Lisbon: Capital Classic

Places covered in this article: Lisbon and its attractions. This is the second article in the ongoing series Portugal: The European Utopia! Subsequent articles in this series focussing on other destinations in Portugal will be released soon. Read the article on Porto here. Stay tuned for more!

Mainland Europe’s westernmost capital city, Lisbon, is the most diverse metropolitan I have been to. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, embellished by a stroke of contemporary style! I reached Lisbon from Porto by a private bus service – the distance between the two cities is around 300 kilometre, and it takes not more than 3.5 hours by road.

Route from Porto to Lisbon.

In recent years, Lisbon has become increasingly popular for its vintage trams, the archaic architecture, great food, and the alluring hilly cobblestone streets. It is a charming city – a perfect blend of old, new and everything in the middle! In this second article of my travel to the stunning country of Portugal, welcome to Lisbon, dear wayfarer!

Travel tips – Being a capital, Lisbon is well connected not only with the rest of Europe, but with all major global cities. There are also many train and bus services from the neighbouring country of Spain.

Art work of main attractions in Lisbon

Lisbon is strikingly beautiful. It has an artsy vibe all over it. The hilly streets and age-old roads make you jubiliant simply by being there. The German novelist, Erich Maria Remarque, rightly said in his novel ‘The Night in Lisbon’:

By day, Lisbon has a naive theatrical quality that enchants and captivates; but by night it is a fairy-tale city, descending over lighted terraces to the sea, like a woman in festive garments going down to meet her dark lover.

‘The Night in Lisbon’ by Erich Maria Remarque

During my visit, I spent 2 days in Lisbon before proceeding southward for Lagos. Now, capitals aren’t usually my favorite places to travel to, but then there are always exceptions! Kicking all my skepticism about crowded big cities and the exasperations there about out of the ring, Lisbon is breath of fresh air!

Baixa-Chiado, Lisbon’s old town

Wherever you are staying in Lisbon, getting to Baixa-Chiado is easy and pretty pocket-friendly, thanks to the good public transport of Lisbon. A suggestion, get the Lisboa card (24, 48 or 72hr), which includes unlimited travel by metro, bus and trams.

The old cobblestone streets of Baixa-Chiado.

For all intents and purposes, Baixa-Chiado is the heart of Lisbon! A characterful and vibrant expanse of bustling shopping avenues, beautiful cobblestone streets, grand plazas and Pombaline-styled* neoclassical buildings, Baixa-Chiado is a favorite among tourists! Being a town centre whose establishments date back centuries, it is the central shopping and business district of Lisbon. There are ample guided walking tours available here, however, we chose to explore this area on our own. Our first destination, Santa Justa Lift!

*The Pombaline style is a Portuguese style of architecture from the 18th century, named after Marquês de Pombal, who played a crucial role in reconstructing the city after the 1755 earthquake.

Santa Justa Lift

Photo of Santa Justa lift.

A majority of the tourists here come to see the Santa Justa Lift. It is a splendid example of Gothic wrought-iron architecture, that attracts a ton of attention. Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard, a student of Gustav Eiffel (the architect of the iconic Eiffel Tower) constructed this 45 metre elevator in 1902. Later, this structure was fully electrified in 1907. Back in the day, this elevator provided an easy way to ascend from the lower streets of Baixa to the higher elevations at Largo do Carmo (that is, Carmo Square).

Photo of Santa Justa lift.

One can ride the elevator and reach the top of this tower. However, be prepared for long lines! When we reached there by around 11am on a week day, the line was almost an hour long. We later had plans to visit São Jorge castle, which is the highest vantage point, so we decided to skip riding the lift. If you have time to spare, this can be a good experience. The ticket to the top will cost you €5.15, and another €1.50 for visiting the viewing deck above. You will get free access to ride the lift if you buy the Lisboa card. If you wish to avoid standing in line to ride the elevator, you can simply use the staircase to access the viewing deck.

Did you know? – Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world! Records suggest that this city is older than Rome and the only city older than Lisbon is Athens!

After seeing the this wonderful piece of architecture, we went ahead towards Praça Luís de Camões, just a short walk from the Santa Justa elevator.

Praça Luís de Camões

Photo of Praça Luís de Camões.

Lisbon has a multitude of acloves to explore. There is this marvellous little square that combines photo-worthy sights with the convenience of a beautiful neighbourhood – the Praça Luís de Camões. This quaint square is just about 500 metre from the Santa Justa Lift. On the way here, one might as well pay a visit to Largo do Carmo, the square just behind Santa Justa Lift.

Walking route from Santa Justa lift to Praça Luís de Camões.

This square features a beautiful pattern of traditional Portuguese pavement throughout the square, with a contrasting pattern surrounding the statue in the centre. The 19th century statue of Camões (who was one of the most revered poets in Portugal) made of bronze sits on a pedestal that features other cultural and historical figures.

Just besides the statue is a traditional Portuguese ‘quiosque’, a stall which serves refreshments and coffee. Well, if you are in Portugal, better become one with their culture! A quiosque (literally, meaning a ‘kiosk’) is a common sight in Portugal. It is a round and small building found in a garden or a square, with tables and chairs around for people to enjoy their snacks and drinks.

The streets near Praça Luís de Camões with tram tracks.

After spending some time here and soaking in the peace of Praça Luís de Camões, the next activity on the list was the one I was most excited about. Praça Luís de Camões is also a stop on the route of the notorious Tram 28. Our plan was to take the tram to Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest neighbourhood on a nearby hill. After spending some time in Alfama, atop the hill, we were to visit the renowned São Jorge castle.

Where to stay in Lisbon? Location wise, Baixa-Chiado is the best place to live in Lisbon. The options here are expensive though, and so are the places in Alfama, being right in the city centre. For a more economical stay, Graça will provide the best options.

Ride the famous Tram 28

The first thing that comes to mind when we talk about this city is its vintage yellow trams. These antique vehicles are among Lisbon’s most photographed icons. The squeaky vintage electric vehicles running over hills and medieval streets are still the same ones from 1930s (some were built later in 1940s and 1990s, but with the same styling). Buy any guide, map or souvenir, and you will immediately notice a picture of this tram somewhere on it!

I found it really interesting to see that these decades-old trams are still well maintained. In fact, they form an integral part of the city’s public transportation system. On the inside, you will find the age-old wooden and brass carpentry. The tram route goes past some of the most famous attractions in central Lisbon. As a result, tourists mostly use it as a hop-on-hop-off medium.

Art work of route of Tram 28, Lisbon.

Tram 28 runs from Campo Ourique to Martim Moniz and back with a frequency of 10 minutes. From Praça Luís de Camões, we hopped on the tram towards Miradouro de Santa Luzia in Alfama. Thanks to the Lisboa card, we didn’t have to buy a ticket for this route. Riding in this tram provides possibly the best view of the narrow lanes of the hilly old Alfama. If Baixa-Chiado is Lisbon’s heart, then the experience of riding in Tram 28 is its soul!

In the journey from Praça Luís de Camões to Miradouro de Santa Luzia, the tram gets up close to the buildings and archaic façades of Alfama; and trust me, you will admire the views of old monuments and structures as you gradually make your way through the otherwise busy and narrow cobblestone lanes! Honestly, throughout my stay in Europe and otherwise, I have been on many different trams, but by far, this was one of best experience!

Photo of Tram 28 in Central Lisbon.

Travel tips – Make sure you get the Lisboa card. It gives you the liberty to use public transport as much as you wish. On top of that, it also includes the entry fee to few monuments!

Alfama – Lisbon’s oldest neighbourhood

Situated on the south-eastern slope of the São Jorge hill, Alfama offers some of the most scintillating views of the city and the Tagus river. It is one of the most historic districts in the entire country. Originally settled by the Moors as early as two thousand years ago, the hilly township retains much of its original Moorish charm and whitewashed houses featuring orange and brown tiled roofs and wrought iron balconies.

One can get to different sections in Alfama by Tram 28. But, by far, I found the best viewpoint to be the viewing deck located in Miradouro de Santa Luzia. The observation deck is just besides the tram station, and provides some fine view of the city below!

View of the houses in Alfama from Miradouro de Santa Luzia viewing deck.

Thankfully, we were blessed with clear velvet sky on that particular day. The Tagus river in the distance provides a stunning backdrop to a grid of tiled orange roofs! Alfama is the perfect example of an old placid settlement where the word ‘busy’ does not exist. There is nothing as such to do here, apart from just taking in the stunning views. Well, that kind of describes the laidback lifestyle here! We had some snacks at the quiosque near the viewing deck and by the time it was afternoon, we headed further up the hill tiwards the almost 1000 year old São Jorge castle!

Travel tips – It is best to explore Lisbon on foot and occassionally, by hopping on public transport. The picturesque streets are steep, old and the cobblestone pavements uneven, making it difficult at times to walk. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes!

São Jorge castle

São Jorge castle is just a couple minutes by walk from Miradouro de Santa Luzia. This alcazar has an opulent charm about it! If you ask me for my favorite location in Lisbon, this would be the one! São Jorge castle is perched on top of the São Jorge hill and it is one of the most allegorical landmarks of Lisbon. It is the highest point in the city and as a result, perhaps the spot with the best views too!

The Visigoths built São Jorge castle as a small fortress in the 5th century AD. Later, the Moors occupied it and increased its expanse around the 11thcentury. From the 13th till 16th century, it was occupied by the King of Portugal. The castle features a total of eleven towers – the most stunning of them all being the ‘Tower of the Keep’ (Torre de Menagem), ‘Tower of the Riches’ (Torre do Haver) and ‘Tower of the Palace’ (Torre do Paço). Ruins of other archaic structures still remain in the expanse of the castle.

View of the city below from São Jorge castle.

As the São Jorge castle gradually gained prominence among tourists, the Portuguese government undertook projects to build several facilities here. There is a museum, a restaurant and a rather fantastic watering hole; and to top it all, there are some breathtaking views of Lisbon. 

There is an admission fee of €10 per person here and a visit to this place is definitely worth every penny! We visited this magnificient castle in the afternoon. Beware though, this place gets crowded by evening during the sunset. I am sure the view would be fantastic too, if you are willing to put up with the horde. We spent around 2 hours here, exploring the castle and most importantly, soaking in the wonderous views of the city!

View of the São Jorge castle and the city below.

After being here, I came to one certain conclusion. Lisbon is a captivating metropolis – from the inside, it is vintage and charming; and from the top, it is dazzling and honestly, the best looking capital I have seen!

Praça do Comércio

Save the best for the last! After spending a rather incredible afternoon in Alfama and São Jorge castle, we took Tram 28 and got back to Lisbon city centre. Praça do Comércio is perhaps the most prominent square in Central Lisbon. Yellow Pombaline-styled buildings surround this grand plaza on three sides. The southern end of the plaza allows for a stunning sunset view on the Tagus estuary. In the centre of the plaza is a brilliant, tall statue of King Joseph I.

Photo of Praça do Comércio.

Travel tips – Like many European cities, Lisbon too has a lot of pickpockets. Make sure you are careful with your wallet, passport and cash!

Back in the day, Praça do Comércio was a significant port from where the ambitious voyages to Brazil and southeast Asia started. The plaza thereby became an important and strategic entry point for trade from these far-away lands.

This plaza is home to another piece of stunning architecture and gargantuan size – the Arco da Rua Augusta. This arch spans the entrance of Praça do Comércio – a dramatic entry point for a rather impressive plaza, I must say!

Besides the Tagus river, on Praça do Comércio, is one of the best places in Lisbon to experience the sunset! Honestly, every time you look at it, the sheer grandeur of this plaza leaves you astounded. Add to that the brio brought by street dancers, singers and colours of the dusk, and one would be on cloud nine!

Photo of sunset at Praça do Comércio.

What to eat in Lisbon?

The food in Lisbon is recognised across Europe. The Portuguese are passionate and proud of their food. You would find several cafes and restaurants in Lisbon serving fresh tuna, cod and many other varieties of seafood.

Bacalhau, Lisbon's renowned dish.

Bacalhau is an item that you will most certainly see on any menu in Lisbon. Bacalhau is dried and salted cod, and it is cooked in a multitude of ways. In fact, bacalhau is so closely linked to Lisbon that outside Portugal, people often refer to it as ‘Bacalhau à Lisbonese’!

Sardines served in Lisbon.

Grilled sardines is another food item characteristic to Lisbon. Sardines are so popular here, that Lisbon’s main festival, Festa dos Santos Populares, is entirely centred around this dish! There are several other dishes, mostly seafood, that are well known in Lisbon – shellfish, prawns, mussels, etc. While I did not get a lot of time to try all of Lisbon’s food, check this article to know more about some impressive cafes in Lisbon.

They say Lisbon is a modern city with an old heart and a medieval soul. There are some stunning landmarks here, but Lisbon is not Rome or Paris. The highlight about this city is the atmosphere, the serene views, the old town centre and the placid, elated way of life. Well, I never thought that I could fell in love with a capital. Lisbon, you beauty!

Lisbon is huge, and because of time constraint, I could not visit some places in this trip. If you are planning a trip to Lisbon, maybe you can keep aside some time for these.

  • Sintra is famous for its UNESCO Heritage Roman architectures, royal gardens and vintage villas. In fact, I would recommend keeping aside atleast 2 days for this.
  • Arrábida Natural Park is located about 40 minutes south of Lisbon and presents quite a spectacle of lush mountains and sandy beaches.
  • A monument that I missed to see is the Belem tower. Built nearly 500 years ago, it served as a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

5 responses to “Lisbon: Capital Classic”

  1. Very detail and exhaustive article. Enjoyed reading it

    1. Appreciate your kind words! Stay tuned for many more such articles 🙂

      1. After watching Amitabh’s The Great Gambler i dreamed to see Venice & Lisbon. Venice is seen. Now after reading your blog with your historic & advanced era I am excited to visite Lisbon. Thanks for your blog at right time. Best wishes for future blogs

  2. After watching Amitabh’s movie The Great Gambler I dreamed to see Lisbon & Venice. Venice is seen. Lisbon is remaining. Ankur your historic & advanced era has revealed many more things about Lisbon bcz of it I am exited to see it at the earliest. Thanks for your blog in right time. Best wishes for next blog & waiting for it.

  3. Ankur , can u also advise food for vegetarians.
    Whether available if yes what are the dishes one should ?

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