The Castelo Sao Jorge
towers over the city.
Underrated and overlooked: that’s been the fate of Portugal’s
capital. Until recently, most Americans bypassed Lisbon’s
traditional pleasures flamboyant architecture, jacaranda-shaded
gardens, melancholy fado (Portugese folk music) bars, gilded
churches and museums in favor of more familiar European capitals.
But now, stylish new hotels, restaurants and nightclubs are
springing up in revamped dock areas and once-neglected
neighborhoods, attracting new admirers and lending the city a
cosmopolitan flair worthy of its storied past.
For your clients who are ready for an offbeat, laid-back
charmer, Lisbon is a delightful surprise. They’ll never confuse
this unpretentious capital with Rome, Paris, Madrid or any other
Actually, Lisbon does share one attribute with Rome: it’s built
on seven hills and therein lies much of its quirky personality.
Clanging trolleys, funiculars and elevators transport bemused
visitors as well as residents to hilltop neighborhoods.
A favorite ascent of first-time visitors is the upward jaunt on
Tram #28 to the ruins of Castelo Sao Jorge. The trolley rattles
past the magnificent 12th-century cathedral, built on the site of a
mosque, and the smaller church dedicated to Santo Antonio, the
saint whose June 13 feast day inspires raucous celebrations.
Lisbon’s Arab quarter, known as the
Alfama, is one of many historic sites
that dot the Portugese capital.
Besides offering splendid sunset views over the city and the Tejo
River, the castle grounds reveal a history going back to the Iron
Age. Built by the Visigoths in the 5th century, later fortified by
the Moors and conquered by Christians, the castle served as the
home of Portuguese royalty until the 17th century. Today visitors
admire the voluptuous contours of the cityscape from its ramparts,
perhaps pausing for a bica (espresso) at the cafe. A statue of Dom
Afonso Henriques, who ended the Moorish occupation in 1147,
dominates the miradouro.
On Nov. 1, 1755, the view from this lookout point framed an
earthquake-shattered city. Thousands of people celebrating All
Saints’ Day perished in the collapse of their churches. Others died
in the fires that followed. But from the rubble arose much of the
modern city: the fashionable Avenida da Liberdade, later widened to
resemble the Champs Elysees, leading to the Baixa, the downtown
grid, where the immense Praca do Comercio fronts the river. Beyond
the lowlands, the elegant boutiques and cafes of the Chiado climb
the slope toward Bairro Alto, the old working-class neighborhood
dotted with bars and shops.
The narrow twisting lanes that snake downward from Castelo Sao
Jorge to the river constitute the medieval Arab quarter known as
the Alfama. Here the spellbinding, if plaintive, sounds of fado
envelop listeners. There’s even a museum devoted to fado, where the
recorded songs reflect the hard times that befell Portugal in the
Other museums, filled with the treasures of Lisbon’s more
distant past, flaunt the glories of the Age of Discovery. During
the 15th century, sea captains sailed from Lisbon in ever-widening
routes, bringing back riches from Africa, Asia and South America.
The 16th-century Tower of Belem marks their point of departure, and
the nearby Monastery of Jeronimos celebrates Vasco da Gama’s
successful 1498 voyage to India.
Known as Manueline, from King Manuel I (1495-1521), the
exuberant architectural style of these UNESCO World Heritage Sites
incorporates nautical themes in its decoration and borrows freely
from exotic distant lands. In fact, everywhere you look, from the
Japanese screens in the Museu de Arte Antiga to the Indo-Portuguese
furniture in the Decorative Arts Museum, you see evidence of early
Portuguese discoveries. Fortunately, excellent pastry shops and
cafes stand ready to fuel all this sightseeing; the delicacies from
Antiga Confeitaria de Belem have fortified visitors for two
Portugal has always been a place apart, looking toward the
Atlantic rather than toward the rest of Europe, and tending to
revel in its glorious past. The country’s entry into the European
Union in 1986 spurred Portugal and its capital toward a promising
future. Send your clients to Lisbon, and chances are, they’ll
return extolling their own discoveries.