Lisbon, built with the riches of Portugal's New World discoveries, has a rustic charm. We'll remember great navigators, eat lots of cod, enjoy pastries hot out of the oven, stroll the city's back lanes and its reinvigorated waterfront, marvel at an exquisite church built with spice taxes, and enjoy some soulful fado music. Then we'll side-trip to Sintra to explore the fanciful castles of Portuguese royalty and climb hilltop ramparts with grand views.
Church of São Domingos
A center of the Inquisition in the 1600s, this is now one of Lisbon's most active churches. The evocative interior — rebuilt from the ruins left by the 1755 earthquake — would continue to play an important role in city affairs, thanks to its location so near the historical center of town.
Cristina knows Lisbon well, and leads private tours in the city when not on the road leading tours of Portugal for my company.
This place is my choice for a quick, cheap meal immediately across the street from Rossio station. A classic greasy-spoon diner, it dishes out cod and vegetables prepared faster than a Big Mac and served with more energy than a soccer team (Rua 1 de Dezembro, closed Sundays).
Mercado da Ribeira (a.k.a. Time Out Market)
The boisterous and venerable Ribeira market survives in one half of this Industrial Age, iron-and-glass market hall, while the other half has become a trendy food court curated by Time Out magazine, which has invited a few dozen quality restaurants to open outposts here. Eating here on long, noisy picnic tables is far from romantic, but the quality and prices are great. (The market also offers Lisbon's best one-stop shopping for foodie gifts — in addition to bottles of wine, chocolates, canned fish, and other edible goodies, it has an outpost of Lisbon's best souvenir shop, A Vida Portuguesa.) This place is no secret — to avoid a mob scene at dinnertime, arrive before 19:00.
This modern little wine bar has a passion for the best wines, cheeses, and meats. With quality local ingredients, cork walls, and fado music playing, it's a perfect storm of Portuguese culture. Their expert staff knows Portuguese wines and ports and how to complement them with tasty foods; they also do wine tastings.
This café is the birthplace of the wonderful custard tart that's called pastel de nata throughout Portugal, but here is dubbed pastel de Belém. You can explore this sprawling temple to Portugal's beloved custard tart like a museum, with a peek at the bakery in the rear. Since 1837, residents have been coming to this café to get their tarts fresh. Sit down and enjoy one with a café com leite; sprinkle on as much cinnamon and powdered sugar as you like.
The oldest ginjinha joint in town is a hole-in-the-wall at Largo de São Domingos 8. If you hang around the bar long enough, you'll see them refill the bottle from an enormous vat.
This castle dates to the 11th century, when Moors built it to house their army and provide a safe haven for their elites in times of siege. Since then it's served as a royal palace, and later a military garrison. There's little to see inside the empty shell of the crenelated fort that lies within the imposing outer walls — but it's fun to climb up the steep stone steps to scramble around the top of the ramparts and towers, with ever-changing views of Lisbon, the Alfama, and the castle itself. (Up top, you'll also find a thrillingly low-tech camera obscura, which is demonstrated twice hourly — times and languages posted.)
Café A Brasileira
Slinky with Art Nouveau decor, this café is a 100-year-old institution for coffeehouse junkies. A Brasileira was originally a shop selling Brazilian products, a reminder that this part of town has long been the city's shopping zone. Drop in for a bica (Lisbon slang for an espresso) or, to get it with a dollop of steamed milk, ask for a pingado (120 Rua Garrett, near the Baixa-Chiado metro stop).
While touristy, this restaurant is romantic, candlelit, and classic. Run by friendly, English-speaking Gabriel, it's easy to reserve and has good music and tasty food. Call ahead to assure a seat. When it's busy, the room feels like a stage show, with 25 or 30 tables all enjoying classic fado. Relax, spend some time, and close your eyes (or make eye contact with the singer).
Restaurante Adega do Ribatejo
This homey, crowded place is just around the corner from Canto do Camões, and is a less touristy budget alternative: Just pay for your meal and drinks with no cover or required minimum. Late in the evening, you're welcome to just buy a drink and enjoy the music (Rua Diario de Noticias 23, closed Sun).
Perhaps the purest Manueline building in Portugal (built 1515–1520), this white tower celebrates Lisbon's seafaring past with carved stone representing ropes, Manuel's coat of arms, armillary spheres, and shields with the cross of the Order of Christ, charged with spreading the faith in new territories. (While there's often a very long line to get into this tower, but there's nothing inside worth waiting very long to see.)
This giant riverside monument, originally constructed for a 1940 world's fair, takes the shape of a huge caravel ship, in full sail, with Henry the Navigator at the helm and Portugal's great navigators, sailors, and explorers on board behind him. An elevator inside takes you up to the tiptop for a tingly vista — including a fine aerial view down over the mural in front.
If you're interested in Portugal's historic ships and navigational tools, this museum, which fills the west wing of the Monastery of Jerónimos, is worth a look. It's refreshingly uncrowded, and sailors love it.
King Manuel's 16th-century, giant white-limestone church and monastery stretches for 300 impressive yards along the waterfront of Lisbon's Belém neighborhood. The monastery has remarkable cloisters, and explorer Vasco da Gama's tomb.
Moorish Castle (Sintra)
Sintra's thousand-year-old ruins of a Moorish castle are alive with winds of the past. It's one of the most classically perfect castles you'll find anywhere, with two hills capped by hardy forts, connected by a crenellated wall walkway.
Pena Palace (Sintra)
This magical hilltop palace sits high above Sintra, above the Moorish Castle ruins. In the 19th century, Portugal had a very romantic prince, the German-born Prince Ferdinand, who hired a German architect to build a fantasy castle, mixing elements of German and Portuguese style into a Neo-fortified casserole of flamboyance.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're goin' local in Portugal's capital — it's Lisbon. Thanks for joining us.
Like no other European capital, Lisbon — built with the riches of New World discoveries — has a rustic charm. The city's a complex mix: Immigrants from its former empire, a vibrant young democracy after a long period of fascism, and money from the European Union all combine to give Lisbon bounce.
We'll remember great navigators, eat lots of cod, climb castle ruins with a commanding view, savor pastries hot out of the oven, discover back lanes, marvel at an exquisite church built with spice taxes, join locals in a stylish food court, enjoy fado music, and sip fine port.
Portugal shares the Iberian Peninsula with its neighbor, Spain. The capital city, Lisbon, sits on the Tejo River. We'll take a side trip to Sintra, but first, we'll explore Lisbon's four historic districts: the Baixa, Bairro Alto, Alfama, and Belém.
Lisbon was originally populated by Romans in ancient times, then by Moors from Africa in the Middle Ages. But the city's glory days were the 15th and 16th centuries, when explorers like Vasco da Gama opened new trade routes to Asia, making Lisbon one of Europe's richest cities.
Today, Lisbon is a city of about 600,000 on the yawning mouth of the Tejo River. With its iconic bridge and statue of Christ overlooking its huge port, it welcomes ships from around the globe and still feels like Europe's gateway to the world.
With its characteristic hills and trolleys, Lisbon has a San Francisco vibe. Today, Lisbon is a ramshackle but charming mix of now and then. Trolleys rattle up and down its hills, noble statues mark grand squares, locals enjoy venerable cafés, and a once-neglected harborfront has been revitalized.
Lisbon's history is dominated by one cataclysmic event: an earthquake in 1755. It was so strong, they say candles quivered as far away as Ireland. 30,000 people died as two-thirds of the city was flattened. It was actually three disasters in rapid succession: After the quake, fires raged through the city, then a massive tsunami slammed into the harborfront.
The scarred pillars of the Church of São Domingos evoke the horror of that day. It was All Saints' Day, and most of the population was in church. This is one of the few buildings from before 1755 that survive.
The city was reconstructed under the energetic and eventually dictatorial leadership of its prime minister: the Marquês de Pombal.
Lisbon's downtown is almost entirely post-1755. The Baixa, or Lower Town, sits between two hills. At the top, the Avenue of Liberty provides Lisbon with a proud Champs Elysées–type spine. With wide sidewalks and plenty of trees, it feels and functions like a park. From there, a series of fine squares are in full bloom for our springtime visit. They lead through one of Europe's first planned city centers to the harbor, and the vast harborfront square. Before the earthquake, this square was the site of a huge royal palace. Today, it's another wide-open public space.
The grandiose arch stands as an Arch of Triumph. A statue of the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, represents Lisbon's trade-fueled Golden Age. And a statue of the Marquês de Pombal recalls the devastated city's impressive recovery after the quake.
Pombal rebuilt the city on a grid-street plan — fast, cheap, and earthquake proof. The spartan and utilitarian architecture, named "Pombaline" (after Pombal), feels almost military. That's because it is. The Baixa we see today was reconstructed by Pombal's military engineers, whose experience was in building garrison towns in Portuguese colonies overseas.
The new Lisbon featured the architecture of conquest — economical and simple to assemble — with all the pieces easy to ship. The 18th-century buildings you'd see in former Portuguese colonies like Mozambique and Brazil are interchangeable with the buildings here in Lisbon.
The buildings are all uniform, with the same number of floors and standard facades. Inside, they were designed to survive the next earthquake. Outside, decoration was limited to wrought iron and tiles.
Lisbon's churches were rebuilt, but had to fit Pombal's austere scheme. You hardly notice their facades. But stepping inside, Pombal's austerity is replaced with Baroque splendor.
With its distinctive sidewalks, the downtown feels cohesive. The black-and-white cobbled design is an art form and uniquely Portuguese. To this day, patterns dating from the 19th century must be chosen from a book of traditional designs. Wherever you stroll, don't forget to look down.
Plenty of character and color is packed into Lisbon — and much of it is edible. To be sure we get the most out of our visit, I'm joined by my friend and fellow tour guide, Cristina Duarte.
Cristina: This is my favorite spot in town: the grocery store, where you find cod.
Rick: Take me inside?
Rick: This is amazing.
Cristina: You see these fish? This is cod — bacalhau. It's our national dish.
Rick: So, your favorite place in town. Cod. You must like cod.
Cristina: Yes, a lot. All the Portuguese do. So, this is salted, as you see. And it's dry.
Cristina: And we can eat it, like, so many different ways. You can find it in any restaurant in town.
Rick: So, in the old days, they could preserve it?
Cristina: In salt and then dry it.
Rick: And then how do you prepare it?
Cristina: Well, you have to soak it for 24 hours to 48 hours before, in water, and changing the water, and then you just cook it as a normal fish.
Rick: So, if I go to a restaurant, what is the word I look for?
Rick: And I'll find it on menus?
Cristina: For sure.
[At Restaurante Beira-Gare]
Rick: Ah, beautiful.
Cristina: This is one of the 365 ways of cooking cod that I told you.
Rick: So, what do we have in this?
Cristina: In this, as you can see, it is codfish, potato, onion, and parsley, and then it is all deep fried. It's wonderful. Bolinhos de bacalhau. This is just the perfect snack, either in the morning or in the afternoon.
Rick: It's like fast food in Portugal.
Cristina: Fast food in Portugal.
Cristina's favorite eating experiences take us all over town, so we're traveling by trolley. Many of these have been clattering through town since the 1920s…somehow safely weaving within inches of parked cars as they climb Lisbon's many hills.
Lisbon's traditional market hall [the Mercado da Ribeira, a.k.a. Time Out Market] is our next stop, and a joy to explore. Locals still shop here for the freshest ingredients.
But, as is the case all over Europe, modern buying habits are forcing these old-time markets to evolve. In order for the farmers' stalls to survive, markets are adding high-energy food courts.
Today, much of this market features branches of restaurants run by local celebrity chefs. It's a youthful and trendy scene, where you can enjoy a world of enticing dishes at great prices. And for us, it's the ideal lunch spot mixing quality food, expedience, and fun, shared tables.
The market stands at the base of another steep Lisbon hill. It's too steep for a trolley, so we're hopping a funicular. The Elevador da Bica funicular climbs through a rough-and-tumble neighborhood where more tasty bites of Lisbon await.
Small creative wine bars [this one is the Lisbon Winery] inject an inviting modernity into the old quarter. Along with a warm welcome, you're sure to gain an appreciation of the local taste treats. No visit to Lisbon is complete without sipping the favorite national drink: port wine.
Cristina: Well, cod is the national food, but port is the national drink.
Rick: I like that.
And our server has complemented this nice tawny port with the right meats and cheeses. Throughout Europe, places like this know how to combine traditional food and wine with a contemporary setting.
We're just a short trolley connection from the dessert course of our food crawl. To save money, we're using the local transit pass. You zap in…and zap out. By the way, throughout Europe, pickpockets are hard at work on the buses and trolleys most popular and crowded with tourists. So, enjoy the ride…but keep an eye on your belongings.
Next stop: custard pies. This bakery [Casa Pastéis de Belém] is popular for their pastéis [pastels] de Belém. You'll find these treats all over Portugal — and they originated right here.
Behind the busy café scene, a sweet sweatshop cranks out thousands of these tasty delights every day. They tried mechanizing the process, but it just wasn't the same. Each one is still carefully hand made. Why are these so special? It's a secret — proudly kept since 1837. Stopping here is a ritual for me with every visit to Lisbon.
We'll cap our little food tour with a sweet drink. Traditional hole-in-the-wall bars [this one is A Ginjinha] serve just one thing: ginjinha.
Rick: Let's have a drink.
Cristina: Let's have a drink. [speaks Portuguese]
You can order it with fruit or without. I've noticed that most of the locals get it "with."
Rick: What's the berry?
Cristina: The berry is a kind of cherry. It's a sour cherry — ginja.
Rick: So, the drink is "ginja"?
Cristina: Ginjinha. It's, like, a little berry in this —
Rick: Sweet Portuguese cherry juice.
Cristina: Exactly. It's, like, the fruit, sugar, alcohol, and then you make a sweet liqueur. And sabe que nem ginjas.
Rick: What does that mean?
Cristina: Mmm. "It's good, has cherries."
Rick: So, if something is just really fantastic, you say…?
Cristina: Really, really, really good, you say, "Sabe que nem ginjas."
Crowning the hill overlooking the lower town is the Castle of St. George [a.k.a. São Jorge Castle].
Lisbon's castle was first built by the Muslim Moors, who swept in from North Africa and conquered this region in the eighth century. After Portugal beat the Moors in the 12th century, the castle became a royal palace. While today the castle is just a barren shell, it's surrounded by a peaceful and inviting park with the city's best viewpoint.
Just outside the walls, Lisbon's salty sailors' quarter tumbles from the castle down to the river. A popular terrace provides a captivating overview. This is the Alfama, and it dates back over 1,000 years. Its tangled street plan survived the great quake of 1755, making this neighborhood a cobbled playground of Old World color.
While new affluence and tourism is bringing inevitable change, bits of old character hang on. And people who've lived here all their lives — witnessing that change — seem happy to chat.
Woman in window: [speaks Portuguese]
Cristina: 84 years old, she is.
Rick: Nice. How long has she lived in Alfama?
Cristina: I don't… [translates in Portuguese] 80 years…
Woman in window: [Speaks Portuguese]
Cristina: She was born here.
Rick: She was born here?
On the other side of the Baixa stands the high town, or "Bairro Alto." It's another characteristic and charming district.
To save a few steps, we're riding the Santa Justa elevator. Built to connect the lower town with the Bairro Alto, it was constructed in 1902 — just a few years after its inspiration, the Eiffel Tower.
The Bairro Alto was laid out in the 16th century to house ship workers back when Lisbon was a maritime power and its ships planted the Portuguese flag all over the globe. Five centuries later its character survives, as families who call the Bairro Alto home go back generations.
A popular stop nearby is the grand old A Brasileira café. This café retains the ambience it had back in the 1920s and '30s, when it caffeinated the literary soul of Lisbon. And it's still a good place for a coffee break.
In the evening, the Bairro Alto buzzes with a thriving restaurant scene. And various restaurants serenade diners with the folk music of Lisbon's back streets.
Traditionally, simple family-run restaurants [this one is Canto do Camões] entertained guests with fado music. Since the mid-1800s, fado has been Portugal's blues — mournful ballads about lost sailors, broken hearts, and bittersweet romance. It's impromptu…informal…sometimes the singer's just taking a break from the kitchen. She's accompanied by a couple of musicians, one playing a 12-string Portuguese guitar.
We're dining a little more upscale [at Restaurante Adega do Ribatejo] with just the right seat for this intimate music. These are songs of sadness, love, and hope. It's a distinctly Portuguese emotion called saudade — a kind of yearning, or nostalgia.
Like industrial harbor fronts all across Europe, Lisbon's has recently been transformed into a people-friendly waterfront promenade. And from here, a trolley takes us farther along the waterfront to the district of Belém.
Belém survived the big earthquake of 1755. Because of that, great buildings from Lisbon's pre-earthquake glory days, like the Belém Tower, still stand.
Back then, this tower protected Lisbon's harbor. Today, it symbolizes[honors] the voyages that made Portugal so powerful five centuries ago. This was the last sight sailors saw as they headed out into the unknown, and the first they saw when they returned, bearing gold and spices.
The nearby Monument to the Discoveries — built in 1960, on the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator's death — is shaped like the ship that made it all possible…the caravel. It celebrates how exploring the world was a team effort.
Leading the charge is Prince Henry the Navigator, holding a model of his ship and a chart, followed by kneeling knights and soldiers who Christianized foreign lands with the sword. Vasco da Gama stands tall — eyes on the horizon and hand on his weapon. Magellan holds a circle, representing the earth his ship famously circumnavigated.
Across the way is a naval museum [the Maritime Museum], which shows how this little country once built a mighty empire. Exhibits show the technology that Portugal used to become a leader in exploration and trade in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The caravel, the ultimate ship for exploring and trading, was Portugal's secret to success. It was fast, small, and light, with sails that could pivot quickly. Nimble and able to sail into the wind, it was ideal for sailing along coastlines. The Portuguese became experts at navigating by the stars. With ingenious tools like these, they could now sail away from the coast. Equipped with this technology and his caravel, Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to India.
Portugal's mastery of the sea had a huge impact. Throughout the Middle Ages, Italy dominated European trade with the East. But, within 10 years of Vasco da Gama's voyage around Africa to India, Italy's trade plummeted. And the seafaring nations on the Atlantic coast — England, Holland, Spain, and Portugal — emerged as Europe's economic powerhouses.
Next to the museum is the Jerónimos Monastery, with Lisbon's most impressive church. King Manuel ruled during Portugal's Age of Discovery, around the year 1500. He built this church and monastery as a thanks to God for the trade and wealth that resulted.
Manuel financed the construction by taxing spices brought back from Asia. He built all of this on the site of a humble chapel, where seafarers prayed before leaving on their frightening voyages. The style of Manuel's church? "Manueline."
This style, while medieval, is on the cusp of the Renaissance. Unlike earlier medieval churches, the interior is open and airy. Palm-tree-like columns are slender rather than massive. This uniquely Portuguese style reflects the wealth of the times, and the many cultural influences of that age.
Manueline decoration is both ornate and symbolic, featuring motifs from the sea: Monsters evoke the mystery of undiscovered lands, a totem pole of indigenous faces celebrates Portuguese conquests, and the ceiling — a Boy Scout handbook of knots — trumpets Portugal's nautical know-how.
This is Vasco da Gama's tomb. In 1497, he spent an evening praying here for a safe voyage. The next morning, he set sail with four state-of-the-art caravels like this — and 150 men.
These lacy Manueline cloisters — my favorite in all of Europe — are the architectural highlight of Belém. The sheer size of this monastic complex is a testament to the religious zeal that — along with money — propelled the Age of Discovery.
From Lisbon's ornate Rossio station, we're popping out of town for a short side trip. The station's busy with commuters coming and going. We're venturing about 15 miles out, to the royal town of Sintra.
For centuries, Portugal's royals considered Sintra the perfect place to escape from Lisbon. Now tourists do as well. Sintra is a mix of natural and man-made beauty: fabulous mansions set amid luxurious gardens under craggy hilltops with grand views.
Aristocrats with money and a desire to be close to royalty built their extravagant homes in the same neighborhood. Lord Byron called this bundle of royal fancies and aristocratic dreams a "glorious Eden."
A handy shuttle bus loops through town from the station, making Sintra's sights easy to reach. Our first stop? The Moorish Castle.
The approach is a gentle hike through an enchanted forest. As you emerge from the forest, you see the first sign of the medieval fortifications. Then we come upon the thousand-year-old ruins. These ramparts are a castle lover's dream come true. Built by the Muslim Moors, the castle was taken by Christian Reconquista forces in the 1100s. And what you'll climb on today — while dramatic — was significantly restored in more modern times. Still, with a little imagination, I'm under attack a thousand years ago.
Capping the hill, even higher than the Moorish Castle, is the fanciful Pena Palace. Like other fanciful castles from the late 1800s scattered around Europe, this has nothing to do with defense, and everything to do with the king's ego. This is the world of Portugal's very romantic, German-born Prince Ferdinand.
Ferdinand, whose cousins ruled England and Bavaria, was a royal typical of that age. He took the ruins of a centuries-old monastery, and built upon it the palace of his romantic dreams.
He ended up with a whimsical and eclectic mix of styles: Gothic towers, Renaissance domes, Moorish arches, Manueline ornamentation, and playful fantasies.
The interior — with family portraits, dining-room table still set, and the king's cutting-edge technology, like a then-state-of-the-art telephone exchange — is an attempt to freeze-frame the day in 1910 that the royal family fled Portugal. That was during a popular revolt that eventually led to today's modern republic.
The king would hardly recognize his realm today. Portugal's capital city — while honoring its past — is embracing its future. And it's understandably an ever-more popular stop on any Iberian itinerary.
I hope you've enjoyed our look at Lisbon — from its days as a maritime superpower to its relaxed and easy vitality today. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.