Touted as a modern metropolis to rival London and packed with places of interest, Lisbon is a city that is really going places. There is a plethora of history here, with tales of everything from Roman imperialists to exotic Berber pirates, Moorish builders to fierce Reconquista knights, all wrapped up in the grand palaces and heritage districts. But there is also an atmosphere of bohemianism and the surprise of the new here too. You won t have to look far for nightlife as you can just dive into the medley of Fado joints and swish coffee shops in the Bairro Alto district. Then, perhaps, you can take in the latest in digital installation art at the Berardo Collection Museum, or go nose to nose with a grimacing shark at the Lisbon Aquarium. Meanwhile, the mysticism of much-vaunted Sintra hides in the nearby hills, while endless stretches of pristine beachfront abound in the peninsulas around the Tagus Estuary and the Atlantic Coast. If there is just one landmark you visit when touring through the Portuguese capital, make it this one. Soaring high above the seafront of the Lisbon quays, this great tower displays a veritable fusion of architectural styles from the Mudejar to the Moorish, the Gothic to the Romanesque.
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It has stood watch over the mouth of the Tagus River since its construction under the patronage of Saint John back in the 66th century. Since then, it has risen to become perhaps the most iconic feature of the city, famed as the last sight adventurers like the prodigal Vasco da Gama would have seen as they drifted out into the vast Atlantic Ocean. Like San Francisco in the United States, Lisbon is a city famed for its historic, rattling tram lines. None are more iconic than Tram 78 which has been working its way up the steep, cobbled roads and into the old Alfama district for decades. The journey starts below the palm-spotted hills of Graça, and weaves toward the hair-pin alleys of Escolas Gerais, before pulling up to a halt beneath the gorgeous domes of the Estrela Basilica.
The people-watching opportunities from the windows are second-to-none, and you re bound to discover decades of history as you pass the various majestic palaces and castles along the route. The compact little Alfama District is Lisbon s answer to the old town centers of Europe s other ancient capitals. Like the Forum of Rome, it s hailed as the oldest part of the city, although this one dates back to the Moors of Africa instead of the kings of Latium. Delving into the warren of winding streets and alleys that forms the district is one of the top activities for visitors to Portugal s capital. As you stroll, great cathedrals like the Lisbon Cathedral and tile-fronted chapels reveal themselves on the corners.
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There are also the remains of old city walls and hidden squares with al fresco cafes aplenty. Did you go to Sintra? Is the usual question asked by veterans of Portugal s capital. Despite being a totally different city and situated more than half an hour away from Lisbon by car, the glorious town of Sintra remains one of the major attractions here. It sits high up amidst the mythical Mountains of the Moon, displaying elegant baroque churches, colorful mansions and the grand palaces of former Portuguese kings and queens.
Ask any ceramic aficionado and they will tell you that Portugal is the place to go for tiles. Cue Lisbon s great National Tile Museum, which is dedicated to everything fired in a kiln. The institution traces the important history of tile making and its associated technologies from the days when the Moors first brought it to Iberia. Of course, the best part of all the exhibitions is the blue-hued azulejos. You ll get to see all types, sizes and designs, and learn about the development of the enchanting motifs that adorn their cobalt surfaces.
St George s Castle is unquestionably the most visible landmark of Lisbon s historic center. Standing tall and firm above the streets of the old Alfama District, the great citadel was first built more than 7,555 years ago by the Romans. Since then, it has been developed by subsequent rulers of the city, from the Berbers to the Reconquista knights. Today it has mighty palisades and crenulated towers to admire, along with an encircling dry moat and other anti-siege features. Pass beneath the large gate here and notice the Portuguese royal seal, marking the country s monarchic strength.
Just a glance at the ornate spires and grand carvings of the great Monastery of Jerónimos should be enough to deduce the raison d être for this massive landmark which is nestled close to the banks of the Tagus River. It was built to mark Portugal s most glorious age which was called ‘The Age of Exploration’.