I’m always happy to see a Europe flight on my work roster, especially during the summer! It usually means two things – sunshine and bright blue skies – which gives me my ticket to explore a city until my feet can’t possibly take anymore!
With only a 24-hour stopover in Lisbon, I was going to have to make it count. Coming into land at Portela Airport, I thought back to the last time I was on Portuguese soil. After much deliberation and finger counting, I worked out that it had to be over 10 years ago, when I enjoyed a family holiday in the Algarve. This, therefore, was my first visit to Portugal as an adult, and I had no real preconceived ideas of what Lisbon would be like. I honestly didn’t know much about the history, or whether the food would be similar to Spain, or perhaps Italy?
I allowed myself a quick 30-minute turnaround at my hotel – the Sheraton Lisboa Hotel & Spa – and first impressions were very good. Rooms were impressive, complete with all the latest gadgets and gizmos, and the glass-surrounded bathtub with a view into the room would definitely get used later!
After asking the distance from the hotel to the city centre, the concierge explained it would be a 20-minute walk or a four-minute bus ride. With the weather nothing short of perfect, I decided that a stroll was just what the doctor ordered, and so off I went!
Leading into the city is the famous Avenida da Liberdade (Liberty Avenue) – built in the same mould as the famous Champs-Elysees in Paris – lined with trees, but with fewer designer stores. A Portuguese girl told me that once a year the street would fill with locals taking part in an annual political demonstration, but I was lucky enough to have a quiet day, which gave me time to marvel at the First World War monuments scattered along the street side.
Lisbon has an extremely rich history. Firstly, it is one of the oldest cities in the world – older than the likes of Rome, Paris and London. Ancient history tells us that there were people living on the Iberian Peninsula (South-West Europe), before the Romans settled in the 3rd century BC, who were later removed during the Germanic Invasion. During the Middle ages the land was taken over by Arabs, and the Muslim influence is still present in the oldest district of the city, Alfama. Only in 1128 did Portugal secure its independence, and the land became known as the Kingdom of Portugal. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, Portugal grew its Empire, by naval exploration, and took over much of Asia and Africa, all the while protecting its borders from neighbouring Spain.
In 1755, Lisbon was hit by an enormous earthquake and tsunami, which damaged the majority of the city, and killed between 10,000 and 100,000 people. Sadly, most of the ancient architecture was destroyed by the earthquake and therefore the city now reflects the 17th century rebuild, which is made up of parallel streets and central squares. During World War II, Portugal remained neutral, and was used as a pathway for refugees to the US. Many spies are also thought to have hidden in Lisbon during this time.
Nowadays, Lisbon is one of the major economic centres of Europe, and has one of the biggest container ports on the Europe Atlantic coast. Roughly three million people live in the Lisbon region, making it one of the largest cities in Western Europe. As has been well documented, Portugal has been deeply hit by the recent recession, and Lisbon has been central to this. Unemployment is still on the rise, and this was very apparent when walking around the city and witnessing the sheer number of street sellers, homeless people, and the need for major restoration in a number of the districts.
I would be lying if I said I thought Lisbon was one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. However, it has a great deal of charm. The city is built up of several different districts or neighbourhoods. Although these districts have no specific boundaries, they are clearly defined by history, culture, landmarks and living standards. Some of the most ‘touristy’ districts include Alfama, Chiado, Bairro Alto, Baxia, Belém, Estrela and Parque das Nações…
Alfama – The oldest district, where the Castle of São Jorge is situated in the hill overlooking the city. It runs down to the Tapus River and has many small shops and restaurants. One of the poorer areas of the city, it is here that you can visit a Fado bar, and listen to the traditional Portuguese music.
Chiado – A traditional shopping area, filled with quaint stores, museums and theatres. The Luís de Camões Square, named after a famous Portuguese Poet sits in the centre of the district with bookshops and busy coffee shops filled with locals and tourists.
Baixa – Rich in history and based in the heart of the city, Baixa is famous for its Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square). Before the earthquake hit in 1755, this was where the Royal Ribeira Palace sat. It was then re-modeled, and today it boasts various cafes, and Museums.
Bairro Alto – Entertainment district of the city, with many bars, restaurants and nightclubs. It caters for a multitude of different scenes; including Gay, Punk and Hip Hop.
Estrela – The main attraction in this area is the Estrela Basilica, a huge domed church of Baroque-Neoclassical style – definitely worth a visit.
Parque das Nações – This is the newer area of the city, having been renovated when Lisbon hosted Expo 98. It has a more modern facade, and boasts some of the highest residential housing prices.
One of my favourite things about the city were the quaint Portuguese homes, with colourful tiling, and iron-railed balconies. It was nice to see something other than paint covering the outside of the buildings, and some streets had a number of different patterns and styles.
Unfortunately, a combination of lack of time and a pair of very sore feet prevented me from visiting Belém that day!
From what I experienced, the Portuguese cuisine was similar to most Mediterranean countries, with a vast array of fish, meat and pasta dishes on offer. The food was fairly cheap by Central European standards. A main course and a glass of wine will set you back around €12 in a 3-4* restaurant – a pleasant change from the prices I’m used to paying in Dubai! I’d also fully recommend seeking out a local bakery and trying a pastry or two. The ‘pastéis de nata‘ is a delicious egg custard tart, and is a delicacy not to be missed!
The following morning I got up early and decided to make the 30-minute bus ride across town to Belém – and I’m so glad I did. This was my favourite area of the city and also hosts two UNESCO World Heritage sites. The area sits alongside the Tagus River, and set slightly out into the water is the Belém Tower; once a fortified lighthouse built to protect the port from potential intruders.
The Belém Tower was built in the 16th century from limestone and consists of four floors and an underground chamber for prisoners. The view from the top is quite spectacular, overlooking the entrance of the Tagus river. The Tower’s Gothic-style spheres are also a strong reflection of the Portuguese Manueline style of the 16th century.
The tower was not only built to protect the port, but to protect the Jerónimos Monastery as well. Also a UNESCO World heritage site, the magnificent Monastery was built in 1459, and was the home of Christian monks for many years. It was also used as a house of prayer for seamen passing down the Tapus river on voyages to the Orient. The Monastery is one of the few buildings that survived the earthquake with very little damage, and shortly after in the 18th century it became a Royal House, and was also used as a parish church. Today the Monastery is a museum and is one of the main tourist hotspots in the city. As well as displaying numerous art collections and ancient artifacts, it has also be known to lay stage to formal ceremonies from time to time – including the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007.
Further along the river stands the impressive Monument of the Discoveries, a 52-metre high white monument which celebrates the Portuguese exploration around the world between the 15th and 16th century. The view from the edge of the monument looks out onto the Tapus river, the bridge and the Cristo-Rei statue – a sculpture that replicates Rio De Janeiro’s famous ‘Christ the Redeemer’.
I really did enjoy my time in Lisbon, and if you’re planning a visit in the near future, I would say that two days in the city itself are probably enough to cover off most of the main sights. Locals suggest jumping on the train and visiting the pretty nearby towns of Sintra and Cascais, so if you have time then do it, but for me they will have to wait for next time…..
Liberty’s Travel Tips:
1. I would highly recommend wearing a pair of closed shoes when walking around the streets – I wore sandals and my feet were black by the end of the day!
2. Ride the old trams around the city. They are a fun and quick way to travel between the various districts. They can get a little over-crowed though, so if you don’t want your personal space invaded then taxis are also cheap. An 8-10 minute journey will cost you around €7.