Not many people would use “love” and “Lisbon” in the same sentence. Ask anyone who toured Portugal to name their favorite stops, and it is highly unlikely that the capital of the country will feature even among the top five.
This lukewarm impression is not entirely unfounded. Lisbon is visually muted; the building façades are uniformly flat and, while varying in color and occasionally covered by tiles, are mostly devoid of decorative elements aside from narrow balconies. Signs of neglect or at best of unenthusiastic upkeep are found frequently all over the city. And there isn’t really anything that could be called an unmissable iconic sight.
But if you give Lisbon enough time it may grow on you. Walk around long enough and you will find quaint pleasant pockets as well as bouncy vibrant areas, eye-catching vistas as well as attractive architectural samples. And while there may not be a museum contending for the world-class status, there are plenty of points of interest befitting a large metropolitan city.
Here is a typical Lisbon street perspective, in the Príncipe Real neighborhood. The sloping street, multi-hued façades, tiles, and a remote rooftops view – all components of many vistas in the city.
Another colorful sloping street offers a peek at the Assembly of the Republic.
As these glimpses illustrate, Lisbon is built on several hills with rather steep rises. Although you will find relatively flat areas in the most central area of Baixa (and generally closer to the riverfront), practically any sizable walk will take you through significant changes in elevation. The stairway streets are often unavoidable.
In a few places, you can navigate the slopes via a funicular, such as this Ascensor da Glória.
Further out of city center, such as in Ajuda, the slopes become longer and less steep.
And here we are on one of the main streets in Baixa, the historic heart of Lisbon that is both its most flat and most architecturally impressive part.
Praça do Comércio, where Baixa meets the wide river Tagus, with the Arch of Rua Augusta headlining the yellow-colored ensemble of government buildings is as close to an iconic image of Lisbon as anything.
Another angle featuring the equestrian statue of King José I, during whose reign in the 18th century the central part of the city was leveled by an earthquake and then rebuilt in its current shape.
The view of the square from the platform at the top of the arch.
A perspective toward São Jorge and Alfama, with the Lisbon Cathedral as the prominent feature.
Now we are standing on a much higher miradouro, Nossa Senhora do Monte, practically level with the Castle of São Jorge, built on the highest hill in town.
The next shot, not exceptional in any sense, helps further illustrate both the difference in elevation between the city neighborhoods and the colorful palette of the buildings’ façades.
Every respectable city these days has at least one spot favored by the romantically inclined souls who profess their feelings for each other in the form of love locks.
Due to the city’s topography, there are many publicly accessible viewpoints at various elevations. There are also a few paid-entry attractions. The Arch of Rua Augusta is one, but it is not the most popular. That title belongs to early-20th-century lift of Santa Justa, which originally was built to connect Largo do Carmo with much lower streets of Baixa. Nowadays, the line to ascend via elevator to the top platform can easily grow to be 90 minutes long. Your mileage may vary as to whether it is a worthwhile time investment when there are many other choices (and when you can actually reach Largo do Carmo via public stairways); we did not get onto that line. But the structure itself is among the most striking sights in the city.
Another wide square in Baixa, the elegant Praça Dom Pedro IV, also historically known as Praça do Rossio.
In the old times, it was an important “commons” area for the growing city, and had to be fully rebuilt in the late 18th century following the aforementioned earthquake of 1755.
A fragment of a much smaller and intimate square, that of Largo do Chafariz de Dentro in the neighborhood of Alfama.
Now we are back in Belém for a quick moment to take a look at Padrão dos Descobrimentos, the monument to the Portuguese explorers who definitely enabled the country to punch way above its weight in the 14th-17th centuries.
Neoclassical Palace of Ajuda was also built after the earthquake of 1755 and served as the primary royal residence for a few decades in the 19th century. The work on it was never fully completed, but it is still a reasonably interesting royal palace. As it is a bit out of the beaten tourist path, even in season you are likely to avoid the crowds there.
One other museum that we included on our itinerary was Casa-Museu Medeiros e Almeida, a spectacular collection of art objects, furniture, jewelry, decorations, tilework, etc. It also offers an added bonus of being located away from main tourist routes, so you may end up having its entire exhibition all to yourselves.
Of the Lisbon churches, the most magnificent interior must belong to São Roque. Each marble and gold decorated chapel around the perimeter of the nave is beyond the spectrum of opulence.
A couple samples of the street art found in many parts of Lisbon. First, a mural on Campo de Santa Clara.
And a false-door decoration in Alfama.
Do you notice the street number above that false portal? A curious detail of the local approach to house numbering is that even false doors – and sometimes windows – get assigned their full own street number. With real doors, a single building can easily span half a dozen numbers.
Taking a ride on tram route 28 is one of the most recommended activities in Lisbon. The circuit goes from hill to hill on narrow streets, making for a fairly exhilarating ride. Unfortunately, even in shoulder season, the small historic tramcars quickly get overcrowded – and you cannot truly enjoy the ride unless you are able to sit down. Our standing-up-while-riding experience left us distinctly underwhelmed. But the cars surely look picturesque when passing by, especially in the night lights.
I may also not put Lisbon into my top destinations in Portugal, but I feel that it deserves a better reputation than it enjoys. I am looking forward to coming back one day.