The Belém neighborhood has some of the city’s most famous attractions and the tram trip there (line 15 west from downtown) follows the coast for lovely ocean vistas. The Jerónimos Monastery is one of the oldest buildings in the city and was constructed to celebrate Vasco da Gama’s successful voyage to India – da Gama is buried in the monastery today. The Torre de Belém (Tower of Belém) was built around the same time to defend the port and the valuable shipping trade.
One of the most recognisable symbols of the city is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) a 50-meter tall concrete slab, shaped into the prow of a boat on which stand Portugal’s most famous explorers. A world map drawn into the ground of the adjacent square shows the routes those explorers took. The Presidential Palace (formerly the Royal Palace) is famous for its lovely gardens lining the bright blue river that passes through it and for a monumental statue of Afonso de Albuquerque, a 16th-Century ruler of Portuguese India.
The commanding position atop Lisbon’s highest hill has been used as a defensive fortress for more than two thousand years. The current castle on the hill dates to the middle ages and was built by the Moors, who occupied the city until 1147. The position on the hill also makes it an ideal spot from which to get a beautiful view of the city and the ocean.
The best way to get there is to walk up the hill from downtown, passing through the lovely old Alfama neighborhood. Most of the Alfama was built by the Moors and the irregular streets and tightly packed buildings make the area a great place to wander.
Traditional Portuguese fado music is believed to have originated in the 19th Century as a mixture of African slave rhythms, Arabic influences, and Portuguese sailing music. A typical Fado performance includes a singer accompanied by a classical guitar and 12-stringed Portuguese guitar. Fado performances are easy to find in Lisbon and many restaurants offer live performances during dinner hours.
According to legend, Lisbon’s Botanical Gardens were founded by a king who dreamed of having a garden with one of every type of plant in the world. The current collection dates back up to four hundred years and does indeed include plants from all corners of the earth – with plants from different climates growing side-by-side and bizarre grafted combinations. The garden is a lovely place for a picnic with someone special.
Lisbon’s collection of fine art and historical artifacts is enviable. The Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (National Museum of Antique Art) houses a vast collection of European Art from the 14th-19th centuries alongside artifacts from Portugal’s colonization and trade with Asia and Africa. The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum was established by private donation of a vast collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts and paintings by masters such as Rembrandt and Monet. The Museu do Azulejo (Museum of Tile) celebrates one of Portugal’s traditional forms of artistic expression in a lovely former convent. While you’re getting around, you’ll also enjoy the fact that Lisbon’s subway system is a gallery of sorts, with lovely contemporary art inspired by the surrounding areas inside each station.