Located on a hilly bend in the Tagus river, which opens into a huge natural harbour, the city has always been inseparable with the sea. The Phoenicians were followed by Roman settlers and later the Moors. After the Christian reconquest in the 11th century, Lisbon took a couple of centuries to become the capital, and another couple to come into its own, when Portuguese caravels set sail on discovery voyages.
East of Baixa, where black-clad widows potter in tiny squares and small children yell through alleyways, the Alfama district retains the layout and atmosphere of Moorish times. Rua de São Pedro turns into a fish market on weekday mornings. It’s a photographer’s delight, but keep a grip on your gear. The Romanesque cathedral, or Sé (+351 218 866 752, cloisters & treasury closed Mon), was founded on the site of a mosque, after the 1147 Christian Reconquest. Further uphill, bits of a Roman theatre dating back to Emperor Augustus, can be seen from Rua de São Mamede. There’s an explanatory museum nearby (Tel. +351 218 820 320, closed Mon). Climb higher for fine views from the Castelo de São Jorge. The castle was built by the Moors on the site of a Roman fort, but what you see today is almost all 20th-century mock-up.
Parque das Nações
Lisbon’s eastern waterfront was of little touristic interest until 1998. Staged on reclaimed industrial wasteland, Expo gave Lisbon its biggest facelift in two centuries and a slew of new attractions. Now renamed Parque das Nações (Tel. +351 218 919 898, www.parquedasnacoes.pt), the site has an Oceanarium (Tel. +351 218 917 002), where 10,000 marine animals of 250 species wow visitors of all ages. The Pavilhão do Conhecimento (Tel. +351 218 917 112, closed Mon) whose science exhibits have been known to keep some kids engaged for hours. Don’t forget the architectural highlight Álvaro Siza Vieira’s Portugal pavilion with its stunning concrete canopy.
The grid-like downtown, or Baixa, was laid out after a devastating earthquake in 1755. At the waterfront end is Praça do Comércio, a square framed by arcades and dominated by a triumphal arch. At the northern end is Rossio square, whose 19th century black-and-white wave-pattern mosaic was recently restored. The Elevador de Santa Justa, an outdoor cast-iron lift first opened in 1901, offers a panoramic view of the streets in between. Traces of more ancient times can be found nearby at the Núcleo Arqueológico (Rua dos Correeiros 9, 213 211 700. Call ahead for guided visits in English), which reveals the underground ruins of a Roman fish-salting complex.
Thankfully, modernity hasn’t ironed out all Lisbon’s charming quirks. It’s full of hidden corners to be explored on foot, by funicular or rickety tram chugging past antique shops, African cafés and peeling houses. And if it starts to feel cramped, there are dozens of beaches within easy reach; the water is chilly but the waves offer fine surfing.
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