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The Emerald Experience > River and city guides > City Guide: The Best Things to See and Do in Lisbon

City Guide: The Best Things to See and Do in Lisbon

The City of Seven Hills, Queen of the Sea and The City of Light are just three of the nicknames lovingly granted to Lisbon, Portugal’s largest and capital city. Recognised as the oldest city in Western Europe, Lisbon’s enchanting history matches anything offered by Rome, Paris or London with archaeological remains in the city dating back to the Iron Age.

Lisbon pairs dramatic history and wonderful architecture with a uniquely Mediterranean climate. The winters in Lisbon are warmer than any other capital in Europe, and the long summer stretches from late April to October with temperatures reaching an idyllic 25°C. This makes Lisbon an exceptional destination to explore on foot, through the criss-crossing streets and back alleys, dotted with ceramic-tiled shops and traditional cafes.

Just a short stroll through the ancient streets of the city will introduce stunning examples of Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline, Baroque, Modern and Postmodern architecture, all positioned without rhyme or reason across beautiful boulevards and squares. And as you step through this delightful city, you’ll perhaps notice the absence of cars – creating a wonderfully quiet and relaxed atmosphere.

Modern Lisbon is a beautiful marriage of the old and the new, with Gothic architecture sitting alongside glamorous hotspots. Two and a half millennia of history is ripe for exploration, and no matter which way you turn, you’ll stumble across something astonishing.

lisbon city guide

A city for foodies, the local culinary offering in Lisbon is on par with any of Europe’s gourmet powerhouses. From the city’s famous pastry, Pastel de Belém, to Bacalhau (salted cod served one of over 350 different ways); the cuisine of Lisbon is steeped in history and tradition, although a new generation of chefs have taken the mantle and are running with it.

And as evening starts to fall in Lisbon, it is time to partake in one of the great local traditions: Ginjinha. This Portuguese liquor, made with sour cherry berries, is the very lifeblood of the city, and can be bought from innumerate small vendors throughout Lisbon. You’ll be amazed as the vendors skilfully pour you a measure from the bottle, depositing a singly cherry into your glass with a flick of the wrist. To drink like a local, sip your measure as you make plans to find the next vendor to repeat the trick. 

Must-See Sights

With 2,600 years of history to explore in Lisbon, it is hard to arrive at just five must-see sights. But we believe these are the absolute unmissable experiences during a stop in Portugal’s enchanting capital.

Belém Tower – A fortified tower which was central to Portugal’s huge contribution to the Age of Discovery and global exploration, Belém Tower has had a defining role in shaping cultures around the world. With Belém Tower as a fortified base, the Portuguese maritime forces were able to defend the capital city from invading 16th-century forces and explore uncharted parts of the globe.

During this period, the Portuguese discovered the archipelagos of Madeira and the Azores, landed on the coast of Africa, and identified a sea route to India. Not only did this cement Portuguese cultures in the newly-discovered lands, it also opened up new trade routes for all nations to exploit.

The tower itself is a place of significant beauty, complete in a traditional Manueline style with huge interior archways. Owing to its heritage and beauty, Belém Tower was classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. 

belem tower lisbon city guide

Jerónimos Monastery – Less than a mile from Belém Tower (as the crow flies) stands the hugely impressive Jerónimos Monastery. The 16th-century monastery dominates the skyline with its awe-inspiring Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline architecture, extensive gardens, jutting water features and delightful mosaic cobblestones.

The stone tomb of Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama sits inside the monastery, alongside that of one of the great chroniclers of the Age of Discoveries, Luís de Camões. Both tombs were crafted by the sculptor Costa Mota in a neo-Manueline style to complement the rest of the building. 

Lisbon Baixa – The Baixa district of the city is the very heart of Lisbon. A puzzle of charming streets link magnificent plazas and squares. Built in the wake of Lisbon’s devastating 1755 earthquake, this enigmatic region of the city is rich with grand 18th-century buildings and monuments which have barely changed over the past 250 years.

Central to life in Lisbon, the Baixa district is home to many of the city’s best-loved cafes, restaurants and bars – perfect if you’ve got a few hours to enjoy Lisbon’s culinary treats.

Praça do Comércio –  A large, breath-taking square which is flanked on three sides by towering buildings and the River Tagus to the south. In the centre of the huge square is a statue of King José I on horseback, crushing snakes in his path as he looks out over the waters.

Looking out over the square is the archway, Arco da Rua Augusta, as well as a number of places to visit including the beer museum, Lisbon story centre, a well-stocked wine cellar, and a number of restaurants serving local fare.

São Jorge Castle – Dating back to medieval times, São Jorge Castle is a domineering Moorish castle, looking over the historic centre of Lisbon. The site of São Jorge Castle has long been used as a defensive position by various tribes and societies who have settled in the region.

Remnants of a circular fortified wall still remain, revealing that the castle used to serve as the central point of a citadel. The ruins of the former royal palace within these walls still remain, alongside ancillary buildings, gardens and a large public square. The view from the public square of São Jorge Castle offers perhaps the best panorama of stunning Lisbon below.

Fast Facts

Here are a few surprising and interesting facts about the charming city of Lisbon.

  • Lisbon has never been officially declared Portugal’s capital, and has simply served as the de facto capital since 1255.
  • The city is roughly 400 years older than Rome.
  • Lisbon’s famous trams were originally called ‘americanos’, a nod to the transport’s origins in the USA.
  • Ravens have been a symbol of Lisbon since they escorted the body of Saint Vincent to the city in 1173. Subsequently, every coal merchant in the city would keep a pet raven, all of them named Vincent.
  • Lisbon was the first city to serve Guinness outside of the UK.
  • The city is home to, probably, the world’s smallest bookshop. At 3.8m2, the Livraria Simão is so small that the shopkeeper must step out when a customer walks in.
  • D. Pedro IV square in Lisbon is home to a public tie-mirror, complete with the message ‘componha o nó da sua gravata’ (correct your tie’s knot).
  • The recipe for Lisbon’s most famous pastry, Pastel de Belém, is known by only five men. To protect the recipe, they are sworn to secrecy and will never travel or eat together.
  • Lisbon’s Vasco da Gama bridge is the longest in Europe, at more than 10 miles long.

Helping you explore the most wonderful cities and regions of Europe, you can visit Lisbon as part of a river cruise atop the beautiful Douro with Emerald Waterways. For more details about our popular Secrets of the Douro & Lisbon river cruise, click here or call our friendly sales team on 0808 301 4705.   

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