Lisbon: Portugal’s Capitol City

Lisbon is a beautiful historic city on the western side of Portugal, near the Atlantic Ocean on the River Tagus. It is not only the country’s capitol, but also the largest city in Portugal and the center of both the government and the economy. Lisbon has a population of 564,480 within the city limits, and about 2,800,000 in the metropolitan area. It is easy to reach by train or plane with the Portela Airport located within the city limits. Once in the city, the public transportation system offers many options including trams, buses, the metro, commuter trains to nearby suburbs and even a ferry to the other side of the river. One of the best ways to get around the historic district, however, is by foot. Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest surviving district, is filled with narrow streets that are best explored on foot. Lisbon is a city filled with a rich and diverse past that is reflected throughout the city in its architecture, made in the Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Manueline styles. It also boasts three major universities, numerous museums, and a lively nightlife. One can’t go wrong visiting this European capitol that enjoys mild weather and a beautiful climate.

Lisbon’s history can be traced back to prehistoric settlements, early tribal invasions, and Phoenician and Greek trading posts on the site, but it was the Roman occupation that first made a strong impact on the city. Referred to as Olissipo in Greek then Lusitania in Roman, Lisbon was a declared a Municipium Cives Romanorum, or a free city, allowing the citizens to enjoy self rule, tax exemption and even Roman citizenship. The Romans built a wall around the city, theaters and temples, ruins of some of which can still be seen today. By 356 Lisbon was appointed its first bishop, Saint Potamius, and it became one of the largest centers for Christianity in Europe. It was invaded by northern tribes including the Germanic Vandals in the 5th and 6th centuries, but it was the Moorish invasion of 711 that truly impacted Lisbon’s history. Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East settled here, building mosques, a new city wall, and imposing Arabic as the official language. The population at this time was, however, diverse, with Christians, Jews, Arabs, Berbers and Saqulibas living together. During the Second Crusade, in 1147, Alfonso I led knights from England, France, Germany and Portugal to seize Lisbon and retake the city. This Reconquista not only made Alfonso I the first King of Portugal but it led to the expulsion or conversion of all the Muslims that had lived in Lisbon. By 1255 Portugal’s capitol had become one of Europe’s most important points of trade with the East, especially in the Spice Trade. In 1290, King Dinis I founded one of Europe’s first universities in Lisbon. During the Age of Exploration in the 15th century Lisbon was an important point of departure when explorers such as Vasco de Gama searched for new routes to the East. The 16th century is considered Lisbon’s Golden Age, as it prospered with the new gold that poured in from its colony in Brazil. Catastrophe struck, however, in 1755 when an earthquake destroyed about 85% of the city and killed between 60,000 and 90,000 people in Lisbon, with only the Alfama district surviving intact. Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marques of Pombal, was responsible for most of the rebuilding and modernization of Lisbon at this time. In the 19th century, Lisbon, like much of Europe, was invaded by Napoleon Bonaparte, spurring Queen Maria I and Prince Regent João to flee to Brazil temporarily. Then in 1910 a republican coup centered in Lisbon led to the end of the monarchy and the declaration of the Portuguese Republic. The Republic fell, however, in 1926 when a military coup led to the dictatorship called Estado Novo which ruled all of Portugal for the next fifty years. Then in 1974 the Carnation Revolution brought an end to the Portuguese Corporative Regime, ending the dictatorship and beginning Portugal’s Third Republic which still rules today.

Now, Lisbon as the capitol of Portugal is a fun, exciting city filled with students, concerts, festivals and a new energy. This ancient port city celebrates its rich past while offering all the delights of a modern, vibrant city. Be sure to walk the streets and take in the atmosphere, enjoy the fantastic local cuisine, and appreciate the rich culture of this city at one of its many festivals.

Some Attractions

Alfama District

This is Lisbon’s oldest district and the only one that survived unscathed the 1755 earthquake. Both Roman and Arab remains have been uncovered her, but it is especially the Moorish influence that is evident, with the narrow streets and very little public space, as dictated in the teachings of the Koran which put little value on facades and more on the interiors. It is best to visit this district on foot and really enjoy the sights, smells and tastes of Lisbon in this colorful neighborhood. Here one will also find some of the city’s oldest churches, monasteries and the Castle of Saint George.

Castle of São Jorge

This castle named for Saint George is one of the oldest structures in Lisbon and it sits on the highest hill in the city in the Alfama district. The first fortress built on this site was begun around the 2nd century and was used by the Romans, the Visigoths, and the Moors. It was then taken by Alfonso I when he seized Lisbon in 1147 during the Second Crusade. From 1373-1375 King Ferdinand I had the structure renovated, adding a 5,400 meter wall around the city and 77 towers in addition to the Royal Palace. It was King John I who dedicated the fortress to Saint George in the 14th century. The structure has undergone numerous renovations and been used for a variety of purposes including the National Archives, military barracks and a prison. Today one can visit the castle and the Royal Palace, in which there is a museum dedicated to the history of Lisbon. Although the moat is now dry, one can still cross the bridge, walk the wall, and enjoy the gardens and the outstanding view of Lisbon below. 

The Tile Museum

Located in the Alfama district, this museum which is located in the Madre de Deus Convent celebrates the 500 year old tradition of tile art in Lisbon. The display looks at the history and production of decorative tiles from the 15th century to the present. Of special interest is the 23 meter long Cityscape of Lisbon made of 1300 tiles painted in blue and white that was made in 1738. Also worth seeing is the Chapel dedicated to Saint Anthony which has its walls elaborately decorated in tiles.

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

This monastery which is located in the Belém district along the River Tagus was built from 1501-1571 and is an excellent example of the Manueline architectural style although it also shows some Gothic and Renaissance influences. Within one finds the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia which houses archeological finds from around Portugal. The museum displays objects from prehistoric times through the Middle Ages, with some great pieces of jewelry and art from Egyptian and Moorish periods. Nearby is the Torre de Belém also built in the Manueline style at the height of the Age of Discovery in 1520. It acted not only as a symbol of King João’s power, but also as a point of defense along the river. Later the tower was used as a customs point, telegraph station, a lighthouse and even a political prison. 

Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa

Lisbon’s cathedral is the oldest church in the city, begun in 1147 and not completed until the 13th century. It was built on the site of a mosque, and excavations in the 20th century revealed relics from the Roman, Arab, and Reconquista periods. This Romanesque church doubled as a fortress when the city was under attack, and the two bell towers were points of defense in case of invasion. There are some beautiful rose windows on the facades and within one finds the baptismal font where Lisbon native Saint Anthony of Padua was baptized in 1195.

Galerias Romanas

These Roman galleries were discovered under the center of Lisbon in 1771 during the clean up after the 1755 earthquake. They probably date back to the first half of the 1st century and some speculate that they would have been used as a storage area for the harbor. Cracks in the walls caused the galleries to fill with water which turned out to be a blessing for Lisbon when it suffered form a drought 200 years ago. The water was found to be fresh and clean, and in the end it saved thousands from dieing in the city. It is now drained once a year and visitors are allowed to tour the galleries. So, if you happen to be there at just the right time, this is a fascinating thing to visit.

Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga

This is one of Portugal’s most important museums. It was founded in 1884 in the 18th century palace of the Count of Alvor near the river with some of the museum located in the old Convent of Saint Alberto, nearby. It features European art from the 12th-19th centuries with a special focus on Portuguese art. In the collection you will find paintings, sculptures, metal work, textiles, furniture, drawings, and decorative arts. There is an especially good collection of art from the 15th and 16th centuries in which is included the Saint Vincent Panels by Nuno Gonçalves that were painted in 1470 for King Alfonso V. The museum collection also includes African and Oriental art.

Museu Nacional dos Coches

This is one Portugal’s most popular museums and it features royal coaches from the 17th-19th centuries from around the world. It addition it has a vast collection of clothing, accessories, harnesses and uniforms from the same time period. If you enjoy this, you may also want to visit the Museu Nacional do Traje eda Moda, the National Fashion Museum. It has over 30,000 pieces in its collection of clothing, costumes, toys and accessories from the 14th-19th centuries. In addition it has an excellent exhibition on textile technology.

Museu da Marioneta

Housed in the 17th century Convento das Bernardas is this museum dedicated to the art of marionettes and puppets. The collection includes masks, puppets, dolls, and stage machinery. Special attention is paid to the Portuguese Puppet Theatre.

Santuário do Cristo Rei

This 110 meter tall statue of Christ with outstretched arms looms over the south bank of the River Tagus. It has become one of Lisbon’s major symbols since it was built in 1959, and from here one gets a great view of the city below.




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