The age-old home of the Portuguese Crown, situated along the mouth of the Tejo River, Lisbon, has for centuries, been a center of culture and captivating wonder for the nation of Portugal, and the rest of the world. First founded by the Phoenicians in 1200 BC, Portugal has long since been influenced by countless other cultures. Here, history is King. Archaeological sites from both the time of the city’s founding, as well as the time of the Romans, can be found all over the city. Throughout Lisbon’s hilly skyline are medieval castles built by the Visigothic barbarians, and remnants of the Moorish Invaders, who sailed across the ocean from Africa. Stunning Gothic architecture from Portugal’s golden age show in beautiful palaces and cathedrals that cover the iconic cityscape of Lisbon. Here, time seems to fade away, as you embark on a journey, through the awe-striking historical and cultural beauty of the Portuguese capital: Lisbon.
Overlooking the city, lay Lisbon’s famous Seven Hills, offering unrivaled views of this amazing Portuguese city. One of the most gratifying of these seven viewpoints is the Castelo de São Jorge, an ancient Moorish castle sprawling across the hilltop. Not only does it offer incredible views of Lisbon’s dramatically colored red-roofed buildings, but guided tours of the important landmark take you on a trip into the city’s past. Just south of the castle, near the bottom of the hill, is one of Portugal’s most beautiful and ornate neighborhoods, the Baixa Pombalina. The Baixa was built after a massive earthquake and tsunami rocked the city of Lisbon in 1755, as part of a giant reconstruction project. Near the southern end of the neighborhood, on the banks of the Tejo, is the Terreiro do Paço, a beautiful cobbled plaza home to the impressive Arco da Rua Augusta, an absolutely stunning display of architecture. From the river, this gorgeous arch feels as if it is the grand entrance to Lisbon. If you arrive at the plaza during sunset, the archway is lit in spectacular golden light. Near the Baixa is one of Lisbon’s most intriguing attractions, the Convento do Carmo, the bony remains of a once great church. The massive convent was destroyed with much of the city during the 1755 earthquake. Shattered stonework and hauntingly alluring columns and arches delicately cover this strangely beautiful site, which is coupled with a fascinating archaeological museum, home to ancient relics of Lisbon’s past.
The Arco da Rua Augusta at the Terreiro do Paço
One of Lisbon’s biggest highlights is the Oceanário de Lisboa. This enormous aquarium is home to over 8,000 sea creatures and 1.8 million gallons of water, making it the largest indoor aquarium in Europe. As well as temporary exhibitions, the aquarium houses fish and marine life from every corner of the globe; four massive tanks seamlessly merge four oceans and four environments into one. Here you can view these fantastical animals from two floors, from tiny seadragons to massive manta rays. The aquarium is also one of the only places in the world where you can see a sunfish, a massive 14 foot fish that can weigh over one ton. In the Indian Ocean tank, fish and vibrant marine life flourish among coral reefs, while the Pacific tank is overrun by otters and other native species, frolicking in the kelp forests, and the aquarium’s recreated North Atlantic exhibit features plenty of captivating and exotic marine life, including puffins. However, two of the most interesting exhibits here are Antarctic Coastline, home to penguins, auks, spider crabs, and other unique species found nowhere else in the world, and the Main Tank, where countless species of sharks, rays, eels, seahorses, barracudas and hundreds of other animals call home. A visit here is a genuinely unique experience, unrivalled by anything else in Europe. The Oceanário de Lisboa is a vital part of any trip to Lisbon.
Sea Otters at the Oceanário de Lisboa
For a trip outside of Lisbon, you may want to look to a beautiful village only half-an-hour east from the city: Sintra. Visiting Sintra is like stepping straight into a fairy tale. Exquisite moss-covered hills beckon any visitor, dotted with mansions, castles, and palaces, culminating at the majesty of the Palácio Nacional da Pena. This candy-colored castle is topped with bright domes and intricate turrets, a beauty of Manueline architecture that wouldn’t seem out of place in any storybook. Explore the grounds of this magical castle, through whimsy gardens and stunning architectural marvels. Take a tour through the lavish interior, all while fawning over the fantastic views that sweep across the horizon from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to Lisbon. But that’s not all Sintra has to offer. At the UNESCO-preserved Quinta de Regaleira, visit an incredible Manueline villa, surrounded by massive gardens. Around every turn there’s something to see. Mosses and ferns grow among twisting towers, majestic waterfalls, secret tunnels, beautiful caves, and hidden bridges and pathways which fill every part of the landscape. Walk into the depths of the Initiation Well, a spiraling mossy shaft, nine stories deep, lined with a stone spiral staircase. Everything here is unique, drawing inspiration from Gothic, Moorish, Egyptian, and Manueline architecture. There is truly no other place like it on Earth. Quinta de Regaleira and the rest of Sintra are an absolute must-see stop in Portugal and are definitely worth tearing yourself away from the beauty of Lisbon.
The Palácio Nacional da Pena
Back in Lisbon, you may want to take a stroll through the Belém neighborhood, Lisbon’s waterfront beauty. Home to some of Lisbon’s best museums, showcasing everything from coaches and carriages to Portugal’s finest archaeological remains, as well as countless examples of the city’s ties to the ocean. Some of the most captivating museums in the world reside here, including the Museu Nacional dos Coches and the Museu Colecção Berardo. Belém also proudly shows off beautiful palaces from some of Portugal’s more modern history, such as the gorgeous neoclassical Palácio Nacional de Ajuda, and the current presidential home, the rosy colored Palácio de Belém, both of which offer tours with great insight into Portuguese history. However, the star-attraction of Belém is the UNESCO-listed Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. This magnificent monastery is truly breath-taking. Massive columns, arches, and ornate details dominate every part of this majestic place, one of the best examples of Portuguese Manueline architecture in the world. No longer inhabited by monks, today the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos remains as one of Lisbon’s greatest architectural wonders. Another impressive piece of Portuguese architecture is the Torre de Belém, a beautiful white tower along the coast of the Tejo, used as a defense post during the Age of Discovery. The Torre de Belém also shows off spectacular panoramas of the River Tejo and Lisbon’s beautiful landscapes, and its iconic shape still stands proudly in the skyline of Belém.
Torre de Belém
Belém is a great way to experience Portuguese culture, not just from the museums and architecture, but through food. Richly inspired by food from the sea, Portugal has long been known for great cooking. In Belém, indulge in both modern Portuguese cuisine and old classics. Some of the most delicious and common food in Portugal is seafood, from fresh tuna in the south, to sun-dried stingrays in the north, but the most popular is bacalhau, or cod. Traditionally served dried and salted, it is said in Portugal that there are over 365 ways to prepare bacalhau, one for each day of the year. Other Portuguese favorites include outstanding Iberian hams and beef, all types of clams, and a local cheese known as queijo de nisa. The Portuguese also love wine, with some local favorites being Vinho Verde and Vinho da Madeira. However, the country is world famous for its Port Wines, rich red wines typically served with desserts, and Belém is great place to get a taste of some of Portugal’s best. Some patisseries here have been in business since the 1800s, and are constantly serving one of Lisbon’s most tantalizing dishes, pastéis de belém, delicious baked custard tarts dusted with powdered sugar.
A Traditional Pastéis de Belém
For a taste of more traditional life in Lisbon, visit the Alfama, also known as, Old Lisbon, where small, authentic shops and cafes line the hilly, cobbled streets. Seemingly another village within Lisbon, Alfama’s charisma and little quirks make it a great place for a relaxing sip of Lisbon’s sangría or espresso. Streetside cafes offer genuine Portuguese cuisine, while musicians play Portugal’s beautiful Fado music. There are incredible views of Lisbon from anywhere in the rolling neighborhood. If you do decide to visit the Alfama, head down to the Feira da Ladra, one of Lisbon’s oldest marketplaces. Among thousands of sellers here, the wares are riddled with hidden gems. Visit the Alfama during the Festas dos Santos Populares or the Festa de Santo Antonio for wild parades and street parties. Here, in Old Lisbon, the best way to visit is to just get lost, in the maze of Alfama’s whimsical streets. But that’s true of nearly anywhere in Lisbon. The best attitude to have towards this great city, sure to charm you with its culture, people, buildings, and atmosphere, is to travel anywhere, be open to anything, and to lose yourself in the wonders of Lisbon.