Lisbon Portugal Day 1 Sample Itinerary
I use the following rating scale when ranking the sights:
▲▲▲ Don’t Miss!
▲▲ Try Hard to See
▲ Worthwhile if you can make it
A)▲▲▲Alfama Stroll and Castle
On this ▲▲▲ walk, you’ll explore the Alfama, the colorful sailors’ quarter that dates back to the age of Visigoth occupation, from the sixth to eighth centuries AD. This was a bustling district during the Moorish period, and eventually became the home of Lisbon’s fishermen and mariners (and of the poet Luís de Camões, who wrote, “Our lips meet easily, high across the narrow street”). The Alfama’s tangled street plan, one of the few features of Lisbon to survive the 1755 earthquake, helps make the neighborhood a cobbled playground of Old World color. While much of the Alfama’s grittiness has been cleaned up in recent years, it remains one of Europe’s more photogenic neighborhoods.
1)São Jorge Castle Gate and Fortified Castle Town
The formidable gate to the castle is part of a fortification that, these days, surrounds three things: the view terrace, the small town that stood within the walls, and the castle itself. The ticket office and the turnstile are situated so that those without a ticket are kept away from the view terrace and castle proper.
If money is tight, the castle and view are skippable—the castle is just stark, rebuilt ruins from the Salazar era, and while the hill-capping park has a commanding view, there are other fine views coming up…just jump ahead to stop #4 on this walk.
- If you decide to go in, follow the cobbles uphill past the first lanes of old Lisbon to the yellow ticket office, and then into the…
2)Miradouro de São Jorge (Viewpoint)
Enjoy the grand view. The Rio Tejo is one of five main rivers in Portugal, four of which come from Spain. (Only the Mondego River, which passes through Coimbra, originates inside Portuguese territory, in the Serra de Estrela.) While Portugal and Spain generally have very good relations, a major sore point is the control of all this water. From here you have a good view of the Golden Gate-like 25th of April Bridge, which leads south to the Cristo Rei statue. Past the bridge, on a clear day, you can barely see the Monument to the Discoveries and the Belém Tower (under and past the bridge on north side).
Look up at the statue marking the center of this terrace. Afonso Henriques, a warlord with a strong personal army, was the founder of Portugal. In 1147, he besieged this former Moorish castle until the hungry, thirsty residents gave in. Every Portuguese schoolkid knows the story of this man—a Reconquista hero and their country’s first king.
Stroll inland along the ramparts for a more extensive view of Pombal’s Lisbon, described in a circa 1963, tiled panorama-chart (which lacks the big 25th of April Bridge—it was built in 1969). From Praça do Comércio on the water, the grid streets of the Baixa lead up to the tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade and the big Edward VII Park, on the far right. Locate city landmarks, such as the Elevador de Santa Justa (the Eiffel-style elevator in front of the ruined Convento do Carmo) and the sloping white roof of Rossio station.
- Continue walking along the viewpoint, passing several old cannons. Just after going under the second arch (just before the café terrace), take a right into the mostly ruined courtyard of…
3)São Jorge Castle
While the first settlements here go back to the 7th century BC, this castle dates to the 11th century when Moors built it to house their army and provide a safe haven for their elites in times of siege. After Afonso Henriques took the castle in 1147, Portugal’s royalty lived here for several centuries. The sloping walls—typical of castles from this period—were designed to withstand 14th-century cannonballs. In the 16th century, the kings moved to their palace on Praça do Comércio, and the castle became a military garrison. Despite suffering major damage in the 1755 earthquake, the castle later served another stint as a military garrison. In the 20th century, it became a national monument.
The strolling peacocks remind visitors that exotic birds like these came to Lisbon originally as trophies of the great 16th-century voyages and discoveries. (Today the jaded birds ignore the tourists and cry as if to remember some long-forgotten castle captives.)
Bear left to find the inner castle—the boxy, crenelated fort in the middle. There’s little to see inside the empty shell, but it’s fun to climb up the steep stone steps to scramble around the top of the ramparts and towers, with ever-changing views of Lisbon, the Alfama, and the castle itself. (Up top, you’ll also find a thrillingly low-tech camera obscura, which is demonstrated twice hourly, times and languages posted.)
As you explore the castle’s inner sanctum, imagine it lined with simple wooden huts. The imposing part of the castle is the exterior. The builders’ strategy was to focus on making the castle appear so formidable that its very existence was enough to discourage any attack. If you know where to look, you can still see stones laid by ancient Romans, Visigoths, and Moors. The Portuguese made the most substantial contribution, with a wall reaching all the way to the river to withstand anticipated Spanish attacks.
When finished, head back out the inner castle gate, and continue straight ahead toward the castle’s entrance. On your right, you’ll pass the café, then the humble museum. This houses archaeological finds from the 7th century BC to the 18th century, with emphasis on the Moorish period in the 11th and 12th centuries. You’ll also see 18th-century tiles from an age when Portugal was flush with money from the gold, diamonds, and sugarcane of its colony Brazil. While simple, the museum has nice displays and descriptions.
- Leave the castle. Across the ramp from the castle entrance is a tidy little castle district, worth a wander for its peaceful lanes and a chance to enjoy the Manueline architecture.
Just outside the castle turnstile is the tiny neighborhood within the castle walls built to give Moorish elites refuge from sieges and, later, for Portuguese nobles to live close to their king. While it’s partly taken over by cute shops and cafés, if you wander up Rua de Santa Cruz do Castelo (to the left as you exit the castle) and stroll into its back lanes, you can enjoy a peaceful bit of Portugal’s past. (Make a big clockwise loop back to where you entered—you can’t get lost, as it’s within the walls and there’s only one way in or out.) Most of the houses date from the Middle Ages. Poking around, go on a cultural scavenger hunt. Look for: 1) clever, space-efficient, triangular contraptions for drying clothes (hint: see the glass bottle bottoms in the wall used to prop the sticks out when in use); 2) Benfica soccer team flag (that’s the team favored by Lisbon’s working class—an indication that the upper class no longer chooses to live here); 3) short doors that were tall enough for people back when these houses were built; and 4) noble family crests over doors—dating to when important families wanted to be close to the king.
When you’re ready to leave, make your way back to where you started, and head down the ramp to return to the real world. On your way out, just before exiting the lower gate, notice the little statue in the niche on your right. This is the castle’s namesake: St. George (São Jorge; pronounced “sow ZHOR-zh”) hailed from Turkey and was known for fighting valiantly (he’s often portrayed slaying a dragon). When the Christian noble Afonso Henriques called for help to eliminate the Moors from his newly founded country of Portugal, the Crusaders who helped him prayed to St. George…and won.
- Exit the castle complex grounds through the large archway, follow the castle wall, then turn right down the second street, Travessa do Chão da Feira. Follow this striped lane downhill through Largo do Contador Mor. This small, car-clogged square has a Parisian ambience, some touristy outdoor restaurants serving grilled sardines.
- Check out the inviting little Miss Can shop and eatery—where traditional Portuguese canned fish gets a modern twist.
- Exit the square at the bottom, continue downhill 50 yards farther, pass the trolley tracks, and jog right around the little church to reach a superb Alfama viewpoint at…
5)Largo Santa Luzia
From this square (with a stop for trolleys #12E and #28E), admire the panoramic view from the small terrace, Miradouro de Santa Luzia, where old-timers play cards and Romeos strum their guitars amid lots of tiles.
In the distance to the left, the Vasco da Gama Bridge (opened in 1998) connects Lisbon with new, modern bedroom communities south of the river.
At your feet sprawls the Alfama neighborhood. We’ll head that way soon, to explore its twisty lanes. Where the Alfama hits the river, notice the recently built embankment. It reclaimed 100 yards of land from the river to make a modern port, used these days to accommodate Lisbon’s growing cruise ship industry.
On the wall of the church behind you, notice two 18th-century tile panels. The one on the left shows the pre-earthquake Praça do Comércio, with the royal palace (on the left)—it was completely destroyed in the 1755 quake.
The other tile (10 steps away, to the right) depicts the reconquest of Lisbon from the Moors by Afonso Henriques. You can see the Portuguese hero, Martim Moniz, who let himself be crushed in the castle door to hold it open for his comrades. Notice the panicky Moors inside realizing that their castle is about to be breeched by invading Crusaders. It was a bad day for the Moors. (A stairway here leads up to a tiny view terrace with a café.)
For an even better city view, hike back around the church and walk out to the seaside end of the Miradouro das Portas do Sol catwalk. The huge, frilly building dominating the ridge on the far left is the Monastery of São Vicente, constructed around 1600 by the Spanish king Philip II, who left his mark here with this tribute to St. Vincent. A few steps away, next to a statue of St. Vincent, is a kiosk café where you can enjoy perhaps the most scenic cup of coffee in town.
- Across the street from the café, you’ll find the…
6)Museum and School of Portuguese Decorative Arts
The Museum and School of Portuguese Decorative Arts offers a stroll through a richly decorated, aristocratic household.
The palace, filled with 15th- to 18th-century fine art, offers the best chance for visitors to experience what a noble home looked like during Lisbon’s glory days. Inside, a coach on the ground level is “Berlin style,” with a state-of-the-art suspension system, on leather straps. The grand stairway leads upstairs past 18th-century glazed tiles (Chinese-style blue-and-white was in vogue) into a world of colonial riches. Portuguese aristocrats had a special taste for “Indo-Portuguese” decorative arts:objects of exotic woods such as teak or rosewood, and inlaid with shell or ivory, made along the sea routes of the age.
From here, it’s downhill all the way. From Largo das Portas do Sol (the plaza with the statue of local patron St. Vincent, near the kiosk café on the terrace), go down the loooong stairs (Rua Norberto de Araújo, between the church and the catwalk).
A few steps down on the left, under the big arch, notice the public WCs and the fun, vivid cartoon mural illustrating Lisbon’s history (if you know the key dates, you can enjoy it even without understanding Portuguese).
The massive eighth-century fortified wall (on the right of the staircase) once marked the boundary of Moorish Lisbon. Consider that the great stones on your right were stacked here over a thousand years ago. At the bottom of the wall, continue downhill, then turn left at the railing…and go down more stairs.
- Explore downhill from here. The main thoroughfare, a concrete stepped lane called Escadinhas de São Miguel, funnels you to the Alfama’s main square.
7)Heart of the Alfama
This square, Largo de São Miguel, is the best place to observe a slice of Alfama life. When city leaders rebuilt the rest of Lisbon after the 1755 quake, this neighborhood was left out and consequently retains its tangled medieval streets.
If you’ve got the time, explore the Alfama from this central square. Its urban-jungle roads are squeezed into confusing alleys—the labyrinthine street plan was designed to frustrate invaders. What was defensive then is atmospheric now. Bent houses comfort each other in their romantic shabbiness, and the air drips with laundry and the smell of clams. Get lost. Poke aimlessly, peek through windows, buy a fish. Locals hang plastic water bags from windows in the summer to keep away the flies. Favorite saints decorate doors to protect families. St. Peter, protector of fishermen, is big in the Alfama. Churches are generally closed, since they share a priest. As children have very little usable land for a good soccer game, this square doubles as the neighborhood playground.
The tiny balconies were limited to “one-and-a-half hands” in width. A strictly enforced health initiative was designed to keep the town open and well-ventilated. If you see carpets hanging out to dry, it means a laundry is nearby. Because few homes have their own, every neighborhood has a public laundry and bathroom. Until recently, in the early morning hours, the streets were busy with residents in pajamas, heading for these public baths. Today, many younger people are choosing to live elsewhere, lured by modern conveniences unavailable here, and old flats with older residents are under the watchful eye of real estate developers. Many long-term residents have been evicted due to landlords claiming “necessary reforms,” only to sell the entire building for development as tourist housing. In just one generation, the Alfama is feeling the pressure of gentrification.
Traditionally the neighborhood here was tightly knit, with families routinely sitting down to communal dinners in the streets. Feuds, friendships, and gossip were all intense. Historically, when a woman’s husband died, she wore black for the rest of her life—a tradition that’s just about gone.
The Alfama hosts Lisbon’s most popular outdoor party dedicated to St. Anthony (whose feast day is June 13, but the party goes on all month). Imagine tables set up everywhere, bands playing, bright plastic flowers strung across the squares, and all the grilled sardines (sardinhas grelhadas) you can eat. The rustic paintings of festive characters (with hints of Moorish style) remind locals of past parties, and strings and wires overhead await future festival dates when the neighborhood will again be festooned with colorful streamers.
While there are plenty of traditional festivals here, the most action on the Alfama calendar is the insane, annual mountain-bike street race from the castle to the sea (which you can see hurtle by in two minutes on YouTube; search “Lisboa downtown race”).
Continue exploring downhill from here. Just below the square you’ll see A Baiuca, a recommended amateur fado restaurant. Then, a few steps farther downhill, you’ll hit the cobbled pedestrian lane, Rua São Pedro. This darkest of the Alfama’s streets, in nearly perpetual shade, was the logical choice for the neighborhood’s fish market. Modern hygiene requirements (which forbid outdoor stalls) killed the market, but it’s still a characteristic lane to explore.
- Turn left and follow Rua São Pedro out of the Alfama to the square called Largo do Chafariz de Dentro and, across the street, the…
This museum tells the story of fado in English—with a great chance to hear these wailing fisherwomen’s blues. Three levels of wall murals show three generations of local fado stars, and the audioguide lets you listen to the Billie Holidays of Portugal.
This ▲▲▲ walk covers the highlights of Lisbon’s historic downtown, the Baixa, which fills a flat valley between two hills. The district slopes gently from the waterfront up to Rossio, Praça dos Restauradores, Avenida da Liberdade, and the newer town. The walk starts at Praça do Comércio and ends at Praça dos Restauradores.
- Start your walk at the statue of King José I in the center of Praça do Comércio. Find a spot of shade in José’s shadow (or take cover under the arcades) and read a bit about the Baixa’s history.
Background: After the disastrous 1755 earthquake, the Baixa district was rebuilt on a grid street plan. The uniform and utilitarian Pombaline architecture (named after the Marquês de Pombal, the chief minister who rebuilt the city) feels almost military. That’s because it is. The Baixa was constructed by military engineers who had experience building garrison towns overseas. The new Lisbon featured the architecture of conquest—simple to assemble, economical, with all the pieces easy to ship. The 18th-century buildings you’d see in Mozambique and Brazil are interchangeable with those in Lisbon.
The buildings are all uniform, with the same number of floors and standard facades. They were designed to survive the next earthquake, with stone firewalls and wooden frameworks that had flexible crisscross beams. The priorities were to rebuild fast, cheap, and shake-proof.
If it had been left up to the people, who believed the earthquake was a punishment from God, they would have rebuilt their churches bigger and more impressive than ever. But Pombal was a practical military man with a budget, a timeline, and an awareness of his society’s limits. Large churches didn’t fit into the new, orderly grid. In those austere postearthquake days, Pombal got his way.
The Baixa has three squares—two preearthquake (Comércio and Rossio) and one added later (Figueira)—and three main streets: Prata (silver), Aurea (gold), and Augusta (relating the Portuguese king to a Roman emperor). The former maze of the Jewish quarter was eliminated, but the area has many streets named for the crafts and shops once found there.
The Baixa’s pedestrian streets, inviting cafés, bustling shops, and elegant old storefronts give the district a certain charm. City-government subsidies make sure the old businesses stay around, but modern ones find a way to creep in. I find myself doing laps up and down Rua Augusta in a people watching stupor. Its delightful ambience is perfect for strolling.
- Now turn your attention to the square itself.
1)Praça do Comércio
At this riverfront square bordering the Baixa—along the gateway to Lisbon—ships used to dock and sell their goods. This was the site of Portugal’s royal palace for 200 preearthquake years, but after the 1755 earthquake/tsunami/fire, the jittery king fled to more stable Belém, never to return. These days, government ministries ring Praça do Comércio. It’s also the departure point for city bus and tram tours, and boats that cruise along the Rio Tejo. The area opposite the harbor was conceived as a residential neighborhood for the upper class, but they chose the suburbs. Today the square has two names (“Palace Square” and “Commerce Square”) and little real life. Locals consider it just a big place to pass through.
The statue is José I, the king who gave control of the government to his chief minister, the Marquês de Pombal.
Built 20 years after the quake, it shows the king on his horse, with Pombal (on the medallion), looking at their port. The king on horseback strikes a heroic pose, bravely riding through the ground covered in snakes (a contrast to his actual behavior after the earthquake, refusing to sleep in a stone building ever again). The snakes actually hide support mechanisms for the heavy statue. Triumph and Fame toot the king’s arrival, while a horse represents Portugal’s European power and an elephant asserts the country’s dominance in Asia. In its glory days, this city was where east met west. The statue proved such a success that it jump-started sculptor Joaquim Machado de Castro’s career (see more at his museum in Coimbra).
The big arch marking the inland side of the square is Lisbon’s Arch of Triumph (with Vasco da Gama on the left and Pombal on the right). Disregarding his usual austerity, Pombal restored some of the city’s Parisian-style grandeur at this central approach into downtown.
Facing the Arch of Triumph, get oriented to a few landmarks on the square (moving from left to right):
At 9 o’clock is the cozy Wines of Portugal Tasting Room, a nonprofit wine-appreciation venue. About two dozen local wines are offered; English descriptions are above each tap, and a helpful attendant is happy to explain things. To taste, you buy a chip card (€3 minimum and €1 deposit for the card), take a glass, and serve yourself samples of Portuguese wines of every variety: white, red, green (vinho verde), and a few ports.
At 10 o’clock is the TI.
At 2 o’clock, under the arcade just right of the arch, is Martinho da Arcada, a fine option for a coffee, pastry, or snack. It was founded in 1782—when the wealthy would come here to savor early ice cream made with mountain snow, lemon, and spices. While it has a fancy restaurant, I’d enjoy just a coffee and pastry in its café bar. This place was one of poet Fernando Pessoa’s old haunts (they display a few Pessoa artifacts, lots of old photos, and a shrine-like table that was his favorite). In the early 20th century, painters, writers, and dreamers shared revolutionary ideas here over coffee (Praça do Comércio 8, at the corner of Rua da Prata).
At 3 o’clock is the much-promoted “Lisbon Story Center,” a childish exhibit with no artifacts—you pay €8 to stand for an hour looking at animated history on computer screens.
Nearby is another branch of the TI (in case the first one is too crowded). And at 5 o’clock is the Terreiro do Paço Metro stop (see the red M on a post). Finally, take a look up to see the tree-covered home to São Jorge Castle from the previous walk.
- Before moving on, use the crosswalk at the bottom of the big square for a quick look at…
An inviting balustrade and a pair of Pombaline pillars—Lisbon’s gateway to the sea, an arrival and departure point for everyone from Philip II of Spain to dictator António de Oliveira Salazar—mark a little pier (called the Cais das Colunas) that offers a fine, water-level view of the Tejo riverscape. To your left is the busy Terreiro do Paço ferry terminal—one of many that connect commuters to the far side of the river. To your right are the 25th of April Bridge and Cristo Rei statue. Down here at water level, you can really see that the Tejo is a tidal river—the Atlantic is just around the bend (past the bridge). At low tide, the humble little rocky beach reveals worlds of sea life in rocky pools. Any tide poolers out today?
- Now, head back up through the square, cross the busy street, pass under the big arch, and walk down Rua Augusta into the Baixa district. (Skip the chance to pay to go to the top of the arch—it affords only a mediocre view from its empty rooftop.) The first cross-street you meet is…
3)Rua do Comércio
Look right to see the old ▲cathedral with its Romanesque fortress-like crenellations. Notice that many of the surrounding buildings are in the austere architectural style adopted immediately after the earthquake. Exterior decoration was adopted here in Lisbon only in the 19th century, after the Portuguese in colonial Brazil found that the tiles protected against humidity.
The characteristic black-and-white cobbled sidewalk is uniquely Portuguese. These mosaic limestone and basalt cobbles were first cut and laid by 19th-century prison laborers, but maintaining them has since developed into a skilled craft. To this day patterns are chosen from acceptable designs made from large, wooden stencils. One benefit of these sidewalks is that they move and flow with the earth; even as tree roots spread or the ground shifts, the asphalt does not crack. But as the stones can be slippery and require skilled labor, the city government is talking about replacing them with modern pavement. Locals are crying out to keep the tradition.
Across the street, on the right, you’ll pass the MUDE, Lisbon’s museum of design, occupying a former bank building. The building may be closed for renovation during your visit; when open it offers a quick, well-described in English stroll through 20th-century fashion.
- The next cross-street is…
4)Rua de São Julião
Churches blend into the post-earthquake Baixa. There’s one about 30 yards to the left down Rua de São Julião (hiding on right side of street; look for the triangular pediment over door). Churches were rebuilt to be better incorporated into the no-nonsense grid plan of the Baixa. Look up for evidence of how downtown Lisbon’s population is shrinking as more people move to the suburbs: The upper floors of many buildings are now mostly empty.
At the next block, Rua da Conceição, there’s a stop for the handy trolley #28E. Ahead on the right (in the windows of the Millennium Bank) are Roman artifacts—a reminder that Lisbon’s history goes way back.
- Go two more blocks to the intersection with Rua da Vitoria. Turn right and walk two blocks to Rua da Prata, where you’ll see the camouflaged…
5)Church of St. Nicholas
A typical church facade faces the square.
But on the streetfront side, the entire exterior is covered with green tiles, as just another stretch of post-earthquake Baixa architecture. The church made extra income by leasing what is technically their property to the businesses on busy Rua da Prata. Several of the fine, tiled buildings near this square have been refurbished. In fact, the one at the very top of the square hides a free elevator that takes you partway up to the castle atop the Alfama.
- Head north down Rua da Prata toward the statue marking Praça da Figueira. At Rua de Santa Justa, look left for a good view of Elevador de Santa Justa before continuing straight to the square.
6)Praça da Figueira
This was the site of a huge hospital destroyed in the earthquake. With no money to replace the hospital, the space was left open until the late 1880s, when it was filled with a big iron-framed market (similar to Barcelona’s La Boqueria). That structure was torn down decades ago, leaving the square you see today.
The big building on the left, with its upper floors long neglected, has been purchased in part by Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal for a total of €62 million. It’s an example of the neighborhood being reinvigorated though likely at the expense of long-time tenants.
The nearby Confeitaria Nacional shop (on the corner of the square, 20 yards to your left) is a venerable palace of sweets little changed since the 19th century. In the window is a display of “conventuel sweets”—special nun-made treats often consisting of sugar and egg yolks (historically, the nuns, who used the egg whites to starch their laundry, had an abundance of yolks). Consider a light lunch in the recommended upstairs dining room.
The square is a transportation hub, with stops for minibus #737 to the castle; the old trolley #12E to the Alfama viewpoint; the modern trolley #15E and bus #714 heading out to Belém; and the touristic hop-on, hop-off buses.
Walk to the far-left corner of the square, past skateboarders oblivious to its historical statue—Portugal’s King João I on a horse. Continue straight out of the square on Rua Dom Antão de Almada. This lane has several characteristic shops. Pop into the classic cod shop (on the left at #1C—you’ll smell it). Cod (bacalhau) is part of Portugal’s heritage as a nation of seafaring explorers: Salted cod could keep for a year on a ship. Just soak in water to rinse out the salt and enjoy. The adjacent ham counter serves pata negra (presunto ibérico) from acorn-fed pigs—the very best. Many say the alheira sausage, made with bread, game, and garlic instead of pork, was a favorite among Lisbon’s Jews back when they needed to fake being Christians (during the forced conversions of the Inquisition era). In reality, the sausage was a way to preserve other types of meat for long winter months.
- At the end of the lane stands a big church facing another square.
7)Church of São Domingos
A center of the Inquisition in the 1600s, this is now one of Lisbon’s most active churches.
The evocative interior—rebuilt from the ruins left by the 1755 earthquake—would continue to play an important role in local history due to its location so near Rossio. Two famous royal weddings were held here in the 1800s. But the current state of the church—with black soot on the walls and charred stonework at the altar—is due to a raging fire in 1959. Closed for decades, São Domingos finally reopened to the public in the 1990s, with all its scars still visible.
Tabloid photos of fire damage can be seen at the exit. Our Lady of Fátima is Portugal’s most popular saint, and her chapel (in the left rear of the church) always has the most candles. Her statue is accompanied by two of the three children to whom she miraculously appeared (the third was still alive when this chapel was made and so is not shown in heaven with the saint).
- Step into the square just beyond the church.
8)Largo de São Domingos
This area was just outside of the old town walls—long a place where people gathered to keep watering holes busy and enjoy bohemian entertainment. Today the square is home to classic old bars (like the ginjinha bar described next) and a busy “eating lane,” Rua das Portas de Santo Antão (kitty-corner from where you entered the square, to the right of the National Theater on the far side of the square).
A stone monument on the square remembers the Jewish massacre of 1506. Many Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 took refuge in Portugal. But when a drought ravaged the country, Lisbonites killed several thousand of them on this square.
The city’s 16th-century slave market also took place here, but the square is now a meeting point for the city’s African community—immigrants from former Portuguese colonies such as Angola, Mozambique, and Portuguese Guinea. They hang out, trade news from home, and watch the tourists go by.
With that unfortunate heritage, the city today calls itself the “City of Tolerance” and you’ll see that phrase—in the language of all the communities that now live peacefully together here—on a wall behind the benches. Just beyond this square is a square called Praça Martim Moniz, the springboard for the tangled and characteristic Mouraria district, the immigrant neighborhood between here and the castle.
- Look toward the big adjoining square to find the colorful little tavern serving a traditional berry brandy.
9)Liquid Sightseeing (Ginjinha Bars)
Ginjinha (zheen-ZHEEN-yah) is a favorite Lisbon drink. While nuns baked sweets, the monks took care of quenching thirsts with this sweet liquor, made from the ginja berry (like a sour cherry), sugar, and brandy. It’s now sold for €1.40 a shot in funky old shops throughout downtown. Buy it with or without berries (com elas or sem elas—that’s “with them” or “without them”) and gelada (if you want it poured from a chilled bottle). In Portugal, when people are impressed by the taste of something, they say, “Sabe que nem ginjas”—literally “It tastes like ginja,” but meaning “finger-lickin good.” The oldest ginjinha joint in town is a hole-in-the-wall at Largo de São Domingos 8. If you hang around the bar long enough, you’ll see them refill the bottle from an enormous vat. (Another ginjinha bar, Ginjinha Sem Rival, serves the prized Eduardinho liqueur, considered the most authentic; it’s just across the square, at the start of the restaurant row—Rua das Portas de Santo Antão—at #7.)
- A big square is around the corner (fronting the National Theater). This is…
Lisbon’s historic center, Rossio, is still the city’s bustling cultural heart. Given its elongated shape, historians know it was a Roman racetrack 2,000 years ago; these days, cars circle the loop instead of chariots. It’s home to the colonnaded National Theater, American fast-food chains, and street vendors who can shine your shoes, laminate your documents, and sell you cheap watches, autumn chestnuts, and lottery tickets. The column in the square’s center honors Pedro IV—king of Portugal and emperor of Brazil. (Many maps refer to the square as Praça Dom Pedro IV, but residents always just call it Rossio, for the train station at one corner.)
The square once held a palace that functioned as the headquarters of the Inquisition. Damaged by the 1755 earthquake, it was demolished, and in an attempt to erase its memory, the National Theater was built in its place.
From here you can see the Elevador de Santa Justa and the ruined convent breaking the city skyline. Notice the fine stone patterns in the pavement—evoking waves encountered by the great explorers. (If you’re prone to seasickness, don’t look down as you cross the square.)
- Crossing the square in front of the National Theater, you see…
The circa-1900 facade of Rossio station is Neo-Manueline. You can read the words “Estação Central” (central station) carved on its striking horseshoe arches. Find the empty niche where a statue of King Sebastian once stood in the center of two arches. Unfortunately, the statue fell and broke into many pieces in 2016 when a tourist climbed the facade to take a selfie (I’m not kidding). It has since been repaired but has yet to return…much like his legend. This romantic, dashing, and young soldier-king was lost in 1580 in an ill-fated crusade to Africa. As Sebastian left no direct heir, the crown ended up with Philip II of Spain, who became Philip I of Portugal. The Spanish king promised to give back the throne if Sebastian ever turned up—and ever since, the Portuguese have dreamed that Sebastian will return, restoring their national greatness. Even today, in a crisis, the Portuguese like to think that their Sebastian will save the day—he’s the symbol of being ridiculously hopeful.
- Just uphill from Rossio station is Praça dos Restauradores, at the bottom of Lisbon’s long and grand Avenida da Liberdade. Between Rossio station and the square is Lisbon’s oldest hotel, the Avenida Palace. Built as a terminus hotel at the same time as Rossio station, it has a fun interior, with an elegant yet inviting oasis of a bar/lounge—popular with WWII spies in the 20th century, and tourists needing a little break in the 21st century (nice after this walk).
12)Praça dos Restauradores
This monumental square connects Rossio with Avenida da Liberdade. The obelisk at its centerpiece celebrates the restoration of Portuguese independence from Spain in 1640 (without any help from the still-missing Sebastian mentioned earlier).
Looking uphill at the lower left corner of the square, find a statue remembering the generations of laborers who made the city’s characteristic black-and-white calçada sidewalks. Lisboners love the patterns decorating their pavements throughout the town. Here these bronze workers have made the symbol of the city: a ship, carrying the remains of St. Vincent, guarded by two ravens.
Overlooking the square is the 1930s Art Deco facade of the Eden Theater. About 100 yards farther up the boulevard (past a Metro station and TI, on the left) is the Elevador da Glória funicular that climbs to the Bairro Alto.
- Stroll up Avenida da Liberdade for a good look at another facet of this fine city.
13)Avenida da Liberdade
This tree-lined grand boulevard, running north from Rossio, connects the old town (where most of the sightseeing action is) with the newer upper town. Before the great earthquake this was the city’s royal promenade. After 1755, it was the grand boulevard of Pombal’s new Lisbon—originally limited to the aristocracy. The present street, built in the 1880s and inspired by Paris’ Champs-Elysées, is lined with hotels, high-fashion shopping, expensive office buildings…and eight lanes of traffic.
The grand “rotunda”—as the roundabout formally known as Marquês de Pombal is called—tops off Avenida da Liberdade with a commanding statue of Pombal. Allegorical symbols of his impressive accomplishments decorate the statue. (An absent king and an iron-willed minister left in charge can do a lot in 27 years.) Beyond that lies the fine Edward VII Park. From the Rotunda (M: Marquês de Pombal), it’s an enjoyable 20-minute downhill walk along the mile-long avenue back to the Baixa.
Whether strolling uphill or down, one of the joys of modern Lisbon is to simply walk this grand boulevard, dotted with monuments, statues, and food kiosks with inviting seating—perfect for enjoying a drink or snack.
C)▲▲▲ Bairro Alto & Chiado Stroll
The Old World-feeling Bairro Alto (High Town) and trendy Chiado perch just above the busy Baixa. This walk (rated ▲▲▲) connects dramatic viewpoints, leafy parks with inviting kiosk cafés, skinny streets lined with fado clubs, a dramatic church, an earthquake-toppled convent, Chiado’s trendy dining and shopping scene, and a classic coffee house.
- Leaving the funicular on top, turn right (go 100 yards, up into a park) to enjoy the city view from the…
1)Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara (Viewpoint)
A tile map guides you through the view, which stretches from the twin towers of the cathedral (on far right, near the river), to the ramparts of the castle birthplace of Lisbon (capping the hill, on right), to another quaint, tree-topped viewpoint in Graça (directly across, end of trolley #28E), to the skyscraper towers of the new city in the distance (far left). Whenever you see a big old building in Lisbon, it’s often a former convent or monastery. With the dissolution of monastic religious orders in 1834, these buildings were nationalized and are now occupied by hospitals, museums, schools, or the military.
In the park, a bust honors a 19th-century local journalist (founder of Lisbon’s first daily newspaper) and a barefooted delivery boy. This district is famous for its writers, poets, publishers, and bohemians.
- Directly across the street from where you got off the Elevador da Glória is Solar do Vinho do Porto, run by the Port Wine Institute—a good place to sample the famous fortified wine from northern Portugal. Step inside or consider returning later for a do-it-yourself tasting. Next, side-trip directly across from the top of the funicular into the old grid-plan streets of the Bairro Alto.
2)Bairro Alto Detour
The Bairro Alto is one of the most characteristic and appealing districts in Lisbon. Designed in the 16th century with a very modern (at the time) grid-plan layout, the district housed ship workers back when Portugal was a world power and its ships planted the Portuguese flag all around the globe. Today, the Bairro Alto is quiet in the morning, but buzzes with a thriving restaurant scene in the evening and a rowdy bar scene later—much to the chagrin of elder residents.
While it’s fun to wander, follow this route for a good sampling: Go two blocks gently uphill on Travessa da Boa Hora, turn left on Rua da Atalaia, continue three blocks, and then head left down Travessa da Queimada until you cross the big street (leaving the Bairro Alto) and reach the small square, Largo Trindade Coelho.
- On Largo Trindade Coelho is the…
3)▲ Sao Roque Church
Step inside and sit in a pew in the middle to take it all in. Built in the 16th century, the ▲ church of St. Roque—dedicated to the saint who protects the faithful from disease and plagues—is one of Portugal’s first Jesuit churches. The painted-wood, false-domed ceiling is perfectly flat. The acoustics here are top-notch, important in a Jesuit church, where the emphasis is on the sermon. The numbered panels on the floor were tombs, nameless because they were for lots of people. They’re empty now—the practice was stopped in the 19th century when parishioners didn’t want plague victims rotting under their feet.
Survey the rich side chapels. The highlight is the Chapel of St. John the Baptist (left side of church, gold and blue lapis lazuli columns). It looks like it came right out of the Vatican…because it did. Made in Rome from precious materials, the chapel was the site of one papal Mass before it was disassembled and shipped to Lisbon. Per square inch, it was the most costly chapel ever constructed in Portugal. Notice the mosaic floor (with the spherical symbol of Portugal) and, on the walls, three intricate, beautiful mosaics—a Vatican specialty, designed to take the place of real paintings, which were vulnerable to damage from candle smoke and incense. Notice also the delicate “sliced marble” symmetry and imagine the labor involved in so artfully cutting that stone five centuries ago.
The chapel to the left of St. John the Baptist features a riot of babies. Individual chapels—each for a different noble family—seem to be in competition. Keep in mind that the tiles are considered as extravagant as the gold leaf and silver. To the left of the main altar, a glass case is filled with relics trying to grab your attention.
Between the Chapel of St. John the Baptist and the relics, find the sacristy where, along with huge chests of drawers for vestments, you can see a series of 17th-century paintings illustrating scenes from the life of St. Francis Xavier—one of the founders of the Jesuit order along with St. Ignatius of Loyola and Peter Faber (irregular hours, only open when staffed). On your way out, you might pop a coin into a rack of fake candles and power a prayer.
The São Roque Museum (to the left as you leave the church) is more interesting than your typical small church museum. It’s filled with perhaps the best-presented collection of 16th- and 17th-century church art in town, and is well-described in English. The church and this art, rare survivors of the 1755 earthquake, illustrate the religious passion that accompanied Portugal’s Age of Discovery, with themes including the mission of the Jesuits and their response to the Reformation; devotion to relics; and devotion to the Virgin (€2.50, same hours as the church).
- Back outside in the church square (WC underground), visit the statue of a friendly lottery-ticket salesman. Two lottery kiosks are nearby. Locals who buy into the Totoloto (which, like lotteries everywhere, is a form of taxation on gamblers that helps fund social outreach programs) rub the statue’s well-polished ticket for good luck. Continue (kitty-corner left across the square) downhill along Rua Nova da Trindade, following the tram tracks. At #20 (on the left), pop into…
4)Cervejaria da Trindade
The famous “oldest beer hall in Lisbon” is worth a visit for a look at its 19th-century tiles. The beautifully tiled main room, once a dining hall for monks, still holds the pulpit from which the Bible was read as the monks ate. After monastic orders were abolished in 1834, the monastery became a brewery—you’ll notice that while the oldest tiles have Christian themes, the later ones (from around 1860) are all about the beer. Among the Portuguese beers on tap are Sagres, the standard lager; Sagres Preta, a good dark beer (like a porter); and Bohemia, which is sweet, with more alcohol. At the bar in front you can get a snack and beer, while more expensive dining is in the back.
- Continue down the hill. You’ll pass the recommended Bairro do Avillez—one of more than a dozen Lisbon eateries owned by celebrity chef José Avillez, who is helping to bring traditional recipes (like the ones at the cervejaria we just left) into the 21st century. Continue until the next intersection, where signs point left to the ruined Convento do Carmo. Follow the inside trolley tracks downhill and to the left. Just before you reach the square, notice (on the left) the well-stocked music shop—selling (among other instruments) the unique Portuguese guitars used to perform fado music. You’ll wind up in the leafy, inviting square called…
5)Largo do Carmo
On this square decorated with an old fountain, lots of pigeons, and jacaranda trees from South America (with purple blossoms in June), police officers guard the headquarters of the National Guard. Famous among residents, this was the last refuge of the dictatorial Salazar regime. The Portuguese people won their freedom in 1974, in a peaceful uprising called the Carnation Revolution. The name came when revolutionaries placed flowers in the guns of the soldiers, making it clear it was time for democracy here.
- On Largo do Carmo, check out the ruins of…
6)Convento do Carmo
After the convent was destroyed by the 1755 earthquake, the Marquês de Pombal directed that the delicate Gothic arches of its church be left standing—supporting nothing but open sky—as a permanent reminder of that disastrous event. If you pay to enter, you’ll see a fine memorial park in what was the nave, and (filling the former apse at the far end) a simple museum with Bronze Age and Roman artifacts, medieval royal sarcophagi and a couple of Peruvian mummies—all explained in English (€4—cheapskates can do a deep knee-bend at the ticket desk, sneak a peek, and then crawl away.
- Facing the convent, take the little lane that cuts around its right side. Head up the stairs next to the Bella Lisa Elevador restaurant to reach the gray, iron…
7)Elevador de Santa Justa
In 1902, an architect who had studied under Gustav Eiffel completed this 150-foot-tall iron elevator, connecting the lower and upper parts of town. The elevator’s Neo-Gothic motifs are an attempt to match the ruined church near its top. It’s free to peer through the railings from the entry-level ramp, but I’d spring for a ticket to climb the spiral stairs up to the top-floor lookout—with unobstructed views over the city.
Stroll around this celebration of the Industrial Age, enjoy the view, then retrace your steps to the square in front of the convent. (The nearby Leitaria Académica, a venerable little working-class eatery with tables spilling onto the delightful square, can be handy for a pricey snack or drink.)
- Continue straight up through Largo do Carmo, walking a block slightly uphill on Travessa do Carmo. At the next square, take a left on Rua Serpa Pinto, walking downhill to Rua Garrett, where—in the little pedestrian zone 50 yards uphill on the right—you’ll find a famous old café across from the Baixa-Chiado Metro stop.
8)Café A Brasileira
Slinky with Art Nouveau decor, this café is a 100-year-old institution for coffeehouse junkies. A Brasileira was originally a shop selling Brazilian products, a reminder that this has long been the city’s shopping zone.
Drop in for a bica (Lisbon slang for espresso) or a pingado (with a dollop of steamed milk; either costs €0.70 at the bar). A pastel de nata custard tart costs just €1.30—but the best place in downtown for one is just a short walk away.
The statue out front is of the poet Fernando Pessoa, making him a perpetual regular at this café. He was the literary and creative soul of Lisbon in the 1920s and 1930s, when the country’s avant-garde poets, writers, and painters would hang out here.
At the neighboring Baixa-Chiado Metro stop, a slick series of escalators whisks people effortlessly between Chiado Square and the Baixa. It’s a free and fun way to survey a long, long line of Portuguese—but for now, we’ll stay in the Chiado neighborhood. (If you’ll be coming for fado in the evening—recommended places are nearby—consider getting here by zipping up the escalator.)
- The Chiado district is popular for its shopping and theaters. Browse downhill on…
As you stroll, notice the mosaic sidewalks, ironwork balconies, and fine shops. The street lamps you see are decorated with the symbol of Lisbon: a ship, carrying the remains of St. Vincent, guarded by two ravens.
As you walk, peek into classy stores, such as the fabric lover’s paradise Paris em Lisboa—imagine how this would have been the ultimate in oh là là fashion in the 19th century (at #77 on the right).
The next cross street, Rua Serpa Pinto, leads (in one block) to the São Carlos Theater—Lisbon’s opera house.
Celebrity chef José Avillez, whose eatery we passed earlier, and his culinary rivals have revitalized this sleepy quarter with several restaurants. (Avillez’s Belcanto has often appeared high on the list of the “50 Best Restaurants in the World.”) Between here and the theater is the recommended Burel Mountain Originals, selling traditional and modern Portuguese wool and flannel products.
Continuing along Rua Garrett, at the next corner (after the church, at #73) is the venerable Bertrand bookstore—according to Guinness, the oldest bookstore in continuous operation (since 1732) with English books and a good guidebook selection.
A Vida Portuguesa—my favorite shop for Portuguese gifts (quality textiles, soaps, home decor, sardines, wine, and so on) is at the end of the street behind the bookstore (Rua Anchieta 11).
Along the main drag, you’ll start to see more and more international chains before Rua Garrett ends abruptly at the entrance of the big Armazéns do Chiado mall. This grand, six-floor shopping center connects Lisbon’s lower and upper towns with a world of ways to spend money (including a handy food court on the sixth floor).
For Italian-style gelato, locals like Santini em Casa, a few steps downhill to the left as you face the mall (at #9).