1. Castelo de São Jorge
3. Lisbon Cathedral
4. Praça do Commercio
5. Elevador de Santa Justa
6. Elevador de Bica
7. Carmo Convent
8. Time Out Market
9. Jerónimos Monastery
10. Monument to the Discoveries
11. Torre de Belém
What are the best things to do in Lisbon? Among impressive baroque churches and authentic neighbourhoods, you will find Lisbon’s real character. The house façades are adorned with the spectacular azulejos that are colourful paintings on tiles. Moreover, in addition to the original tile art, as well as the great art museums in Lisbon, you can also look out for the graphic murals – the local street art which represents another artistic style in the city – depending on your preferences, there are really lots of things to do here!
When you have had enough of the city’s impressions, why not attend a Fado show – the characteristic tunes and lyrics, which at the same time is Portugal’s musical heritage and really one of the top things to do in Lisbon – or maybe go on a day trip to the fairy-tale palace in Sintra, alternatively visit the charming fishing town Cascais? However, before exploring the surroundings, you must first discover the real gems of Lisbon.
Erected on a hilltop in Lisbon’s neighbourhood Alfama, the Castelo de São Jorge still stands as a fabulous walled fortification structure that has watched over the city and kept an eye out for enemies for centuries. With its over 2,000 years, it is the city’s oldest construction – and without doubt it is one of the top things to do in Lisbon. The climb up there is a bit strenuous, but once arrived you will be rewarded with magnificent views and a most exciting experience.
In fact, the castle hill has been inhabited since the 8th century BC, but not until the 1st century BC were the first fortifications built. Changing people have occupied Castelo de São Jorge: both the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, and the Moors have watched over the city from up here, before the Portuguese conquered it in 1147 (the Siege of Lisbon).
Over time it has, beyond being a fortification complex, served as both military barracks, a weapons depot, a royal palace, a theatre, and a prison. Today it is a museum and has the status of a national monument.
Outside Castela de São Jorge you will find the charming neighbourhood Alfama. Its medieval, labyrinth-like alleys flanked by tiled-covered houses (adorned with azulejos) meander up the sloping hill from the Tagus River (Rio Tejo). As one of Europe’s oldest neighbourhoods, Alfama is unique cultural heritage. A stroll through the cobbled, narrow streets of pastel-coloured houses is a journey through history.
This part of Lisbon dates to the Iron Age, when the first settlers arrived here. Subsequently, it was inhabited by various peoples. Both the Romans, the Visigoths, and the Moors in turn conquered and besieged the area, until Portugal’s first king took possession of it in 1147. For many years it was an upper-class neighbourhood of Lisbon, but in the end it changed and Alfama became rather a neighbourhood of the fishing community. Fortunately, the area survived the devastating earthquake in 1755.
Today, Alfama is with its intricate pattern of enticing alleys an exciting and lively part of Lisbon with many things to see and do. There are several spectacular viewpoints (miradouros) offering panoramic views over Lisbon’s rooftops, domes and the river, for example Miradouro das Portas do Sol with the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora in the background.
Lisbon Cathedral, Sé de Lisboa, or Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa, is a Roman Catholic church and the seat of the Patriarchate of Lisbon, erected in 1147. Due to numerous earthquakes over the years, it has been renovated multiple times – and therefore features a multitude of architectural styles, although predominantly Romanesque.
In connection with the Cathedral there is a beautiful Gothic cloister with Roman, Arabic, as well as Medieval remains. The highlights include a nativity scene, created by the sculptor Machado de Castro in the 18th century, and various sarcophagi and tombs of which one holds the remains of King Afonso IV, reigning in the 1300s. A third highlight is the treasury consisting of four halls where outstanding jewels and relics are on display.
The Praça do Commercio is a spectacular plaza at the waterfront in Lisbon. On three sides it is surrounded by characteristic yellow Pombaline façades. The design of the plaza (and likewise the design of the Praça do Rossio) was carried out towards the end of the 18th century where Lisbon was reconstructed after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami of 1755, wiping away the former Royal palace, Paço da Ribeira. At the same time, it reflected Portugal’s heyday where seafarers set out for sea voyages to Southeast Asia and South America – and needed a place along the harbour area to trade when returning with exotic goods. In front of the plaza there is still the noble sea entrance to the city, the Cais das Colunas with two historic, large stone pillars that used to be access point to the palace.
In the centre of the square, an eye-catching statue of the mounted King Joseph I stands. Placed on the city side of the plaza, a huge arch, the Arco da Rua Augusta, marks the entrance to the classy promenade Rua Augusta which is the main shopping street in Lisbon. The sumptuously ornamented triumphal arch from 1875 was constructed a whole century after the square itself. From the viewing platform atop the arch, visitors can enjoy magnificent views of the area and the pedestrian Rua Augusta.
The 19th-century neo-gothic Santa Justa lift, also named Elevador do Carmo, used to be an important part of Lisbon’s public transport in the parish of Santa Justa. It links the lower streets around Rua Áurea in the Baixa Pombalina to the higher streets surrounding the Carmo Convent. However, there are also two spiral staircases connecting the downtown neighbourhood with the Largo do Carmo above.
The elevator by Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard, inaugurated in 1902, represents the new style around 1900 where iron was the new fancy building material used for ‘industrial designs’. The Portuguese lift was greatly influenced by the French architect Gustave Eiffel and his iconic iron structures. Until 1907 the lift was powered by steam, but that year it changed to electricity.
Today, the 45 m high elevator serves mainly as a tourist attraction with a lookout at the top – providing visitors with panoramic views of the neighbourhood below.
In addition to the Elevador de Santa Justa, Lisbon also still features the quaint Elevador da Glória, as well as the Elevador da Bica, which are funicular railways.
If you want to explore Bairro Alto and its exceptional nightlife (and maybe attend a traditional Fado show!?!), you can for instance hop on the historic Elevador de Bica (in Portuguese: Ascensor da Bica), connecting Rua de São Paulo with Calçada do Combro, or Rua do Loreto with a 12% incline.
Also this project was undertaken by Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard after the Municipality of Lisbon had accepted it in 1888 – and the Ascensor began to operate in 1892. In the beginning a mechanical engine was used, but some years later electrical systems were introduced. The funicular operates in the way that two cars are attached to each their end of a haulage cable, such that they can use each other as a counterweight, ascending and descending simultaneously.
Of the medieval convent from 1389 there are today only ruins preserved. As was the case with most buildings in Lisbon at the time, the 1755 Lisbon earthquake left the Carmo Convent devastated, and only the Gothic arches resisted the earth tremors. The collapsed roof was never rebuilt afterwards and left the convent as a remarkable piece of architecture. The convent is located just off the upper exit of the Elevador de Santa Justa.
Although badly damaged, significant art and sculptures survived and the sacristy now serves as an outstanding archaeological museum with some of these artefacts on display, as well as other treasures such as the Roman Sarcophagus of the Muses, the tomb of King Ferdinand I, and the tomb of Queen Maria Anna of Austria, who later became Queen of Portugal. As a curiosity, Christopher Columbus’ wife was also buried here.
Close to the train station Cais de Sodré, you will find Mercado da Ribeira, Lisbon’s old market existing for centuries, now appearing in a new version as the popular food market, the Time Out Market.
Since the 12th century, the Mercado da Ribeira has been one of the most significant markets in Europe, and it moved into the current building in 1882 as Lisbon’s wholesale market.
In 2014 the building was turned into the Time Out Market, a new trendy food market with bars and stalls of both fast food and fine dining in exquisite Portuguese restaurants owned by first-class chefs.
When you get the urge to leave the centre of Lisbon, there are a few more sights you need to cover. The UNESCO World Heritage Site listed Jerónimos Monastery a few kilometres to the west (it is easy to reach by tram) is probably the most impressive monastery you can image. It is an outstanding piece of architecture, predominantly designed in the Portuguese Manueline style and dedicated to the monks of the Order of St Jerome – hence the name.
The Jerónimos Monastery was initiated at the beginning of the 1500s close to the location of the launch of Vasco da Gama’s first voyage. It was designed by Diogo de Boitaca to commemorate his return from India. Inside you will find the tomb of the renowned seafarer. Nevertheless, construction was not completed until the 17th century.
An invention by the monks of the Jerónimos Monastery are the cakes Pastéis de Belém (Pastéis de Nata), which is another top tourist attraction – and paying a visit here is actually one of the most popular things to do in Lisbon, so do visit the bakery Pastéis de Belém just round the corner of the monastery at Rua de Belém and try the famous cakes!
A few hundred metres south of the Jerónimos Monastery, you will spot the Monument to the Discoveries, the 56 m high monument at the Tagus Estuary that commemorates the five hundredth anniversary of the death of the seafarer Henry the Navigator. He was the renowned explorer who discovered the Azores, Madeira, as well as Cape Verde.
The tribute to great Portuguese discoverers, symbolised by the sculptured caravel setting out to sea, includes skilful navigators and cartographers, as well as talented colonisers and experienced warriors. Moreover, there is a large compass mosaic depicting the world in the centre, designed by Cristino da Silva and donated to Portugal by the Republic of South Africa.
The monument was created by Cottinelli Telmo and Leopoldo de Almeida and first erected in 1940 as a temporary structure and a contribution to the Portuguese World Exhibition – and then reconstructed in a more permanent version in 1960.
A stone’s throw from the Monument to the Discoveries to the west, also on the Tagus riverbank, another top attraction in Lisbon appears – the Torre de Belém. This is the site where Lisbon’s shipyards and docks once were.
The tower is constructed in a Moorish style and once served both as a noble entrance to Lisbon, as well as a rampart to guard Lisbon from attacks from the sea and protect the Jerónimos Monastery. The construction features some interesting stone carvings and depictions – for instance Europe’s first known illustration of a rhinoceros.
What are the 11 Coolest Things to Do in Lisbon
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