Exciting things to do in Lisbon
I have been to Portugal twice before, taking in the wine city of Porto in the north and checking out the beaches of the Algarve on the south coast but when visiting the Portuguese capital, little did I know it will turn out to be one of my favourite cities in Europe. Set on the hills overlooking the River Tejo, the city is packed with many contrasting delights and character. From the elegance of the Baixa to the waterfront which has a lot of history to the historic Alfama district, this city is one truly amazing getaway. There is so much to do here in the city which adds an Brazilian feel in the air but here are my favourite things to do in Lisbon.
The medieval quarter of the city is an amazing blend of picturesque streets and historic buildings. Whilst walking around this district, every corner I turned, I was presented with an great photo opportunity. I found the best way to explore this district is by foot but the famous dark yellow trams do pass through this area.
The main highlight is The Sé (the cathedral) which stands on a former mosque. Built in the 12th century, the cathedral looks like a fortress than a religious place of worship. The cathedral has had to be built a few times but not because of war but because of earthquakes.
In the centre of Lisbon is the Baixa area which was rebuilt after a huge earthquake in the 18th century. This area is an great example of 18th century town planning with its sublime streets, houses and streets. The highlight has to be the Elevador de Santa Justa which can be found on a side street from the Rus do Our. One of the city’s main landmarks, this elevator-tower was built in 1901 and stands at 45 meters tall. This is a good place to get great views of the Baixa area but try and come at the quiet times of the day as queues are quite long here (but it is cheap to go up!)
This has to be one of my favourite areas of Lisbon. Located west of the centre and along the northern shores of the river, Belém has plenty to offer for visitors to the city and if done intense, can take a day or two! For a day trip to this area like I did, I first checked out the Padrão dos Descobrimentos. This amazing monument commemorates the great age of Portuguese discoveries around the world. There are quite a few famous explorers here like Henry the Navigator (who is holding a ship) and wears a huge hat (seriously, you can’t miss him!), Vasco da Gama (who discovered the sea route to India), Ferdinand Magellan (first crazy man to sail around the world in one go) just to name a few.
Also I had the chance to go inside the monument and take a short elevator ride to the top to check out the amazing compress and world map which is bricked into the ground and the aerial view overlooking it is amazing.
Nearby is the Torre de Belém, a 16th century fortress which originally stood well out into the river but is now accessible near the northern shores. This was built to safeguard the city from other naval units or pirates who tried to invade the city from the nearby Atlantic. It can be overcrowded in here during peak times to obey the traffic light system which is in place over the three floors inside.
Across the road is a huge building known as the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos which is a huge church where famous explorer Vasco da Gama spent his final night on shore before going on his world tour! Inside there are many beautiful stained glass windows with religious figures on them but there are plenty of homeless and old people hanging around the door ways pestering visitors for money, just walk on by, they are harmless.
Castelo de São Jorge
Going back east of the Lisbon city centre is one of Portugal’s finest castles and still in good condition, the Castle of São Jorge. The castle has stood here even before the Roman Empire really got going and has had the Royal Family living here until the 16th century. Today it is a great castle to explore, to check out the ramparts, the walls and there are some splendid gardens worth looking at. For me the highlight is the terrace as soon as I walked through the main entrance and it is here I got an incredible view of the city.
Another great place for river and city views is the National Pantheon which is not far to walk from the Alfama district. Starting out as a church it was converted into the Pantheon in the 20th century. Favourite thing to do here as well as looking at the stunning views is to walked inside the dome and look down at the amazing floor art work.
The Gloria Funicular
There are three funicular railway systems in Lisbon but only had the chance to check out one and this one is probably the one well known with visitors and locals of the city. Declared a national monument recently, the funicular has been transporting passengers since 1885 and by hell I am so glad the locals built this! The hill is steep! It may not be a long journey but if walking the route, my legs would be like jelly. To find this piece of history, the ‘bottom of the hill’ terminus can be found on the western side of Avenida da Liberdade in Restauradores Square, not far from the tourist office.
The funicular takes passengers to the area known as Bairro Alto. Here there is a nice shady statue-lined terrace with excellent views of the city and the castle at the nearby hill.
A ride on the trams!
It has to be done! Lisbon’s famous dark-yellow trams which run through the city is worth a ride on. The tram number 28 is the one to travel on (which is considered a national treasure to locals) as it takes passengers through some of the old sights of the city, passing many historic buildings and houses. It is so much cheaper than those open-top bus rides! All you need is the fare for the tram (or Lisboa Card), a guide book and a seat.
The trams runs from Largo Martim Moniz to Prazeres but takes in a very picturesque route through the suburbs of Alfama, Baixa, Sao Bento, Estrela and Chiado. I managed to do a couple of rides on the famous Lisbon tram system and got in some photography away from the bustling streets of the centre of this national treasure.
On the southern shores of the river and a bit of a journey to get to by public transport but is well worth seeing is the giant statue of Cristo Rei (Christ the King) which is a smaller but similar version of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janerio, Brazil. The statue was erected in 1958 when locals wanted to thank God for sparing Portugal as a nation during the Second World War.
Located in Almada, the 28m statue can be seen from all around but what I love about this, is the fact there is an elevator inside and visitors can go up to the top of the statue. Oh, did I mention the 74 steps after the elevator ride? The view from the top is amazing, I could see the nearby mountains, the Vasco da Gama bridge and of course, Lisbon itself to the east.
Parque das Nações
On the outskirts of the centre of Lisbon is this amazing urban-park with quite a few things to do and see like go shopping or take a cable car ride (which I found pointless) but I had to check out the Oceanário which is a recent addition to the city. Designed by an American architect for the Expo ‘98 (whatever that is) the aquarium is a symbol of linking the country’s maritime past with its future of the roles it will have within the planet’s oceans. The main feature is the huge tank which is visible to visitors over two levels and holds over seven million litres of saltwater. I noticed a wide range of fish ranging from stingrays, sharks and some colourful ones which I couldn’t name. Around the central tank is four special zones which represents various oceanic ecosystems. There is the Antarctic, Pacific, Indian and Atlantic. These exhibits allows visitors to check out the birds, animals and vegetation typical of these regions. I seriously recommend this place if you are a family traveling with children and want to give them some light relief from walking around the city.
A money saving tip.
I brought the Lisboa Card as soon as I arrived at Lisbon airport. It is a 3 in 1 card which consists of transport, museum pass and discount card. Not only did I get all my transport included from trains, metro, bus, trams etc, but it also included my train journey to nearby Sintra, north-west of the capital. Included was entrance to 26 museums (if you are a museum freek to which I am not!) and also UNESCO world heritage sights! Visitors can buy the card for 24 hours, 48 hours or 72 hours. I brought the three day card and I saved so much money! Pre Book online at the official website and take it to the tourist information desk in arrivals and claim the card. It is first activated once in the metro system (if traveling from the airport to the centre which is fast and convenient).