Lisbon Travel Guide


Wander down (to save your legs) through Alfama's steep, narrow, cobblestoned streets and catch a glimpse of the more traditional side of Lisbon before it too is gentrified. Linger in a backstreet cafe along the way and experience some local bonhomie without the tourist gloss.

As far back as the 5th century, the Alfama was inhabited by the Visigoths, and remnants of a Visigothic town wall remain. But it was the Moors who gave the district its shape and atmosphere. In Moorish times this was an upper-class residential area. After earthquakes brought down many of its mansions (and post-Moorish churches) it reverted to a working-class, fisherfolk quarter. It was one of the few districts to ride out the 1755 earthquake.

With narrow lanes of residential houses and grocery stores, it has a distinct village atmosphere; you can quickly feel like an intruder if you take a wrong turn into someone's backyard. Early morning is the best time to catch a more traditional scene, when women sell fresh fish from their doorways. For a real rough-and-tumble atmosphere, visit during the Festas dos Santos Populares in June.

Bairro Alto
The Bairro Alto is famous for its nightlife, although the Parque das Nações and riverside areas are now giving it a run for its money. There is no shortage of bars and clubs, in fact, your greatest problem could be keeping up with the resident party crowd, who start late and often continue till dawn. During the day see Lisbon life up close by exploring the picturesque streets and becos (staircased alleys) that wind up the area's steep hills. For a change of pace rub shoulders with Lisbon's finest in the upmarket Chiado shopping district or commune with the souls of writers past at the elegant Café A Brasileira. Also look out for the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, atop the Elevador da Glória, for its commanding view of the city, and the ruins of the Convento do Carmo.

Rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake, the Baixa's wide avenues and pedestrianised Rua Augusta are a great place to shop and have coffee. The area's highlight is the Elevador de Santa Justa. This imposing wrought-iron lift offers an easy ride up to the Bairro Alto, plus a rooftop cafe with views to kill for.

Built in 1902 by Gustave Eiffel follower Raul Mésnier du Ponsard, the lift has more than a passing resemblance to the Eiffel Tower.

Avoid the touristy umbrella-topped cafes below and save your coffee break for this still touristy but far more elegant architectural gem. Time your visit to enjoy a drink at sunset.

Portugal's caravels sailed off to conquer the great unknown from Belém, and today this leafy riverside precinct is a giant monument to the nation's Age of Discoveries.

First stop should be the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a Manueline masterpiece whose intricate decoration and peaceful spaces will leave you inspired.

A short walk away is the Torre de Belém, the much-photographed symbol of Portugal's maritime glory. The imposing limestone Monument to the Discoveries, also facing the river nearby, is shaped like a caravel and features key players from the era.

If you have time, look around the Centro Cultural de Belém, one of Lisbon's main cultural venues, which houses the Museu do Design, a collection of 20th-century mind-bogglers.

Cristo Rei
We would be remiss if we didn't tell you to visit the Cristo Rei, over the river in Cacilhas. A smaller version of Brazil's giant Jesus, this religious icon with arms outstretched has major kitsch value.

There is a gift-shop that is an Ali Baba cave of over-the-top gilt and bejewelled Cristo Rei everything. Do yourself a favour and don't miss this hotbed of religious craftsmanship. The views from the top of the monument aren't half bad either.

Off the Beaten Track

North of Sintra, Mafra too has its very own folly - its famously extravagant Palácio Nacional de Mafra. This palace-cum-monastery-cum-basilica was created by Dom João V in the 18th century. Outlandishly baroque and neoclassical, it was the ultimate exercise in indentured labour. An incredible 20,000 artisans worked on the project (ballooning out to 45,000 in the final two years) and were kept in line by 7000 soldiers. In true karmic fashion, the enormous cost of the project destroyed the economy, and the palace was used only briefly before the royal family fled the French invasion of Portugal in 1799. Amid the 230m/754ft-long corridors look out for the 18th-century pinball machines in the games room, and the library. The latter is a magnificent 88m/288ft-long barrel-vaulted baroque 'room', with 40,000 books dating from the 15th century.For something a little more unusual, hunt out the Centro de Recuperação de Lobo Ibérico (Iberian Wolf Recovery Centre), 10km (6mi) northeast of Mafra. Portugal has only 200 or so Iberian wolves left in the wild. Those that have been trapped, snared or kept in dire conditions find a home in the centre's 17 hectares (42 acres) of secluded woodland. It's not a zoo, so sightings of the wolves aren't guaranteed. Your best chance of getting up close and personal with a lobo is when they emerge in the cool of dusk. Getting there involves a bus from Mafra to Malveira, a change to Vale da Guarda on the Torres Vedras route, and a short walk. If this seems too hard you can always support the centre by 'adopting' a wolf.

If you're planning to make only one trip out of Lisbon, Sintra, just 28km (17.4mi) northwest, should receive top priority. Cool and verdant, it's also a worthwhile destination in its own right for several days of exploration or relaxation. You could even base yourself here and see Lisbon on day trips.

Situated on the northern slopes of the craggy Serra de Sintra, Sintra's lush vegetation and spectacular mountaintop views have lured admirers since the times of the early Iberians, who found the ridge so mystical they called it the Mountain of the Moon and made it a centre of cult worship (some of its strange effects are actually caused by massive deposits of iron ore).

Sintra put itself on the international art map when this museum opened in 1997 in Sintra's neoclassical former casino in Estefânia. It's got some of the world's best postwar art (including a particularly strong selection of pop art). Among the 350 or so pieces displayed are works by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Pollock and Kossoff. Check out the top-floor cafe, too, with its open-air terrace and good views.

The Sintra region is increasingly popular for mountain biking and hiking. A favourite walking trail is from Sintra-Vila to Castelo dos Mouros, a relatively easy 50-minute hike. The energetic can continue to Palácio Nacional da Pena (another 20 minutes) and up to the Serra de Sintra's highest point, the 529m-high (1735ft) Cruz Alta, which offers spectacular views.

Other Portugal Attractions

Lagos, on the south coast of the Algarve, is one of the country's most popular tourist resorts. Most visitors are drawn to the superb beaches, which include Meia Praia, a vast strip of sand to the east, and the more secluded Praia do Pinhão to the south. The town has abundant facilities for renting bicycles, mopeds and horses, and there are also boat trips from the main harbour. Apart from the sun and sand, the resort's other highlight is the Museu Municipal, which has eccentric displays of ecclesiastical treasures, handicrafts and preserved animal foetuses.

The walled town of Évora is one of the architectural gems of Portugal. Situated in a picturesque landscape of olive groves, vineyards, wheat fields and brilliant spring flowers, it's a charming town whose attractions include a cathedral, a roman temple and a ghoulish ossuary chapel constructed from the bones and skulls of several thousand people.

Douro Valley
This valley is one of Portugal's scenic highlights, with some 200km (125mi) of bold, expansive panoramas stretching from the city of Porto all the way to the Spanish border. In the upper reaches, port-wine vineyards wrap around every crew-cut hillside, interrupted only by the occasional blindingly white manor house. The roads which wriggle along the banks of the Rio Douro can be crowded with day-trippers from Porto, but the river has been tamed by five dams and is now navigable along its entire length, making boat cruises an attractive way to soak up the atmosphere in peace.

The quiet highland town of Monchique, dozing on the wooded slopes of the Serra de Monchique, offers a good alternative to the hurly-burly of beach life. Apart from its beautiful setting, the town's other attraction is the Igreja Matriz church, which boasts an amazing portal - about the closest you'll get to seeing stone tied in knots.

Of interest just outside the town is the sleepy spa of Caldas de Monchique, and it's worth driving or hiking through thick forest to Fóia, the 'rooftop' of the Algarve. The panoramic views from the top are terrific.

Parque National da Penada-Gerês
This wilderness park in the far north of Portugal has spectacular scenery and a wide variety of flora and fauna. It's extremely popular with Portuguese day-trippers and holidaymakers, but they tend to stick to the main camping areas, leaving the rest of the park to hikers. There are plenty of good short-distance trails with places to swim along the way, as well as facilities for horse riding, mountain biking and canoe rental.

This tiny fishing port is perched on dramatic, windswept cliffs at the southwestern extremity of Portugal. The village's proximity to Lagos means that it's not entirely devoid of holiday-makers, but the port is still a centre for boat-building and lobster-fishing. Legend has it that Henry the Navigator established a kind of nautical think-tank here, priming the explorers who later founded the vast Portuguese empire. Nearby are several pleasant beaches and the barren, throne-like Cabo de São Vicente, Europe's southwesternmost point.

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