Each city possesses its own spirit, a certain beat that immortalizes its soul. There’s Paris of the infatuating siren; Rome and its restless history; Tokyo and the surreal… Then there’s Lisbon, “the enchanted port”.
Standing as the heart of Portugal, Lisbon refuses to be reduced to its beautiful red sunsets and sprawling white beaches. It resembles a dark haired leather jacket leaning precariously in the shadows as he electrifies your imagination with sweet tales of the adventures you could have together. Of the trips down the streets of Mouraria, racing over centuries old cobbled stones and tiled walls. The scented Tagus winds blowing through your hair as you drive over the Ponte 25 de Abril Bridge. The cherry Ginginha slewing your senses as you imbibe heartily of Portobello mushrooms and warm bread. The jewelry, the architecture, the art, the sweeping ceilings… The dancing you must do!
And no, you won’t be disappointed.
Lisbon is a brew of the ancient and urban juxtaposed against Mother Nature’s hilly masterpiece. A visit to this city is the dire infusion of culture that you require; there’s absolutely nothing amiss here. It combines classical European culture and Moor flavor, with a wicked twist of the postmodern. As a result, there is so much you can take part in (Lisbon’s basically the city of festivities) depending on the kind of experience you want.
However, there are a few oh-so-Lisbon activities you absolutely must partake in before you leave; it wouldn’t be a very Lisbon-y trip if you didn’t, promise.
Take A Romantic Tour of the Spiritual City
Portuguese culture is filled with tales of Christian Crusades and Muslim Moor invasions. So much so that the capital’s architecture practically falls divided between these two.
On one hand, you have an endless selection of churches and monasteries to choose from, with the topper being the Jeronimos Monastery of the Hieronymite monks.
Formerly presented as the Church of St Mary, the monastery was built by Manuel I as a symbol of wealth in the 16th century. At the time, Portugal had colonized a large portion of the world due to fruitful endeavors of explorers such as the infamous Vasco da Gama. The monastery then served as a place of prayer for travellers visiting the city before taking forth into the sea once more. Currently, it houses tombs of some of history’s most influential, including aforementioned de Gama, the brilliant poet Fernando Pessoa and several key members of the royal family and national government.
A trip to the church is nothing short of a spectacular experience. The entrance greets you with its golden limestone façade and impressive Gothic design. An expansive structure soaring towards the heavens, Jeronimos Monastery looms over the green earth with ornate walls and carved pillars unperturbed by the elements. Within its walls, the monastery embraces as a detailed architectural beauty. First, behold the forest of columns reaching lustily for the sky with their stone tentacles intertwining overhead like concrete webbing. Beneath it, deeply etched walls back dropping carved figures, Renaissance statues and legendary scenes from the lives of celebrated saints.
More than a few artists took part in the creation of the monastery, each certain to out-do the last. The likes of Juan de Castilho, Costa Mota, Nicolau Chanterene and Diogo Boitac slaved away at the Manuaeline masterpiece several decades before its completion.
Jeronimos Monastery is situated by the Tagus river in the parish of Belém, Lisbon Municipality. There are at least five bus lines that can get you there (727, 28, 729, 714 and 751) or you could get on the tram 15 and alight just as you pass the Monastery.
On the other face of the coin is the Islamic culture heavily in tune with the country’s history.
This took the face of Moor occupation in the 7th century that marked the beginning of the culture’s implantation into Lisbon’s lifeblood.
Moor invasions and conquests were prevalent in the 7th and 8th centuries. At the time, the Moors were a feared race (they were of Berber and Arab descent) who acquired empires like property. As a result, their culture and architecture bled into the land in forms of houses, marketplaces, and fort-like castles. One castle in particular has withstood the test of time and loss; the Castelo dos Mouros i.e., Castle of the Moors.
Journeying up to the castle feels like a delusional trip through time and space as you’re transported over a sudden slide from modern time into the medieval. At first sight, the Castelo dos Mouros opens up into the Lisbon countryside like a perched eagle, set up high on the Sintra Mountains. Then, as your heart slows it hits you, the overwhelming beauty of unencumbered flora and fauna as far as the eye can see. Forestry once managed, now brilliantly aimless and free.
Above that, above the blindingly green landscape of exotic trees and wild flowers, the shrouded castle peaks over heavy clouds and faint sunlight. Behold, a shuddering beauty glitters darkly before you; almost foul is its determination to conquer the hills.
Within the castle, the halls wind and dip like a tall maze… and the walls are a rough-granite deeply etched with the frightening passion of battle-worn soldiers.
The Castelo dos Mouros was built by the Moors between the 8th and 9th centuries under the creative anchoring of infamous architects Ferdinand II and Baron von Eschewege. The two employed heavy Romantic accents into the medieval structure. Unlike its Christian counterpart, the castle was constructed with the use of granite and limestone, popularly used materials of the time, and was designed as a sort of battle-enabled fort. This was deemed necessary as the Christian Crusaders encroached into Moor territory. Exhibit A: Battle of Covadonga that marked the beginning of the end for Moor occupation in the Iberian Peninsula. The invasion preluded the birth of the Kingdom of Asturias, as well as the Battle of the Reconquista (Re conquest) that ran for 770 years.
During this period, the Moors fought to defend the castle with in-built canons centered into the outer walls. They lost however, marking the expulsion of the Moor race out of Portugal.
Castelo dos Mouros is situated 3.5 Km south of Sintra from where you’ll make a steep climb into the Serra de Sintra. The advisable means of transportation to the castle is to aboard the 434 Sintra tourist bus that connects the train station, the town centre, the Moors Castle and the Pena Palace.
Indulge in the unique sounds borne of the enchanted port
Lisbon prides itself as the birth place of Fado; music once only harbored by society’s marginalized, now stands as Portugal’s most favored genre. Fado is mellow, melancholic and bare as it exposes the hardened soul. It originates from contextual transgression and rebellion familiar with those sidelined from the fold.
Fado is usually accompanied by one or two violas and one or two guitars, and is performed primarily in restaurants and bars. Fado radiates as a chorded call intended for the restrained mind. It releases as a quiet scream on behalf of the listener, bellowing from strained vocals into an expectant audience unable to rationalize the immediate familiarity with the musician. Fado could be called beautiful, and it is; such music that can culturally transcend its home to encompass the globe truly is beautiful.
First time experience of this music entails thorough research of the best spots. In Lisbon, the most popular one remains to be the distinguished Senhor Vinho restaurant.
Senhor Vinho includes three to four live acts by Fado bands. The music is timed between food service such that the service takes about fifteen minutes then the bands play for another fifteen before the service can begin serving once more. Heads up: the restaurant might not have an entrance fee but the food is quite pricey compared to other traditional restaurants. Plus, a reservation is required before hand as the restaurant appears to be highly in demand. Senhor Vinho is however worth the escalated price tag as it excels at Portuguese traditional delicacies. Dishes such as the Bacalhana (brilliantly salted cod) and Bifana (delicious pork sandwich) are craft fully mastered and created by skilled cooks.
Senhor Vinho prides itself as a one of a kind restaurant with excellent and friendly service, great ambiance and a cozy atmosphere plus wonderful entertainment of the authentic variety. There might be several great Fado spots in the region but Senhor Vinho remains a favorite with many searching for the best first Fado experience.
Finally, take a ride on an elevator
Lisbon retains its early twentieth century town structure features including the mid street trams and elevators. An impossibly hilly section of earth, Lisbon roads take dips and rises separated by mere blocks. It is by this that taking an elevator in preference to trudging up a hill makes so much sense.
However, elevators aren’t really special… unless they’re the Santa Justa.
The Santa Justa Elevador is the tallest elevator in the world. It was built with an aesthetic purpose in mind but serves a more functional task. As a tourist, the Santa Justa Elevador is the best way to see the entire city at once, as well as enabling you to move easily from one valley to the next without breaking a sweat.
One of the city’s main attractions, the Santa Justa is an absolute beauty, rising into the cloudy Lisbon skies as it does in old school class. Beautifully etched and gold plated, the elevator has one yearning for a fancy hat and a glass of pinot noir. Coming right up, darlin’.
The Elevador de Santa Justa is situated to the south east of Praça Dom Pedro IV in the Baixa district. The upper entrance is located to the right of the Igreja do Carmo on the Largo do Carmo square.
Lisbon hangs high on the wall of fame as the mirrored city. What with its cold European weather and friendly patrons, battle-ridden history and passionate culture, fish staple diet and flavor filled cuisine, Lisbon takes the visitor on an adventurous ride of contrasts and surprises on every corner. This varied region embraces every wanting soul with an answer tucked away. There is so much behind every door, no matter the experience one seeks. Side bar for every first time visitor, remember to stay safe, and keep in mind the travelling schedules of the elevators and trams scattered about the town (or better yet, have a cab number at hand just in case).
A trip here requires an open heart and wandering mind. Have fun!