Situated at the westernmost tip of Europe, Lisbon was an ideal port of departure for many of the explorers who set out to find new land during the 15th to 17th centuries. One of the most famous of those explorers was Vasco da Gama. Although India had been known to the Europeans for quite some time, da Gama’s departure to the country in 1497 was important from a trade perspective: It opened up the first direct sea route to Asia.
More than 500 years later, trade continues to be important to Portugal’s capital. Lisbon’s is one of the largest container ports on the European Atlantic coast, and the city is also an important center for finance, arts, media and tourism.
In fact, the mixture of a rich historic heritage with the modernity and tempo of a contemporary city has proved to be a real magnet for tourists. In 2007, Portugal’s capital was the sixth most visited city in South Europe, according to Euromonitor International, a research company specializing in industries, countries and consumers.
If your reasons for visiting Lisbon include the city’s historic heritage, you might want to put Alfama on your list of areas to experience. It is here, in the Old City, that the city shows its soul. This is where you should look for Fado singers as you walk the steep, narrow alleys – perhaps on your way to São Jorge. Originally a Moorish stronghold, the castle overlooks Baixa, the lower city, with its marketplaces, cafés and shops. From here, you will also be able to see Bairro Alto, the upper city, and Chiado, with its many quality shops.
The westernmost city in continental Europe, Lisbon lies on the north bank of the Tagus Estuary, on the European Atlantic coast. Originally founded around 1200 B.C., greater Lisbon today has an area of approximately 386 square miles/1,000 square kilometres. The greater city has a population of some 2.8 million people.
And like Rome, Lisbon is built on seven hills.
The port features two cruise terminals – Alcântara and Santa Apolónia. Both are located near the historical and cultural center, providing visitors with easy and quick access to the city’s many places of interest.
- Situated in the old Royal Palace, Palácio de Belém, the Museu Nacional dos Coches features Europe’s finest collection of horse-drawn carriages. The gala vehicles of the Portuguese Royal House are on display, as are harnesses and other accessories of cavalry, musical instruments of the Royal Band, uniforms, and weapons and symbolic instruments of the Royal House’s staff.
- Situated only a couple of hundred yards/meters from the coach museum (above), the Mosteiro dos Jerónimus (the Jerónimos Monastery) is built in the richly decorated style preferred by King Manuel I – and, hence, referred to as Manueline, or Portuguese late Gothic. Manuel I reigned between 1469–1521. It took 100 years to complete the monastery, which is considered one of the most prominent monuments in Lisbon. It is included on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.
- The Torre de Belém (the Tower of St. Vincent, in English) was originally built in the middle of the river Tejo. Modern day visitors can walk to the stronghold without risk of getting their feet wet, though: The riverbed has changed course since 1521. The view from the roof of the Torre de Belém is splendid. Like the Mosteiro dos Jéronimos (above), the Torre de Belém is included on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.
- Take the opportunity to visit the nearby Antiga Confeiteria de Belém. Opened in 1837, the shop has the local pastei de Belém on the menu – an egg tart pastry.
- Rua do Carmo. Offering a mixture of shops from well-known international brands and traditional Portuguese shops, this is where the locals go for downtown shopping.
- Sé de Lisboa is not only the oldest church in Lisbon, but also the city’s cathedral. The construction of the church started in 1147 – the very same year that King Afonso Henriques recaptured Lisbon from the Moors.
- Considered one of the world’s finest private art collections, the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian has a wide array of artefacts and paintings on display. The collections include works by painters such as Frans Hals, Ruisdael, Rubens and Rembrandt. Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and Eastern Islamic art is also on display – to name just a few. Originally, all of the museum’s 6,000 artefacts belonged to Calouste Gulbenkian – an Armenian oil millionaire with a passion for art.
- The Castelo de São Jorge (the Castle of St. George) is a Moorish castle that overlooks Lisbon from the top of one of the city’s seven hills. One of Lisbon’s main historical sites, the current castle was built in the early 14th century. At that time, it was Portugal’s Royal Castle.
- Feel like getting active? There are many golf courses in the area surrounding the city. If you’re into more difficult trekking, Lisbon is in no shortage of beautiful (and sometimes hilly) footpaths.
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- Several shore excursions focus on the many sights (see above), which can be experienced by foot, by coach or in the comfort of a private car. The focus of these excursions can differ: Some will focus more on the city’s history; others will look closer at the local culture (including the folk music, Fado).
- In Batalha, 89 miles/143 kilometers north of Lisbon, you can take in the 14th-century Gothic church of Santa Maria da Victoria. By coach, you will reach Batalha in approximately 90 minutes.
- Lisbon from the water: some excursions will feature a ferry ride on the river Tagus.
- Óbidos, north of Lisbon, is a town with picturesque streets and a history that goes back to 308 B.C. Distance from Lisbon: 55 miles/89 kilometres.
Portugal’s capital lies more or less in the center of Portugal, approximately 186 miles/300 kilometers from the Algarve coast in the south and 248 miles/400 kilometers from the northern border with Spain. The distance to Portugal’s second largest city, Porto, is some 198 miles/320 kilometers.
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