The city and port of Lisbon in Portugal has had a hugely turbulent past.
Those pesky Romans (What did the Romans ever do for us?), invaded the port in 138BC, only to be followed by the northern Alan tribes and then the fearsome Visigoths who ruled from Spain until 714 when they in turn were ousted by the Moors, who crossed from Africa via the straits of Gibraltar.
No peace yet, as the Christians re-conquered from the North in 1140, taking Lisbon by 1147 (just in time for lunch!) after a three month siege of the city.
The Spanish then re-took it in 1581 until a coup in 1640 re-established self-rule.
A huge earthquake in 1755 hit Southern Portugal, devastating Lisbon, which was subsequently hit by fires and tidal waves.
After re-structuring and re-building of the country and it’s capital city, an internal revolution led to Portugal becoming a Republic in 1910. This meant that the country became a dictatorship by 1933, until a bloodless coup by army captains in 1974.
Democracy then advanced to the level where, in 1986, Portugal became a member of the European Union. Phew! Talk about a tough upbringing.
Lisbon today enjoys a reputation as a tourist hot-spot. Cruise ships from all over the world call in on their way to or from the Mediterranean or further south.
The best time to go, weather wise, is early Spring to October.
Certainly December to February can be chilly and damp from the Atlantic weather systems.
The average temperatures range from 21C in June, 24C in July, 23C in August and 23C in September, so not too uncomfortable, though it did get up to 37C in July when we were there. The sea gets to a warm 20C by September.
It is a city famous for it’s 260 days of blue skies and sunshine, it’s ‘white’ light, which attracts artists and it’s pastel coloured buildings with red roof-tops.
The city also benefits from the magnificent, sparkling River Tagus, which is very wide here. Two bridges span it, one has the longest total span in Europe and the other, the 25th April Bridge, is very reminiscent of the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco.
According to research by the Post Office in 2016, Lisbon is the best value city break in Western Europe, so accommodation and the cost of living whilst there will not break the bank.
Like any capital city, there are numerous attractions, too many to list, but as a personal recommendation, go first to the Lisbon Story Centre in the main riverfront square, the Praca do Comercio. Here you will learn more of the history, experience the 1755 ‘earthquake’ for yourself and understand how the city developed.
If you pay an additional 1 Euro here, you can go to the top of the nearby Arch de Triomphe for terrific views across the city and the river.
To get your bearings of the city and to see some of the most attractive sights in Lisbon, take any of the historic vintage trams which run throughout the centre and the picturesque suburbs on circular tours.
The Number 28 tram (yellow) is the one which features on postcards and is a tourist magnet. There are always queues for this, and it is always packed with people standing nose to nose. How anyone sees anything from this tram is a mystery to me.
A far better option is to get on an open-top Yellow Bus tour and pay the driver for an ‘All in One’ ticket. This lasts 72 hours from first use and includes unlimited hop-on, hop-off trips on three different bus tours, Hills Historic Tram-car Tour (red tram) and the Castle Tram-car Tour (green). These trams are far less crowded, cover virtually identical trips to the No.28 and as no standing is allowed on the latter two, it is a far more comfortable and pleasant journey.
It is best to take the Hill’s Tram from No1. stop at the Placa do Comercio.
Maps are available on any of these, which show all routes and stops.
You can blow kisses to the hot and sweaty passengers on the No. 28, packed in like Portuguese sardines in a tin can from your comfortable, airy seat as you pass them, it does make them cross!
Included in the 35 Euro ‘All in One’ ticket are trips on the Yellow Boat. This is a large tourist boat which goes across the River Tagus and then under the ‘Golden Gate’ bridge towards the estuary, passing several of Lisbon’s famous sights like the Christ the King Statue, Belem Tower and the Monument to the Discoveries, close up.
Also included is a trip up the Santa Justa lift. This is a marvel of late 19th century engineering. Opened in 1902, it is now a National Monument. It is a vertical street lift enclosed by an intricate iron framework. The interior of the lift has lovely wooden panelling and on emerging at the top, take the spiral staircases to a high-level viewing area which provides vistas over the whole city. Be aware that queues here can be up to an hour long.
All three central Funicular Railways are also included on the ticket. These are elevated trams which give a level ride up and down short, steep hills at various points in the city.
The ‘All in One’ ticket saves around 75 Euros per person were you to do all these trips just once individually, so it is a great bargain, and you can do each of them as many times as you have the time and energy for.
There is a lively flea market – the market, not the fleas, in Alfama on Tuesdays and Saturdays, with many bargains to be had. This area has narrow streets, barely wide enough for a single tram in places. It is a great place to explore on foot to find the hidden sun terraces around the Porto do Sol (Gateway to the Sun) with bars and cafes having stunning views over the Tagus.
Foodies need not worry as there are many treats on hand. Ubiquitous for a snack with coffee are the Pasteis de Nata, a custard tart style pastry confection which just melts in the mouth. They were originally created by monks who kept the recipe secret, but after the Liberal Revolution of 1820, the recipe was released and small bakeries set up.
The most famous of these is the Pasteis de Belem café in Belem. Founded in 1837, the café now sells 10,000 of these delights daily. You can watch them being made behind glass screens. It does get very busy as a consequence.
Do not join the long queue outside on the pavement for take-aways, go straight inside.
Do not go for the first seats you come to, go right to the very back where you will find a large airy room and an outside floral terrace. Both are beautifully decorated.
Eat the pasteis still warm from the ovens, sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar. Wow!! It is very inexpensive here.
A less busy Pasteis café is the Fabrica de Nata on the Praca dos Restauradores, opposite the architecturally fantastic Eden Theatre. This is a modern, stylish, beautifully tiled place where the pasteis are equally as delicious.
The market food court at the Mercado de Ribiera, reached along the waterfront by a number 15 tram or a fifteen minute walk along the riverfront, is a cornucopia of mouth watering smells and flavours. Ranging from gourmet to traditional, there are so many culinary choices to be had. Carnivores should try the suckling pig sandwich for a tasty treat.
There are around 40 food and drink outlets, some with Michelin starred chefs who cook the food in open kitchens. The quality is excellent and at amazingly low prices.
Never mind the stunning city sights, this was all people talked about on the way home!
Landeau, on the Rua Das Flores, to the rear of the market in Chiado, is a contender for the best chocolate cake shop. It has a barrel-vaulted brick ceiling with a very cool vibe and a bluesy soundtrack. Sumptuous, moist slices of chocolate heaven!
It is worth the uphill puff to get there.
To accompany it, try a glass of Ginjinha, the local cherry liqueur which, at 1.40E a shot, is both delicious and cheap.
This liqueur can also be found at the many historic ‘hole in the wall’ bars around the city.
At 11am on the third Sunday in the month, the pomp and ceremony of the changing of the guard at Belem Palace may be seen. It takes place on the road immediately outside the palace and involves marching bands, soldiers, horse-guards and bands on horseback. A truly impressive spectacle.
This is followed straight afterwards by a display of horsemanship and music in the park opposite, and all for free.
The district of Belem has many attractions. These include the Royal Coach Museum, a car museum (the most visited site in Portugal), the structurally awesome Monastery of Jeronimos, the Botanical Gardens, the Belem Tower, the Monument to the Discoveries, as well as the Pasteis de Belem cafe.
The Parque das Nacoes is the modern area of the city which has a marina, shops, bars and a 1.2km riverfront cable-car ride (6 Euros).
The city centre pedestrianised streets towards the riverfront really come alive in the evenings, especially at weekends, when talented street bands and performers ply their trade amongst the street cafes and bars.
Whilst I never tired of the city attractions, there are so many others nearby that a week was certainly not enough to do them justice.
Surfing capital Guincho, about 18 miles away at the coast sees big Atlantic rollers, driven in by the open ocean breezes. This is wild countryside in the Sierra de Sintra National Park, backing onto an enormous expanse of sandy beach. The surfers here are world class and are amazingly skilful, such a sight to see. There are cafes and restaurants amongst the dunes.
This resort is easily reached by frequent local buses from the city.
Even closer to Lisbon, and a only a short train journey away, is the fishing village of Cascais, though to judge from the superb Moorish villas along the seafront, some wealth poured into the town on the back of previous Royal patronage.
Seafood lovers will be in piscatorial heaven watching the daily catch sold at auction on the quayside . Of course, there are numerous seafood restaurants here.
Try a dish of feijoada, a traditional chunky stew of fresh seafood and white beans and mop up the juices with crusty bread. Yum!
So much to see, so little time.
It’s no wonder people return to this beautiful area time and time again .
N.B. Both the Arch do Liberdade and the Santa Justa Lift have steep spiral staircases to access the viewing platforms and are unsuitable for the less able.
If you want an up-market, boutique hotel right on the main avenue of Lisbon in the city centre, have a look at www.heritageavliberdade.com. There is a separate review of this hotel on Silver Travel Advisor (see “Heritage Avenida Liberdade Hotel”:http://www.silvertraveladvisor.com/review/accommodation/165644-review-heritage-avenida-liberdade-hotel).