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Portugal> Lisbon Highlights


A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary

Lisbon Highlights

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Any trip to Portugal should include some time in the capital and largest city, Lisbon. Sitting on seven low hills near the mouth of the River Tagus (Tejo), it qualifies as one of the world's most beautifully situated cities. Just above Lisbon the Tagus spreads out into a 7-kilometer-wide estuary, which carries it the final 16 kilometers of its 1,000-kilometer course to the Atlantic. The sunset glow on the estuary has given it the name of Mar de Palha, or Sea of Straw. This is the centerpiece of Lisbon's charm and one of its most attractive features. It also provides an excellent sheltered harbor, which has been the city's most significant economic attribute and the reason for its long-term importance.

Recommended Pacing: If you select a couple of museums that appeal to you, do a little shopping, climb a couple of monuments, ride a funicular, take a few trams, visit a couple of churches, admire the views from the belvederes and castles, and explore the different neighborhoods, you will need at least two days here. Add an extra night if you are making the daytrip to see the palaces at Sintra.

Lisbon was probably first settled by the Phoenicians around 1200 BC and, after falling to the Greeks and Carthaginians in succession, was taken by the Romans in 205 BC. From 714 to 1147 AD it was in Moorish hands; then around 1260 it became the seat of the Portuguese monarchs and has been the capital ever since.

The city really reached its maturity in the 16th century when so many exploratory sea voyages were launched from here. The flourishing trade with the Orient, which resulted from the discovery of the route around Africa, made Lisbon the European center of such commerce and brought a high level of prosperity to the city.

In 1755 an exceptionally violent earthquake hit Portugal and much of Lisbon was reduced to rubble, especially the lower town. The subsequent tidal wave was an awesome catastrophe, sweeping away thousands of people. Uncontrollable fires augmented the citywide destruction. The quake was a major event in Europe and dampened the carefree optimism prevailing at the time. The Marques de Pombal, who was Foreign Minister serving under the inexperienced King Jose I, used the tragedy as his springboard to nearly dictatorial power. He immediately began the reconstruction of the city, following the fashionable design of the time: wide, tree-lined boulevards and streets laid out in a square pattern. The reconstruction was mostly limited to the flatter, lower town: The hillsides still retain the winding lanes of the original city. Most of what you see today in Lisbon reflects the fine style of the 18th century as set forth by Pombal.

Driving in Lisbon, as in any large European city, is trying, to say the least. We strongly suggest using buses, trams, and the metro where walking is not feasible. If your plans include renting a car, our advice is to take delivery after staying in Lisbon-it is expensive to park here, and it is always easier to follow directions to one of the major highways out of the city (which are well marked) than it is to try to find your way to your city hotel.

You can, of course, take a city tour to acquaint yourself with Lisbon's layout but you can also easily orient yourself with a detailed map (readily available from your hotel) and set out to explore using the easy-to-understand public transport system. We found the Lisbon Card, which provides unlimited use of public transportation and free admission to many museums and sights for 24, 48, or 72 hours, really good value for money. It is available from tourist offices, your hotel, or at the airport.

Lisbon is divided into distinct neighborhoods. The center of activity is the district known as the BAIXA, or lower town. This is the area between the Praça do Comércio on the riverbank, through Dom Pedro IV Square (called the Rossio), and along the expansive Avenida da Liberdade to the Praça do Marques de Pombal. The Praça do Comércio is a gigantic 9-acre square surrounded by mostly government buildings, with an equestrian statue of King Jose I in the middle. The square was spruced up in preparation for the Expo that took place in the spring of 1998. You may hear or see the name Terreiro do Paço in reference to it: that means "Palace Square" and refers to a palace destroyed by the earthquake. Just off the southeast corner of the square is the ferry dock where you can take a boat to the city of Barreiro on the left bank of the Tagus. From another dock just east of there you can take a tranquil two-hour cruise on the river and glean a unique perspective of the city.

The area north of the square (reached through a baroque triumphal arch) consists of Lisbon's major shopping streets, which feed into the Praça like spokes of a wheel. Pombal's intent was to organize the district by product category; hence names such as Rua do Ouro for the goldsmiths and Rua da Prata for the silversmiths. The distinction is no longer maintained, however, and all kinds of vendors are found on all the streets.

At the north end of this bustling area is the Rossio, or Dom Pedro IV Square, where its namesake stands atop a 22-meter column between baroque fountains. At the end of the square is the National Theater with a statue of Gil Vicente, considered to be the father of Portuguese theater. He occupies a literary position in Portugal similar to that of Shakespeare in England, though he lived more than a century earlier. Just behind the national theater, many colorful restaurants line the streets with tables set outside for dining when the weather is warm.

Beyond the theater is the Restauradores Square, honoring the uprising in 1640, which put an end to the Spanish occupation of Portugal. This lively square forms one end of the magnificent Avenida da Liberdade, lined with trees, tall, modern office buildings, and hotels. At the other end of the avenue is a monument to Pombal and, behind it, the elegant Edward VII Park created in honor of the 1902 visit of that English king. Here you find formal gardens and splendid views from the upper end of the park.

A couple of blocks north of the Edward VII Park sits the Gulbenkian Foundation, established by an Armenian oilman who lived much of his life in Portugal and bequeathed his fortune to establish the foundation. The organization supports cultural activities and the building houses two museums. The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum contains the eclectic personal collection of the benefactor: Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome are represented along with a large collection of Oriental art.

To the west of the Baixa is the section known as the BAIRRO ALTO, or upper town. An easy way to get there is to take the funicular from the Avenida da Liberdade (you'll see the station at the north end of the Praça dos Restauradores).

The funicular runs up the street called Calcada da Gloria, at the top of which sits the Belvedere of São Pedro de Alcantara overlooking panoramas of the city to the north. Down the Rua da Misericordia to the south is the 16th-century São Roque Church, which has a handsome interior. Attached to the church is a worthwhile museum of religious art. A little farther in the same direction lies the Square of Luis de Camoes (he wrote The Lusiads, Portugal's greatest epic poem). To the left runs the Rua Garrett, also known as the Chiado-an elegant, animated street lined with shops and cafés. If you follow it to its end and turn left on Rua do Carmo, in addition to more boutiques, you'll come across ruins of a Carmelite church (to the left). To the right is an Eiffel-designed elevator, (Elevador de Santa Justa), which takes you down to the Rua do Ouro in the Baixa.

The area to the east of the Baixa is the medieval city crowned by the São Jorge Castle. The section nearest the river is known as the ALFAMA and is characterized by ancient stepped streets winding through picturesque old houses with wrought-iron balconies and washing hanging to dry from flower-bedecked windows. At the edge near the Praça do Comércio is Lisbon Cathedral, a late 12th-century edifice largely restored after the earthquake. It contains several small chapels and an impressive Treasury (Tesouro). A bit farther up on the Rua Limoeiro is the Belvedere Santa Luzia with superb views over the rooftops of the ancient Alfama and the rest of the city beyond.

At the apex of the hill is the Castle of São Jorge, built on the site of the earliest town settlement. Originally converted from a Moorish castle, it has been remodeled many times over the centuries. There are terrific vistas from the terrace and castle battlements over the city's hills and the Tagus. Plan your excursion so that you can dine at the charming restaurant, Casa de Leão, built within the old castle. This delightful restaurant, operated by the pousada chain, is quite popular, so it's best to make a reservation. The restaurant terrace is a romantic spot to watch the sunset.

A few hundred meters east of the castle is São Vicente de Fora Church, which has some beautiful azulejos in the adjoining cloisters. A passage leads behind the church to the old refectory transformed into the Bragança Pantheon in 1885. It contains the family tombs from that famous royal line since the 17th century. If you are here on Tuesday or Saturday, seek out the colorful flea markets in progress in nearby Campo de Santa Clara and Campo Santana.

Along the river to the west of the Praço do Comércio on the Rua das Janelas Verdes is the excellent Museu de Arte Antiga (Ancient Art). Besides a first-rate collection of Portuguese art, there are good works by Spanish, Flemish, and German artists. The gold- and silversmith work is also superior, as is the exhibit of antique furniture. This museum is definitely worth a visit.

Beyond Europe's longest suspension bridge, the 25 de Abril (commemorating the Revolution of 1974), is the BELÉM district, reached by tram or bus. In the former riding school of the adjacent Palaçio de Belém (the Royal Palace, now the residence of the President of Portugal) is the not-to-be-missed Coach Museum with its stunning collection of royal coaches and carriages from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Just beyond the palace is the famous Jerónimos Monastery with its awe-inspiring two-story cloister with richly carved columns and beautiful decorations. King Manuel I commissioned this marvel as a gesture of gratitude for Vasco da Gama's discovery of the route to India, which resulted in the glorious era of Portuguese wealth and prominence. In the former dormitory flanking the church is the National Archaeological Museum with an impressive collection of prehistoric Iberian material. Farther west is the Naval Museum, which will appeal to those who enjoy historical displays of model ships.

Walk across the grassy Praça do Império in front of the monastery where a pedestrian underpass takes you under the road and train tracks to the impressive Monument to the Discoveries where Prince Henry the Navigator stands at the prow leading a parade of world explorers. An elevator takes you to the top of the monument for excellent views of the surrounding area. Just down the riverbank is the Belém Tower. This tower was constructed as a fortress in the early 16th century in the middle of the Tagus, which obviously has changed course a bit, since the tower now sits on the right bank. It's well worth visiting and also offers an excellent panorama.

EXCURSIONS FROM LISBON: There are several ways to explore the "Portuguese Riviera," which is the name given to the area to the west of the city, between Lisbon and the Atlantic. Numerous bus tours are available, although their one-day duration can't really do justice to this beautiful area. Another way, of course, is by car from Lisbon. Saving the best for last, we recommend that you take the train and a local bus connection to the palaces at Sintra. If you are not particularly enamored of the hustle and bustle of Lisbon, you might seriously consider choosing one of the lovely hotels in or near Cascais, Monserrate, or Sintra instead of staying in the city. From there you can make excursions to Lisbon by train.

If you opt to stay in Lisbon, the following is a description of the route along the Portuguese Riviera by car:

ESTORIL, CASCAIS, AND SINTRA: Leave Lisbon going north on the Avenida da Liberdade. When you reach the roundabout at Marquis de Pombal, take the A5 (blue signs) marked to Cascais and Estoril. The toll road ends at Cascais.

The old-world resort of Estoril has been a favorite stomping ground of the European jet set for a century. The once-magnificent beaches have deteriorated somewhat, but the lovely private villas will still impress you. This coastal area enjoys an especially mild climate all year round. All sorts of activities, outdoor and indoor, from golf to gambling, abound in this town.

Although technically separate, Estoril now forms a contiguous developed unit with Cascais, former summer home of the Portuguese royal family (19th century) and now that of the President. Originally a tiny fishing village, today it is a pleasant and colorful resort town resplendent with boutiques, narrow winding streets, seafood restaurants, and flowery parks. In the center of town brightly painted boats are still hauled up on the shore at night and the fishermen sit talking on the dock as they mend their nets.

Just out of Cascais on the coast road (N247-8) is a giant sea-formed abyss called Boca do Inferno (Hell's Jaws). Here breakers smash into the rocky caverns, creating intriguing patterns among the oddly shaped rocks of the promontory. Continue following the ocean and leave the high-rises behind you. Follow the road up the headland and watch for a turnoff to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of the European continent-an isolated, elevated promontory from which to survey the vastness of the Atlantic.

Return to the N247 and continue skirting the western edge of the Serra di Sintra. A short drive brings you to the little town of Colares, justly famous for its superior wines. A few kilometers farther along you find yourself in Sintra, a very confusing town divided into three distinctly different parts: Sintra Villa, Estefânia, and Sào Pedro. Navigate yourself to Sintra Villa, parking as close as possible to the National Palace at the heart of this old part of town.

Much of the Palace, whose two conical-shaped chimneys rise above the palace's vast kitchens, was built by João I in the 14th-century with Moorish additions by Manuel I in the 16th century. It was the favorite summer retreat for the Portuguese court and royal family until the 1880s. Highlights include the Sala das Pegas with its intricate ceiling panels of chattering magpies, designed to discourage courtiers from gossiping; the Sala dos Brasões, a grand domed room whose lower walls are lined with Delft-like tile panels while its upper reaches are decorated with stags holding the coats of arms of Portuguese nobility; and the Sala dos Cisnes, a banqueting hall whose 17th-century ceiling is decorated with swans.

Sintra is an especially romantic little town, nestled in the heavily wooded hills that rise from the coast. This was once an area of great wealth and many of the fabulous old quintas (farm estates).

A narrow zigzag lane leads up to the remains of the 7th-century Castelo dos Mouros whose ramparts provide enchanting views of the serra. Farther up the hill is the fantastic 19th-century Palácio da Pena, a colorful, flight-of-fancy construction, which includes elements of every architectural period imaginable.

There are guided tours of the interior, featuring art objects and furnishings supposedly left exactly as they were when the monarchy was overthrown in 1910. The terraces, guard paths, and ornate onion dome afford marvelous views to Lisbon and the Tagus to the east and the Atlantic to the west. The terraces, guard paths, and ornate onion dome afford marvelous views to Lisbon and the Tagus to the east and the Atlantic to the west. This is a castle you mustn't miss-it's fabulous.

You will find the return to Lisbon is well signposted.

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A Karen Brown Reader Discovery Quinta do Barranco da Estrada
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€ 80-135
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[ icon ] Cascais
Lisboa, Portugal
[ icon ] Tomar
Costa da Prata, Santarem, Portugal
[ icon ] Sintra
Lisboa, Portugal
[ icon ] Barreiro
Costa de Lisboa, Setubal, Portugal
[ icon ] Alcobaça
Costa da Prata, Leiria, Portugal

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[ icon ] Paradise in Portugal
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