Pre-World War I wooden trams clank up steep hills past mosaic pavements and Art Nouveau cafés and the medieval village-like quarter of Alfama which hangs below the city’s São Jorge castle. Modern Lisbon, with a population of just over 3 million, has kept an easy-going pace and scale with little of the underlying violence of most cities and ports of its size. It also boasts a vibrant, cosmopolitan identity, with large communities of Brazilians, Africans (from Angola, Mozambique and Cape Verde), and Asians (from Macao, Goa and East Timor). Many came over to work on two major urban development projects in the Nineties: the preparations for the European City of Culture in 1994, the Expo 98 and the European Soccer Championships in 2004. Lisbon invested heavily in these ventures and the rejuvenation of the city with new roads, hotels, buses, and bridge schemes. Disused dockland has been reclaimed and communication links improved with several showcase pieces of architecture and engineering. For example, Santiago Calatrava’s impressive Gare de Oriente and his sleek fourteen kilometer-long Vasco de Gama bridge which links Lisbon airport to a network of national motorways.
The Great Earthquake of 1755 (followed by a tidal wave and fire) destroyed most of the city’s larger buildings. Twenty years of frantic reconstruction led to many impressive new palaces and churches as well as the street grid pattern spanning the seven hills of Lisbon. Several buildings from Portugal’s golden age survived the earthquake; notably the Torre de Belém, the Castelo de São Jorge and the Monastery of Jerónimos at Belém. Many of the city’s more modern sites also demand attention: the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, a museum and cultural complex with superb collections of ancient and modern art and the futuristic Oceanarium at the Parque das Nações, the largest of its kind in Europe. Half an hour south of Lisbon dunes stretch along the Costa da Caparica and twenty kilometers north you’ll pass the coastal resorts of Estoril and Cascais before reaching the lush wooded heights and royal palaces of Sintra and the monastery of Mafra, one of the most extraordinary buildings in the country.
The lower town – the Baixa – is very much the heart of the capital, housing many of the country’s administrative departments, banks, and business offices. Europe’s first great example of Neoclassical design and urban planning, it remains an imposing quarter of rod-straight cobbled streets, either streaming with traffic or turned over to pedestrians, street performers, and pavement artists. Many of the streets in the Baixa grid maintain their crafts and businesses as devised by the autocratic Marquês de Pombal in his post-earthquake reconstruction: Rua da Prata (Silversmiths’ Street), Rua dos Sapateiros (Cobblers’ Street) and Rua do Ouro (Goldsmiths’ Street) are all examples of this. Architecturally, the most interesting places in the Baixa are the squares – the Rossío and Praça do Comércio – and on the periphery, the lanes leading east to the cathedral and west up towards Bairro Alto. This last area, known as Chiado, suffered much damage from a fire that swept across the Baixa in August 1988 but has been elegantly rebuilt by Portugal’s premier architect Àlvaro Siza and remain the city’s most affluent quarter, focused on the fashionable shops and the beautiful old tearooms of the Rua Garrett.
The Rossío is very much a focus for the city with its tree-lined avenues and new pedestrian areas as well as its conveniently located Metro station. Its main concession to grandeur is the Teatro Nacional, built along the north side in the 1840’s. At the waterfront end of the Baixa, the Praça do Comércio was intended as the climax to Pombal’s design; it’s now pedestrianized and buzzing with some of Lisbon’s best restaurants and cafes.
A couple of blocks east of the Praça do Comércio is the church of Conceição Velha, severely damaged by the earthquake but retaining its intricate Manueline doorway, an early example of this style which hints at the brilliance that emerged at Belém. The Sé Cathedral stands very stolidly above. Founded in 1150 to commemorate the city’s reconquest from the Moors, it in fact occupies the site of the principal mosque of Moorish Lishbuna. Like so many of the country’s cathedrals, it is Romanesque and extraordinarily restrained in both size and decoration. For admission to the thirteenth-century cloisters you must get a ticket (?0.50), as you must for the Baroque sacristy with its small museum of treasures – including the relics of St Vincent, allegedly brought to Lisbon in 1173 in a boat piloted by ravens.
From the Sé the Rua Augusto Rosa winds upward towards the Castelo, past sparse ruins of a Roman theater and the Miradouro de Santa Luzia where the conquest of Lisbon and the siege of the Castelo de São Jorge by the Crusaders in 1147 are depicted on the walls. At the entrance to the Castelo São Jorge stands a triumphant statue of Afonso Henriques, conqueror of the Moors. Of the Moorish palace that once stood here only a much-restored shell remains. The castle as a whole is an enjoyable place to spend a couple of hours, wandering amid the ramparts and towers and looking down upon the city. Crammed within the castle’s outer walls is the tiny medieval quarter of Santa Cruz; once very much a village in itself, it is now littered with gift shops and restaurants.
The Alfama quarter, stumbling from the walls of the Castelo to the banks of the Tejo, is the oldest part of Lisbon. In Arab times this was the grandest part of the city, but with subsequent earthquakes the new Christian nobility moved out leaving it to the fishing community still present today. It is undergoing some commercialization thanks to its cobbled lanes and “character,” but even while the antique shops and restaurants are moving in, the quarter retains a largely traditional life of its own. The Feira da Ladra, Lisbon’s rambling flea market, fills the Campo de Santa Clara at the edge of Alfama every Tuesday and Saturday. While at the flea market take a look inside Santa Engrácia, the loftiest and most tortuously built church in the city: begun in 1682, its vast dome was not completed until 1966. Through the tiled cloisters of nearby São Vicente de Fora you can visit the old monastic refectory, since 1855 the pantheon of the Bragança dynasty. Here, in more or less complete sequence, are the bodies of all Portuguese kings from João IV (who restored the monarchy in 1640) to Manuel II (who lost it and died in exile in England in 1932).
Mésnier’s extraordinary funicular, Elevador Santa Justa (just off the top end of Rua do Ouro on Rua de Santa Justa), is the most obvious approach to Bairro Alto. Alternatively, there are the two funicular-like trams: the Elevador da Glória from the Praça dos Restauradores (just up from the tourist office) or the Elevador da Bica from Rua de São Paulo/Rua da Moeda. The ruined Gothic arches of the Convento do Carmo hang almost directly above the exit of Mésnier’s funicular. Once the largest church in the city, this was half-destroyed by the earthquake and is perhaps even more beautiful as a result; sadly it and the small archaeological museum are both closed for restoration.
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Information courtesy of Travelnow and Rough City Guides Lda.