Lisbon is the capital of Portugal. The city has a rich history that extends back thousands of years, with a past that involves Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Moorish, and Christian influences.
Lisbon has diverse architectural styles, spanning Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline, Baroque, Modern, and Postmodern. Lisbon is a vibrant city known for its art, culture, high standards of living, and booming technology scene. Its historic charm and modern innovation make it one of Europe’s most popular travel destinations.
Where is Lisbon?
Lisbon is located in western Portugal, on the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula. The city straddles the Tagus River, the longest river on the Iberian Peninsula, and empties into the Atlantic Ocean at Lisbon.
Lisbon is approximately midway up Portugal’s coastline and roughly equidistant from Portugal’s northern and southern extremities. The city is located in the wider Lisbon District and is the westernmost capital city in mainland Europe.
History of Lisbon
Prior to being known as Lisbon, the city was home to Neolithic communities, with evidence of human presence dating back to 2500 BC. It’s believed that these early settlers were attracted to the region due to its advantageous location with access to the sea, the river, and the fertile land in the surrounding areas.
Around 1200 BC, Lisbon was settled by the Phoenicians, seafaring traders from the eastern Mediterranean. They established a trading post in what is now the Alfama district, and it’s from these ancient inhabitants that Lisbon may derive its name; some historians suggest that Lisbon was named “Alis Ubbo” or “Safe Harbor” in Phoenician.
After the Phoenicians, the region came under the influence of other civilizations, including the Greeks and Carthaginians, before it was eventually incorporated into the Roman Empire.
In 205 BC, the Romans arrived in Lisbon, then known as Olissipo. The city was an important trade hub that connected the capital of the Roman Empire with its western provinces. The Romans developed the city, building roads, bridges, and aqueducts.
Olissipo was granted the status of a Roman municipium by Julius Caesar, a significant honor as it gave the inhabitants Roman citizenship. The city flourished under Roman rule, with its prosperity tied to the production of salted fish, a prized commodity throughout the empire.
Traces of Roman Lisbon can still be seen today as ruins, including the Roman Theatre Museum, which houses remnants of a theatre that could accommodate up to 4,000 spectators.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Lisbon was successively occupied by the Germanic Suebi and Visigoths in the 5th century AD. The Visigoths held power until 711 AD when the Moors from North Africa invaded.
The Moors held control over Lisbon for over four centuries, and during this time, the city became a significant cultural, commercial, and political center. The Moors transformed the cityscape, constructing buildings and fortifications such as the Castelo de São Jorge, which still overlooks the city today. The Alfama district’s labyrinthine streets are also reflective of the Moorish period.
The Christian Reconquista, aimed at reclaiming Iberian territories held by Muslims, reached Lisbon in 1147. The Siege of Lisbon, led by Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, ended with the city’s recapture. This event marked a significant turning point in the Reconquista and began a period of Christian rule leading to the city’s most prosperous age – the Age of Discoveries.
The Age of Discoveries, which spans roughly from the 15th to the 17th century, marked a period of extensive exploration by European powers, and Lisbon was at the forefront of this era.
Portugal’s geographic location, facing the Atlantic, played a vital role in this. Its monarchs, notably Prince Henry the Navigator and King John II sponsored numerous expeditions to explore the African coast, seeking a route to India.
In 1498, sailing from Lisbon, Vasco da Gama became the first European to reach India by sea. This led to establishing a maritime route from Europe to the East, significantly boosting Portugal’s economy. This era saw Lisbon become one of the world’s wealthiest cities, a central hub for international trade.
The city’s architecture from this period reflects its prosperity. The Jerónimos Monastery and the Tower of Belém, built in the Manueline style (Portuguese late Gothic), are prime examples of the wealth and grandeur of the period.
On the morning of November 1, 1755, Lisbon was struck by one of the deadliest earthquakes in history. Estimated at a magnitude of 8.5–9.0, the quake was followed by a tsunami and fires that razed much of the city to the ground and killed an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Lisbon residents.
Under the leadership of the Marquis of Pombal, then Prime Minister of Portugal, the city underwent an ambitious reconstruction plan. He introduced strict building codes and designed a city with a rational, grid-iron plan, a radical departure from the winding streets of medieval Lisbon. The district, known today as Baixa Pombalina, is characterized by its neoclassical architecture and is considered one of the first examples of earthquake-resistant construction.
The 20th century was a period of significant political upheaval in Portugal. The 1910 revolution ended the monarchy, ushering in a period known as the First Republic. This was followed by a period of authoritarian rule under António de Oliveira Salazar, known as the Estado Novo, which lasted from 1933 until the Carnation Revolution of 1974.
The Carnation Revolution, a military coup on April 25, 1974, ended the dictatorship and initiated rapid change in Lisbon. Portugal became a democratic republic, and Lisbon became the vibrant and cosmopolitan city it is today.
In 1994, Lisbon was designated as the European Capital of Culture, and in 1998, the city hosted the World Expo, which significantly boosted its international profile. Several large-scale infrastructure and urban renewal projects were completed during the expo, including the construction of the Vasco da Gama Bridge, the longest bridge in Europe.
Lisbon is a renowned global city with a high quality of life, a thriving arts scene, and a booming technology sector. It successfully combines its rich history with modern attractions and amenities, making it a popular tourist destination and a significant European cultural and economic center.
Features of Lisbon
Lisbon presents a picturesque blend of traditional charm and modern innovation. Its most notable aspects lie in its rich history, diverse architecture, vibrant culture, and natural beauty.
As you explore the city, you’re immersed in its rich history dating back to the Romans and Moors, with each neighborhood revealing a different era. The city’s cultural scene is alive and thriving, marked by many museums, art galleries, music venues, and festivals.
Geography and Climate
Lisbon is characterized by its seven hills, which provide stunning vantage points throughout the city. Its topography is a mixture of steep inclines and sprawling flat areas, with the city center essentially flat and navigable, while the suburbs are interspersed with hills.
The city’s location on the Tagus estuary means it’s abundant in waterfronts. The Parque das Nações district, the site of the 1998 World Expo, is a modern waterfront area in Lisbon that highlights the city’s maritime roots.
Lisbon has a Mediterranean climate, with mild, rainy winters and warm to hot, dry summers. The Atlantic Ocean influences the climate, moderating the temperatures, resulting in relatively mild weather throughout the year. Temperatures in summer (June to August) typically range between 18 °C and 28 °C (64-82 °F), while in winter (December to February) temperatures vary from 8 °C to 15 °C (46-59 °F).
The population of Lisbon is over 2.7 million. Lisbon is a cosmopolitan city with a diverse population. While most of Lisbon’s residents are of Portuguese descent, a substantial number of people are from former Portuguese colonies like Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, and other EU countries. This diversity is reflected in the city’s culture, food, and lifestyle.
The city is also home to a growing community of international expatriates attracted by its high quality of life, mild climate, and lower cost of living than other Western European cities.
Lisbon is the economic heart of Portugal, contributing a significant portion of the country’s GDP. The city’s economy is diverse, with strengths in various sectors.
One of the key sectors is services, including finance, commerce, and tourism. Lisbon is the country’s banking and financial center, housing many national and international banks, insurance companies, and investment firms. Tourism is a significant part of the economy, with visitors drawn to the city’s rich history, distinctive architecture, gastronomy, and vibrant nightlife.
In recent years, Lisbon has emerged as a hub for technology and startups. The city has a growing reputation as an innovation center and hosts significant tech events like the annual Web Summit.
Manufacturing also plays a role in Lisbon’s economy, with industries such as textiles, chemicals, and automobile manufacturing in the metropolitan area.
Lastly, due to its strategic location on the Atlantic, Lisbon is one of Europe’s main ports, facilitating cargo and passenger movement. The port plays a crucial economic role, contributing to trade and tourism.
Things to Do and Places to See in Lisbon
Lisbon boasts a plethora of engaging activities and intriguing sights. Here’s an exploration of some of the most sought-after landmarks and attractions in the Portuguese capital:
1. Wander in the Streets of Alfama
Alfama is Lisbon’s oldest and most intriguing district. Its narrow, winding streets and alleys whisper tales of the city’s rich history, from the Moors to modern times. As you meander through its labyrinthine roads, you’ll discover beautifully tiled houses, quaint shops, traditional Fado houses, and local taverns known as tasks.
The area is delightfully authentic, with locals going about their daily lives amidst the thrum of tourism. Highlights include the Se Cathedral, the city’s oldest church, and the bustling flea market, Feira da Ladra. The district comes alive during the annual Festas de Lisboa in June, with colorful decorations, music, and the aroma of grilled sardines filling the air.
2. Visit Belém
Located west of Lisbon’s city center, Belém is a district steeped in maritime history and the grandeur of the Age of Discoveries. Its waterfront location makes it a delightful place to explore. A must-visit is the iconic Belém Tower, a 16th-century fortress that once guarded the city’s harbor.
Nearby is the Jerónimos Monastery, a stunning example of Manueline architecture, and the burial place of explorer Vasco da Gama. Don’t miss the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a monument celebrating Portugal’s pioneering explorers. Complete your visit by stopping at the famous Pastéis de Belém to taste the traditional custard tart, Pastel de Nata.
3. Miradouro da Senhora do Monte
Miradouro da Senhora do Monte offers the city’s best panoramic views. The observation deck provides an unparalleled vista stretching from the old town districts of Alfama and Mouraria to the modern areas around Parque das Nações, with key landmarks such as the Castelo de São Jorge and the Tagus River in view.
A charming little chapel nearby is also called Capela de Nossa Senhora do Monte. This Miradouro (viewpoint) is an excellent place to watch the sunset, with the warm hues painting a mesmerizing backdrop against the city’s skyline.
4. Castelo de São Jorge
Castelo de S. Jorge is a significant historical site in Lisbon, overlooking the historic city center from a commanding hilltop position. The castle dates back to the medieval period of Portuguese history, with the Moors in the 11th century originally fortifying it.
Walking through the castle grounds, you’ll find archaeological excavations, gardens with native Portuguese trees, and peacocks roaming freely. The Ulysses Tower, one of the castle towers, has a camera obscura that offers a unique 360-degree view of the city. The castle’s high walls provide spectacular panoramic views of Lisbon, making it a must-visit.
5. Padrão dos Descobrimentos
Padrão dos Descobrimentos, or Monument to the Discoveries, is a striking monument located on the banks of the Tagus River in Belém. It celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The memorial is shaped like a ship’s prow, with more than 30 statues of people who played crucial roles in the discoveries, including monarchs, explorers, cartographers, and artists. Visitors can take an elevator to the top of the monument for a beautiful view of Belém and the river.
6. Oceanário de Lisboa
Located in the modern district of Parque das Nações, the Oceanário de Lisboa is one of the world’s largest aquariums. Designed by architect Peter Chermayeff, it’s like an aircraft carrier permanently docked in the waters of the Tagus.
The central tank houses fantastic marine life, including sharks, rays, barracudas, and tropical fish. Smaller tanks around the main exhibit represent the diverse oceanic ecosystems, providing penguins, seagulls, sea otters, and more habitats. A visit here offers a mesmerizing and educational journey into marine biodiversity.
7. Praça do Comércio
Praça do Comércio, also known as Terreiro do Paço, is one of Europe’s largest squares and was once the location of the royal palace before the 1755 earthquake destroyed it. Surrounded by lemon-colored Pombaline buildings, which house government offices, restaurants, and shops, the square is a vibrant place.
At its center stands the statue of King José I, and one side opens up to the Tagus River, providing a stunning view. The square also hosts various cultural events and celebrations throughout the year.
8. National Tile Museum
Portugal’s unique ceramic tiles, or azulejos, are more than mere decoration; they’re an integral part of the country’s culture. The National Tile Museum or Museu Nacional do Azulejo, located in a former convent, showcases the art and history of these tiles.
It houses a vast collection from the 15th century to the present, with designs varying from religious scenes to geometric patterns. The standout is a 23m-long, blue-and-white composition that presents a panorama of Lisbon before the 1755 earthquake.
9. Visit LX Factory
Once an industrial complex, LX Factory has transformed into a creative hub under the 25 de Abril Bridge. It has art studios, unique shops, trendy restaurants, and hip cafés.
Numerous events occur here, including markets, concerts, exhibitions, and workshops. Take advantage of Ler Devagar, one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores, and the rooftop bar, Rio Maravilha, which offers a fantastic view of the river and the bridge.
10. Jerónimos Monastery
The Jerónimos Monastery is a masterpiece of Manueline architecture and a symbol of Portugal’s power and wealth during the Age of Discovery. King Manuel, I commissioned it in 1501, and it was funded by taxes on eastern spices, except pepper, cinnamon, and cloves, which went directly to the Crown.
The monastery is a cultural reference point that has attracted artists, chroniclers, and travelers in the five centuries since it was built. It’s also a reminder of the historical moment of the maritime discoveries and Portugal’s pioneering role in connecting the world.
11. Sintra Day Trip
Just outside Lisbon, Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its 19th-century Romantic architectural monuments. The highlight is the Pena Palace, a colorful castle that looks straight out of a fairy tale.
The Moorish remnants of the Castle of the Moors and the extravagant Quinta da Regaleira estate are also must-visits. While slightly exceeding the 30km range, Sintra makes for an easy and popular day trip from Lisbon, with its cooler climate offering a respite from the city’s summer heat.
12. Carcavelos Beach
Close to Lisbon, Carcavelos Beach is one of the most popular beaches among locals. It’s a long stretch of golden sand with consistent surf conditions, making it a favorite among surfers.
The beach is fully equipped with facilities, including restaurants, bars, and shops. In addition to enjoying the sun and sea, you can watch the fort of São Julião da Barra, a historic military fort at one end of the beach.
13. Parque das Nações
Parque das Nações, or Park of Nations, is a dynamic and modern district in Lisbon that was revitalized for the 1998 World Expo. It’s a sprawling area offering a mix of leisure, cultural, and commercial attractions. Walking along the promenade, you’ll have a view of the stunning Vasco da Gama Bridge, one of the longest bridges in Europe.
The area is home to the Oceanário de Lisboa, the Pavilhão do Conhecimento (Science Museum), and the cable cars that offer a panoramic view of the area. Numerous restaurants, shops, and gardens add to the area’s charm, making it a vibrant place to visit.
14. Mercado da Ribeira
Also known as Time Out Market Lisbon, the Mercado da Ribeira is a gastronomic haven. Housed in a historic market hall, the space has been transformed into a foodie paradise with various stalls selling dishes from some of Lisbon’s best restaurants.
You can sample anything from traditional Portuguese dishes, like bacalhau bras and pastel de nata, to international cuisine. The market also includes several shops selling local products and crafts, a few high-end restaurants, and often hosts live music events. It’s an excellent place to savor Lisbon’s culinary delights all under one roof.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best time to visit Lisbon?
The best time to visit Lisbon is during the spring (March to May) and fall (September to October) when the weather is pleasant and there are fewer crowds.
What is traditional food and cuisine like in Lisbon?
Traditional Portuguese cuisine is a highlight in Lisbon. The city is mainly known for its seafood; cod is a staple in many Portuguese dishes. Bacalhau à Brás, a dish made from shreds of salted cod, onions, and thinly chopped fried potatoes in a bound of scrambled eggs, is a must-try.
Is Lisbon safe to visit?
Yes, Lisbon is considered safe to visit. Like any major city, being mindful of your belongings and surroundings is advised, but the overall crime rate is relatively low.
What’s a must-try dish/food in Lisbon?
A must-try food in Lisbon is the iconic Pastel de Nata, a Portuguese egg tart pastry that’s sweet and creamy.
What souvenirs can I bring home from Lisbon?
Popular souvenirs include Portuguese tiles (azulejos), Port wine, cork products, and locally made soaps and beauty products.
Which languages are spoken in Lisbon?
The official language of Lisbon is Portuguese, but English is widely spoken in tourist areas, hotels, and restaurants.
How can I get around in Lisbon?
Lisbon has an extensive public transportation network, including metro, buses, trams, and funiculars. Taxis and ride-hailing services like Uber are also readily available.
Is it expensive to visit Lisbon?
Lisbon is generally more affordable regarding food, accommodation, and attractions than other Western European capitals.
Which currency is used in Lisbon?
The currency used in Lisbon is the Euro (€).
Is Lisbon a good town to live in?
Yes, Lisbon offers a high quality of life with its mild climate, rich history, vibrant culture, and comparatively low cost of living. It’s also increasingly becoming a hub for tech and start-ups.
Can I drink tap water in Lisbon?
Yes, the tap water in Lisbon is safe to drink.
With its historical charm, cultural richness, and modern vibrancy, Lisbon offers an unforgettable experience for all travelers. Its unique neighborhoods, stunning viewpoints, and delectable cuisine provide a captivating glimpse into Portugal’s past and present. Furthermore, its affordability compared to other European capitals, coupled with the welcoming nature of the locals, adds to the city’s appeal.
Whether you’re a history buff, a food enthusiast, or seeking a destination with a warm climate and beautiful scenery, Lisbon won’t disappoint. The city’s fusion of tradition and innovation makes it a gem worth visiting on the Iberian Peninsula. From the historical alleys of Alfama to the modern landscapes of Parque das Nações, Lisbon invites you to discover its treasures and create your unique memories.