The Enduring Allure of Lisbon

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From the top of the Castelo de São Jorge, the red terracotta roofs, ochre facades and elegant town squares of Lisbon stretch into the horizon, and a ship heads up the Tagus River. It could be a flashback to the 18th century, except the modern cargo ship stacked high with containers gives the game away. This is a city built on the maritime might of a bygone era, and while the tall masts and sails have given way to hi-tech propulsion systems, the city itself retains a strong physical link to its history and a sense of kinship with the ocean.

The Castelo de São Jorge, or St George’s Castle, is the perfect way to take in the architectural splendour of Lisbon set against the mighty Tagus and it’s conveniently one of the city’s most interesting attractions in its own right. The site was originally a Visigoth fort built in the 5th century until the Moors invaded and built the fortress which remained a stronghold for four centuries until 1147 when Dom Afonso Henriques took the Castle on behalf of the Christians. He became the first king of Portugal and this heralded the golden age of the great Portuguese empire. Today the Castle is a well preserved monument with sweeping views of the city and the river from almost every aspect. It’s easy to spend half a day wandering through its ramparts, towers and courtyards while watching Lisboetas go about their daily business on the streets below.

In the shadows of the imposing Castelo de São Jorge and squeezed up against the Tagus River is an area known as Alfama, a collection of steep and twisted cobblestone alleys which remains the best preserved section of Lisbon’s past. While most of the city was rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1755 which claimed more than 15,000 lives, much of Alfama survived intact and its Moorish influence can still be seen today. Alfama is far removed from the touristy areas of Lisbon. This is a small community of fishermen who live in dilapidated terrace homes in cramped conditions, yet maintain a strong community spirit. Washing is hung on lines between houses across the streets and it’s easy to accidentally wander into someone’s backyard without realising it. Neighbours pass meals to each other out of windows and below them the fishmongers ply their trade along with greengrocers, boot repairers, cafe owners and mini-mart traders.

Getting around Lisbon is relatively simple, despite the fact that the city itself is essentially a conglomeration of seven hills set against the river. Fabulous architecture combined with an authentic Mediterranean cafe culture make Lisbon one of the most pleasant cities to walk in Europe. Its maze of cobbled alleyways and stone staircases ascending to another lookout simply add to its charm. The city’s rickety old trams don’t just add colour to the Lisbon experience, they’re a great way to get from A to B and there are three funiculars which service the higher parts of the city, offering great views on the way. There are also buses and an underground system and comfortable walking shoes are essential at all times because of the uneven, and sometimes steep cobblestone streets.

With a little planning, it’s possible to take a funicular or tram uphill and walk back down and save on wear and tear. Further west of Castelo de São Jorge and Alfama is the main downtown section of Lisbon, Baixa, which begins at the Praça do Comércio which was built right on the river and was meant to be the entrance to the city’s port. A statue of King Jose I dominates the plaza and he ruled Portugal at the time of the great earthquake in 1755 and ordered the city be immediately rebuilt. The devastation was such that King Jose decreed that a new city be styled in a sober monumentality to the disaster and the legacy of that is a grid system with wide pedestrianised boulevards.

At every corner and down side streets, cafes and restaurants operate in the shadows of 18th century buildings and this is where the office workers gather before work for coffee and in the evening for something a little stronger. Portugal’s ability to rebuild its capital after the earthquake, and subsequent fires and tsunami, was achieved on the back of the riches generated by its maritime industry, particularly in the 15th and 16th centuries. This period was known as the Age of Discoveries, and it also spawned the extravagant Manueline style of architecture which remains today in the area of Belém, the launch site of the great expeditions.

The Torre de Belém remains an opulent reminder of Portugal’s maritime glory and its striking limestone Monument to the Discoveries features the great explorers of the era, including Vasco da Gama. From the historical past of Lisbon to its modern day heart, one of the funiculars called the Elevador da Glória runs up and into Bairro Alto which is an area famous for its funky cafes and late night raucous bars. The ride itself takes just one minute and opens up the whole city. The narrow and picturesque streets and becos, or steep alleys, also mostly survived the earthquake and like Alfama, it offers up a slice of medieval Lisbon.

At a hillside restaurant, with the Castle and Alfama in the distance, it’s time for a traditional seafood meal. We order lulas recheadas à lisbonense (stuffed squid Lisbon-style) followed by Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá  (essentially a casserole of cod, potatoes and onion). We’re in for an added treat this night with a fado performance featuring five singers. Fado is a style of music unique to Lisbon which originated in its cafes and bars in the 16th century. It’s basically a collection of sad songs by women who pine for their men who are at sea. The music is melodic, soft and usually sad. Despite this it’s difficult to feel melancholic in such a vibrant yet historical and unpretentious city. Lisboetas are proud of their history and remember the past, yet live every day in true Mediterranean style. 


Ben Hall


  • 5
    Lovely Lisbon

    Posted by Gemma K on 17th Dec 2018

    Have been here several times including once as a cruise port of call. The city has it all.....from an interesting history and architecture to great food, and if you love Port, which I do, the tasting opportunities there are second to none. Your article brought back happy memories for my husband and I, we hope to return to Lisbon one day in the future. Thanks.

  • 5
    Can't Wait To Go Back

    Posted by Annmarie on 17th Dec 2018

    We spent a bit of time there last year on a bit of a tour of southern Spain and Portugal. Absolutely loved it!