Lisbon has a wonderful seafaring history and is home to beautiful museums, historic streets and quirky tours. Felicity Cousins explores the City of Seven Hills
Liberty Avenue and Marques de Pombal
Start at Rossio central train station, and take a moment to admire the incredible Neo-Manueline façade – this elaborate Portuguese style dates back to the period 1490-1520 and features maritime and religious carvings. There was a resurgence of the style when Rossio was built in the 19th century.
From here, walk up Liberty Avenue’s pretty pavements of handmade tiles. This is Lisbon’s main street and has high-end shops such as Prada and Gucci, as well as theatres and restaurants. At the top you’ll find a large roundabout with a statue of the Marques de Pombal, the prime minister when Lisbon was struck by a huge earthquake that destroyed much of the capital in 1755. Pombal led the reconstruction in the aftermath and he stands with a lion facing the city and the waterfront he rebuilt.
Hop on the metro at Marques de Pombal for three stops to Praca de Espanha, where you’ll find Portugal’s most comprehensive collection of world treasures. The Gulbenkian Museum is named after Calouste Gulbenkian, who dedicated his life to collecting artefacts from around the world in the early 20th century. Sometimes he waited for many years to get the right price for a piece, and today the museum has more than 6,000 items.
It is set out chronologically and geographically so you can easily choose different regions and areas to focus on. There is an Egyptian room, a Greco-Roman gallery and an Eastern Islamic section with art and Persian carpets, as well as an exhibition of paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt, Monet, Manet, Renoir and Turner.
The collection of azulejos (handmade tiles) dating back to the Moors of the 15th century, and the blue and white ones from 17th-century Holland – versions of which you will often see on the fronts of Lisbon houses today – are astounding. There is also intricate jewellery designed by René Lalique – check out the serpent brooches and sculpted pearl pendants – plus a shop and a café. Open Tues-Sun 10am-5.45pm. Entry is €4, and €4 for the audio tour. Avenue de Berna 45A; museu.gulbenkian.pt
Get the metro back to Baixa Chiado and head to Rua dos Douradores, near Praca do Comercio. Here you will find Gocar tours – an exhilarating way to learn about Lisbon. These little yellow three-wheeled vehicles have GPS routes built in and moped-style steering (two bike handles with handbrakes and no clutch). You can choose an area to explore – east Lisbon is good as it takes in the hilly section and the little alleys around the Alfama (Old Town), Graca, Sao Jorge Castle and Baixa – and tours take about 45 minutes. You will be given a helmet, a map and a quick lesson before you are off, revving your way through the cobbled streets with your heart in your mouth. As you drive, you are told about interesting buildings and the history of the area through the radio, and you can stop to take pictures.
Gocar has been operating in Lisbon for two years and is also in San Francisco, San Diego, Barcelona and Miami. It costs €25 for the first hour for two people, €20 for an additional hour and €18 for every hour thereafter – a refundable deposit of €200 will be taken from your credit card. Make sure you have a driving licence with you. Open daily 9am to dusk; book 24 hours in advance if you can. Tel +35 121 0965 030; gocartours.com
After your tour of the Old Town take the train from Cais do Sodre (in the direction of Estoril/Cascais) to Belem, the heart of Lisbon’s nautical area. On the left side of Avenida de Brasilia, on the Tagus river, is the Torre de Belem (Belem Tower), built in 1515 as a fortress to protect the city from attack. Look at the detail – ropes and religious crosses are carved into the stone as omens of good fortune. Climb to the top (entry is free) for good views over the water.
Further down the river and back towards the city is Padrao dos Descobrimentos, a boat-shaped monument decorated with distinctive figures – the most notable being Henry the Navigator, the great Portuguese prince responsible for some of the country’s greatest voyages of discovery in the 13th century. Next to the marina, pop in for a drink at the Altis Belem hotel’s terrace bar. Visit altisbelem.com
Parque das Nacoes
Parque das Nacoes (Park of Nations) is in the eastern zone of the city centre, five minutes’ drive from the airport. The area used to be wasteland but was dramatically transformed for the Lisbon World Expo in 1998. Good use is made of the riverside location, and a cable car ride from one end of the park to the other offers fantastic vistas – look out for the Vasco da Gama Bridge (17km long with 10km spanning the water of the River Tagus). The modern architecture also makes this a great place to wander around with your camera.
The train station, Gare do Oriente, was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava Valls and the vaulted roof looks like a soaring, twisted, white forest canopy. The Portugal Pavilion by Alvaro Siza Vieira is a beautiful piece of work, with a sloped concrete roof that seemingly balances on the edges of the building like a piece of paper.
The park has plenty of bars and cafés, as well as one of the largest aquariums in Europe, the Oceanario de Lisboa – it’s well worth a visit if you have time, and you can whizz around in half an hour. Look out for the giant sunfish, an unfortunate looking creature that tends to drift on its side near the surface of the pool as if it is about to expire. Its fins look like the crust of a Cornish pasty. Open daily 10am-8pm (7pm in winter). Entry is €12. Visit oceanario.pt
Frommer’s Lisbon Day by Day is a great little guide that outlines a number of tours of Lisbon if you have more time. Visit frommers.com
Here are some useful phrases:
- Yes – Sim
- No – Nao
- Hi – Ola
- Good day – Bom dia
- Thank you – Obrigado (if you are male) or obrigada (female)
- Please – Por favor
- I would like – Eu gostaria
- The bill, please – A conta, por favor
- Goodbye – Adeus
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