The capital of Portugal, and one of Europe's most beautiful and cosmopolitan cities. Set over a series of hills near the mouth of the River Tagus, it is a place inextricably linked with the sea. Intrepid navigators embarked from here in the 15th and 16th centuries to sail unknown waters and chart new lands, and the legacy of this golden Age of Discovery underpins much of the city's culture and heritage.
Lisbon is a colorful and vibrant destination. Renowned for its warm and sunny disposition, the city is blessed with a wealth of historic monuments, world class museums, and a host of other fabulous things to do. You can explore the narrow streets of the old quarter, stroll the riverbank promenade, or wander through beautiful parks and gardens.
1. Castelo de Sao Jorge
An Iconic Landmark, St. George's Castle commands a glorious position near Alfama on the crown of a hill overlooking the Portuguese capital. This is one of Lisbon's most popular tourist destinations. Its impressive battlements, engaging museum, and fascinating archaeological site combine to make the castle a rewarding experience for anyone visiting. There has been a stronghold on this site since the Iron Age, but it was a castle that the Moors defended against invading Christian forces before finally being overrun in 1147 by Afonso Henriques. The victorious king built the Aláçova Palace, home to subsequent monarchs until a new royal residence was constructed near the river. The palace foundations form part of the excavations that can be seen today.
Visitors areable to admire the fabulous views from the observation terrace that affords an uninterrupted panorama of the city, the River Tagus, and the distant Atlantic Ocean. For a different perspective, there is a Camera Obscura periscope housed in one of the towers that provides viewers with an unusual 360° projected view of the city below.
2. Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Built in Honor of Portugal's Age of Discovery, this is a highlight of any Lisbon sightseeing tour. The 16th century Jerónimos monastery is one of the great landmarks of Portugal, a stunning monument of immense historic and cultural significance deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage Site accolade. Near the riverfront in Lisbon's attractive Belém neighborhood, the monastery, also known as the Hieronymite convent, was commissioned by King Manuel I in 1501. Built to honor Vasco da Gama's epic 1498 voyage to India, Jerónimos is as much a symbol of the wealth of the Age of Discovery as it is a house of worship. Construction was mostly funded by trade in the spices brought back by da Gama. Star features include the fantastically elaborate south portal and the beautiful and serene Manueline cloister. Vasco da Gama's tomb lies just inside the entrance to Santa Maria church.
3. Torre de Belem
This historic Tower, is one of Lisbon's most emblematic historical monuments. Belém Tower stands in the shallows near the mouth of the River Tagus as a symbol of Portugal's extraordinary Age of Discovery during the 16th century. Built in 1515-21 as a fortress and originally sited in the middle of the river, before the watercourse shifted over the years. It represents the highpoint of decorative Manueline architecture. Its ornate façade is adorned with fanciful maritime motifs - all twisted rope and armillary spheres carved out of stone. Indeed, so valuable and iconic is this monument that it is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Set over various levels, the most interesting interior feature is the second-floor King's Chamber where the room opens onto a Renaissance loggia. The royal coat of arms of Manuel I is placed above the elegant arcades. Climb the impossibly steep spiral staircase to the top floor tower terrace, and you are rewarded with a fine panorama of the waterfront esplanade and the river.
4. Oceanario de Lisboa
This modern oceanarium is one of Europe's finest aquariums, and one of the largest in the world. It is also arguably the most family orientated of all the city's visitor attractions. Designed by Peter Chermayeff and built for the Expo 98 World Exposition in an area now known as Parque das Nações, the oceanarium is home to an overwhelingly impressive array of fish and marine animals, including dozens of different species of birds. The ingenious layout represents four separate sea and landscapes, effectively the habitats of the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Antarctic oceans. These surround an enormous central tank teeming with fish of all shapes and sizes including graceful rays, bulbous sunfish and sleek sharks. The wraparound plexiglass allows a fantastic close-up view of this magical undersea world. There are also many other interesting species housed in smaller aquaria such as the exquisitely delicate sea dragons and the comic clownfish.
The different ecosystems are a delight to explore. The Antarctic habitat, for example, showcases playful penguins, while a pair of spirited sea otters steals the show in the Pacific tank. The Oceanário de Lisboa actively promotes conservation of the world's oceans, and besides its envious reputation as one of Portugal's most popular tourist attractions, has gathered global praise for its marine environmental awareness campaigns.
5. Elevator de Santa Justa
An antique elevator with city views, looming somewhat out of place over the rooftops of Lisbon's Baixa, downtown district. A neo-Gothic elevator and the most eccentric and novel means of public transport in the city. At first glance, its riveted wrought iron frame and battleship grey paint conjure images of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and there is a connection: the French architect Raoul Mésnier du Ponsard, an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel, designed the elevator, which was inaugurated in 1901. It was built as a means of connecting the Baixa with the Largo do Carmo in the Bairro Alto neighborhood, a trendy area of the city peppered with expensive shops, Fado houses, and small restaurants.
Today, it is curious tourists rather than the commuting public who make the 32 meter jaunt to the top, traveling in wood paneled cabins that still feature the original polished brass instruments. The cabins creak their way to a platform set just below the top terrace. From here, passengers can either exit and walk across a bridge into Bairro Alto or opt to climb the spiral staircase that leads to the upper terrace. The views from the top are superb and take in a busy urban canvas of pedestrianized streets, picturesque squares, and the omnipresent castle and River Tagus. You can also enjoy a wonderful perspective of the nearby Igreja do Carmo. Expect large queues throughout the summer season.
Another unique form of transport in Lisbon is the Elevador da Bica, a funicular railroad that was constructed by Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard and opened to the public in 1892. Today, it still rises above the steep Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo and whisks passengers up to a panoramic viewpoint. The lower station of this funicular railroad is almost hidden behind a facade on the Rua de S. Paulo with the inscription "Ascensor da Bica" (no. 234). While here, it is worth exploring this peaceful little quarter known as Bica, which runs down from the Calçada do Combro/Rua do Loreto to the Tagus. Only a few cars journey here due to its sloping topography, narrow streets, and densely packed buildings.
6. Padrao dos Descobrimentos
A tribute to the age of discovery and dominating the Belém waterfront is the angular Monument to the Discoveries. It is an enormous monolith that leans over the River Tagus to resemble the prow of a caravel, the type of ship commanded by the Portuguese navigators in the 15th century to chart unexplored oceans and discover new lands.
The design is deliberate. This landmark structure was built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. It pays suitable tribute to all those actively involved in the development of the golden Age of Discovery by way of an amazing frieze of statues set along both sides of the monument of the most prominent personalities, figures like Vasco da Gama, Fernão de Magalhães, and Pedro Álves Cabral. Henry himself stands at the fore, caravel in hand.
After admiring those immortalized in stone, you can jump in an elevator and be whisked to the top of the monument for a birds eye view of the riverfront and the surrounding vicinity. Sunk into the esplanade below is a huge pavement compass, a giant mosaic map of the world that charts the locations and dates each new land was discovered. It is one of Lisbon's more unusual photo opportunities.
7. Arco da Rau Augusta
Lisbon's huge riverfront square, Praça do Comércio, is impressive enough seen from the ground, but it is only when viewed from the Arco da Rua Augusta that its vast dimensions can really be appreciated. The landmark 19th-century arch lies at the northern edge of the concourse near the southern tip of Rua Augusta, the city's main pedestrianized thoroughfare. Designed by Portuguese architect Santos de Carvalho and built to mark the reconstruction of the capital after the 1755 earthquake, the monument was inaugurated in 1873. It is only recently that the public has been allowed to visit the top of the arch, where a terrace is surmounted by an allegorical statue of Glory, itself crowning figures representing Bravery and Genius and decorated with wreaths. Below this, an entablature supports additional statues of national heroes including Vasco da Gama and the Marquês de Pombal.
An elevator deposits visitors near the top, after which a steep spiral staircase needs to be navigated in order to reach the terrace. From here, the view south is majestic and stretches away across the square and over the river. Turn north, and the vista takes in Rua Augusta and Lisbon's entire Baixa, downtown district. A mechanical clock on the platform made in 1941 strikes the hour and half hour. The clock's mechanism, based inside the arch, can be admired in all its intricate detail as can an illustrated panel outlining the arch's own historic timeline.
8. Day Trip to Sintra
Arguably the most rewarding day trip experience out of Lisbon is a visit to the wonderfully romantic town of Sintra, a direct 40 minute rail journey from the city center. Nestling in the foothills of the rugged Serra de Sintra, a rolling landscape of verdant woodland peppered with outcrops of granite, this enchanting destination unfolds as a scenic picture book of regal royal palaces, mysterious mansions, and a mighty Moorish castle dating from the 8th century. Set against this attractive canvas is the historic old town, Sintra-Vila, a delightful configuration of colorful and ornate townhouses, decorative cafes, and traditional restaurants wedged along a maze of cobblestone streets and narrow alleys. Once the summer retreat for the Kings and Queens of Portugal, Sintra is deserving of its World Heritage Site status and remains a destination of majestic appeal.
The Sintra and Cascais Small-Group Day Trip from Lisbon covers all the highlights of both Sintra and the former fishing village of Cascais. Explore Sintra National Park, see the stunning Pena National Palace and Sintra National Palace.