When thinking about the most beautiful European cities, probably Paris, Prague or Rome come to mind. Indeed, these fantastic three cities are full of history. Some people would add to the list Budapest, and Barcelona. Of course, Eitan would add Athens (he is obsessed with Greece). On the other hand, Lisbon remains somewhat undiscovered and not fully appreciated. However, this is slowly changing. As you know, tourist numbers have risen sharply in the last couple of years and many sleepy neighborhoods in Lisbon are not so sleepy anymore. But don’t let that discourage you. Lisbon is a big city that offers just about everything, from history to architecture to fine dining and parties. Furthermore, let us not forget the unforgettable views.
Lisbon Architecture Guide
One of the things that impressed us the most about Lisbon is its grand architecture and artistic heritage. The city combines different historical layers and art is everywhere. Likewise, the grand and the quaint coexist beautifully. Moreover, Lisbon is Portugal’s capital since the 13th Century and its architecture reflects such a glorious past. On the other hand, Lisbon’s neighborhoods are intimate and elegantly modest. Trust us; you’ll get what we mean when you visit Alfama and Bairro Alto. In fact, downtown Lisbon, Baixa, had a similar structure until the devastating earthquake of 1755. From then on, it acquired a monumental appearance, worthy of a world-class capital. Perhaps these different faces make Lisbon so unique. Or maybe it’s because of its numerous architectural masterpieces.
Lisbon architecture masterpieces
Castelo de São Jorge
Lisbon’s oldest structure, São Jorge Castle, dates back to the 1st Century BC. The castle was built to protect the city. Through its history, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, and finally, the Portuguese controlled the castle. Until the 16th Century, it was the royal palace, later moved to the Ribeira Palace, in the lower town. It also served as military barracks, a prison, and the National Archive. Today it is a national monument and a museum with some of the best views of Lisbon.
Sé de Lisboa – Cathedral
Dating back to 12th Century, Lisbon Cathedral is the city’s oldest church. It is also the seat of the Archdiocese of Lisbon. What makes this building interesting is the combination of different styles. The base is the typical Latin cross with three aisles, a transept and an ambulatory around the main chapel. If you look at the richly decorated façade and interiors you will notice Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical elements. The fortress-like façade is another curiosity. In fact, the Cathedral was a defense base against enemies.
Convento do Carmo
The Convent of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is one of Lisbon’s most distinguished architecture landmarks. Unfortunately, the 1755 earthquake destroyed most of the 14th Century Catholic convent. Originally conceived as a Gothic chapel based on a Latin cross, it is now a bunch of walls, pillars, and a few pointed arches. Unlike the convent, the fire completely destroyed the attached library. Today the convent ruins house a small archeological museum with a collection of pieces from different historical periods.
Built in the 16th Century, the Jerónimos Monastery belonged to the Order of Saint Jerome. Its architecture incorporates the so-called Late Gothic Manueline style of Lisbon, renaissance, and Moorish elements. Sculptures carved in limestone depicting Portuguese naval expeditions decorate the monastery. It consists of the Church of Santa Maria, where Vasco da Gama’s tomb is and a large two-story cloister. Evidently, UNESCO had to include this masterpiece in its World Heritage Site list in 1983.
Close to the above-mentioned monastery, you will find another brilliant example of the Late Gothic Manuelite style: the 16th Century Belém Tower. Through its long history, the tower was once a fortress and a port. Furthermore, the Portuguese departed from the tower on their quest for trading routes to China and India. The structure consists of a bastion and a four-story tower made of local limestone. Four Moorish style bartizan turrets accentuate its roof terrace. Once again, we are talking about a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Casa dos Bicos
The so-called Casa dos Bicos dates back to the 16th Century. Fortunately for us, the curious four-story building survived the great earthquake almost intact. Its architecture is a unique combination of both the Italian Renaissance and the Portuguese Manuelite styles. As you will recognize, the façade has four different floors. The windows of the lower floors are rectangular, while the ones on the two upper floors are round. Notice the spiked repetitive elements that cover the entire façade. Thus the name, since bicos in Portuguese means beak.
Águas Livres Aqueduct
During the 18th Century, the Portuguese excelled in engineering projects. The Águas Livres Aqueduct is a testament of said expertise. The 18-kilometer aqueduct rises above the Alcantara Valley. Nevertheless, what we can see today is just a section of a larger network of canals totaling 58km. It was built to supply drinking water to a growing Lisbon. Though built during the Baroque period, the aqueduct’s large pointed arches are obviously gothic. Completed in 1744, it miraculously survived the following earthquake intact.
Praça do Comércio
As mentioned above, the earthquake of 1755 destroyed most of Lisbon’s lower town including the Paços da Ribeira, the royal palace at the time. The new urban plan reshaped the whole area using a rectangular grid of streets, with the main avenue ending at the monumental Praça do Comércio. Buildings surround the three sides of the rectangular square which opens itself to the River Tajo. Finally, the large triumphal arch, Arco da Rua Augusta, crowns the central building opposite the river. We stopped there for delicious Italian coffee almost every day!
Estação do Rossio
In 1890 the Rossio Railway Station was built in the center of Lisbon. A 3km long tunnel connects it to the rest of the railway network. It was the city’s main station until 1957. Since then, it’s the end terminus of local trains going to Sintra. Notice that the monumental marble façade is a reinterpretation of the late Gothic Manuelite style. The two large horseshoe portals that serve as an entrance are especially interesting. Even if you are not planning to go to Sintra (which would be a huge mistake) pop into the station to check the iron structure, one of the first such structures in Portugal.
Santa Justa Lift
As you will notice, Lisbon is a bit hilly. In fact, in old times Lisbon’s steep terrain was a challenge to the transport of goods and people around the city. Thus, the city authorities decided to build several funiculars and elevators. The Santa Justa Lift, also known as Carmo Lift, connects the Baixa and Bairro Alto neighborhoods in downtown Lisbon. Opened in 1902, the Santa Justa Lift was highly innovative. Its cast iron structure decorated in a Neo-Gothic manner consists of a tower, observation deck, walkway, and a base.
Completed in 1931 the Eden Theater was Lisbon’s coolest cinema until 1989 when it was abandoned. Some of you may recall the theater from Wim Wenders’ 1991 movie ‘Until the End of the World’. Since 2001 it houses a five-star hotel. The main façade consists of a front marble wall, a back oval glass façade, and plants in between. Notice the stone frieze depicting stylized actors performing. Its interior was completely altered to accommodate the hotel.
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian
Probably the best museum in Portugal, the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum has one of the largest private art collections in the world. We loved the architecture, the art, and the garden. The main rectangular museum pavilion is made of monochromatic concrete and has two patios. Completed in 1957, it is probably the best example of Portuguese modernism.
Belem Cultural Center
Not everything cool in Lisbon is old! The Cultural Centre of Belém is Portugal’s largest cultural center. Completed in 1988 as the seat of Portugal’s presidency of the European Union, the massive building now hosts conferences, exhibitions, opera, ballet, and classical concerts. Though the building looks simple, take note that its complex structure adapts to the location. Its main façade facing Império Square is monumental and sleek. However, the interior is quite the opposite. The intersecting side streets and inner courtyards provide an intimate atmosphere.
Parque das Nações
The 1998 Lisbon Expo was a game changer for the Portuguese capital. Not only did it serve as the excuse to clear abandoned shipyards along the Tejo River, but it also brought new life to Lisbon’s periphery. Furthermore, it hosts one of my favorite contemporary open spaces in the world. The Parque das Nações is 50 hectares (120 acres) of wonderful parks interspersed by water fixtures, and world-class architecture, such as the Oriente Station, the Portuguese Pavilion and Vasco da Gama Tower. Don’t forget to take the cable car inside the park. You will be rewarded with splendid views.
Lisbon’s superb contemporary architecture has a new jewel. The Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology – MAAT is another example of the perfect mix of art, architecture, and landscaping. We are talking about an old power station (formerly the Museum of Electricity) and a new wing that stretches above Lisbon’s riverfront. The undulating shape of the new wing and its more than 15.000 white ceramic tiles are an obvious reference to the nearby Tejo River. Try to be there in the afternoon and go up to the roof for unbelievable views.
Lisbon’s unique architecture elements
According to some experts, architecture is the result of art and science working together to produce the quality spaces that surround us. In fact, architecture emerged as a response to the ever-present human need for shelter. Nevertheless, it evolved through the centuries into something much bigger. Today architecture shapes our surroundings, including entire towns and cities. To me, great architecture goes beyond fantastic landmarks. In that sense, Lisbon’s beauty relies on brilliant architecture elements such as parks, art districts, public transport, street art, and colorful ceramic tiles.
Parque Eduardo VII
Named after the British king Eduard II who visited Portugal in 1902, Parque Eduardo VII is Lisbon’s largest city park. The park stretches of a slope, with its center full of labyrinths, trees, bushes, and side areas. You can walk about for hours! Don’t forget to check the small botanical garden, Estufa Fria. Likewise, stop by the Portuguese Carlos Lopes pavilion built for the 1922 international exposition. Once again, try to go in the afternoon and end your walk at the observation desk for killer sunsets.
Urban district LxFactory
If you are into artsy former industrial areas, you’ll be happy to realize Lisbon has a few. Nested inside old manufacturing warehouses in lower Alcantara, the Urban district LxFactory occupies an area of over 23.000m2. The warehouses were revamped to accommodate offices, shops, restaurants, and exhibition spaces. The highlight of the complex is its lively open space, with narrow streets and little squares. Here you’ll find plenty of shops, food stalls, graffiti, and street art. There is even a cool library. As you can imagine, the place is a magnet for the young and creative. The Portuguese are handsome so take your time and wonder about people watching!
When we talk about beautiful metro stations around the world probably Moscow or Stockholm come to mind. The former is famous for its classic and Soviet-style stations, while the later for its cool cave stations. Nevertheless, Lisbon’s 46km long metro system has nothing to envy them. Colorful ceramic tiles decorate all of its 50 stations, sometimes in an impressive abstract way. Our favorites are Olaias, Bela Vista and Chelas stations along the red line. Another great station is Cais do Sodré on the green line.
Lisbon Street Art
Graffiti of all shapes and sizes populate Lisbon’s streets. Take your time and walk along the streets of Alfama or Bairro Alto in search of wonderful Street Art depicting stories related to art, history, pop culture, and even political messages. Though street art is practically everywhere, three areas stand out: the Lx Factory, walls along the Pátio de Dom Fradique in Alfama and three large buildings on Avenida Fontes Pereira de Melo (near Picoas metro station). Among the many talented artists, one caught our attention: Bordalo II. This guy creates animal murals using the trash we create to destroy nature. His work is both beautiful and powerful. Obrigado Bordalo II!
Ceramic tiles – azulejos
The first thing that caught my eye when I visited Lisbon in 2005 was the colorful ceramic tiles that adorn many buildings. In fact, the lovely azulejos cover anything from façades to staircases, fountains or public benches. The azulejos date back to the 13th Century when they were brought to Spain by the moors. They arrived in Portugal a bit later, in the 17th Century. While traditional tiles have floral or geometrical patterns, the modern ones are mostly monochromatic, ideal for larger compositions.
Where to Stay in Lisbon
Lisbon is a big city with plenty of beautiful architecture to discover, thus it’s essential to be well located. In the city center, you’ll be in the middle of the action, close to many sights. We stayed at the fabulous apart-hotel Aurea Once Upon House and enjoyed everything about it. If you want to feel Lisbon’s historical charm, stay in Alfama in the Hotel Convento do Salvador. If you prefer something a bit off the beaten track, yet close to the Gulbenkian Museum, the Parque Eduardo II, and cool street art stay at the Hotel Real Palacio. It’s a sophisticated 5-star hotel with fantastic amenities.
Finally, you mustn’t leave Lisbon without visiting Sintra and Cascais. In Sintra stay at the Casa da Pendôa. This beautiful old house has fantastic views and personalized service. In Cascais pamper yourself a bit and stay at the historical Palacio Estoril, just as royals and James Bond did. We spent a couple of days there and loved every minute of it. We got to enjoy one of Lisbon’s top architecture masterpieces from the inside. As you can imagine, the service is as classy and as Portuguese as it gets. Finally, the spa is, without a doubt, one of the best in Europe.