Lisbon has to be one of my favorite cities in Western Europe. It pretty much has everything you could possibly want in a city. History? Check. Culture? Check. Architecture? Check. Good food? Check.
Where to begin? Lisbon is quite a hilly city, but is fairly easy to get around by either walking or taking the metro. It is divided into several different neighborhoods, such as the Baixa (city centre), Alfama (old Arab quarter), and Belem. Each area is very distinct and has its own charms. Alfama, for example, is a charming maze of narrow, winding streets, and is a great place to get lost in (and you probably will get lost there). Belem has some grand architecture, including the Tower of Belem (built during the 16th century to defend against naval invasions from the Tagus river) and the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, both of which are World Heritage sites.
One of my favorite activities was exploring the huge Castelo de Sao Jorge (St. George’s Castle). Located at the very top of a hill near the Alfama district, the castle was built during the Moorish invasion of Lisbon. Inside the castle, you can walk along the ramparts and climb the towers to get great views of the city. There’s also a nice museum and archaeological site within the castle, where you can see remains of fortifications on the same site that date as far back as the 6th century BC. Being somewhat of an archaeology buff, I enjoyed seeing the different stages of the castle’s history.
Another cool place to visit is the Carmo Convent. This is the remains of a convent that was partially collapsed during the massive earthquake of 1755, which destroyed more than two-thirds of the city. Although many of the walls are still intact, the roof is completely gone. Rather than demolish or rebuild the structure, they decided to leave it as is to serve as a reminder of the tragedy. It was very surreal walking around a cathedral and then looking up to see the sky instead of a roof! Inside the building are quite a few artifacts from Roman as well as prehistoric times, including fascinating mummies of a young boy and girl from Peru!
When walking along the waterfront, there are a couple of interesting bridges to admire. One is the Ponte Vasco de Gama. Named after Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama, the first European to reach India by water (something that Columbus attempted to do but failed), this is the longest bridge in Europe with a total length of more than 10 miles! The other is the Ponte 25 de Abril, which was deigned by the same architect as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The two bridges are nearly spitting images of each other, and I had to look around a couple of times to make sure that I wasn’t back in the Bay area.
Since I was in Lisbon for the better part of a week, I decided to take a couple of day trips. The first was to the World Heritage town of Sintra. Less than an hour outside of Lisbon by train, Sintra contains a number of beautiful palaces and castles. Although somewhat touristy and expensive (though buying the combined ticket gets you into a bunch of sites for a much lower cost), it is definitely worth the trip. Two of the most interesting sights there are the Castle of the Moors and the nearby Palace of Pena. These are located up a very steep hill, but there’s a frequent bus service to take you there and back (unless you’re up for a long hard climb). The castle was built by the Moors in the 10th century to protect against invasion. Although now mostly in ruins, it is very fun to explore and has a very authentic feel about it. A few minutes walk from there is the Pena Palace, a huge beautiful building of all different colors and a mish-mash of architectural styles. The palace was built in the 19th century as a summer house for the royal family. Although the inside of the palace is not terribly interesting, the exterior and grounds are very impressive.
Probably my favorite place in Sintra is the quirky Quinta de Regaleira. Built by an eccentric millionaire in the late 19th-century, the Quinta de Regaleira is a house with a large garden. While the house itself is not spectacular, the garden is a fantastic place to wander around, and has all sorts of strange grottos, caves, fountains, wells, spiral staircases, and secret underground passageways to explore. It is really easy to get lost there, and I must have spent at least a couple of hours in the gardens alone. Also, the Quinta de Regaleira is about a 15 minutes walk outside of the town center, so it was not as crowded as some of the other attractions (or at least it didn’t feel that way). Overall, although some people recommend staying in Sintra overnight, I felt like I was able to explore most of the town in a very full day (although I’m sure it would be less crowded during the evening).
The second day trip I took was to Tomar to visit the Convento de Cristo. Built in the 12th century, the Convento de Cristo was the headquarters of the Knights Templar, a powerful religious order during the Middle Ages. It is a massive complex containing a beautiful church and cloisters as well as an imposing castle. The Knights Templar financed much of Portugal’s exploration throughout Asia, Africa, and the New World during Europe’s Age of Discoveries.
Lisbon is undoubtedly a fascinating city, but make sure that you don’t sell yourself short on time. There’s plenty of things to see and places to explore not only within the city itself, but in nearby towns as well. If possible, I would allocate five days to a week to do this area justice. Just make sure that you bring comfortable shoes, because if there’s one thing Lisbon (and nearby Sintra) has no shortage of, it’s hills.