Perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and with a personality split between Western Europe and Northern Africa, Lisbon is a European city like no other. Portugal's capital boasts as grand a cultural and historical heritage as any other major European city, but also a tumbledown, earthier side that sets it apart.
Lisbon's zenith was back in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when great explorers and bold sailing fleets edged out of the security of Lisbon in the quest to discover the "New World". This rich colonial past is still very much in evidence in the suburb of Belιm, laden with grand imperial buildings like the stunning Manueline Mosterio dos Jerσnimos and the waterfront Torre de Belιm. The Monument to the Discoveries is a modern tribute to the age when Portugal was one of the world's great maritime powers. One name that rides high above any other from this period is Vasco Da Gama, the country's greatest maritime hero.
Portugal’s caravels sailed off to conquer the great unknown from Bel?m, and today this leafy riverside precinct is a giant monument to the nation’s Age of Discoveries. First stop should be the Mosteiro dos Jer?nimos, a Manueline masterpiece whose intricate decoration and peaceful spaces will leave you inspired. A short walk away is the Torre de Bel?m, the much-photographed symbol of Portugal’s maritime glory.
The imposing limestone Monument to the Discoveries, also facing the river nearby, is shaped like a caravel and features key players from the era. When you’ve digested enough maritime history, head off to the famous Antiga Confeitaria de Bel?m for some delicious past?is de Bel?m (traditional custard tarts). If you have time, look around the Centro Cultural de Bel?m, one of Lisbon’s main cultural venues, which houses the Museo do Design, a collection of 20th-century mind-bogglers.
Rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake, the Baixa’s wide avenues and pedestrianised Rua Augusta are a pleasant place to shop and grab a coffee. The area’s chief attraction is the Elevador de Santa Justa. This imposing wrought-iron lift offers an easy ride up to the Bairro Alto, plus a rooftop cafe with views to kill for. Built in 1902 by Gustave Eiffel follower Raul M?snier du Ponsard, it has more than a passing resemblance to the Eiffel Tower.
The Bairro Alto is famous for its nightlife, although the Parque das Na??es and riverside areas are now giving it a run for its money. There is no shortage of bars and clubs, in fact, your greatest problem could be keeping up with the resident party crowd, who start late and often continue till dawn. During the day see Lisbon life up close by exploring the picturesque streets and becos (staircased alleys) that wind up the area’s steep hills.
With its miradouras and medieval streets, Alfama is Lisbon’s oldest district, and one of its most interesting. It is best known for its Castelo de S?o Jorge, set high on the hill of the same name. Although it has been extensively refurbished and isn’t all that authentic, the castle is nevertheless worth exploring and offers possibly the best views of the city.
Linger in a backstreet cafe along the way and experience some local bonhomie without the tourist gloss. Take a well-deserved break at the Miradouro de Santa Luzia or Miradouro da Gra?a (which has a cafe) and enjoy yet more stunning views of the city. If you haven’t had enough of churches already, the Romanesque S? (Cathedral) is Alfama’s most important. For an instant fix on what fado is all about head to the Casa do Fado.
We would be remiss if we didn’t tell you to visit the Cristo Rei, over the river in Cacilhas. A smaller version of Brazil’s giant Jesus, this religious icon with arms outstretched has major kitsch value, as does its gift shop. The latter is an Ali Baba cave of over-the-top gilt and bejewelled Cristo Rei everything. Do yourself a favour and don’t miss this hotbed of religious craftsmanship. The views from the top of the monument aren’t half bad either.