Ready for Discovery in Lisbon

By Terri Colby

In Lisbon, unlike in other European capitals, first-time visitors arrive without a lot of expectations. There’s no Eiffel Tower, Buckingham Palace or Sistine Chapel. That’s not to say Lisbon has no outstanding historical monuments. Of course it does. They’re just not as well-known as those iconic examples of European travel tours.

And that just might be what gives this darling of the must-visit-now lists its special allure. An unexpected treat awaits around every corner.

Start with the sidewalks. Who would think the material below your feet could be interesting? But Lisbon’s stone-cobbled walkways with gray and white patterns are photo-worthy … and worth keeping your eye on, as they’re not always smooth. And then there are the tiles, the vibrant painted ceramics known as azulejos adorning walls everywhere across the city. Any storefront, office building or even a modest home becomes a colorful work of art.

With a city center filled with every high-end store imaginable, the Avenida Liberdade still feels like a place apart, a grand boulevard with tree-lined promenades, sidewalk cafés dotting the park-like space and tiny streets heading out and upwards at every imaginable angle.

Lisbon has become a traveler magnet, bringing it a lot of energy. But it also means tourists need to pack their patience and plan ahead to avoid crowds and grab the restaurant reservations of the coveted fine-dining establishments in town. In fact, the burgeoning foodie scene means you might need to book months in advance for tables at some of the hottest places like Alma and Belcanto, among the city’s top dining spots, both of which display two Michelin stars.

Why doesn’t Lisbon rank alongside London, Paris or Madrid in the world’s imagination? Perhaps because Portugal’s golden age lies half a millennium in the past. In the 1500s, Portugal wrestled with Spain for control of the Americas, and Portuguese explorers such as Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco de Gama sailed to Africa and Asia, establishing trading outposts at Goa in what is now India, at Macau in China, and elsewhere.

But an invasion by Spain in 1580 sent Portugal into decline, and in 1755 a devastating earthquake leveled Lisbon. As many as 50,000 people perished in the quake and subsequent fires and tsunami. However, the disaster also laid the foundation of the Lisbon visitors see today: The rebuilt city was the first of its size to be designed in a grid system, with broad avenues and expansive squares.

Reminders of Portugal’s golden age are most evident in the city’s Belém district, well worth a visit. About five miles from the city center, Belém is easily accessible via tram or taxi. It was from Belém the famed Portuguese explorers began their worldwide voyages. You can visit the ship-shaped Monument to the Discoveries, built in 1960 to commemorate 500 years of maritime exploration; the Belém Tower, a UNESCO World Heritage monument and the starting point for many of the voyages; and the late-Gothic-style Monastery of Jerónimos, built in 1502 and where Vasco de Gama once prayed and is buried. Check hours and closing dates before you go.

Lisbon, Belem tower at sunset in Lisboa, Portugal © Tomas1111 | Dreamstime.com

Lisbon, Belém tower at sunset in Lisboa, Portugal © Tomas1111 | Dreamstime.com

After all that historical discovery, it’s time to sample some more recent history.

Portugal is famous for its egg custard tarts, known as pasteis de nata, and arguably the most famous pastry shop in Lisbon sits right next door to the monastery in Belém, where the tarts originated. Pasteis de Belém sold its first tarts in 1837; and if you only have time to try one shop, this is it. But you could spend days sampling the tarts all over town.

You can spend hours walking around the mostly flat central Lisbon areas along Avenida Liberdade, but to really experience Lisbon you must go up the hills of the neighborhoods like Barrio Alta and Alfama. Unless you want a workout, consider a tram, a taxi or an Uber to get you to the hilltops. Tram 28, which you can board at Martim Moniz Square for a few euros, has become well-known to tourists for its low-cost, scenic route up and around the city. But there are often long lines, so consider a backup plan like a taxi if your time is limited.

To get an overview of this city built on seven hills, take advantage of one of Lisbon’s miradouros, or viewpoints, like Miradouro da Graca, where you can get a coffee or a cold beer while you savor the panoramic views. Or at Lisbon’s most famous landmark and most visited tourist attraction, the Castelo de São Jorge. Perched on the highest of Lisbon’s hills, in Alfama, the city’s oldest district, the Moorish castle housed Portuguese kings from the 12th century, when the Moors were overthrown, until the 16th century.

Fado music — the mournful, passionate music played in clubs around the city — gained global renown as a Lisbon experience. Some of my contacts warned me visiting a fado club was too touristy, but we didn’t find it so, and the evening was one of the best we had in the city. In fact, the music was classified in 2011 as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

We took a cab to the well-known Clube de Fado in the Alfama district on a rainy Friday night and squeezed into a tiny table near the entrance as the music was about to begin. The dark, crowded room barely offered a stage for the performers, but the audience went silent as the female singer emerged. Backed by 12-string Portuguese guitars, her mournful tones reached the dark corners, carrying a tale with no need for translation. Yearning, heartbreak, grief all seemed to be mixed into one sorrowful song. As she finished, the applause erupted from this crowd of locals ranging in age from 20 to 60 and up. Some were clearly hipsters; others were older but still fashionable. We noticed only a few obvious tourists.

Europe’s westernmost capital city, Lisbon enjoys a subtropical Mediterranean climate with more hours of sunshine per year than Athens, so it makes sense beaches are a big draw here. The official tourist agency notes the city gets 290 days of sunshine a year. With a free day, or even just an afternoon, consider visiting Carcavelos Beach, about a half-hour’s drive or ride on public transit. Stop at a waterfront restaurant for fresh seafood, some drinks and a spectacular sunset view.

A must-do daytrip is Sintra, reachable by commuter trains from Rossio Station. The train ride takes about 45 minutes to this small village with castles and palaces, gardens and hiking trails. Catch a morning train and spend the day.

If you have more time, Sintra makes a fine place to stay a few days and combine relaxation and romance. Its forested mountains with outstanding views drew the wealthy and the royals who built elaborate residences here in the 1800s. Not surprisingly, Sintra is often described as a fairytale destination. One of the most popular stops in Sintra, the Pena Palace, provides an ostentatious example of Romanticism, built by King Ferdinand II in 1838. A forest and gardens with more than 500 species of trees from around the world surround this multicolored palace.