The city at the mouth of the Tejo was already a Phoenician port when the Romans conquered it. After the turmoil of mass migration and more than one hundred years of Visigoth rule, “Lischbuna” experienced a cultural heyday among the Moors and became the Portuguese royal residence under King Alfonso in 1260. With the great discoveries of the 15th century, Lisbon became one of the richest cities in Europe. The heyday of the city was abruptly ended by a terrible earthquake in 1755, which killed over 90,000 people. Although it was generously rebuilt, Portugal's capital never regained its former importance and did not become a modern metropolis until the late 20th century.
The cityscape is characterised by great differences in altitude with magnificent vantage points, often with terraces. Oldest district is the picturesque Alfama east of the cathedral with narrow stairways, hidden backyards and idyllic squares.
Best of Portugal: Great Diversity of a small Country
A labyrinth of small streets in the old town
Alfama was once the center of Lisbon in Moorish times. The city center was later relocated further to the west in today's “Baixa.” While the wealthy moved to Belém and Cascais, fishermen and people from the lower classes stayed behind. In contrast to the downtown area of Lisbon, Alfama suffered little damage during the Great Lisbon Earthquake in 1755. This allowed the neighborhood's original jumble of narrow alleyways to survive to this day. Towering above the quarter stands the Castelo de São Jorge, which served as the residence of the Portuguese king until the 16th century. There are also a number of places in Alfama from which you can enjoy a scenic view of the Tejo.
Riding the elevator from one part of town to the other
This elevator joins two parts of Lisbon with each other: Baixa and Chiado, which is higher up. This distinctive steel structure was built in 1902. It was originally powered by a steam engine, but this was replaced with an electric motor in 1907. The impressive structure is 45 meters high. Its two cabins are adorned with wood paneling and brass fixtures and have room for 24 people each. If you take the elevator one level higher than the upper exit, you will get to see two original elevator machines in action. The next level up opens to a café with a spectacular view overlooking Baixa, Chiado and Castelo de São Jorge.
A guided tour into the past
The Lisboa Story Center takes you on a journey into the past of Lisbon. Each epoch from the beginning to the present is accompanied by an audio and video guide – also available in English and for children. The centerpiece of the interactive exhibition is the earthquake of 1755, which can even be relived. The exhibition informs about the appearance of the city before and the reconstruction. The tour lasts one hour.
Sharks, glaciers and a mangrove forest
The marine aquarium was the main attraction of Expo 98 and is still the largest in Europe. It is home to sharks and rays, tunas, sardines and lunar fish. In addition to the main tank, many smaller aquariums contain specific marine life from all corners of the world's oceans. There is an Antarctic corner with penguins and an artificial glacier, a basin with a pair of sea otters and a “mangrove forest”. In the new building, the Edificio do mar, changing exhibitions are presented next to the restaurant. It is connected to the main building (“edifício des oceanos”) by a connecting walkway.
Monument to the great explorers
During the 15th century, the great European voyages of exploration began at the docks of Bélem. In 1960, a monument was built by the Portuguese dictator Salazar commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. In epic style, it portrays a caravel with 33 famous Portuguese explorers from the Age of Discovery – with pride of place given to Henry the Navigator.
Portuguese egg tart pastries
You will probably have to stand in line if you want to buy one of these pastries baked with eggs, flower, sugar and pudding at the original patisserie. The centuries-old recipe was developed by the monks of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Belém. When the monastery closed its doors in 1834, the monks sold their recipe to a sugar manufacturer, who succeeding in making the Pastéis de Belém a global success. Yet these pastries still taste best in the Casa Pastéis de Belém, where you can buy them warm out of the oven.
Vibrant square in downtown Lisbon
The Praça de Dom Pedro IV, as this square in downtown Lisbon is called, is a popular gathering place. This is particularly due to the two tram lines that meet here and the trains heading to Sintra. At the center of the square stands a 23-meter-high marble column and a bronze statue of King Pedro IV. He is depicted with four women at his feet representing justice, wisdom, strength and temperance, which were virtues attributed to the king. The square is lined with lovely street cafés where you can sit and observe the vibrant city life.
Lighthouse harking back to Portugal's heyday
The Torre de Belém at the mouth of the Tejo river is one of Lisbon's most famous landmarks. This lighthouse is one of the few exceptional specimens of Portuguese new Gothic architecture to have survived the Lisbon earthquake. The lighthouse's upper story now provides an open-air overlook 35 meters off the ground. The lighthouse is a symbol of Portugal's heyday as a seaborne empire. From its location at the mouth of the Tejo river, it would greet the explorers and trading vessels returning from their journeys. On the northwestern side of the tower is a sculpture featuring the head of a rhinoceros, and it is the first sculptural depiction of the animal in Europe. The gloomy interior of the lighthouse served as a prison and an arsenal in the 19th century. Today, the lighthouse is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.