The best way for travelers to explore Lisbon is to start their tour from the Baixa district. Lisbon’s historic downtown marks the heartbeat of the city, and comprises of grand plazas, boutique shopping boulevards, as well as luxurious hotels and restaurants. While this may sound expensive, there are plenty of things to see for the budget-conscious traveler.
• Praca Dom Pedro IV Square
This Lisbon square is named after the statute of Dom Pedro IV. According to urban legend, when Emperor Maximilian of Mexico was assassinated, his just-completed statue was sold at a fraction of the cost to the city of Lisbon. Rumor has it that Dom Pedro IV and Emperor Maximilian bore a striking resemblance to one another.
• Theatre of Olisipo
Also known as the Lisbon Theatre, the Theatre of Olisipo is one of Lisbon’s hidden gems. Built in the first century AD under the Emperor Augustus, it was one of the first buildings to commemorate the city of Felicitas Iulia Olisipo. Designed by the Roman architect Vitruvius, this Roman theatre could seat up to 4,000 spectators.
• Rua Augusta Arch
The stone triumphal arch on Praca do Comercio was built to commemorate Lisbon’s reconstruction after the 1755 earthquake. Bearing the coat of arms of Portugal, the monument is also adorned with the statues of various figures relevant to Lisbon history. They include:
- Vasco da Gama: The Portuguese explorer who became the first European to reach India by sea.
- Dom Nuno Alvares Pereira: A Portuguese general who led Portugal’s independence from Castile, and was later canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
- Viriathus: Leader of the Lusitanian people who resisted the Roman expansion into western Iberia.
- Sebastiao Jose de Carvalho e Melo: Also known as Marquis of Pombal, this Portuguese statesman was responsible in resurrecting Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake, as well as instituting policies that weakened the Inquisition.
• Elevador de Santa Justa
Also known as the Carmo Lift, the Elevador de Santa Justa is a 19th century lift that transports passengers up the steep hill from Lisbon’s Baixa district to the Largo do Carmo and the ruins of the Carmo church. Standing 150 feet high, the elevator is part of the public transport network of Lisbon. This means that if you buy a 24-hour ticket (which costs €6.15) for using the public transportation in Lisbon, you can also catch a ride on the Carmo Lift.
Most of the time you will find a long line of tourists outside the Elevador de Santa Justa as opposed to locals. At the top of the lift is a newly opened viewing platform which provides wonderful panoramic views of Lisbon’s historical center.
Castelo de Sao Jorge
Walking through the tangled medieval streets of Alfama to try to find the entrance of Castelo de Sao Jorge can be a challenging task. But it’s hard to get lost because Castelo de Sao Jorge also happens to be Lisbon’s numero uno attraction, and you are bound to run into other travelers making their way up to the castle.
Built in the mid 11th century by the Moors, the Castelo de Sao Jorge occupies a formidable position on the hilltop, overlooking Lisbon and the Tagus River. Unlike other European castles, the Castelo de Sao Jorge was never a residence. Its sole purpose was to house military troops, and serve as the alcáçova (fortified residence or citadel) for the Portuguese elite. Today eleven towers stand tall, the most prominent of them being:
- Torre de Menagem (Tower of the Keep)
- Torre do Haver ou do Tombo (Tower of Riches)
- Torre do Paço (Tower of the Palace)
- Torre da Cisterna (Tower of the Cistern)
- Torre de São Lourenço (Tower of St. Lawrence)
While walking about the castle, you will come across the ruins of older structures. In fact, the buildings now housing Castelo de Sao Jorge’s permanent exhibition, cafe and restaurant constitute the former royal palace of the alcáçova. The palace suffered extensive damage during the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon. Today, a few resident peacocks have made the alcáçova their home.
Castelo de Sao Jorge’s permanent exhibition is free and is worth a visit. It consists of objects found during archaeological excavations, and provides information on the culture and lifestyles of people living in Lisbon from the 7th century BC to the 18th century.
Visitors can also explore the archaeological ruins of three significant periods in Lisbon’s history:
- The first known settlements in Lisbon dating back to 7th century BC.
- Remnants of the residential area from the time of the Moors in the mid 11th century.
- The ruins of the last palatine residence (alcáçova) destroyed by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
One of the main highlights of Castelo de Sao Jorge is the Camera Obscura. It provides 360 degree views of Lisbon in real-time including historical landmarks, buildings and the Tagus River. The line for the Camera Obscura is insane! There are people standing all along the tower ramparts and down the stairs, which can become quite congested considering that most of the narrow walkways are one-way traffic only.
While I didn’t have the patience to wait around for the Camera Obscura, I soaked up Castelo de Sao Jorge’s magnificent views of Lisbon and the River Tagus. (Why look through a lens, when you have eyes anyways?) If you look carefully, you can make out the iconic chalk white dome of the Basilica da Estrela on the city skyline. The basilica was constructed as a religious offering by Queen Mary I of Portugal after the birth of her son. But he died two years later before the completion of the basilica. The grieving queen bore the pain throughout her life, and as per her wishes, was buried in Basilica da Estrela upon her death.
Admission for Castelo de Sao Jorge is €8.50, with children under 10 able to enter for free.
The Lisbon Cathedral is known by many names. They include the Se Cathedral, the Patriarchal Cathedral of Saint Mary Major, the Santa Maria Major de Lisboa, and Se de Lisboa. The oldest church in Lisbon, the Lisbon Cathedral has been part of the baptisms, weddings and funerals of the Portuguese elite since the 12th century. It has survived several earthquakes and is a designated National Monument.
The Australian cartoonist and poet Michael Leunig once said,
“There are times when the art world seems like a religious empire.”
That’s the feeling I got when I first looked upon the Lisbon Cathedral. The facade gives the impression of a formidable fortress, complete with two towers flanking the entrance and battle-ready crenellations on the top. Though menacing, this architecture was common to Portuguese cathedrals of the time, as they served as bases of attack during the Reconquista period.
The Lisbon Cathedral has witnessed several architectural modifications during its lifetime. Like most cathedrals around the Iberian Peninsula, the Lisbon Cathedral was also built over the site of a former mosque. Today, the cloisters have been partially excavated to reveal the foundations of the mosque. Another notable feature of the Lisbon Cathedral is its Gothic vault of the ambulatory and clerestory windows.
There is no admission fee to the Lisbon Cathedral, but it costs €2.50 to visit the cloisters.
Mosteiro dos Jeronimos
The Monastery of Jeronimos is a 16th century, white limestone church and monastery constructed on the banks of the River Tagus in Lisbon. Originally built for the Order of Saint Jerome, the monastery was secularized in 1833.
The monastery is best remembered for its role in Lisbon’s recent history. In 2007, the Treaty of Lisbon was signed in the Monastery of Jeronimos, initiating the reform of the European Union.
The Monastery of Jeronimos is one of the most outstanding examples of the Portuguese’s Late Gothic Manueline style of architecture. This form of architecture was common in 16th century Lisbon, and incorporated maritime elements of expeditions and sea voyages as a way of celebrating the Portuguese Age of Discovery. In addition, the monastery houses the tomb of the famous Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama. As a result, the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Lisbon.
It is completely free to enter the Monastery of Jeronimos. It was late evening in Lisbon when I visited the monastery, and the dark walls were just illuminated from the light of the altar. It felt strangely eerie and mystical, but at the same time captivating and serene. As if the ghosts of an ancient time still conversed and walked about these halls. Mesmerizing.
Torre de Belem
As you leave the Monastery of Jeronimos, you can see the Torre de Belem across the road. Also known as the Belem Tower and the Tower of Saint Vincent, this fortified tower is another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Lisbon.
In the 16th century, the Torre de Belem was built on a small island in the Tagus River by King John II as a gateway into Lisbon. It also served as part of Lisbon’s extensive structural defense system. Made from limestone locally sourced from Lisbon, the tower is another example of the Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline architectural style.
You can also have a closer look at the Torre de Belem, and endure the claustrophobic climb up the 120 steps to the top. You will be rewarded with sweeping views of the River Tagus and Lisbon’s waterfront.
Popular Day Trips from Lisbon
• Sintra, Portugal