view of castelo de sao jorge from one of the miradors
Located at the western edge of continental Europe, Lisbon is rarely top of mind as far as European capitals are concerned. The center of a once mighty and glorious empire, I came with few expectations but left brimming with praise for this underrated and often overlooked destination. Buildings painted in bright shades of yellow, pink and blue, floors decked in mosaic tiles and maze-like old quarters bursting with tales from days of yore. Lisbon has a lot of attractions and exudes character that is in no way inferior to more popular European destinations and certainly deserves a few days to discover its essence.
While there are no direct connections between Lisbon to anywhere in East Asia, the city is easily reachable by air or rail from most of Europe’s major cities. Usually, this involves at most just one stop if you’re coming from any of the major airports in Asia.
Baixa & Chiado
the classic tram system of lisbon
praca do comercio
The Baixa and Chiado districts are jointly considered to be the historical heart of the city. Flanked by the Praca do Comercio, this part of Lisbon was completely rebuilt after a massive earthquake ravaged the city in 1755. Today, upscale boutiques, museums and alfresco restaurants serving local fare such as bacalhau (codfish) line the grid-like streets of Baixa. This district is a retail paradise and is sure to please shopaholics looking for bargains among well-known European brands. Chiado, which is located just next door, is also lined with several shops and restaurants, but is less touristy. Our hostel – Home Lisbon Hostel – is located here and is a great base from which to explore the city.
praca luis de camoes in the bairro alto district of lisbon
Due to the city’s hilly slopes – Lisbon, like Rome, has seven hills – it is also known for having public elevators scattered all about the city. The most famous one is the Elevador de Santa Justa, a popular tourist attraction. It connects the Baixa district with elevated areas of Chiado and the bar district of Bairro Alto. Deceptively sleepy during the day, it turns into a mishmash of Brazilian and Caribbean beats at night and shows the great influence which Portugal’s colonies now have over its former colonial master, an almost 360 degree turn from where things stood 300 years ago.
fantastic view of the alfama district from another mirador
Said to be the most atmospheric of Lisbon’s neighborhoods, the Alfama is also its oldest. Traces of Portugal’s Moorish past can still be found in the zigzagging streets of the old quarter, while historic trams still ply its cobblestoned streets. The Lisbon Cathedral is also located here. Built in the 12th century, it has a very gothic, middle ages feel; like something that came out from Robin Hood. The similarly medieval Castelo de Sao Jorge, which overlooks the Alfama, serves as a great vantage point over the city’s historic sections. Due to the castle’s commanding position over the city, it played a very strategic role in protecting Lisbon from the Moors during medieval times. From the 16th century onwards, it fell out of favor and gradually came into disrepair. Renovation was subsequently done and a few of the original rooms in the former royal palace have been turned into a museum.
monument to the age of discovery
A 30-minute tram ride away from the city center, this neighborhood is arguably host to Lisbon’s finest monuments, including two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Belem was Portugal’s gateway to the age of discovery. It was from here that many notable explorer set sailed on their momentous journeys including Vasco da Gama, Henry the Navigator and Ferdinand Magellan. Christopher Columbus also stopped here for a time during the historic trip when he discovered the new world.
the jeronimos monastery
a friar resting on a bench
It was during this time that Portugal became one of the prosperous nations in the world and that the Belem Tower and Jeronimos Monastery were constructed. Built in Portuguese late-Gothic style, these structures have come to be the defining monuments of Portugal in the same way that Angkor Wat is to Cambodia and the Eiffel Tower is to France. We visited Belem on a Sunday when visitors could enter these attractions free of charge. The queue stretched out for so long when we arrived that we decided to just admire these majestic buildings from the outside.
the belem tower and the long queue to get in
A must try when in Belem are egg tarts. Now famous the world over, it was said to have originated in Belem, and to be more specific, behind the stone walls of the Jeronimos Monastery no less. Today, this succulent custard confection can be enjoyed at the Casa Pasteis de Belem, a bakery located next to the monastery which was said to have received the original recipe from the monks. I bought a couple from here and ate them while still warm. It was indeed tasty, with the crunch becoming almost crunchy. But there are other cafes within the vicinity of Belem that also sell the egg tarts which are just as great.
Where I stayed:
Home Lisbon Hostel is located right in the Baixa district, making it a very convenient base from which to explore the city. The place has a very cheery, convival atmosphere without becoming a “party hostel.” I paid Eur 18 for a bed that includes breakfast. Highly recommended.
Best Lookouts in Lisbon:
The hilly streets, old-world buildings and riverside location all make Lisbon an extremely scenic city. There are a lot of lookout points to choose from. Here are my recommended ones:
- Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara – Located in the Bairro Alto district, you’ll get a great view of the city center including the Castelo de Sao Jorge. Best visited in the afternoon.
- Miradouro Santa Luzia – Reachable on the way down from the Castelo, this viewpoint gives one an overarching glimpse of the Alfama district. Not to be missed!
- Santa Justa Elevator – Brings together a closer glimpse of the downtown area including Rossio Square, the main Baixa / Chiado district and surrounds