Lisbon: Portugal’s Capital City offers a Very Special European Experience

It takes less than 30 minutes for me to fall madly in love with Lisbon

by Karen Rubin

A beautiful plaza in Lisbon, in front of the arch that leads to the grand square, Praca do Comercio © 2011 Karen Rubin/

Lisbon evokes images of Paris, of Florence, of Venice, and once you have been there a little while, this feeling of something very familiar sweeps over you: the city of seven hills, of trams and a red-iron bridge that looks amazingly like the Golden Gate, makes you think Lisbon is the European San Francisco. Ultimately, though, Lisbon is a uniquely enchanting city that is an absolute delight to discover.

In the first place, it is the scale of the city and the ease with which you can get around – most delightfully by adorable trams that climb the narrow, twisting streets like San Francisco’s famous streetcars- but also by subway, by bus, and most wonderfully, on foot.

It makes it amazingly easy to become immersed in the place, without the hassle and stress of Europe’s busier, more congested and frenetic capitals. and candidly, Portugal makes it more affordable to have the priceless experiences of having coffee at an outdoor cafe, a gourmet meal with a fine bottle of wine or a stay in a hotel that was once a palace, a mansion, a convent or a monastery. For an American looking for a European adventure, Portugal is the place.

Within 30 minutes walk of our hotel, the Sheraton Towers, I had strolled down Avenue de Liberdade, the city’s grand boulevard that reminds you of the Champs D’Elysee, to discover the heart of Lisbon.

It is a city of delightful surprises at every turn.

One of the most welcome surprises is how quintessentially “European” Lisbon is with distinctively Baroque Manueline and Pombaline architecture that manifests the design influences of the Moors who controlled territory before it was freed by the army from the north, creating Portugal.

The streetscape whizzes by as you ride Tram 28 © 2011 Karen Rubin/

And yet, who would have expected Lisbon to also be a resort city, and one that is so modern and original in its style and fashion? Lisbon is the only major capital in Europe that is also where you can go to the beach, play golf a half-hour from downtown, or go to a gambling casino.

There are museums just about everywhere – even a Museum of Electricity, and most specially, the Museum of Fado, the soulful music that is unique to Portugal.

Everything about visiting Portugal is a surprise.

We arrive after a delightful flight on TAP, the airline of Portugal, from Newark, where we have been treated to Business Class (the equivalent of first class since there are only two classes of) – sparkling wines, linen service, personal entertainment center with a choice of movies, and a seat that opens into the closest thing to a bed. There is no better way to start your visit to a foreign country than flying its national flag carrier. We arrive in early morning, seeing the sun rise over the city as we land (Business Class gets to exit the plane first so you are first on line at Immigration). The ride from the airport, which actually is in Lisbon, is just 10 minutes to downtown.

I fight jet lag, get some orientation to the map of the city from the concierge at the Sheraton Towers, and start walking toward the historic section of the city.

I stroll down the boulevard, still jet lagged, which makes for the oddest, even surreal feeling. You are out of your comfort zone of familiarity, everything is strange and new, like tasting a food for the first time – even though things are not actually that much different. The shapes, the designs, the signs, the sounds, the language (Portuguese sounds nothing like Spanish or any other language, and yet is like the fifth most spoken language in the world). You have to get used to the way the traffic flows (they have walk signals and pedestrian crossings like here). But the first thing you notice are these magnificent geometric patterns in black and white formed in the cobble stone sidewalks.

I am immediately struck which what becomes the theme of this visit: like fine wine for which Portugal is famous, the country is the most magnificent blend of old and new. It is classy, artful, stylish – the modern architecture is as exciting as the Baroque architecture, with the distinct Portuguese decorations, of old.

Castle Sao Jorge dates from the 6th century and served as a Moorish royal residence until Portugal's first king, Afonso Henriques, captured it in 1147 © 2011 Karen Rubin/

And I am reminded that Portugal was once one of the richest countries in the world, that it was the co-owner of the Age of Discovery, sending out its explorers – Vasco Da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Bartholomeu Dias and Gaspar and Miguel Corte Real – who established colonies that brought phenomenal wealth back to their home country.

The old and the new come together in this way, as well, with so many of the architecture and sculpture dedicated to these heroes who brought Portugal such greatness and power, in contrast with today when Portugal faces a debt crisis (you wouldn’t know it though, from the expressions on the people or in the services in Lisbon and Porto, but these cities have sources of their own wealth). There is a bit of nostalgia there, as well as a cautionary tale for today.

This is the best part of the travel experience, that you are sensitized and really observe, and make connections to your own experience. Sometimes you process the experience as “oh, that is just like at home,” and sometimes you process it as different, then think about whether the differences seem better than the way things are done back home. You begin to question the assumptions, stereotypes that have been engrained, just by virtue of being put into this new setting.

It takes less than 30 minutes for me to fall madly in love with Lisbon, to feel a connection to the city. I realize it is because the scale of the city makes it easy to become immersed and become acclimated, without the frenzy and hassle of bigger, bustling cities and because Lisbon is not so overrun with tourists as to become a theme park version of itself. It may seem condescending to say, but it has an authenticity – it is not a caricature of itself to appeal to the image of what visitors expect.

I am struck by the scale of the city. Lisbon is a major city, chock full of exciting and interesting sites, sights and museums, but is not so sprawling, so congested, that it becomes unmanageable and stressful to “tackle.” Here, you just stroll about, coming upon wonderfully fascinating scenes just about everywhere you turn.

I am here at an opportune time: June is a festival month in Lisbon, when there are nightly street parties that get underway around 10 pm and go on until 1 or 2 am, that pay homage to the city’s popular saint, Saint Anthony. Streamers are strung from housetop to housetop across narrow cobblestone streets; there are food carts and band stands set up for that night’s party.

Also, the weather is delightful – low humidity, warm and comfortable, and along this avenue, with its gardens and trees, is cool.

St. Vincent, a popular saint, presides over one of the best views in Lisbon © 2011 Karen Rubin/

At the end of Liberdade, there is a fabulous looking building that turns out to be the railway station.

Turning slightly left from the Liberdade, I walk through what seems a small passage and find myself at Praca D. Pedro IV – a vast square.

I come upon a hat store where a woman is singing (it turns out to be part of the festival that is going on – entertainers that turn up in shops and odd places and perform). It is one of those serendipitous experiences you treasure.

Walking a bit further, I come upon what seems to me to be Lisbon’s version of the Eiffel Tower – it is a steel tower – Elevador de Santa Justa is actually an elevator that lifts you up from the lower part of the city to the upper part. People go to the top for an amazing view of the city

I stroll further, to a section where the street is just for pedestrians and outdoor cafes – there is a street entertainer who amazingly seems to be floating on air (no one can see how he is standing something like two feet off the ground) – and walk towards a magnificent arch – it reminds me of that street in Florence where you walk from the Duomo to the Ponte Vecchio.

And then, as you walk through the arch, it opens to this enormous square, Praca do Comercio – that reminds me of San Marcos, in Venice, and like that magnificent square, this one too goes toward the water – the Rio Tejo (Tagus) that opens to the Atlantic Ocean, just as the Hudson River carries cruise ships to the piers in midtown Manhattan.

The riverfront has largely been reclaimed – especially with the improvements to the port that bring in major cruise ships like Silversea, Cunard, Azamara, Seabourn, Crystal Cruises, World of Residensea (a floating apartment house); Regent; Windstar, SeaDream Yacht Club, and Oceania, from the Atlantic Ocean 20 kilometers away.

The square is lined on two sides by magnificent 19th century buildings (it is here, that Pousadas of Portugal plans to open a boutique-style hotel and where the next day, we will dine at a new restaurant).

A magnificent arch opens to Lisbon's largest square, Praca do Comercio © 2011 Karen Rubin/

Just up from the square, I walk into the oldest section of Lisbon, the Alfama, a labyrinth of incredibly narrow cobblestone streets and alleyways that wind and twist and rise ever higher.

There are museums just about everywhere you turn, and as I walk up this narrow street, I come upon one of the most unusual: Aljube, a prison dating from the Islamic Age, that once was an Archbishop’s palace, has been turned into a museum dedicated to political prisoners (

I note wryly a description that relates that in the 1930s, when it was most active as a political prison, the head of the prison wanted it painted and repaired because “people of standing” were imprisoned there and would be visited by other “people of standing” who would “certainly have bad impression of the building.”

Most impressive is the room of files that take up an entire wall up to the ceiling. The state had accumulated files on 1.2 million people, and the file drawer labels reveal just how wide a net the “enemies list” was cast: Revolutionaries, Republicans, Communists, Socialists, Maoists, Editors, PCP, Teatro, Doctors, Strangers, Mud Youth, Radio Moscow, Radio Free Portugal, terrorist movement, Visitors (to list but a few).

Continuing up this street, I come to Church of Santa Engracia – exquisite, with purple flowers blossoming. The garden outside and terrace gives an amazing view of the orange-colored ceramic-tile covered roof tops, and the river port below, where the Silversea Spirit cruise ship is docked. I enter the church and hear a choir singing.

Behind the church, there is a gorgeous cafe beside the monument to Lisbon’s Patron Saint, Saint Vincent. It is a popular place for street musicians and I idle awhile here before finding my way back down the labyrinth to Liberdade and the hotel.

Art and music seem to be everywhere.

There is so much to catch my fancy as I walk.

A serendipitous moment, to come upon a Fado singer in a hat store © 2011 Karen Rubin/

I have been to Lisbon before, but very little is familiar – this is a very different place.

I realize that the last time I was here, in the late 1970s, Portugal had just overthrown the 40-year dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who had ruled from 1928-1974.

The city was dark and dirty and broken, then.

Now it is vibrant, colorful, stylish and smart, like its wine a perfect blend of old and new, with complex tones.

The city has undergone a transformation since 1988, a revitalization that is manifest in an energy and excitement. There are charming outdoor cafes, a metro, whole sections of the city – notably, where Expo 98 had been held – have been revitalized. The transformation is particularly stark in the Alfama, where you can see evidence of gentrification as buildings are being totally renovated and restored, thankfully preserving the colorful tile facades.

Castle Sao Jorge

The next morning, after breakfast at the Sheraton Club Lounge, we set out for our first day of official sightseeing,

Ruins of the Carmo Convent are all that remain of Lisbon's downtown, after the 1755 earthquake © 2011 Karen Rubin/

We pass the Gloria Funicular, which was opened in 1885 and in February 2002 was classified as a national monument. Located on the west side of the Avenida da Liberdade, in Restauradores square, just round the corner from the tourist office in Palácio Foz, the Gloria funicular connects Lisbon’s downtown with the Bairro Alto. It takes you right up to the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara, a wonderful look-out point with a shady statue-lined terrace and plenty of photo opportunities.The ride in the Gloria funicular is short, but atmospheric.

At the Luís de Camoes square we catch Tram 28 to Portas do Sol. This delightful, old-timey wood trolley-style car, the most popular in Lisbon, winds through all “seven” of Lisbon’s hills (there are actually more than seven hills, but it is a poetic number, we are told). We get on at one of the first stops (tram 28 starts at Square Hortim Mamiz) and are lucky to get a seat. It is good to get on at the beginning – not just because the ride is so wonderful, but by the next stop, it is standing room only, and then becomes progressively more packed. Scenes fly by cinematically as I stick head and my camera out the window (carefully, as I discover when the tram comes perilously close to a street sign).

(A cautionary note: Lisbon is a safe city, but as in any city, especially at popular and crowded tourist attractions, you need to be mindful of pickpockets).

The tram is the most amazing ride – Disney can’t even begin to duplicate. We get off at the Church of Santa Engracia, where I explored the day before and again took in that magnificent view of the river, and walk through the historic district, climbing the winding streets higher and higher.

We continue our walk up these winding, hilly streets, at last coming to the highest point, Castle Sao Jorge commanding the best views over the city and the Tagus River.

A street performer in Lisbon © 2011 Karen Rubin/

Saint George’s Castle can be seen from almost everywhere in the city. Its oldest parts date from the 6th century, when it was fortified by the Romans, Visigoths, and eventually the Moors. It served as a Moorish royal residence until Portugal’s first king Afonso Henriques captured it in 1147 with the help of northern European crusaders on their way to the Holy Land. It was then dedicated to St. George, the patron saint of England, commemorating the Anglo-Portuguese pact dating from 1371, and became the royal palace until another one was built in today’s Comercio Square (that one was destroyed in the Great Earthquake of 1755).

What remains of the Alcaçovas Palace where medieval kings lived, is a stone building now housing a restaurant, and round the back, a Carmel convent, now an archeological museum (the only place that the Marquis didn’t rebuild in order to imagine how things were in 1775). One of the three underground chambers in the museum is where Vasco da Gama was once received by King Manuel).

Most of the castle was destroyed over the years, especially in the Great Earthquake, but still includes a long extension of walls and 18 towers. You can climb the towers and walk along the ramparts for the most magnificent views of the city, or relax in the gardens where peacocks, geese and ducks strut around. One of the castle’s inner towers, the Tower of Ulysses, holds the Camara Escura, a periscope that projects sights from around the city.

Marquess of Pombal and the Great Earthquake

The Great Earthquake also explains the famous tile facades that have become Lisbon’s signature.

Disaster fell upon Portugal on the morning of November 1, 1755, when Lisbon was struck by a violent earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale.

One of Lisbon's beautiful squares, with the signature black-and-white patterns in the cobblestones © 2011 Karen Rubin/

It was like the wrath of God descending. It struck at 9:30 in the morning of All Saints Day, the holiest day of year and 14 hours later, had destroyed 300 churches, 200 palaces, and obliterated Portugal’s wealth, and with it, its power.

The city was razed by the earthquake and ensuing tsunami and fires. The Prime Minister, Sebastiao José de Carvalho e Melo, 1st Count of Oeiras, 1st Marquess of Pombal, survived by a stroke of luck, and then immediately embarked on rebuilding the city, with his famous quote: What now? We bury the dead and heal the living. Despite the calamity, Lisbon suffered no epidemics, and within less than a year it was already being rebuilt, but this time designed to resist subsequent earthquakes.

Pombal had architectural models built for tests, and the effects of an earthquake were simulated by marching troops around the models. The buildings and major squares of the Pombaline downtown of Lisbon are the world’s first earthquake-proof buildings. Pombal made a scientific study of seismology, gathering data from every parish in the country to learn whether animals behaved strangely prior to the earthquake, whether there was a noticeable difference in the rise or fall of the water level in wells, and how many buildings had been destroyed and what kind of destruction had occurred. The answers have allowed modern Portuguese scientists to reconstruct the event with precision.

Pombal is responsible for the style of architecture downtown, and also for the beautiful aspects of Lisbon are the famous ceramic tiles that decorate many of the facades. Hel had to rebuild fast. He realized the tiles were beautiful, easy and fast, not expensive and if the city had another earthquake and fire, they would combat fire while protecting from humidity.

In Lisbon, two factories continue to hand-make the tiles (you can visit by appointment), and you can visit the Tile Museum (

A view from the Praca do Comercio, in Lisbon © 2011 Karen Rubin/

One of the most fascinating discoveries during this visit to Lisbon was learning about the Marques de Pombal. Serving as prime minister to Joseph I from 1750-1777, Pombal (1699-1782) was the de facto head of government. He is praised for his swift and competent leadership in the aftermath of the 1755 earthquake: he implemented sweeping economic policies to regulate commercial activity and standardize quality throughout the country, including establishing the first demarcated wine region in the world, the Douro, in 1756. Pombal was instrumental in weakening the grip of the Inquisition.

Pombal introduced many fundamental administrative, educational, economic, and ecclesiastical reforms justified in the name of “reason” and instrumental in advancing secularization – essentially overturning the Inquisition. He abolished slavery in Portugal and the Portuguese colonies in India, reorganized the army and navy.

The Marques de Pombal is much beloved today (if not at the time – critics accused him of enhancing autocracy, crushing opposition, suppressing criticism and furthering colonial exploitation). Today, Lisbon’s most important square and busiest underground station is named Marques de Pombal in his honor. There is an imposing statue of the Marques with a lion next to him, in the square as well.

We continue our walking tour in the oldest section of Lisbon, the Alfama In the 14th and 15th century. It survived the 1755 earthquake because its foundation is dense bedrock. It was settled by the Romans and Visigoths. The distinctive atmosphere and the name of the Alfama came from the Moors (alhama means springs or bath, a reference to the hot springs found in the area). They were also responsible for its web of streets created as a defense system, while at the same time enabling their homes to remain cool in the summer.

It became a district predominantly for sailors and working class Jews (the wealthy Jews lived in Lisbon’s downtown, the Liberdade area, which was destroyed in the earthquake).

Lisbon © 2011 Karen Rubin/

We come upon a courtyard named Jardinaria This was the Jewish quarter, and I remember: Jews were expelled from Portugal, just like from Spain during the Inquisition, and many became secret Jews (Marranos or “crypto Jews” in Spain, but here “New Christians” who practiced in secret). I begin to notice the traces, still – names like Cardoza, a wealthy merchant, whose palace home in Porto is just now being opened as an Intercontinental Hotel, who was a New Christian.

Our guide, Carmo Botelho of Tourismo de Lisboa, explains that Portuguese King Manuel I wanted to marry a Spanish princess, Maria of Aragon, but the condition of allowing the marriage was that Portugal become a Catholic country and convert or expel the Jews. Manuel sought to implement the Inquisition in 1515, but it was not formally established in Portugal in 1536, under King Joao III.

Indeed, it was Marques de Pombal who reinstated Portugal’s Jews, and in 1773 and 1774 abolished the Autos-de-fe and ended the Limpeza de Sangue (cleanliness of blood) civil statutes and their discrimination against New Christians, the Jews who had converted to Christianity to escape the Inquisition, and their descendents. The Portuguese Inquisition was finally extinguished in 1821 by the “General Extraordinary and Constituent Assembly.

One of Lisbon's distinctive sights, the Elevador de Santa Justa. © 2011 Karen Rubin/

Driving back from the Alfama to the Sheraton, our driver, Carlos, points out the Jewish cemetery on one side of the street, and on the other side, the gate with Hebrew lettering that opens to a synagogue in the interior. The synagogue is not really visible or decorated as most synagogues are. He says that there is no problem for Jews to practice openly today, but when the Palestinian-Israeli situation heats up in the Middle East, Lisbon police come to guard the synagogue.

And then I also remember that this was the place in the movie “Casablanca” that the refugees were trying to get to – Portugal was a transit point for many, including Jews, a little like the Underground Railroad was for Blacks fleeing slavery in the American South.

I learn later from Wikipedia, that an estimated 30,000 visas were issued to Jews and other persecuted minorities who were able to flee the Nazis via Lisbon with help from the Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux, Aristedes de Sousa Mendes who issued visas against the orders of dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Aristides de Sousa Mendes was eventually dismissed by Salazar from his diplomatic post and reduced to poverty. Because of his heroic efforts in opening up a refugee escape route at a time when none had previously existed, Aristides de Sousa Mendes has been honored by Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. The escape route remained active throughout the war allowing an estimated million refugees to escape from the Nazis through Portugal during World War II.

In 2007, the Portuguese government initiated a project to make available online by 2010 a significant part of the archives of the Portuguese Inquisition currently deposited in the Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo, the Portuguese National Archives.

See also:
Lisbon and the Age of Discoveries
Living it Up in Lisbon

Thursday, 15 September, 2011

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Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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