Things to Do in Lisbon
Portugal's caravels sailed off to conquer the great unknown from Belém, and today this leafy riverside precinct is a giant monument to the nation's Age of Discoveries. Belém Tower, or Torre de Belém, the much-photographed symbol of Portugal's maritime glory, is a stone fortress on the bank of the river Tagus dating from 1514 - 19. You can climb the tower, and look into the dungeons from when it was a military prison. UNESCO have listed it as a World Heritage Site.
The imposing limestone Monument to the Discoveries, also facing the river nearby, is shaped like a caravel and features key players from the era. If you have time, look around the Centro Cultural de Belém, one of Lisbon's main cultural venues, which houses the Museu do Design, a collection of 20th century mind-bogglers.
This massive suspension bridge is an icon of Lisbon, connecting the city to the Almada area over the narrowest section of the River Tagus. Its color, size and structure draw close comparison to the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco, California, but the bridge was actually more structurally modeled to the Bay Bridge, also in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The 25th of April Bridge was completed in 1966 and was at the time named for the dictator Salazar. It was renamed following his displacement, with its new name given by the revolution that began on April 25. There are levels for both cars and trains, but unlike the Golden Gate Bridge, there is no passage for pedestrians. The bridge has the longest main span in Continental Europe and the world’s deepest bridge foundation. Riding across presents one of the best aerial views of Lisbon.
Along the northern bank of the Tagus River lies this large stone monument celebrating Portugal’s Age of Discovery and sitting on the location that ships bound for Asia used to depart from in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was constructed for the Portuguese World Fair in 1940, inaugurated in 1960 upon the anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death, and has been a Cultural Center of Discovery since 1985. The monument depicts 33 sculpted historical figures including explorers, monarchs, artists and missionaries, all led by Henry the Navigator at the front. The figures are spread along both sides of a ship, intentionally looking forward and facing the sea.
Outside of viewing the monument itself, there is a large marble wind rose embedded in the pavement containing a world map that illustrates the locations of Portugal’s various explorations. There is also a museum with exhibition rooms in the monument, with panoramic views of Lisbon and the Tagus River from its rooftop.
The ocher-colored, imposing St George’s Castle is an iconic landmark standing high in Alfama with views over Lisbon and the Tagus waterfront from its turreted, fortified walls. With only a few Moorish wall fragments dating from the sixth century still remaining, the castle we see now was redeveloped over the centuries following King Afonso Henriques’ re-conquest of Lisbon in 1147.
There’s enough to see at the castle to keep everyone happy for several hours. Walks around the ramparts provide far-reaching views of the city below. As much of the medieval castle was given over to housing troops and resisting siege, the fortified ramparts were dotted with defense towers. Now only 11 of the original 18 are still standing and most interesting among these is the Torre de Ulísses (Tower of Ulysses) as it contains a gigantic periscope offering visitors a 360° view of Lisbon.
Still known locally as Terreiro do Paço (Palace Square) thanks to its being the former location of Lisbon’s Royal Palace until its destruction in the great earthquake of 1755, Praça do Comércio was completely rebuilt in the late 18th century and is today an elegant square hugging the banks of the River Tagus.
Thanks to the vision of Portuguese architect Eugénio dos Santos, this vast square was built in a sweeping ‘U’ shape and is full of ornate arches and overblown civic buildings. It is dominated by a massive equestrian statue of King Jose I, while sights around the square include Lisbon’s historic Café Martinho da Arcada, dating right back to 1782 and famous for its coffees, pastries and ports. Lisbon’s main tourist information office is on the north side of the arcaded square, which is largely lined with outdoor restaurants. Along the riverbanks great marble steps lead down to the Tagus and historically formed the main entry to the city.
Wander down (to save your legs) through Alfama's steep, narrow, cobble stoned streets and catch a glimpse of the more traditional side of Lisbon before it too is gentrified. Linger in a backstreet cafe along the way and experience some local bonhomie without the tourist gloss. Early morning is the best time to catch a more traditional scene, when women sell fresh fish from their doorways. For a real rough-and-tumble atmosphere, visit during the Festas dos Santos Populares in June.
As far back as the 5th century, the Alfama was inhabited by the Visigoths, and remnants of a Visigothic town wall remain. But it was the Moors who gave the district its shape and atmosphere. In Moorish times this was an upper-class residential area. After earthquakes brought down many of its mansions (and post-Moorish churches) it reverted to a working-class, fisher folk quarter. It was one of the few districts to ride out the 1755 earthquake.
Vasco da Gama's discovery of a sea route to India inspired the glorious Monastery of St. Jerome or Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a UNESCO World Heritage site with an architectural exuberance that trumpets 'navigational triumph.' Work began around 1501, following a Gothic design by architect Diogo de Boitaca, considered a Manueline originator. After his death in 1517, building resumed with a Renaissance flavor under Spaniard João de Castilho and, later, with classical overtones under Diogo de Torralva and Jérome de Rouen (Jerónimo de Ruão). The monastery was completed in 1541, a riverside masterpiece - the waters have since receded.
The monastery was populated with monks of the Order of St. Jerome, whose spiritual job for about four centuries was to give comfort and guidance to sailors - and to pray for the king's soul. When the order was dissolved in 1833 the monastery was used as a school and orphanage until about 1940.
An austere Romanesque building from the outside, the Lisbon Cathedral (Sé de Lisboa) has some lovely treasures inside. It dates from 1150 and was built this solidly to repel attacks from the Moors. It didn't do much to ward off earthquake damage in 1344 and 1755 and the cathedral we see today has been much repaired.
Inside you'll find the font where Saint Anthony of Padua is said to have been baptized in 1195 and a 14th century chapel by Bartholomeu Joanes. But its in the sacristy that the real treasures are found: relics, icons and 15th and 16th century religious art. The medieval cloister is also worth a look.
The burial place of the great and good of Portugal, the gleaming white National Pantheon has its roots in the 17th century but was only finally completed in 1966. Constructed to a design by Lisbon’s Baroque master-craftsman João Antunes, it is a mini-me of St Peters in Rome, with a highly intricate, colonnaded exterior topped with a central dome. Climb six flights of steps up to the top for matchless views over the city to the River Tagus.
Inside the church is a riot of highly patterned mosaic flooring, gleaming white marble adorned with gilt, and memorial cenotaphs to Vasco da Gama and Henry the Navigator. The vast, 18th-century Baroque organ was moved here from Sé Cathedral in the 1940s, and famous names interred in the nave include a string of Portuguese statesmen and the revered fado singer Amalia Rodrigues.
A sweeping viewpoint atop a hill in Lisbon’s Graça neighborhood, Miradouro da Senhora do Monte offers panoramic views across Lisbon, including stellar views of the castle atop a neighboring hill. As the highest lookout point in the city, it’s a fantastic spot for photographing - or simply appreciating - the surrounding landscape. It’s particularly popular come sunset.
The name of the lookout translates to Our Lady of the Hill, and visitors will find a small chapel and statue of the Virgin Mary on the grounds of the miradouro. Dedicated to Saint Gens, Nossa Senhora do Monte Chapel attracts expectant mothers seeking divine protection during childbirth.
More Things to Do in Lisbon
Also known as Praça Dom Pedro IV, Rossio Square sits at the heart of Lisbon and has been a popular meeting spot since the Middle Ages. The square bustles with life as cars, buses, and pedestrians speed around it, intermixed with those leisurely sitting on benches or in cafes. Cobblestone walkways are arranged in wave patterns, a style that has since spread throughout Portugal and parts of Brazil.
It is surrounded by two identical Baroque fountains, with a column monument of Pedro IV, king of Portugal and the first emperor of Brazil, standing tall in the center. Allegorical figures of Justice, Wisdom, Restraint and Courage can be found at the monument’s base. Both the fountains and the monument are spectacularly lit up by night. The Dona Maria II National Theater sits at the northern end of the square with Ionic columns of the Church of St. Francis, which was destroyed in the earthquake of 1755.
Praça da Figueira, which means Square of the Fig Tree in English, is located in the Baixa neighborhood of Lisbon. In 1755 there was a strong earthquake that greatly damaged a hospital located where the square is today. The square was built a few decades after the earthquake, once the hospital was torn down. The square is surrounded by guesthouses, shops, and cafes, including the well known Confeitaria Nacional and Pastelaria Suica.
Along with huge flocks of pigeons, a bronze statue of King João I sitting on a horse can also be found in the square. Though the statue looks old, it only dates back to 1971. From here visitors can see the historic Castle of St. George which looks down on the square from a nearby hill. Tourists and locals alike often pass through Praça da Figueira since it is a big transport hub, and many sightseeing tours of the city start at this square.
Home of Portugal’s mournful fado singing, Lisbon’s 500-hundred-year-old Bairro Alto (this translates as ‘upper district’) sits at the working-class heart of the city, a district of steep, narrow lanes lined with cramped townhouses and jumping with a quirky mix of stores, barbers’ shops, bars, restaurants and late-night clubs.
By day Bairro Alto’s attractions include the Port Wine Institute – the best place to taste and buy port in Lisbon – and it is accessible from the circular route taken by Lisbon’s famous touristy Tram 28. Don’t dismiss a visit to the Jesuit church of São Roque on Largo Trindade Coelho; built at the height of Jesuit power in Portugal in the 16th century, its bland, whitewashed exterior conceals an interior of breath-taking Baroque indulgence. The riot of ceiling paintings, gilded ornamentation and John the Baptist’s chapel, which is studded with mosaics of ivory, gold and silver, has earned it a reputation as the world’s most expensive church.
The Ajuda National Palace is a neoclassical monument, collection of decorative arts, and an unfinished palace in the Belem district of Lisbon. The interior is richly furnished with tapestries, statues, chandeliers, artwork and extravagant furniture. Historically, the palace served as the official residence of the Portuguese royal family from the reign of King Louis I in the early 19th century until 1910, when Portugal became a republic.
Today visitors can tour the impressive estate, complete with ornate ballroom, dining room, throne room, and winter garden. Open to the public as a museum since 1968, the rooms and hallways maintain their historic feel despite undergoing renovations. There are dozens of luxurious formal rooms to wander through, with the splendor of the 18th- and 19th-century decor apparent throughout. Visitors can get a sense of how Portuguese royalty lived at that time. In fact, the Portuguese government holds official functions in the palace to this day.
Restauradores Square in Lisbon commemorates Portugal's liberation from Spanish rule. The Spaniards controlled Portugal for 60 years until Portuguese nobility started a revolt on Dec. 1, 1640, which began the 28-year Restoration War. In the center of the square is an obelisk that stands more than 98 feet tall and has two bronze figures on the pedestal representing Victory and Freedom. The monument was designed by artist and architect António Tomás da Fonseca and built in 1886. The bronze statues were created by sculptors Simões de Almeida and Alberto Nunes.
Several important buildings are located on Restauradores Square. The most prominent one is Foz Palace which was once the residence of the Marquis of Foz and now houses the national tourism office. The former Eden Theater, one of Lisbon's most beautiful art deco buildings, is also located here. The theater closed down in 1989 and became a hotel in 2001.
Avenida da Liberdade (Liberty Avenue) is a wide, central boulevard in the heart of Lisbon. Stretching for more than a half-mile (1,100 meters), its tree-lined, cobblestoned lanes connect Praça dos Restauradores with Praça do Marquês de Pomba. It is 295 feet (90 meters) wide and is said to be modeled after Paris’s Champs Elysees. Trees provide shade for pedestrian walkways, with small fountains, mosaics and statues placed throughout, while shops, restaurants, theaters and even universities make it one of the most important avenues in the city. Grand hotels, houses of fashion, banks and other high-end retailers also call the avenue home.A few historical mansions can still be seen along the avenue, adding to the elegant architecture. There is also a Monument to the Fallen of the Great War, honoring the 50,000 Portuguese soldiers who lost their lives in World War I, located about halfway down.
The Church of São Vicente de Fora is a monastery and church in Lisbon containing the royal pantheon of the Braganza monarchs of Portugal, serving as the final resting spot for all the Portuguese kings from 1640 to 1910. Originally built as a convent in the 12th century, the monastery was constructed in honor of Saint Vincent outside the city walls (“de fora”). It was restored after sustaining damage in the earthquake of 1755.
A highlight for many visitors today is the collection of 18th-century traditional blue and white ceramic tiles that depict life at court as well as the fables of La Fontaine. The site’s interior and cloisters are both intricately tiled, and in the church, visitors can see the ornate Baroque altarpiece designed by Joaquim Machado de Castro, one of Portugal’s most famous sculptors. The symmetrical facade has two elegant bell towers built in an Italian Renaissance style, and great views of the city and Tagus River can be seen from the rooftop.
To see evidence of the damage inflicted upon Lisbon by the destructive earthquake of 1755, the restored medieval Carmo Convent stands next to the ruins of its great barn of a Gothic church. It was founded in 1389 for the Carmelite order by the great military leader Álvares Pereira, who played a large part in securing Portugal’s independence from Spain before joining the convent himself in 1423.
Thanks to its obliteration in the earthquake, the convent’s library of thousands of rare books and manuscripts was lost; while that was rebuilt and became the HQ of Lisbon’s Municipal Guard (Guarda Republicana), the church has never been fully rebuilt. It was used as a wood storage facility before being turned into a small archaeological museum (the Museu Arqueologico do Carmo) in 1864.
Standing high above central Lisbon on the hill of Santo André, the viewpoint at Graça is an elegant terrace located next to an ancient church in one of the city’s oldest and most intriguing districts. It has far-reaching vistas across to St George’s Castle (Castello de São Jorge) and down to the River Tagus, with panorama spreading out below encompassing the rooftops of Alfama and Mouraria as well as the rust-red spans of the 25th of April Bridge (Ponte 25 de Abril).
The mirador is officially known as the Miradouro Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen in honor of a local poet who spent her days admiring the views and writing here. There is no better time to visit than at dusk, when the open-air Café Do Monte at the viewpoint becomes the gathering point of locals and visitors alike to watch the sun slipping down as lights begin to twinkle all over the city.
With views across to hilltop St George’s Castle (Castello de São Jorge) to Baixa and the gleaming waters of the River Tagus, the viewpoint at São Pedro de Alcantara is an exotic two-tier balustraded garden in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto. Created in the 19th century, the upper gardens are focused around a large fountain and scattered with benches from which to admire the panorama; a map created from azulejo tiles shows all the city landmarks. The lower gardens are classical in style, packed with statues of Roman deities and famous historic Portuguese figures.
Quite the most scenic way to get to São Pedro de Alcantara is by the Elevador da Glória, a funicular that first opened in 1885 and connects the Bairro Alto with Restauradores Square in the city center. Across the street from the mirador is the almost-sacred Port Wine Institute (Solar do Vinho do Porto), where rare vintages can be sampled along with a choice selection of Portuguese cheeses.
Housed within a late seventeenth century yellow-hued Palácio Alvor, the National Museum of Ancient Art was created in 1884 to protect and display a collection of European and Asian works of art. The current collection comprises more than 40,000 items — paintings, sculpture, furniture, ceramics and textiles, among others — most of it dating from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.
Highlights of the permanent collection include the naturalistic Panels of St. Vincent, considered Nuno Gonçalves’ masterpiece, as well as a set of sixteenth century Japanese folding screens that depict the arrival of Portuguese ships in Nagasaki. The Monstrance of Belem, a stunning work of gold and enamel by Gil Vicente, was originally brought to Portugal by Vasco da Gama on return from his second voyage to India; this piece is also on display in the museum.
Squeezed between downtown Baixa and the nightlife party-central of the Bairro Alto, glossy Chiado is within shouting distance of the romantic ruins of Carmo Church (Igreja do Carmo) and the hidden treasures in the Church of St Rocco (Igreja de São Roque). It is also home to glorious Art Nouveau shops, old-world Lisboa cafés with window displays brimming with delicious pastries, and timeless antiquarian bookshops. Amid the fine 19th-century townhouses fronted with wrought-iron balconies and the piazzas with madly patterned mosaic sidewalks stand top-end fashion designers, jewelers, theaters, concert halls and posh boutique hotels. An eclectic mix of restaurants – from Michelin stars at Belcanto to basic snacks at neighborhood tapas bars – adds to the cultural soup of this sleek hillside enclave.
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