The long history of Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, revolves around its strategic position at the mouth of the Tagus river. From ancient times onward, its sheltered estuary reaching out the Atlantic Ocean made the city an important seaport for trade between the Mediterranean Sea and Northern Europe. And the steep hills rising from its northern bank provided a protected living environment for its inhabitants.
Throughout the ages, this privileged location drew successive waves of invaders. First came the Phoenicians (7th century B.C.) followed by the Romans and the “barbarians” of medieval times (Vandals, Visigoths et.al.). Then came the Moors (8th century A.D.), and finally the Christian Crusaders who evicted them (12th century A.D.) to establish Portugal as an independent state. All of them left cultural imprints that gave Lisbon its unique, exotic charm.
An Historic Earthquake
In 1755 a powerful earthquake and tsunami leveled the lower parts of Lisbon, setting the stage for a major urban redesign: the Baixa (lower city) district. At its center, on the grounds of the former royal palace, the new Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square) came to life, a sprawling open space bordering the waterfront to the south.The three landward sides of the square are surrounded by uniform Neo-classical buildings. At the center of the northern side,a soaring archway leads to the grid of commercial streets and open squares of the business center.
The Soul of the City
The ancient soul of Lisbon still clings to its hillsides, as it has for over a millennium, in the jumble of picturesque balconies and striking vistas that can be enjoyed from the miradouros, the inviting terraced belvederes that dot the scenery.
Its oldest neighborhood, the Alfama – from the Arabic al-Hamma, (public baths) is a warren of narrow streets and alleyways dating back to the Muslim conquest. Built to abut the Roman fortification walls and small fortress that would later be expended into the sprawling Castelo de Sao Jorge (St George’s Castle) that dominate the skyline, it has retained the labyrinthine layout of its Islamic settlement days.
The Cathedral de Sé
Meandering up narrow cobbled streets so steeps they sometimes morph into stairs, you pass the stark monolith of the cathedral, Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa (or Cathedral de Sé for short). Its soaring interior is a severe mixture of Romanesque, Gothic and more recent styles. For history and archeology buffs, the most interesting part of the complex is its Gothic cloister.
Here, excavations started three decades ago in the central courtyard of the cloister have revealed a Roman street with shops on either side, as well as traces of later Visigoth buildings. Then in 2020, the remains of a Moorish complex were uncovered, confirming the previous existence of a mosque on the site. Regrettably, on this recent visit, the cloister was temporarily closed to the public.
Largo de Santa Luzia
It’s another ten-minute walk up to one of the most romantic viewpoint in the city: the Miradouro at Largo de Santa Luzia. Against the backdrop of the small Baroque church, the terrace captures the everlasting essence of Lisbon. Its long pergola is covered with centuries-old bougainvilleas, under which the parapet at the edge of the terrace is clad in traditional blue azulejo tiles. Beyond it, a spectacular mosaic of red-tiled roofs and white-domed churches cascade down to the shimmering blueness of the Tagus.
After you tear yourself away from the stunning views, take a quick look at the two Azulejos bas-reliefs that decorate the church’s exterior. The first one depicts the storming of St. George’s Castle by the troops of Alfonso Henriques in 1147, while the second shows an early panorama of the harbor.
Castelo de São Jorge
Climb a few minutes farther to reach Saint George’s Castle, the great medieval fortress stretched across the crest of the hill. The oldest fortifications on the site date back to the 2nd century B.C., when the Roman made it a defensive outpost. The Moors expended it to a foreboding keep encircled with imposing walls in the 10th century, which did not prevent its take over by the Portuguese in the 1147 Siege of Lisbon. Since then, the castle has variously served as a royal palace, military barracks, and the home of the National Archive before its current incarnation as a one of the most visited national monuments in the city,
If you decide to brave the lines and visit, expect to be dazzled once again by the views from the battlements, from various perspectives to the horizon. As for the interior, unless you are fascinated with medieval defensive architecture, the only overwhelming feature of the castle is the height and thickness of the walls surrounding its two internal courtyards.
Saint Vincent Outside of the Walls
But the climb is not yet over. It’s another 15 minutes to reach another remarkable Alfama landmark, one that despite appearing as a gracious white silhouette above the roofs of the city, is often overlooked by visitors: the monastery of São Vicente de Fora. Built in the late16th century, it is one of the most important Mannerist (i.e. Late Baroque) buildings in Portugal. Named for the patron saint of Lisbon, and built on the site of a previous sanctuary outside of the city walls, it became known as Saint Vincent Outside the Walls.
Over the centuries the monastery acquired a wealth of artworks, many of them still in place. Most notably, under the striking barrel-vaulted ceiling of the church, the stunning baldacchino-shaped main altarpiece is an 18th century Baroque work by the great Portuguese sculptor Joaquim Machado de Castro. The sacristy is also exceptional for its ornate inlaid marble decor of floral motifs.
Within the monastery, the walls and stairs are decorated with over 150 Azulejo mosaic frescoes depicting scenes that range from religious and historic events to hunting and activities of life in the countryside. The terraced rooftop is also open to visitors. With its 360 degrees panoramic view over the city and the river, it is it considered one of the best kept secret viewpoints in Lisbon.
Good to Know
- Getting there — The Humberto Delgado Airport supports regularly scheduled flights from most major European cities and beyond. It is a mere 7 kilometers (4.5 miles) from the centre of Lisbon.
- Getting around — The best way to get around the web of narrow cobble streets of the center of Lisbon is on foot. If walking is a challenge or to go farther afield, the city offers an extensive public transportation network of buses, metro and tram.
- Visiting — The Lisbon Cathedral open to visitors Monday through Saturday – closed on Sunday. Opening hours vary with the seasons. Consult website for details .The Castelo de Sao Jorge and the Monastery de Sao Vincente de Fora are open daily throughout the year. Consult respective websites for seasonal schedule.