Lisbon: Discovering the discoverers

Monument to the Discoveries

Monument to the Discoveries

In elementary school we studied the great European explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries. (Christopher Columbus, for one.) This period is called the Age of Discovery, a time when European royalty sought profitable new trade routes. Due to its strategic position between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and several navigational advancements, Portugal led the way.

  • Dias was the first European to sail around Africa’s sourthern tip in 1488.
  • Da Gama sailed around Africa to India in 1497.
  • Cabral “discovered” Brazil in 1500.
  • And 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-16th century, Portugal dominated world trade. Lisbon celebrates its explorers’ accomplishments in monuments, churches, street names, architectural motifs and more.

Monastery of Jerónimus

Monastery of Jerónimus

Day one: 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 the counter at Casa de Piriquita.) I walked it off around the Baixa, a flat valley between Lisbon’s hills, looking at squares and statues to get my bearings. Every square has 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 salt-cod menu) and souvenir shops. On the harbor, I walked across the expansive Commercial Square (Praça do Comércio) to see the magnificent Arco de Rua Augusta (like the Arc de Triomphe) and the statue of Dom José I. (He was king during the rebuilding.) Nearby, I visited the Sé, Lisbon’s fort of a cathedral, founded in 1150 AD.

Roasting chestnuts

Roasted chestnuts

Walked through Fig Tree Square (Praça da Figueira), 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.) Another hole-in-the-wall at no. 8 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. Walked north on the grand, upscale Avenida da Liberdade. Vendors were roasting and selling 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 change correctly.

Cloister at Monastery of Jerónimos

Cloister at Monastery of Jerónimus

Day Two: Straight through Rossio to the trolley stop. No. 15E was jammed, hot and sweaty all the way to Belém, where I toured a monster of a monastery, over 300-yards-long on the waterfront. The Monastery of Jerónimos (Monsteiro dos Jerónimos) was built in 1502 by King Manuel in gratitude for the safe return of 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 (Torre de Belém) was built in the middle of the Tagus River (Rio Tejo) 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 (Padrão dos Descobrimentos) was built in 1960 to honor Prince Henry (The Navigator), the man responsible for nurturing the 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 jam-packed funicular up to the Bairro Alto and Chiado neighborhoods. At the top of the lift is the San Pedro Belvedere viewpoint. A stunning view of the rooftops of central Lisbon down below. Headed downhill in the rain, stopping at the Church of São Roque and the ruins of the Carmo Conven. An afro-pop band played in Carmo Square (Largo do Carmo). I stepped into the Trindade Beerhall (Cervejaria da Trindade) to see its famous wall-to-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 U.S. we tile kitchen and bathroom floors. In Portugal, that would be considered a rather pitiful start. Tile is an art form in Portugal. It covers every surface, even building exteriors. A museum, the National Tile Museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo) located in the Convent of Madre de Deus, celebrates the history of tile.

The museum traces tile-making from the 1500s to today’s serious works of art. Downstairs in the cloisters, classic tiles are lovingly rescued and restored. Upstairs a 40-yard-long panorama of Lisbon, created in 1738, is on display.

Lisbon Tile

From St. George Castle (Castelo de São Jorge), 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.) 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 18th-century Convent of Grace. Red-tile roofs as far as the eye can see.

Finally found the Alfama and loved it. This neighborhood was the original Lisbon and home to the city’s sailors and fishers as far back as the sixth century. 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 fado music. I got lost there on purpose three times. The two best streets (ruas) to explore are São Miguel and São Pedro.

At the bottom, I toured the Fado Museum (Casa do Fado e da Giuitatta Portuguesa). 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 for better days.

And better days are what 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.

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1 Response to Lisbon: Discovering the discoverers

  1. Mike Pechinak says:

    I’d like a second order of salted cod, if you will, please!

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