Portugal has been high on my must-see lists. Last week we visited this beautiful country and fell in love with it. It’s a very popular destination right now having been ranked one of the safest places to visit. After our trip, I can understand why it’s so popular. Portugal is beautiful and steeped in history, culture, fantastic food and wine. I was wowed even more by the friendliness of the Portuguese people. From our guides, hotel staff, restaurant staff and even taxi drivers, the people could not have been nicer. I have been to many European countries and never experienced a group of people more open, friendly and happy to help visitors.
We began our trip in Lisbon which is one of the oldest, most charming cities in all of Europe. It is a gorgeous city! The architecture is beautiful and the city is incredibly colorful. It truly is the “city of seven hills” so be prepared to walk on some crazy steep streets. The city is divided into several different areas each with its own character and flavor: the Alfama, Biaxa, Chiado, Bairro Alto, Belem, Principe Real, and Santa Catarina. Ruins, museums, restaurants and shops abound in all of the areas. There is so much to see in Lisbon. I have highlighted just a few of my favorites.
Four Seasons Hotel Ritz, Lisbon
We made our home in Lisbon at the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz. What an incredible hotel! As we walked into the lobby, we noticed gorgeous flowers hanging from the ceiling and a wonderful, sweet smell. The captivating scent is actually a perfume (not the flowers) made specially for the hotel.
Located in the heart of the city about a five minutes taxi ride from most of the different districts and sites, the hotel sits on top of a hill overlooking Eduardo VII park. It offers views of the downtown, the castle, the old town and the Tagus River. The gym located on the top floor of the hotel had the best views. It was by far the best hotel gym I have ever been in with a full Pilates studio, equipment, stretching room and even an outdoor track. My kids were thrilled with the indoor pool! The artwork in the lobby and hotel bar ranged from modern to large works depicting the history of Lisbon and Portugal. Hotel Ritz is a fabulous luxury hotel that provides a friendly staff, luxury accommodations and excellent service.
Looking at the city from the hotel rooftop we noticed a few interesting things in the distance by the Tagus River. The 25 de Abril Bridge (25th of April Bridge) connects Lisbon with the town of Almada across the river. The bridge is the 27th largest suspension bridge in the world. It looks just like the Golden Gate Bridge but was constructed by the American Bridge Company who built the Oakland Bay Bridge. The bridge was named in honor of the date of the Carnation Revolution in 1974 when people threw carnations at the military troops during a coup. No shots were fired in the revolution but it ended the dictatorship that ruled Portugal.
Standing on the highest point of the Almada district across the river, the Christo-Rei or Christ the King Statue is visible. This statue of Christ with his arms extended appears to be blessing Lisbon. It is an important pilgrimage destination for visitors. The views of Lisbon from the observation platform are spectacular. The statue evokes the image of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil.
Touring Lisbon by foot is a challenge. A driver with a guide is a fabulous way to see the city. If you prefer being on your own, “28” Tram provides an easy way to navigate the city. As you travel around Lisbon (and all of Portugal), you will notice the incredible tiles, or azulejos, that decorate the buildings. I loved these tiles! They are everywhere- on churches, house, stores, fountains, sidewalks and in squares. The tiles are an incredible ceramic art form. The color and subject of the tiles indicates their time period. In the 15th century, tiles were decorated in geometric patterns in colors of green, yellow, blue, and white. By the 17th century, tiles started to tell Christian and historical stories. These tiles were created in blue and white due to the popularity of Chinese Ming porcelain. Tiles also served to protect from heat and dampness. The National Azulejos Museum provides an excellent timeline and examples of tiles over many centuries.
Convento da Ordemo do Carmo (The Convent of Our Lady of Mount Carmel or Carmo Convent)
I fell in love with this spot. Built in the 12th century, the convent and its Gothic Church were severely damaged by the big earthquake of 1755. The convent is located in the Chiado district. Situated on the quaint Carmo square, walking into this quiet, open-aired space is very calming. The church area is accessible to visitors while the old convent is actually the current headquarters of the National Guard. After the earthquake, the roof of the church was never repaired. The nave (or body) of the church still holds beautiful sculptures, tombs, and decoration but is lined with grass along the middle. It is a cool feeling to walk through with the sun shining down. At the end of the nave, we entered a doorway into the old apse chapels that weren’t destroyed and house various artifacts. In one room, there is a model of the complete structure as it stood before the earthquake. It’s fun to try to find where you are standing on the model. In another room, there are fabulous blue and white azulejos depicting religious scenes.
While I loved wandering the ruins, I was very impressed with the activity they offered to my daughter. She received a folder in English that provided her with various activities to explore the ruins. The packet gave her suggestions of items to look for, drawing material and the best part, curator gloves. There aren’t many places that people are allowed to touch objects But, with these gloves, she was allowed to feel the different sculptures. It was an incredible experience for her.
Elevador de Santa Justa
From the side of Carmo Convent we could see the Santa Justa Elevator and thought we would check it out. This was our first encounter with the crazy hills of Lisbon. Our first clue should have been that they actually built an elevator! When we walked toward it, while it looked level with the Convent, it was actually about three stories down a set of stairs.
The elevator was designed by Raul Mesnier de Ponsard, a Portuguese student of Gustave Eiffel. The beautiful ironwork reflects that of the Eiffel Tower, however, serves a serious function. Built from 1900-1902, it connects the Baxia (downtown area) to the walkway of the Largo do Carmo. The purpose of the lift was to eliminate the steep walk from theses two areas. Originally it was to service the working people of Lisbon but today has become a tourist attraction. The views at the top are stunning stretching from the Baxia all the way to Saint George’s Castle.
Castelo de Sao Jorge (Castle of St. George)
St. George Castle sits on top of the hilltop of the Alfama (or medieval district). The location is right in the center of Lisbon. It is clear from the stunning views why a fortress would be built on this location high above the city and the river. The Moorish castle and fortress dates to the middle ages. While many different rulers influenced or lived in the castle, it received its name in the 14th century. King John I married the English Princess Philippa of Lancaster. After resisting attacks from the Castile forces several times, King John dedicated the castle to Saint George, the warrior saint. He was a very popular saint in both Portugal and England.
The castle was used over the centuries as both a royal palace and a fortress. It is a square surrounded by a large wall. Little remains of the royal palace but the medieval castle still remains. It is located at the highest point of the hill; if under siege, this is where the inhabitants would gather. The walls of the castle have ten towers. At one point, there were 77 towers. We climbed a set of narrow step stairs to reach the top of the walls. I can’t imagine how a medieval knight in armor could climb the stairs. The views of Lisbon from the walls and towers are incredible.
Walking through the Alfama is really cool. The medieval streets are narrow and steep and it feels like you’ve stepped back in time. The streets are like a maze each providing fantastic views. The Alfama is the oldest district in Lisbon. During the middle ages, it was an area that fishermen lived in. Today it is very fashionable! We meandered down the streets until we discovered the Se Cathedral. I was in heaven exploring this incredible church.
The Lisbon Cathedral (or Se de Lisboa)
The Lisbon Cathedral (or the Se Cathedral) is one of the most important religious sites in Portugal and the oldest church in Lisbon. Over the centuries, the cathedral has hosted many important religious events for the nobility and elite. The name Se refers to Sedes Episcopalis meaning “bishop’s seat.” King Alfonso I led forces to drive the Moors out of the city in the 12th century. Gilbert of Hastings, an English Crusader, was named the first bishop after the conquest.
After the Crusaders drove the Moors out of Lisbon, the Romanesque style Cathedral was the first religious building built. The Gothic cloister (built a bit later) was actually situated over a ruined mosque as a symbol of the Catholic conquest over the Moors. The Cathedral looks like a fort with two imposing clock towers supported by massive walls. The Romanesque style rose window in the front is gorgeous. After the earthquake of 1755, fragments of this window were replaced. The church also houses the font used to baptize St. Anthony in 1195. St. Anthony is the patron saint of Portugal. The Se is one place not to be missed in the Alfama.
The Belem area is associated with the 15th Century Golden Age of Discovery and the many Portuguese explorers. There are several must-see sights in this area and worth checking out. The Torre de Belem guarded the city from any sea attacks. It sculptural detail is gorgeous. Today the tower is a symbol of Lisbon. The Padrão dos Descobrimentos (the Discoveries Monument) also sits along the waterfront. This magnificent monument honors the great Portuguese explorers and financiers of the many explorations. At the pinnacle of the sculpture sits Henry the Navigator who began the Golden Age of Discovery. The monument’s large viewing platform at the top offers great views of the Jeronimos Monastery and of the Belem area. The Jeronimos Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the most elaborate religious buildings. It was paid for by a 5% tax on all of the new spices being brought to Portugal in the 15th century. Vasco de Gama spent the night here before his voyage to India. The Monastery is gorgeous and a must when visiting the Belem area.
The food is Lisbon was incredible. Portuguese restaurants offer a lot of wonderful Mediterranean diet full of fish but also plenty of meat for the landlubber. We opted to eat at traditional Portuguese, casual places. Here were our favorites.
Solar Dos Presuntos: This restaurant presents traditional Portuguese fare. Its located on a narrow street in downtown in a building decorated with gorgeous Azulejos. This is a fun place filled with photos of past guests, big lobsters in tanks, friendly staff and delicious desserts. The food was incredibly fresh ad delicious. Try the chocolate meringue pie-its outstanding!
Lisboa a Noite: Located in the Bairro Alto section, this restaurant presents traditional Portuguese food in a very casual yet elegant setting. The restaurant is housed in what were ancient stables. The arches and walls provide evidence of this. The menu included salted cod, seafood, and meat-all delicious! After dinner, walk around of this hip area where music fills the streets at night.
Cantinho do Alvillez: This tiny, cool lunch spot is one of several restaurants owned by Chef Jose Alvillez. Located in Chiado, we had a delicious lunch while watching the tram travel up a this very steep street. This delicious spot mixes traditional Portuguese fare with a modern touch including amazing appetizers. Loved the cool antique decor! The atmosphere is super relaxed and cheerful! Another great restaurant to check out by Chef Avillez is Bairro do Alvillez. This restaurant, also located in Chiado, features different eating rooms each devoted to Portuguese flavorful food. It even has its own little grocery shop. A very fun, innovative, delicious restaurant!
I fell in love with Lisbon and couldn’t wait to explore more of Portugal on this trip. The culture, the people, the food are truly wonderful. I can't wait to go back! After a few very special experiences in Lisbon (more on those to come) we headed north to Porto. I was so glad to start our Portugal journey in the historical, forward thinking, incredible city of Lisbon.
- San Justa Elevator: http://www.carris.pt/en/elevators/