Called “A Cidade Branca” (“The White City”) for how the sunlight illuminates its aged limestone walls, Portugal’s capital enjoys a warm, Mediterranean climate and idyllic waterfront location. While not as popular a tourist destination as Paris or Rome, Lisbon (Lisboa in Portuguese) offers its own brand of captivating Old World charm. Perched atop seven rolling hills, the city is teeming with historic monuments, public squares and stately buildings clad in colorful, hand-painted azulejos (tiles) all linked together by narrow cobblestone alleyways that zigzag up the hilly terrain. Plus, getting to Lisbon is easy with the many direct and non-stop Air Canada flights that are available.
In no particular order, here’s my list of the top ten best places to visit when you’re in Lisbon, Portugal.
Paved with the city’s signature mosaic cobblestones, Lisbon’s lively pedestrian street is lined with charming cafés, authentic restaurants and trendy shops. It begins at the Praça do Comércio with a grand, triumphal arch and cuts through downtown’s Baixa district to Rossio Square, the main gathering place for locals.
Arguably the most beautiful and impressive building in all of Lisbon, the Jeronimos Monastery was built by King Manuel I in 1502 to commemorate Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the building is characterized by elaborate Manuelino details and maritime motifs. Inside the monastery’s entrance are the elaborate tombs of Vasco da Gama and poet Luis de Camões.
Also known as the Elevador de Carmo, this extraordinary 147-foot (45-meter) tall structure was built at the turn of the twentieth century by French architect Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard to connect downtown to Bairro Alto, the high neighborhood. The top of the cast iron, Neo-Gothic tower offers spectacular views of the red-roofed city, the Castelo de São Jorge and the Tagus River beyond. Ponsard was an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel, which explains the elevator’s similarities to the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Lisbon’s medieval castle stands atop the highest of the city’s seven hills and offers another vantage point with breathtaking views of the city. Most of the castle has fallen into ruin over the years, especially after the Great Earthquake of 1755. However, visitors can still climb the towers and walk along the crenellated ramparts.
Built in 1515, the Belem Tower was once a fortress that guarded the entrance to Lisbon’s harbor. Countless caravels set sail from this point in hopes of finding new trade routes to Africa, India and the Orient. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Torre is the symbol of the Portuguese capital city.
Dedicated to the Portuguese who led Europe’s Age of Discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries, the Monument to the Discoveries was constructed in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator, the first in a long line of explorers to venture into the great unknown. Led by Prince Henry at the helm, the monument also features the likenesses of explorers Magellan, Vasco da Gama and Cabral, kings Manuel I and Alfonso V, poet Camões and several other notable Portuguese historical figures.
Instead of exploring the city by tour bus, another great option is to simply ride Tram 28. Wending its way through Lisbon’s “Old Town” neighborhoods of Graça, Alfama, Baixa, Chiado, and Bairro Alto, this historic tramway has been in operation since 1901. The trip is bumpy and loud but it affords an authentic glimpse of the city as it passes by many of Lisbon’s most famous and interesting sites.
These warm, fresh-out-of-the-oven custard tarts with light and flaky crusts can be found in cafés all over Lisbon. First made by a pair of nuns in the early 1800s at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, the most famous ones are still baked at the Casa Pastéis de Belém, located next to the monastery. Sprinkled with a little cinnamon and powdered sugar, the tops gently browned by the oven, the pastéis literally melt in your mouth. They’re best enjoyed with a bica, the Portuguese version of an espresso.
Lisbon’s cathedral was constructed in 1147 but collapsed during the Great Earthquake, killing hundreds of worshippers inside. It was subsequently rebuilt over the centuries in a variety of architectural styles including Romanesque, Gothic, baroque, neoclassical and Rococo. Its fortress-like bell towers can be seen poking above the rooftops from nearly everywhere in the old city.
Lisbon’s leafy main boulevard, Avenida da Libertade, was built in the 19th century in the style of the Champs-Elysees in Paris. It runs north for a mile (1.6 km), connecting Praça Restauradores to Praça Marquês de Pombal. The elegant avenue is shaded by trees and lined with the city’s grandest hotels, banks and designer shops, including famous names like Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein, Armani, Burberry, among others.
Have you been to Lisbon before? What are your favorite sights and attractions? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section below!