Lisbon lies on the Atlantic Ocean coast where Rio Tejo (the river Tagus) meets the Atlantic Ocean. This makes it the westernmost capital city of mainland Europe. Unlike other major cities, Lisbon has fixed boundaries that are defined by the historical city’s perimeter.
Lisbon is a legendary city with more than 20 centuries of history. It was founded by Iberian tribes who lived in the region in the Neolithic era. Their religious monuments still survive in the countryside around the city.
Nowadays Lisbon is recognised as an Alpha World City because of its importance in finance, commerce, international trade, media, arts, education and tourism.
Spread across seven hills, Lisbon offers its past, present, and future to everyone who is ready to discover Portugal. Lisbon has it all – magnificent Gothic cathedrals, mysterious monasteries, majestic castles, world-famous museums, quaint little Art Nouveau-style cafés, beautiful gardens, golden beaches, and bustling shopping centres.
Cruise ships dock at the Alcántara cruise port, which is located just beyond the high suspension bridge across the Rio Tejo estuary. The port consists of two piers – Cais de Alcántara and Cais da Rocha Conde de Óbidos. Both piers have terminal buildings with shops and cafés, taxi ranks, public transport services, and other facilities. In addition to that, there are several floating restaurants to the east of the port entrance. There is also a third, newer terminal – Santa Apolónia, which is close to the Santa Apolónia railway station and the historic district of Alfama in central Lisbon.
Most cruise companies offer a shuttle service to Praça do Comércio, which is located in the city centre and is close to all major tourist attractions. However, Lisbon has an excellent public transport system which is easy to use – bus, trams, metro or the train are all available. The stop at the main port is called Alcántara Mar and is a short walk from the terminals. Information about public transport routes to the port can be obtained at the Tourist Office.
Taxis are easily available in Lisbon. A trip from the city centre to the port should cost around six euros. When we visited it was more difficult to get a taxi from the port – all those waiting inside were specifically for guided tours. We were told to go outside the port gates to find a regular taxi – but that’s a busy road – so we jumped on the train instead.
Walking to the port is also possible – just make sure you have about an hour to spare, as it’s quite a long hike.
Lisbon’s public transport is very reliable and far-reaching, with the metro connecting the city centre with the eastern and upper neighbourhoods, as well as the suburbs. There are also bus, tram, and funicular services.
The traditional yellow tram is the soul of Lisbon’s transport. Originally introduced in the 19th century, the Lisbon trams still feature that charming early 20th century design. These days the trams are one of the internationally recognised icons of Lisbon. Because of their size, they are the best way of exploring the steep hills and narrow streets of central Lisbon.
The local currency is the euro. There are plenty of ATMs and money exchange bureaus around Lisbon, so getting cash is not a problem.
English is spoken or at least understood by most people in central Lisbon. However, the locals will be very pleased if you manage to say at least “thank you” in Portuguese. Here are some useful words and phrases:
Olá = Hello
Bom dia = Good morning
Boa tarde = Good afternoon
Adeus = Goodbye
Por favor = Please
Obrigado (m.)/obrigada (f.) = Thank you
Quanto custa? = How much is this?
Sim = Yes
Não = No
Você fala inglês? = Do you speak English?
Eu não entendo = I don’t understand
Perdão = Sorry
Desculpe = Excuse me
Socorro! = Help!
Podeme ajudar? = Can you help me?
Time zone: The time zone in Lisbon is GMT.
Emergency numbers: In case of an emergency, call 112. This number will connect you to police, ambulance, and fire brigade. The call is free from any phone.
Shopping & Eating
Lisbon is a shopper’s paradise. It has everything – little boutique shops, traditional markets, and Centro Commercial Colombo – the largest shopping mall in Iberian Peninsula. Those who are looking for a more colourful shopping experience shouldn’t miss Campo de Santa Clara – this flea market known as Lisbon’s Thieves Market operates on a Tuesday and Saturday. Most shops are open Monday to Saturday, from 10am until 8pm. Remember that lunch break can be quite long, between 1pm and 3pm. However, large shops often don’t close for siesta.
The narrow streets of the Barrio Alto neighbourhood offer the best places to have lunch in Lisbon. Explore its winding alleyways, beautiful tiled houses, and then have lunch at one of the intimate and charming cafés. “Pap’acorda” is probably the best place to sample Portuguese cuisine – a wide variety of fish and seafood dishes and different pastas. The place is very popular with the locals, so you will be able to experience “Lisbon for Lisboêtas” as opposed to “Lisbon for tourists”. “Pap’acorda” is located in R. da Atalaia, 57 – 59. It is open from noon until 2.30 pm., Monday to Friday.
Tipping is not obligatory in Portugal and even 1 euro will be very appreciated. The locals never give a tip of more than 2-3 euros.
If you’re not hungry enough for lunch, make sure you visit one of the patisseries and sample the Pasteis de Nata – fabulous little custard tarts that originated in Belem at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem. Yum!
Customs and behaviour:
The Portuguese are very traditional and conservative. Unless dealing with close friends, they retain a sense of formality and are extremely polite. Appearances are very important in Portugal and people believe that clothes indicate social status and success. Keep that in mind when going ashore – otherwise you risk being treated as an ignorant tourist!
Lisbon is the capital of the Republic of Portugal. It is one of the oldest cities in the world, with historic evidence dating back to the Neolithic era.
Archaeological findings suggest that Lisbon was founded by the Phoenicians around 1200BC and was used as a trading port. The old city was located on the southern slope of the Castle hill – right where the modern city centre is now. The harbour provided by the Tejo estuary made Lisbon an ideal place for a settlement, which supplied food to Phoenician ships travelling to the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall. The name of the city could be derived from Allis Ubbo – “safe harbour” in Phoenician.
There is a legend stating that the Phoenicians didn’t found the city, but merely traded with the locals. This legend assumes that Lisbon could have been founded by Ulysses. In some versions of the myth, the hero founded Lisbon (or Ulyssippo/Olissipo, as it was written in Latin sources) after he left Troy.
In the Roman Period, the Iberian Peninsula was obtained by the Romans after the defeat of Hannibal during the Punic Wars. Lisbon was integrated in the Empire and given a name of Felicitas Julia. The city was prosperous and economically strong. Back in the Roman days, it was famous for its garum (a kind of fish sauce favoured by Roman patricians) and fast horses.
In 711 the city was taken by the Moors, under whose rule Lisbon flourished. The Moors contributed to the cultural and architectural development of the city by building many mosques, castles and houses, as well as the new city wall known as Cerca Moura. Lisbon was a diverse multi-cultural society, consisting of Christians, Jews, Berbers, Arabs, and Saqalibas. Arabic was the official language and also the chosen language of the Christians.
Moorish influence is still present in Alfama – one of the oldest parts of Lisbon that survived the 1755 earthquake.
Lisbon was re-conquered by the crusaders in 1147. The Muslims were either expelled from the city or converted to Catholicism, which is Portugal’s main religion to this day. All mosques were converted into churches.
One of the most terrible events in the city’s life was the Great Earthquake of 1755. Followed by a massive tsunami, the earthquake killed an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 of Lisbon residents and destroyed 85 percent of the city. The event shocked the whole of Europe. After the earthquake, Lisbon authorities decided to demolish the damaged parts of the city and rebuild them according to the modern urban rules of the time.
These days Lisbon is an important city that is very active within the European Union. In October 2007 Lisbon hosted the 2007 EU Summit, where agreement was reached regarding a new EU governance model. The resulting Treaty of Lisbon was signed on the 13 December 2007.
Sport: Lisbon is known for its football traditions. The city has two UEFA elite stadiums – Estádio da Luz (Stadium of Light), which can accommodate more than 65,000 people, and Estádio José Alvalade, with a capacity of over 50,000. Lisbon was among the Portuguese cities that hosted the UEFA Euro 2004 championship.
“Sport Lisboa e Benfica” (commonly referred to as “Benfica” also “Benfica Lisbon”) is a world-famous sports club that is best known for its football team. The team is a two-time winner and five-times finalist of the UEFA Champions League and also finalist of the UEFA Europa League and Intercontinental Cup.
Other sports, especially handball, basketball, and roller hockey, are also popular in Lisbon.
Food & drink: Portuguese cuisine is hugely underestimated outside Portugal and is often confused with Spanish cuisine. Portuguese food is based on very simple ingredients, but the way it’s prepared makes it a true gourmet’s delight. Portuguese cuisine is based on regional produce – fish and seafood, meat, tomatoes, and olive oil. Some of its best features are hearty rustic soups, homemade bread, and unexpected combinations of meat and shellfish. In terms of spices, Peri-Peri is used to flavour chicken and shrimp dishes and curry spices from Goa are a common seasoning. The true wonder of Portuguese cuisine is fish, which comes in wide variety and is not to be missed.
Wine is the traditional Portuguese drink, which is often drank “green” – e.g. young. Green wines are only produced in the north of Portugal and are usually slightly sparkling.
Other popular types of Portuguese wines are Port and Madeira. Port wine is a fortified wine with a distinct flavour. It is produced in Douro and is usually served with desserts. Vinho da Madeira is similar to sherry. It is a regional wine produced in Madeira.
The best way to discover Lisbon is to wander up and down its tree-lined streets and narrow lanes. The city has an eclectic blend of neighbourhoods and features different architectural styles, such as Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline, Baroque, Traditional Portuguese, Modern and Post-Modern. All this makes Lisbon a truly unique place that is very different from other European capitals.
The real gem of Lisbon is the old Alfama district – the only neighbourhood that has survived the 1755 earthquake. There you can watch the Lisboêtas gossiping over a glass of wine and listen to Fado – traditional Portuguese singing that will fill your soul with sweet melancholy and longing. This si where you’ll find the Se Cathedral.
Adjacent to the Alfama are the equally old quarters of Castelo and Mouraria. They are situated on the western and northern slopes of the St. George’s Castle hill. Every June the streets of Lisbon’s old quarters come alive with the feasts in honour of the local saint – Santo António.
In the heart of the city lies the Baixa neighbourhood – an elegant district constructed after the Great Earthquake. Baixa is the central tourist and shopping area of Lisbon. It has lots of little open-air cafés that are just perfect for a summer afternoon drink. (This is where a cruise ship shuttle bus is most likely to drop you off)
Bairro Alto, the upper quarter, is the centre of Lisbon’s entertainment and night life. It also has the best restaurants in town where you can have an unforgettable lunch and enjoy the best of Portuguese cuisine.
Belém is another famous Lisbon neighbourhood. It is located four miles from the present city centre and is definitely worth visiting. Belém is famous because that’s where many of the great Portuguese explorers set off on their voyages of discovery. In particular, it is the place from which Vasco da Gama departed for India in 1497. This is where you’ll find the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos – an historic monastery and church that is stunningly beautiful.
Belém’s most famous feature is Torre de Belém – a beautiful fortified lighthouse that is probably the most photographed building in Portugal.
Lisbon hosts a lot of remarkable world-famous museums – National Museum of Ancient Art, Museum of Portuguese-style Tile Mosaics, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, that contains different collections of ancient and modern art, and Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. For those who are interested in more unusual museums, National Museum of Costume and Fashion and National Museum of Coaches are highly recommended.
Walk down Alfama’s medieval alleys – a real treat for walkers and photographers. It is a village within a city made up of tiny squares, ancient churches, and whitewashed houses. With little balconies decorated with flower pots, caged birds, and drying laundry it’s full of character and is not to be missed. Use Tram 28E to have a tour from one side of the area to the other – it’ll save your legs and give you a great sense of how steep and narrow the alleys and roads are!
Visit St. George’s Castle. Located on the highest hill of Lisbon, it offers great views across the city. Its oldest parts were built by the Romans in the 6th century. The castle used to be a Moorish royal residence until Portugal’s first King Afonso Henriques captured it in 1147. Tram no 12E will take you on a round trip up to the castle.
Go to Belém and see the famous Torre de Belém – the symbol of Lisbon. This tower welcomes every ship coming into the harbour.
Another magnificent site in Belém is Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery) – the most prominent monument of Lisbon and one of the greatest triumphs of Gothic architecture. Classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage monument, it was built to commemorate Vasco da Gama’s voyage and to thank the Virgin Mary for its success.
- A lot of Lisbon streets are black and white. This is to honour St. Vincent – the patron saint of Lisbon. Black is believed to represent St. Vincent’s black attire, whereas the white symbolises the white tunics worn by the Crusaders who vanquished the Moors.
- The estuary of Rio Tejo stretches as wide as 14km across and is said to be large enough to accommodate all the warships in the world.
- Beneath the streets of Lisbon lie hidden Roman galleries with chambers, bridges and corridors. The entrance to this fascinating place is open to the public only for one weekend in September.
- Lisbon was practically destroyed on 1st November 1755 (All Saints’ Day) by a massive earthquake. Had the Richter Scale been invented back then, the first three shocks would have registered at 9.40.
- Lisbon has a very large statue of Christ, which was constructed to celebrate Portugal surviving World War II without any direct involvement.