Reflected in all of its glistening glory by the River Tagus, Portugal's capital city of Lisbon is a global city worth a slot in your bucket list. As the oldest Western European capital, it's the perfect stop for those who crave epic tales of kings, dynasties, global exploration, and natural phenomena.
There's much to explore, from the flavorful food to the pulsing Fado music. That's why we've put together our top 5 must-see Lisbon attractions, all of which can be part of your personalized private tour curated by our experienced local guides.
The Alfama District
Kick off your Lisbon adventure in Alfama, one of the most colorful, traditional, and quirky neighborhoods of Western Europe. It's a physical manifestation of Lisbon's artistic heart with deep Moorish roots and history. Overlooking the neighborhood is the Castelo De Sao Jorge, an 11th century palace heavily influenced by Moorish architecture. If the walls could talk, this castle would have extensive stories from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Castilian sieges and the birth of Portugal's maritime dominance. Other key monuments include the Panteao Nacional and the Igreja de Santo Antônio.
As you head back toward the neighborhood, your walk will be enhanced by the sounds of Fado, a popular genre within the city. Pop into one of the many Casas De Fados, or local restaurants, at any time of day. Chances are you'll hear a local singer belting their heart out to a Fado melody. One aspect that sticks out amongst the narrowed cobblestone corridors is the vibrantly colored traditional housing. These pops of color decorate the neighborhood alongside the number 28 tram route. The 1930s-style transport cars zip through the slender corridors, leaving a bright yellow streak in their path.
With so many alleys and side streets, Alfama can feel like a maze. That’s why it’s best to use a local guide who knows the ins and outs of the town.
The Jeronimos Monastery
A monument of late Portuguese Gothic Manueline style, the Jeronimos Monastery is a 16th century masterpiece deserving of a deep dive. Known as the symbol of the "Age Of Discovery '', this monastery was commissioned by King Manuel I to commemorate Vasco da Gama's voyage to India. It's also the resting place of the famed explorer. In fact, these halls hold the tombs of many Portuguese greats like the poets Luis De Camoes, Fernando Pessoa, and Alexandre Herculano. The columns are intricately carved with coral, rope, sea beasts, and many other images from the stories of Portuguese ocean voyages. Inside, you'll find a beautiful green courtyard with manicured hedges depicting multiple Portuguese coats of arms.
As a reward for the time spent soaking up the city's history, head to the Pasteis De Belem, a restaurant within walking distance of the monastery. Here you'll find the world-famous Pasteis de Nata, a creamy, warm pastry beloved for its flaky crust and gooey egg filling. What makes it unique is the super-secret recipe that's only known by 3 people in the world. It's a popular snack amongst Lisboetes, but this is the only cafe selling Pasteis De Nata made from the original recipe.
The Belem Tower
Not too far off from the Jeronimos Monastery is the Belem Tower, another UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrating Vasco da Gama's mapped trade route between Portugal and India. Enjoy the glassy waters of the Tagus River, responsible for giving Lisbon the nickname of "The White City" due to the light it reflects. You can also track where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean, a connection that earned Portugal a string of exploration successes starting in 1488. These discoveries led to the economic growth of Lisbon during the 15th and 16th centuries, giving King Manuel I an idea. He introduced the idea of Belem corresponding with the Sao Sebastiao De Caparica and Santo Antonio towers to block enemy attacks and entry. The designs display King Manuel's power and dominance over anyone entering the Kingdom's capital.
Interestingly, this tower doubled as a political prison, holding key opponents of those in power. The jailing grew dramatically during the reigns of Filipe I and Dom Miguel. Quarters were in the basement, but as prisoner numbers increased, other rooms were made vacant. The tower also played a role in ship coordination and defense after the disastrous and unexpected earthquake of 1755. Since then, Belem has undergone a series of restorations, particularly during the era of Romanticism in 1846. It was named a World Heritage Site in 1983, the tower benefitting from a preservation project that rehabilitated key structures with modern tools.
Oceanario De Lisboa: The Lisbon Oceanarium
To experience the best of the Atlantic Ocean, head to the Lisbon Oceanarium and tour one of the largest and most brilliantly designed aquariums in the world. From the cobblestone formation of "sea monsters" to the main tank, get lost in the vision of architect Peter Chermayeff and the team of builders, scientists, and engineers who made this possible. With over 25,000 sea animals swimming together, and separate areas for sharks, sea turtles, and smaller fish, this exhibition showcases the symbiotic cooperation of everyday ocean life. The main aquarium is a great place to start, as it holds 5 million liters of seawater and brings you face to face with penguins, multiple species of fish, several invertebrates, and a collection of plants and algae.
The "sleeping with the sharks" experience is a noteworthy educational program highlighting the importance of some of the ocean's most misunderstood creatures. You'll also learn about the important conservation programs Oceanario is involved in, including the Manta project, which highlights the presence of Manta rays and their importance in the ocean's ecosystem. You can spend hours taking in the beauty of the ocean. If you get hungry, there are several restaurants nearby.
The Praca Do Comercio: Commerce Square
Last, but never least is the Praca Do Comercio, or Lisbon's commercial square. This grand plaza is a testament to Lisbon's resilience as a city. At the plaza's center, you're greeted by the imposing King Joseph I overlooking the square and guiding you towards the Tagus estuary atop his horse Gentil. To enjoy panoramic views of the river and city, head to the Arco Da Rua Augusta, or stroll past the yellow buildings hosting several government offices. For a daytime feast, walk to the Martinho da Arcada, known as Lisbon's oldest restaurant with origins as far back as 1782. Head over to the Lisbon Story Center to get the impressive, haunting, and hopeful story behind the Praca Do Comercio.
Though beautiful today, Commerce square looks nothing like it did back then. It was known as the Terreiro do Paço, or Royal Yard, and stood alongside the Royal Palace until the earthquake, fire, and tsunami of 1775 severely ravaged the entire area. The quake destroyed 90% of Lisbon's buildings, devastating the region for years to come. It changed the physical and religious shape of the city. The Commerce square we see today is the result of renovations commissioned by Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo. The square holds some intriguing tales, including assassinations and a three-day party, so you'll never tire of taking in the heart of Lisbon.
We've barely scratched the surface of what Lisbon has to offer. From breathtaking scenery to stunning cuisine, your time spent in the White City will not be forgotten. Book the experience of a lifetime by getting in touch with one of our local guides to get your GoWithGuide private tour experience.
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