While researching our trip to Lisbon, I realized that the capital of Portugal, although one of the oldest and prettiest cities in Europe, is underestimated. If Paris, Rome or London are always on top of travel rankings, Lisbon is not that popular and honestly, I find this unfair, as it is charming, full of historic spots, close to the ocean and the sunniest capital city of Europe. What else could you ask from a city?
The city built on seven hills is one of the oldest cities in the world (older than Rome) and has a very rich history. According to a legend, the capital of Portugal was named by Ulysses, who discovered this place while returning home from the Trojan War. He named it Ulissipo or Olissopo, which means “enchanting port”.
In early times, Lisbon was occupied successively by Celts, Greeks, Phoenicians and Romans. The settlement was conquered then by Moors, who occupied almost the entire Iberic Peninsula for hundreds of years. Lisbon was recaptured by Christians in the 12th century and began to flourish in the 15th and 16th century during the period of the Portuguese discoveries. After being almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake in the 18th century, Lisbon began once again to be rebuilt.
What to visit
Although today Portugal’s capital is a cosmopolitan city, traces of its rich history are still very much visible all over it, so make sure to reserve at least 2 days to visit all its important monuments and historic places. Most attractions are packed in the city center and are accessible by foot or a short tram ride, but there are also some other must-see places that will require a longer journey by car or public transport, so I would recommend you plan a day for visiting the city center of Lisbon and the attractions within it and another one for the scattered ones.
We decided to visit first the attractions located farther away from the city center, so we began our wander around Lisbon, in Belem civil parish, a peaceful riverside neighborhood, from where all the great Portuguese navigators started their ocean explorations. As this area is packed with historic sites, it gets very crowded, so we decided to go there in the morning to beat the crowds and the heat.
If you want to go to Belem by car, consider parking near the tower in this place. This parking is free of charge, but there is a man who will ask for a coin in order to take care of your car. We gave him €2 and could leave the car there for the entire day. Just keep in mind that the parking lot is small, so you have to arrive early to catch a spot. If you plan to travel by public transport, the easiest way to reach Belem Tower is by tram 15.
The first place we visited was Belem Tower. This is without a doubt the symbol of Lisbon. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the tower was built during Portugal’s Golden Age and was meant to be both a fortress and the departing point of the Lusitanian explorers.
Much of the tower’s charm consists of its beautifully garnished exterior, but if you want to discover also its interior, I would recommend you visit it as early as possible (it opens at 10 a.m.), as it is one of the most visited tourist attractions of Lisbon.
Tip: If you intent to visit both Belem Tower and Jeronimos Monastery (the cloister) buy a combined ticket (costs €12) from Belem Tower and skip the line at the monastery, where the queues are normally even larger. Just don’t plan to visit these monuments on Mondays, as they are closed (along with all other museums from Lisbon).
Monument to the Discoveries
On the shore of the River Tagus, very close to Belem Tower, you will find the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries), a much newer monument from Belem area. The structure was built in the 60s as a tribute to the Portuguese Age of Discovery and it resembles the prow of a ship, which is commanded by the most important Portuguese navigators, including Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan.
Tip: For great views of Belem area, take the elevator to the observation deck on top of the monument. Beside the 25 Abril Bridge, Jeronimos Monastery or Belem Tower, you will be able to see the marble compass with a map of the world in the middle, where all the places discovered by the Portuguese in the Age of Discovery are depicted.
At a 15-minute walking distance from Monument to the Discoveries, there is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Jeronimos Monastery, the most impressive construction of Portugal’s Age of Discovery. The imposing construction was built to commemorate the triumphant expedition of Vasco da Gama to India and give thanks to the Virgin Mary for its success. The building is divided in two main parts: the cathedral and the cloister, with the cloister hosting also the National Archaeological Museum and Maritime Museum.
The cathedral is one of the most decorative buildings in Portugal and its architecture is a blend of maritime motifs, such as the twisted rope and armillary sphere and elements of religious significance. Once inside (entrance is free), you will spot near the main entrance the tombs of Portuguese poet Luís de Camões and of Vasco da Gama, both highly ornate, in the same style as the exterior of the cathedral. Although the tomb of da Gama is the highlight of the church, you will be mostly impressed by the beautifully decorated columns supporting the roof and the colorful stained-glass windows depicting some biblical scenes.
When we visited the monastery, a military ceremony was taking place, so beside seeing the splendid edifice, we also got to witness a military parade. What a lucky day!
Tip: After visiting Jeronimos Monastery, take a break at Pasteis de Belem, the famous bakery where you will find the best Pastel de nata, a traditional Portuguese egg tart pastry.
Beside these three important monuments of Belem, you could also visit the Palace of Belem, which nowadays is home to the President of Portugal, the National Coach Museum, National Archaeological Museum, Maritime Museum or Museum of the Combatant.
Sanctuary of Christ the King
On the other side of River Tagus, in the neighboring city of Almada, lays the impressive National Sanctuary of Christ the King. The monument, depicting Jesus with his arms wide opened, was inspired by the similar monument to Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro and was constructed as a sign of gratitude to God for protecting Portugal of the Second World War.
The easiest way to get there is by car, but if don’t have one, take a ferry from Cais do Sodré ferry terminal and then a bus from Cacilhas bus station and you will be at Sanctuary of Christ in about an hour. Although the journey is a bit difficult without a car, the impressive statue combined with the great views of Lisbon are well worth the extra effort.
Tip: If you take a road trip around Portugal, plan your visit to the Sanctuary as a stop on your way to/from the south.
25 de Abril Bridge
25 de Abril Bridge, named after the Portuguese Carnation Revolution of 25 April 1974, is the longest suspension bridge in Europe and is often referred to as the twin sister of San Francisco’s Golden Bridge. Even if you are not an engineer and you probably wouldn’t think about putting a bridge on your travel itinerary, just give it a chance, as you will be really impressed by it.
Tip: The best view of the bridge is from the Sanctuary of Christ the King.
Vasco da Gama Bridge
If 25 de Abril is the longest suspension bridge in Europe, Vasco da Gama, with its 12,3 kilometers, is the longest bridge on the continent (including viaducts) and surely deserves a visit. It was named after the famous Portuguese explorer and was inaugurated on the year of the 500th anniversary of the discovery by Vasco da Gama of the sea route from Europe to India.
Tip: Near the bridge, on Lisbon side, there is a promenade alley which offers beautiful views of the bridge and its surroundings and also a skateboarding park.
Want to check the other must-see attractions of Lisbon? Part 2 of this post is coming soon.