Moorish-arched ceilings, and much of the original monastery’s chapel. The exterior is festooned with allegorical carvings, references to Biblical stories and religious icons, as well as lavishly painted Portuguese tiles.
Lisbon is the westernmost capital city in Europe and the hub of Portugal, situated on the Atlantic Ocean. It is a lively, fun city with beautiful tiled buildings and great shopping. The nightlife and music scene are excellent, and there is a real feeling of creativity in the city from the azulejos tiled buildings to street art to the artist-run shops in the Barrio Alto district.
None of the docks is particularly close to the city center and most will offer a shuttle service to the Praca do Comercio, There is also a good tram, bus and taxi network. Some of the maritime-oriented attractions are within walking distance of some docks.
One thing you must do is catch one of Lisbon’s iconic narrow yellow trams. Route number 28 passes many of the city’s major attractions and is a cheap hop-on, hop-off option for exploring the city. On the riverfront near Vasco da Gama Bridge is Parque das Nacoes, where the popular aquarium is located.
An austere Romanesque building from the outside, the Lisbon Cathedral (Sé de Lisboa) has some lovely treasures inside. It dates from 1150 and was built this solidly to repel attacks from the Moors. It didn't do much to ward off earthquake damage in 1344 and 1755 and the cathedral we see today has been much repaired.
Inside you'll find the font where Saint Anthony of Padua is said to have been baptized in 1195 and a 14th century chapel by Bartholomeu Joanes. But its in the sacristy that the real treasures are found: relics, icons and 15th and 16th century religious art. The medieval cloister is also worth a look.
Also known as Praça Dom Pedro IV, Rossio Square sits at the heart of Lisbon and has been a popular meeting spot since the Middle Ages. The square bustles with life as cars, buses, and pedestrians speed around it, intermixed with those leisurely sitting on benches or in cafes. Cobblestone walkways are arranged in wave patterns, a style that has since spread throughout Portugal and parts of Brazil.
It is surrounded by two identical Baroque fountains, with a column monument of Pedro IV, king of Portugal and the first emperor of Brazil, standing tall in the center. Allegorical figures of Justice, Wisdom, Restraint and Courage can be found at the monument’s base. Both the fountains and the monument are spectacularly lit up by night. The Dona Maria II National Theater sits at the northern end of the square with Ionic columns of the Church of St. Francis, which was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755.
This tall monument stands on a cliff overlooking Lisbon and offers one of the best views of the city and its surrounds. The figure of Christ was built in honor of God’s protection of Portugal in World War II and constructed in cement over a 10-year timeframe before it was completed and inaugurated in 1959. Inspired by the Christ the Redeemer state in Rio de Janeiro after the Cardinal Patriarch at the time visited Brazil, the monument has arms that spread out to resemble a cross and embrace the city.
At 90 feet tall (28 meters) tall, it’s an impressive sight on its own—made taller by a 270-foot (82-meter) high pedestal accessible by elevator and narrow stairs. Many claim that the view from the top is the best in all of Lisbon, with sweeping views of the city, the 25 de Abril Bridge and the Tagus River. There is a small chapel and sanctuary building at the base.
Possibly one of the prettiest towns in Portugal, medieval Óbidos has existed for centuries tucked inside its fortified walls; a gleaming white-washed spider’s web of alleyways lined with squat houses, all adorned with flower-smothered balconies, vivid blue azulejo tiles and Gothic doorways.
Known as the ‘Wedding Present Town’ due to the tradition of Portuguese kings giving Óbidos to their wives as part of their dowry, the town has benefited from its royal patronage down the centuries. At its heart lies the cobbled main square of Praça de Santa Maria, home to the old town pillory, a majestic fountain and a tiny museum in the town hall. The cluster of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches around Santa Maria square were all founded by various monarchs, as was the Amoreira Aqueduct outside the town walls.
This charming melee of architectural styles is best seen from the vantage point of the vast defense walls encircling Óbidos.
Lisbon’s Stadium of the Light is a multi-sports complex with facilities for hockey, volleyball and basketball as well as swimming pools and health clubs. It’s best known, however, for being home base of one of Portugal’s leading football teams, Sport Lisboa Benfica.
The Estádio da Luz was opened in 2004 for the European Championships and seats 65,647 in its covered stands, which can be retracted. It was designed in reinforced concrete and consists of three tiers of seating, all decked out in Benfica’s team colors of white and red. Within the complex there are several restaurants, a shopping mall and an award-wining museum, the Museu Benfica Cosme Damião, named after a soccer hero who established the Portuguese football league in the 1920s. Among the interactive displays on the three floors of this award-winning, family-friendly collection – opened in 2013 – are more than 1,000 trophies awarded to Benfica and a movie showcasing the club’s history.
The Estremadura town of Nazaré hugs the western Atlantic coast, a traditional Portuguese fishing village turned popular summer resort and surfer’s paradise. The long sweep of sandy beach is backed by a long esplanade and a cute white-washed, red-roofed town.
The protected harbor at the south end of Nazaré’s beach springs into life when the day’s catch comes in; fish such as lobster, sardines and mackerel are laid out to dry in the sun along the harbor walls and then sold from market stalls run by women swathed in the area’s traditional headscarves and seven layers of skirt. The waterfront bars and restaurants rightly have an excellent reputation for the spanking fresh seafood served daily; the fish stew caldeirada is a local specialty.
To the north of the coastal village, a funicular trundles 360 feet (110 m) up and down between the golden beach and the cliff-top Promontório do Sítio, famed for its far-reaching sea views and landmark shrines.
A sweeping viewpoint atop a hill in Lisbon’s Graça neighborhood, Miradouro da Senhora do Monte offers panoramic views across Lisbon, including stellar views of the castle atop a neighboring hill. As the highest lookout point in the city, it’s a fantastic spot for photographing - or simply appreciating - the surrounding landscape. It’s particularly popular come sunset.
The name of the lookout translates to Our Lady of the Hill, and visitors will find a small chapel and statue of the Virgin Mary on the grounds of the miradouro. Dedicated to Saint Gens, Nossa Senhora do Monte Chapel attracts expectant mothers seeking divine protection during childbirth.
Climb to the top of any of Lisbon’s seven hills and you’ll be rewarded with the sight of the Tagus River glistening in the distance. It is the longest river on the Iberian Peninsula, flowing 626 miles (1,007 km) from the Sierra de Albarracín in eastern Spain to empty itself into the Atlantic at Lisbon, and has been the focus of the city since ancient times. The Tagus has shaped Lisbon’s maritime glories in the past, and it continues to shape its future as well.
Great 15th-century adventurers Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama sailed the Tagus as they left on explorations across unknown seas, and the Monument to the Discoveries in waterfront Belèm honors their seafaring successes. Lisbon’s favorite landmark, the Belèm Tower, and its neighboring ornate Jerónimos Monastery stand on the banks of the Tagus, built with money raised from Portugal’s colonies.
Squeezed between downtown Baixa and the nightlife party-central of the Bairro Alto, glossy Chiado is within shouting distance of the romantic ruins of Carmo Church (Igreja do Carmo) and the hidden treasures in the Church of St Rocco (Igreja de São Roque). It is also home to glorious Art Nouveau shops, old-world Lisboa cafés with window displays brimming with delicious pastries, and timeless antiquarian bookshops. Amid the fine 19th-century townhouses fronted with wrought-iron balconies and the piazzas with madly patterned mosaic sidewalks stand top-end fashion designers, jewelers, theaters, concert halls and posh boutique hotels. An eclectic mix of restaurants – from Michelin stars at Belcanto to basic snacks at neighborhood tapas bars – adds to the cultural soup of this sleek hillside enclave.
Named for the English King Edward VII, who visited Lisbon to celebrate the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance in 1903, the largest urban oasis in Lisbon is laid out in a former quarry and adorned with formal box hedges, statuary and ornamental ponds. Parque Eduardo VII stretches 26 hectares uphill between the ornate splendor of Praca do Marquês de Pombal (Marquês de Pombal Square) and a rather brutal monument celebrating the 25th April Revolution in 1974 and designed by João Cutileiro.
Adjacent to the monument is a viewpoint with fine views back across the city, the River Tagus and the hills beyond. An ornately tiled, Baroque-style pavilion smothered in blue-and-white azulejo tiles sits on the western side of the park; opposite are hothouses stuffed with tropical palms, ferns, cacti and rare orchids.
The burial place of the great and good of Portugal, the gleaming white National Pantheon has its roots in the 17th century but was only finally completed in 1966. Constructed to a design by Lisbon’s Baroque master-craftsman João Antunes, it is a mini-me of St Peters in Rome, with a highly intricate, colonnaded exterior topped with a central dome. Climb six flights of steps up to the top for matchless views over the city to the River Tagus.
Inside the church is a riot of highly patterned mosaic flooring, gleaming white marble adorned with gilt, and memorial cenotaphs to Vasco da Gama and Henry the Navigator. The vast, 18th-century Baroque organ was moved here from Sé Cathedral in the 1940s, and famous names interred in the nave include a string of Portuguese statesmen and the revered fado singer Amalia Rodrigues.
Home of Portugal’s mournful fado singing, Lisbon’s 500-hundred-year-old Bairro Alto (this translates as ‘upper district’) sits at the working-class heart of the city, a district of steep, narrow lanes lined with cramped townhouses and jumping with a quirky mix of stores, barbers’ shops, bars, restaurants and late-night clubs.
By day Bairro Alto’s attractions include the Port Wine Institute – the best place to taste and buy port in Lisbon – and it is accessible from the circular route taken by Lisbon’s famous touristy Tram 28. Don’t dismiss a visit to the Jesuit church of São Roque on Largo Trindade Coelho; built at the height of Jesuit power in Portugal in the 16th century, its bland, whitewashed exterior conceals an interior of breath-taking Baroque indulgence. The riot of ceiling paintings, gilded ornamentation and John the Baptist’s chapel, which is studded with mosaics of ivory, gold and silver, has earned it a reputation as the world’s most expensive church.
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