When our minds conjure up the typical European capital there are sure to be thoughts of grand buildings, ancient streets, mystic rivers and centuries old parks and monuments. This is a very accurate description of any age old own in the classic reaches of western Europe. Yet one city which brings an entirely new element is Lisbon with its proximity to the sea. Not only is Lisbon defined by all the elements of a great European capital, but it is set in one of nature’s most unique backdrops. It is located along the banks of the large river Tejo and just a short distance from the Atlantic Ocean. This proximity has given the Portuguese much of their seafaring reputation over the centuries and enabled them to be world explorers from the outset. Besides this the city itself seems to rise right out of the sea like a mythical Atlantis, with so much art, architecture and cityscape inspired by the shapes and colors of the sea.
Lisbon is a great option for anyone considering a European vacation or tour. It is a great door through which to enter Europe having many connections to the Americas and Africa and it is a busy stop for low cost airlines as well. In comparison with other European cities it is more affordable than most and the friendliness and ease with which one can navigate the town are unmatched. The city is built on seven rolling hills, but there is adequate transport and much of the main downtown is settled in a valley amidst the hills. Getting into town is simple and any range of buses and the metro will take one all over the city for less than five Euros. As one arrives into town it is noticeable that the Baixa downtown area is quite compact and home to smaller and luxurious hotels. There are also a good many luxury and mid ranged options just five minutes from the city center where things are not so crowded. Good options in this area are the Tivoli, The Four Seasons and the Hotel Lisboa.
A great place to start one’s visit is not actually the downtown. This part is so centralized and one will end up crossing from one side to the other many times during a trip, so I advocate first heading to the Belem district. Just a few minutes upriver, this neighborhood boasts wide views of the river and stunning works of brilliant white stones architecture. The first monument one can see on the riverside is the Monument to explorers. This massive stone stands as a proud witness to explorers, researchers, cartographers, missionaries and the faces of almost all the famed Portuguese discoverers are to be found on it. From here one has a great side view of the 25th of April bridge which for a moment might leave you thinking you’re in San Francisco. No worries this is just the sister bridge of that one, but they might as well be twins. From this shoreline one can walk upriver a few minutes to see the Belem tower. A good tip is to get the ticket which combines entrance to the tower and the Jeronimos monastery which I’ll describe next, the crown jewel of this neighborhood. The tower is a Manueline style (white limestone with nautical carvings, that never repeat the same object twice) fortress that sticks out into the river. It is not only a sturdy defense system for the city but an ornate work of art that is as beautiful outside as it is inside. Finally the last stop in this neighborhood is the Jerónimos monastery. This was a fully functioning monastery that encapsulates many different architectural styles and generes. It is complete as a museum, church and display center for many works of art. The building itself is in pristine shape and it one of the most beautiful and ornately carved cloisters in all of Europe. The Church entombs many royals from all parts of Europe and holds the tomb of the explorer Vasco de Gama.
Returning back to the center of town one can see a small yet well ordered area in the Baixa region. It is full of squares and parks and monuments. A monument which one cannot miss is Sao Domingos Church, also known as the naked church. It is probably one of the eeriest places in the world. After a fire destroyed the interior some years ago the walls and pillars were left standing. It was never fully reconstructed so the smoky walls and charred pillars make for something never seen before and quite unique. The rest of the area is full of many pleasant café’s, cable cars, museums and art deco shops. This entire area suffered a major earthquake several centuries ago and so in the reconstruction process it was well planned and it is one of the world’s first ventures in Neoclassical design and urban planning. The pedestrian streets make for a great place to walk, enjoy street vendors and sideshows too. Rossio square has a view of places like the national theater and many great hotels and restaurants, it is the center of city life and a great place to meet up and enjoy the crowds. Finally on a stroll towards the River district one will encounter on the Rua Augusta many shops selling Oporto wines from all different years and don’t miss an opportunity to try a famous pasties belem on your way there too. The street opens up at the impressive Commercial Plaza.
On either side of this great stretch lies hills which lead into colorful and unique neighborhoods with views of the whole downtown, or the riverfront or even out to sea. Places like Barrio Alto are quite unique for churches, museums and stores. Alfama is the old Moorish quarter with a maze of wandering streets. Chiado hosts the elegant shopping district as well as Principe real. The Castle of Saint George overlooks the city from a high hilltop and is quite a marvel to see as well. Lisbon is a town of high charms and energy and its great position on busy waterways gives it staggering natural beauty.