In elementary school we studied the great European explorers of the 1400s and 1500s. Christopher Columbus, for one. This period is called the Age of Discovery, a time when European royalty sought profitable new trade routes.
The Portuguese, due to several navigational advancements and their strategic location between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, led the way.
- Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to sail around Africa’s sourthern tip in 1488.
- Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to India in 1497.
- Pedro Álvares Cabral “discovered” Brazil in 1500.
- And Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to sail across the Pacific Ocean in 1520. His expedition was also the first to circumnavigate the world.
By the mid-1500s, Portugal dominated world trade. Lisbon celebrates its explorers’ accomplishments with monuments, churches, street names, architectural motifs, and more.
Day one: I took the train in the rain from Sintra, where I’m staying, to Rossio station in the heart of Lisbon. On the way to the station, I stopped for a famous queijada da Sintra, a sweet cheese and egg tart, at Casa de Piriquita. I walked it off around the Baixa, a flat valley between Lisbon’s hills. Seemingly, every street led to a square and every square featured a statue of a king on a horse.
After the massive earthquake and subsequent fire in 1755, the Baixa area was rebuilt with boxy look-alike buildings on a grid plan. The perfectly aligned streets are packed with cafés (all with the same salted cod menu) and souvenir shops.
On the harbor, I walked across the expansive Praça do Comércio (Commercial Square) to see the magnificent Arco de Rua Augusta (like the Arc de Triomphe) and the statue of Dom José I. (José was king during the rebuilding.) Nearby, I visited the Sé, Lisbon’s fort of a cathedral, founded in 1150 CE.
I walked through Praça da Figueira (Fig Tree Square), featuring another guy on a horse—King John I. Stopped inside the Church of São Domingos, which survived the earthquake and fire. Black soot still lines the walls. Beggars rattle plastic cups of loose change outside.
I enjoyed the colorful area around Largo de São Domingos, including the shop selling huge slabs of salted cod. (I’m bringing one home for each of you.) A hole-in-the-wall shop on Largo São Domingos was the first place to sell ginjinha, Lisbon’s favorite cherry liquor. It is practically a shrine now with both locals and tourists lined up outside. The liquor is served in shot glasses and imbibed on the street in front of the shop.
I walked north on the grand, upscale Avenida da Liberdade. Vendors were roasting chestnuts on nearly every corner. On the way home, I stopped in a small market to buy groceries for dinner. The clerk spoke only Portuguese. The currency is euros. I’m not sure which of us was more surprised that I made the correct change.
Day Two: I walked straight through Rossio to the trolley stop. Number 15E was jammed, hot and sweaty all the way to Belém. There, I disembarked to tour a monster of a monastery, over three hundred yards long on the waterfront. The Monastery of Jerónimos was built in 1502 by King Manuel in gratitude for the safe return of Vasco da Gama (and his valuable cargo). Da Gama is entombed here. I especially enjoyed the beautiful gingerbread cloister behind the church with its sailing motifs of ropes and anchors.
The Tower of Belém was built in the middle of the Rio Tejo (Tagus River) in 1515 to help defend the city. The big earthquake changed the course of the river and now the tower connects to the shore. Dungeons below, cannons above.
The Monument to the Discoveries was built in 1960 to honor Prince Henry the Navigator, the man responsible for nurturing many navigational advancements in the 1400s. His support led to Portugal’s world-changing discoveries. From this area on the coast in Belém, the great explorers said their prayers and set sail.
Back in the Baixa, I took the crammed funicular up to the Bairro Alto and Chiado neighborhoods. At the top of the lift is San Pedro Belvedere with its stunning view of the rooftops of central Lisbon. Headed downhill in the rain, I stopped at the Church of São Roque and the ruins of the Carmo Conven. An Afro-pop band played in Carmo Square. I stepped into the Trindade Beerhall to see its famous wall tiles. It was once the dining hall of a monastery, but became a brewery after the monks were kicked out. Still heading downhill, I strolled through the upscale retail district of Chiado, bustling with shoppers, cafés, and street musicians.
Day Three: In the United States we tile kitchens and bathrooms. In Portugal, that would be considered a pitiful start.
Tile is an art form in Portugal. It covers every surface, even building exteriors. A museum, the National Tile Museum located in the Convent of Madre de Deus, celebrates the history of tile.
The museum traces tile-making from the 1500s to today. Downstairs in the cloisters, classic tiles are lovingly rescued and restored. Upstairs a forty-yard-long panorama of Lisbon, created in 1738, is on display.
From Saint George Castle, I walked downhill through the Alfama stopping for a lunch of bacalhau á bras (salt cod, eggs, potatoes, and onions) at a sidewalk café. Sort of a frittata. I found two breathtaking viewpoints over the city. One at Miradouro de Largo das Portas do Sol (south slope of Alfama) and one at Miradouro de Largo da Graça, next to the Convent of Grace. Red-tile roofs as far as the eye can see.
I finally found the Alfama and loved it. This neighborhood was the original village of Lisbon and home to the city’s sailors and fishers as far back as the 500s. The streets are a tangled mess and only eight feet wide in places. The buildings look like they are going to fall into each other, prompting Portugal’s poet Camões to write, “Our lips meet easily, high across the narrow street.”
The passageways are a labyrinth full of tiny shops and interesting characters. Kids running. Old men playing cards. Housewives hanging out the laundry. Sardines frying. Restaurant workers prepping for the evening’s meals. I got lost on purpose three times. The two best ruas (streets) to explore are São Miguel and São Pedro.
At the bottom, I toured the Fado Museum. Fado is a popular working-class genre of music featuring classical guitar players and a solo singer. The lyrics express melancholy yearning, perhaps for the fishwife’s husband at sea. The vocals soar plaintively, aching for better days.
And better days are what both Lisbon and Portugal need. Once one of the world’s richest cities, Lisbon’s economy struggles (an advantage for tourists). Leveraging a world-class art museum, distinctive music, fresh seafood, fascinating downtown neighborhoods, and a rich history, Lisbon, the city of discovery, now works to help visitors discover it.