"Over seven hills, which are as many points of observation whence the most magnificent panoramas may be enjoyed, the vast irregular and many coloured mass of houses that constitute Lisbon is scattered.
For the traveller who comes in from the sea, Lisbon, even from afar, rises like a fair vision in a dream, clear-cut against a bright blue sky which the sun gladdens with its gold. And the domes, the monuments, the old castles jut up above the mass of houses, like far-off heralds of this delightful seat, of this blessed region."
– Fernando Pessoa, writing in
Lisbon – What the Tourist Should See
FIRST IMPRESSIONS MATTER and these words, written in 1925 by the Portuguese poet and literary figure Fernando Pessoa as part of a personal guidebook to the city he loved, hold true to this day. Pessoa’s eloquent introduction to Western Europe’s oldest city was part of a long-term project to revive interest in Lisbon and give a boost to a city whose global influence had waned. It appears he was slightly ahead of his time because after the financial crisis and years of being overlooked in favour of rival European capitals, Lisbon is back, baby.
More than 10 million people visited Lisbon in 2016 – an all-time high for this compact city of around 600,000 (three million in the greater metropolitan area). Given its status as a safe, underrated and great-value travel destination, the numbers will only increase. Located close to the Atlantic coast, with a history dating back to pre-Roman times (it was a Phoenician trading post around 1200 BC), Lisbon’s picturesque setting, laid-back charm and mild Mediterranean climate make it a popular year-round choice.
It’s the sort of place where Roman ruins from the 1st-century AD sit alongside more recent buildings (18-century, say) in residential neighbourhoods, where a walk down any narrow street in the old town holds the promise of discovery and where multilingual lisboetas are ready to help with directions or enthuse about all things Portuguese.
The City of Seven Hills, as Lisbon is sometimes called, rises from the Baixa (Lower Town) on the northern banks of the River Tagus (or Tejo). It then spreads out across a series of small hills with names like Alfama, Graca and Estrela, each neighbourhood infused with a particular charm, featuring buildings that date back to the 18-century (the city was destroyed by a major earthquake in 1755).
The flatter, lower part of the city is characterised by wide boulevards and open squares while the hilly sections provide a good sampling of Lisbon’s heritage architecture. Within an easy walk of the Baixa are the districts of Chiado (shopping and theatre) and Bairro Alto (restaurants and nightlife). If the mood strikes (as it surely must), find your way to a fado bar for some Portuguese folk music – the expressive, slow-burning ballads will tug at the emotions and evoke a sense of saudade, the yearning for something lost.
The distinctive red rooftops in Lisbon’s old town; Colourful building facades in Lisbon’s Alfama neighbourhood; The Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra is a 19th-century Gothic mansion with extensive grounds and an elaborate network of tunnels.
If you are not in possession of Ironman-worthy knees or have an aversion to steep hills, perhaps the best introduction to the old town is from the inside of a number 28 tram, the ubiquitous 1930s-era yellow transporter that rattles on rails through the most charming parts of the city. Some streets are barely wide enough for cars to pass through, but number 28 will take you there in some style.
If antique contraptions are your thing, don’t pass up the chance to ride the Santa Justa elevador, a Neo-Gothic public lift built at the turn of the 20-century. It brings passengers from the Baixa to Largo do Carmo (Carmo Square), where grand vistas of the city await.
Open terraces and scenic plazas are scattered throughout the old town, offering fine views, entertainment by street musicians and respite from the exertions of an uphill walk. Just beside Santa Luzia Church on the upper reaches of Alfama is a broad terrace where visitors can enjoy a typical slice of Lisbon life by taking in views over the city’s red rooftops to the twin towers of a nearby church and the Tagus river in the distance.
Of course, Lisbon’s appeal isn’t confined to its storied past, ancient architecture and fine scenery – the details are just as interesting. Rua Augusta, the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, is paved with mosaics that wouldn’t look out of place in a stylish home, while colourful ceramic tiles or azulejos (small polished stone) – a legacy of Portugal’s Moorish past – decorate the facades of old buildings. Many of the city’s finer homes were built by wealthy returnees from the Brazilian gold rush of the 18-century, when Brazil was a Portuguese colony.
Heritage sites such as Se (Lisbon Cathedral), St George’s Castle and the Torre de Belem – a 16-century watchtower located several kilometres west of the city centre at the mouth of the Tagus – are indicative of Lisbon’s glory days. In Belem, the country’s seafaring past is celebrated by The Discoveries Monument, a tribute to the Age of Discovery when Portuguese explorers set sail from here in search of the New World. The most famous of them, Vasco da Gama (who pioneered the sea route to India), is buried in a nearby monastery.
The irony of Lisbon’s latest renaissance is not lost on local tour guide Ines Ramires. “Before, tourism just meant that people came to play golf in the Algarve,” she says. “Tourism is relatively new to Lisbon but in the last few years everyone has started to come. We discovered the world – and now the world has found us.”
PHOTOS: GEOFFREY EU
First-time visitors may be transfixed by the beauty of Lisbon, but it’s also worth venturing beyond the city to explore a different vista.
With 200 hectares of parkland surrounding it, the Pena Palace stands out in more ways than one. This elaborate mid-19 century manor on a hill overlooking the royal resort town of Sintra (about 28 kms north-west of Lisbon) and representing a broad range of architectural styles, was commissioned by the future King Ferdinand on the site of a former monastery. This unique complex is equal parts castle, Moorish-inspired folly and Disney fantasy.
Not far away is further proof of an overactive imagination: the Quinta da Regaleira, originally built as the summer residence of a wealthy family with – to put it mildly – an exuberant taste in architecture. This wildly theatrical 19-century Gothic mansion features extensive multi-level gardens and an elaborate network of tunnels.
For a sampling of nature, head south from Sintra towards the affluent coastal town of Cascais, with its surplus of seafood restaurants and high-end boutiques. Take a detour to Cabo da Roca, a windswept, rugged headland that qualifies as the most westerly point in continental Europe. Just outside Cascais, along the coast road that loops back towards Lisbon, is Boca do Inferno (Hell’s Mouth), a promontory where the constant crashing of waves has caused a collection of caves and indentations to be carved out of the rockface – just one more example of nature’s marvellous handiwork in the land that the poet Fernando Pessoa so loved.