Few cities are more visually postcard-perfect than Portugal's capital Lisbon, a city that's recently come of age and is ready to take its place among Europe's must-see destinations. It sprawls across seven hills overlooking the wide expanse of the River Tagus, and it has a pleasing mix of districts each with individual character as well as gastronomic and wine scenes that are coming on in leaps and bounds. The history of the city dates back into the mists of pre-Celtic tribes, and construction on the huge Castelo de São Jorge began in the 2nd century B.C.. Lisbon, or Lusitania, was important to the Ancient Romans before coming under Moorish rule. After the Reconquest, it became Portugal's capital in 1255 and grew steadily until the devastating earthquake of 1755 destroyed much of the city.
Apart from one or two exceptions, like the Castelo de São Jorge, much of what you see today dates from the late 18th century, but that doesn't detract from the wealth of history and architecture sitting in the narrow streets and steep alleys or grandiose boulevards and avenues. Lisbon is definitely a city that pays to be explored on foot but with most of the streets and paths still cobbled, one thing you must pack is a comfortable pair of shoes! When your feet really do need a rest, then the antique tourist Tram Number 28 is the only way to travel. Once, many of these pretty little trams navigated the city, making short work of the steep hills. Today your journey takes you through iconic areas of Lisbon such as the Bairro Alto, Chiado and Alfama and past a wealth of monuments, palaces and gardens.
Portugal has always had close links with Brazil and there's something very colourful and Latin American in the way Lisbon likes to party. As a Catholic country, the religious calendar is very important but the city also has a full diary of exciting events to dip into throughout the year such as the festivals that celebrate the start of Summer in June to Carnival in February, while music festivals attract attention from around the globe and have become annual fixtures.
Things to Do
Planning a few days in Lisbon is made easy for you with the city's division into distinct districts. The Sé Cathedral and the Castelo punctuate the streets of Alfama, while at the other end of town Belem lies alongside the river and abounds with cafes and restaurants. It's a pleasing mix of old and new with contemporary art housed in the Centro Cultural which lies next to the beautiful Monasterio de Jerónimos. Not far from here Portugal's answer to the Golden Gate bridge, the Ponte 25 Abril spans the river, while the Cristo, copied from Rio de Janeiro, watches over the town from the opposite bank.
Monasterio de Jerónimos - money no object
Much of Portugal's New World wealth was poured into this masterpiece built in the Gothic and Manueline style. The building is stunning inside and out and is the burial place of Vasco da Gama and other great navigators and explorers. Before you leave Belem, make sure to try a traditional custard tart or Pastel de Nata.
The beautiful craft of Portuguese tiles
After the fires that followed the earthquake it was decreed that buildings in Lisbon should be protected by ceramic tiles. Their production, usually in blue and white, led to an industry that is still strong today. See examples of these beautiful azulejos at the National Tile Museum.
A foodie paradise
Once a food market and now an entertainment hotspot day and night, the Mercado da Ribeira was the brainchild of Time Out magazine and the best chefs and food products of Lisbon and Portugal are showcased here. If you're not ready for bed yet, cross the road to the nightclubs that line the riverside.
Take a tour of the oceans
The Oceanário is considered to be a world-leader. Built for the World Fair in 1998 it sits neatly in its watery setting and takes you on a fascinating tour of the world's oceans. The nearby cable car is a great way to see Lisbon and the wide sweep of the River Tagus from a new perspective.
Fairytale palaces and lush forests
The hills of Sintra provided an escape from the Summer heat of Lisbon for the royal family and aristocracy. The king built a pretty confection of a palace perched at the top of a steep hill and Sintra is now a popular day tour, especially if your journey takes you along the Cascais and Guincho coastline.
Calendar of Events
Lisbon celebrates over a dozen national and local holidays each year meaning you're never far away from party time with streets and squares coming alive with colourful parades and processions. If music is more your scene then the waterfront at Algés has become a permanent spot for annual music festivals such as NOS Alive.
The Festas de Lisboa. St Anthony is celebrated in mid-June at The Festas de Lisboa, when the streets are decorated and strewn with sweet-smelling fresh basil. The central Avenida da Liberdade sees a major costumed parade, while the whole of the city fills up with street performers and al fresco dining.
NOS Alive. This takes place on the Passeio Marítimo de Algés in early July, producing a three-day weekend of musical acts that have seen it nominated as one of Europe's 10 best festivals.
Summer Jazz in the Park. From May to September free jazz concerts are held in open-air venues across the city. Taking place in the afternoon, these are a great way to enjoy some sun and music while sipping a chilled beer or a cool glass of Portuguese wine.
Caixa Alfama Festival. Fado is, of course, the national music of Portugal with its haunting lyrics and melodies. This September festival sees top Fado artists paying homage to this aspect of Portuguese culture.