Belem Tower is one of Lisbon’s 15th-century buildings, located in Belem. // © Phyllis Meras
Like Rome, Lisbon, Portugal sprawls over seven hills. It is situated at the mouth of the Tagus River, named the “Straw Sea” for the way the sun turns its waters gold. In the early 18th century, Lisbon was a city renowned for its stunning architecture. Then one day in 1755, the earth shook. Buildings fell and tidal waves swept over the rubble. When the earthquake subsided, 40,000 were dead and 17,000 buildings had crumbled. The city was rebuilt, however, and there is much to see and enjoy in Lisbon as it stands today. Only the Alfama Quarter remains of 18th-century Lisbon, but the city’s new and rebuilt attractions are equally impressive.
10 Must-Do Activities in Lisbon
The Lisboa Story Centre is a great place to start. It opened last year and features a multimedia account of the earthquake. The Story Centre is located in Praca do Comercio, the riverfront square rebuilt with elegant arcades and a triumphal arch after the catastrophe.
Take tram 28 from Praca da Figueira to the Castelo de Sao Jorge (St. George’s Castle), which affords a splendid panoramic view of the city center. The castle area has been variously fortified by the Romans, Visigoths, Moors and the Christians. Located above the city center, the castle survived the earthquake and is one of Lisbon’s original buildings.
Next, talk a walk along the winding narrow streets of the Alfama Quarter, stopping for a lunch of bacalhau, a Portuguese codfish dish (usually salted) that is prepared in many forms.
Many once-private houses that loom over the streets have become venues for performances of “fado,” age-old Portuguese songs of love and loss. Spend an evening enjoying dinner and performances at a restaurant such as O Faia in the nightlife district of Bairro Alto.
To visit Iglesia de Santa Maria (St. Mary’s Church), take tram 15 from Praca da Figueira to outlying Belem. The church’s slender pillars somehow survived the earthquake. Be sure to see the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (Monastery of Jeronimos) and its cloister with lacelike arches, as well as the Torre de Belem (Belem Tower). All were erected in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and are near the site from which such navigators as Vasco da Gama departed. The buildings were King Manuel I’s gifts to celebrate the success of Portuguese explorations. They are famous for window casements and pillars embellished with ropes, globes and anchors fashioned of stone (called Manueline style) to honor these explorers.
While in Belem, the next essential sites are the Museu da Marinha (Maritime Museum) and the Museu Nacional dos Coches (National Museum of Coaches). The Museu da Marinha features ship models and actual fishing boats, and the Museu Nacional dos Coches is one of the largest of its kind in Europe — with gilded vehicles from the 16th through the 19th centuries.
In the heart of Lisbon, be sure to stroll along the black and white mosaic pavement of Rossio Square, with its Baroque fountains and 19th-century neo-Manueline-style train station. Visit the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian and the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum). The former contains art of all ages, but is especially notable for its 19th-century French Lalique glass.
The National Tile Museum can be reached by bus from Praca do Comercio. It is housed in the 16th-century Convento da Madre de Deus (Convent of the Mother of God), which includes a chapel designed with tile floors and walls and a monumental nativity scene. One of the tile walls features a depiction of Lisbon before the earthquake.