The essence of Lisbon

I read quite a few travel guides and blog posts about Lisbon and most of them offer a good summary of what to see and where to visit in Lisbon. But almost none of them actually tell you what those places mean for the Portuguese. I feel you can only take in the essence of Lisbon if you let yourself sink into the mixture of the glorious past, the nostalgia and melancholy of the city and the people.

Monument to the discoveries in Belém
The Monument to The Discoveries on the Belém esplanade.

Starting from the 15th century – taking advantage of its geographical location and the sea – Portugal gradually became one of the largest colonial empires of the world. Through the process of naval explorations trading routes with Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and the Americas were built out. Lisbon was an imperial centre with all the benefits that came with it – money, development and grandeur. The city’s most impressive landmarks were either built in this era or were created to commemorate the golden Age of Discovery. This age defines a high standard the Portuguese always long for, a pride for the now small nation in the periphery of Europe. Something they can always think back on when facing today’s challenges.

Torre Belém by river Tejo
The Torre de Belém by the Tejo river

In this light I recommend to start your sightseeing tour in Belém, a district by the river Tejo. This area with its UNESCO World Heritage sites is truly petrified history. Probably the most renowned landmark of the capital is the Tower of Belém which served as a fortress back in the golden ages. The tower is ornated with maritime elements and from its spacious terrace there is a nice view of the waterfront. Real close to the Tower you will find another memory of the Age of Discovery. One of the most beautiful cathedrals I have ever visited is the Jerónimos Monastery. It was also built to commemorate the age of explorers. One of the greatest ones, Vasco da Gama is laid to rest inside the monastery.

Jerónimos monastery inside
Inside the Jerónimos Monastery.

My two favorite locations within the building were the gallery of the church with its fantastic view of the whole building and the cloister next to it. Both boast with fantastic sculptures and figures carved in stone. A third landmark in Belém, the Monument to the Discoveries also stands as a reminder of the golden age of Lisbon. An astonishing site by the river, it depicts a caravel (a Portuguese ship) sailing towards the new world.

Once you understood the glorious days of the Portuguese, you can head to Baixa (the centre). I loved lunch hours by the main square, the Praça do Comércio. It’s fun to mingle with the Portuguese and have a lunch menu by the square. You have a small chance (like 99%) to run into either cabbage soup or some nice bacalao (cod). Hope you like them as they are pretty common in Lisbon. This area is great for souvenir shopping also, and if you have some change, ask for a bica (espresso like coffee) after lunch.

Santa Luzia viewpoint


Lisbon is famous for the tiny tramway lines running on even tinier streets. Near Praça do Comércio you can hop on the most convenient one, tram no. 28, which will take you towards the Alfama district (direction to Martim Moniz).

São Jorge Castle walls
The fortified walls of São Jorge Castle.

You will pass by the old cathedral or Sé of Lisbon. I recommend jumping off at the Santa Luzia viewpoint. You will be rewarded with one of the most spectacular sights of the city below your feet. A few minutes walk and you are at Castelo de São Jorge, which besides being a Moorish fortification from almost a 1000 years ago, is also a great vista point.

An evening stroll and a dinner in Bairro Alto will lead you even closer to understanding Lisbon’s vibes. Get ready, it might hurt after a while… If you make a reservation in a fado restaurant, you can listen to melancholic songs that mourn long gone love and past times. Let the feeling and a glass of port take you over. Don’t stay too long, though. The music can be overwhelming after a while. If you want to learn more about fado, click here.


Cristo Rei statue from below
The statue of Cristo Rey on the other side of the river.

Let the next day show you a different side of Lisbon. If the day is sunny, hop on a ferry at Cais do Sodré and cross the river to Cacilhas. Take bus 101 and you are up at the Cristo Rei (Statue of Christ). The statue was built in the 1950s to express gratitude over Portugal avoiding the second world war. Although the idea of a Christ statue was not quite original (the Cristo Redentor in Rio served as an example for its construction), once the elevator takes you up the top of the statue, I guarantee you will have the best panoramic view of the city and the 25th of April bridge crossing over the Tejo.

25th of April bridge
The 25th of April bridge as seen from Cristo Rei.

In a city living a bit in the shadows of the past it was a breath of fresh air to visit Parque das Nações. This area hosted the World Expo in 1998 and gave a boost to modern architecture and sort of a revival of Lisbon. By the waterfront you have the chance to take a stroll or get on the cable car that will take you along river Tejo. I also loved the Lisbon Oceanarium, which is one of the biggest aquariums of Europe and is a great pastime for families also.

For some great local tips, I recommend to also visit this blog.

All in all, I had the impression that the best way to not only see but feel Lisbon is through understanding its past and its people. I hope to immerse in Lisbon like that again.

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Azulejo tiles in Lisbon