Lovely Lisbon: Ancient architecture, stunning coastal beaches and a world of colour

Paris and Rome may top the must-visit lists of most travellers to Europe, but there’s one seriously underrated capital that shouldn’t be missed. We speak, of course, of Lisbon, Portugal’s main city and home to roughly half a million souls, which annually draws some three million eager visitors.

Now a global centre of finance, commerce and tourism, Lisbon was first settled more than two millennia ago by the Phoenicians about 1200 BC, then enveloped by the sprawling Roman Empire in 138 BC. Nearly eight centuries later, it came under Moorish rule before being conquered by Afonso I (the crusader knight who restored the city to Catholicism and became the first King of Portugal) in 1147.


Today, its multicultural history is still very much in evidence, rubbing shoulders with modernity with enviable ease. Spread across seven rolling hills and abutting the Tagus River as it spills into the Atlantic Ocean, Lisbon’s charming blend of the old – an attention-grabbing Moorish castle, ancient Portuguese architecture and vintage trams meandering through cobbled streets – and contemporary art, dining and nightlife make for the perfect vacation destination throughout the year. Here are the main draws of continental Europe’s westernmost capital city.

Kings of the Castle

The Lisbon tramway

Located right in the heart of Lisbon, São Jorge Castle’s idyllic hilltop location affords 360-degree panoramas – a fact that no doubt influenced the ancient Romans’ decision to build its initial fortifications here back in the first century BC. Apart from accommodating the city’s Roman overlords, it was occupied by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Moors before eventually being enfolded into the Portuguese empire following the 1147 Siege of Lisbon.
Visitors are invited to explore the pine-shaded ramparts and climbable towers that punctuate the citadel or drop by the small archeological museum that houses artefacts from its long history. You can also stroll through the Castelo neighbourhood and stop at the Church of Santa Cruz do Castelo, replete with bell towers that offer sweeping vistas of the castle.

Towering Heritage

Belém Tower, officially the Tower of Saint Vincent, a 16th-century fortification

Another of Lisbon’s stunning historical landmarks is the Belém Tower, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its part in defending the country’s coastline during the Age of Discovery (roughly 1400-1700 AD). Perched on the northern shore of the Tagus River estuary, it was constructed in the 16th century during the peak of the Portuguese Renaissance, and retains much of its original Manueline architecture, though hints of Islamic, Italian and Moorish influences can also be seen along its ivory-white limestone exteriors.

Inside, sightseers can visit all four floors via a narrow spiral staircase. Highlights here include the King’s Chamber – with fantastic views from its Renaissance-style balcony – and the Tower Terrace, from which you can spot the statue of Christ the King and the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge, as well as picturesque river scenes. You’d best have your camera on hand.

Exploration Imagination

Jerónimos Monastery, an example of Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline style of architecture

Located a stone’s throw from Belém Tower, the Jerónimos Monastery is yet another symbol of Portugal’s wealth and power during the Age of Discovery. Constructed by Manuel I in 1502 at the site of a hermitage where explorer Vasco da Gama and his crew bunked before departing for India, the expansive compound is also the final resting place of that intrepid discoverer of new worlds.
A veritable feast for the eyes, its columns have been carved with imagery of rope coils, sea monsters and other maritime motifs that trumpet the bygone era of exploration. Twisted turrets, plaited arches and intricate masonry are also evident across its many cloisters, which transport visitors to the heyday of the Portuguese Empire.

Ocean’s 450

Lisbon Oceanarium, located in the Parque das Nações

Take a breather from ancient architecture and artifacts and round up the little ones for a visit to the Lisbon Oceanarium – the largest salt-water aquarium in the world. Constructed in 1998 for the World’s Fair, today it is home to more than 450 diverse species, from penguins and sea otters to sharks, stingrays, seahorses and octopuses. The Oceanarium is divided into four main tanks, each representing the four major oceanic systems found on our planet. While there are guided tours here, for something more daring to post about you can arrange an overnight ‘Sleeping with Sharks’ stay.

Sand and Surf

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Vibrant street art in Lisbon

Though Lisbon sits adjacent to the Tagus River, it’s also surrounded by some of Portugal’s loveliest beaches – particularly visit-worthy during the summer. These hotspots lie along four different coastal stretches, with those at Estoril and Cascais on the Portuguese Riviera being accessible by 35- or 45-minute train journeys. You can also take a convenient ferry ride across to the sands of Costa da Caparica, which is situated along the western side of the Setúbal Peninsula.

Whichever beach you choose, there’s a veritable treasure trove of ocean activities on offer, be it surfing, fishing, or simply taking a cruise along the coast. In stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Lisbon life, the pace here is much more sedate, allowing you to relax fully and take in sunshine and the tranquil local atmosphere.

Scintillating Sights

National Palace Of Pena, atop a hill in the Sintra Mountains

Should your schedule allow, it’s well worth arranging a day or even overnight trip to the town of Sintra. Located about 40 minutes west of Lisbon by train, this rustic town with its cobbled streets and traditionally painted buildings is home to one of the largest expat communities in the vicinity, and consistently ranks among the best places to live in Portugal. Dotted with pretty boutiques, family-owned cafés and past architectural glories, Sintra is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A surprising collection of fairy-tale-like palaces, villas and castles can also be viewed here. Of these, the Pena Palace is perhaps the most peculiar – built in the mid-1800s, its fantastical Moorish-Manueline structure is a strange amalgam of domes, spires and fortifications burnished in bright yellow, strong red and stone-grey hues. Another wondrous site is the 10th-century Castle of the Moors, whose stone walls snake across the hills and cliffs in an impressive fashion. Have your camera ready as you climb its ramparts – on a clear day, you can not only spy the city, but also see as far as the Atlantic Ocean.


(Text: Tenzing Thondup)