What To Know

Lisbon (PortugueseLisboa) is the capital of Portugal situated on seven hills at the wide mouth of the river Tagus (Tejo) where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. With half a million citizens in the city proper and 2.8 million in the Lisbon Region and a thriving mix of Portugal's rich history and vivid contemporary culture, Lisbon enchants travellers with its white bleached limestone buildings, intimate alleyways, and an easy going charm that makes it a popular year round destination.

The Lisbon Region comprises many other splendid tourist destinations such as the UNESCO World Heritage site of Sintra, the seaside resorts of EstorilCascais, the world class museums or Almada famous for its hilltop Cristo Rei statue, all of which are connected with Lisbon by excellent public transportation links.



Central Lisbon seen from a plane landing at Portela, looking south; the green strip is Parque Eduardo VII terminating at Praça Marquês de Pombal

Lisbon is built on seven hills, so getting around Lisbon can be a workout. Many slopes and few really flat areas is one of Lisbon's trademarks. This is also a city of enchanting contrasts: The elegant squares, broad avenues, monumental buildings and rectangular layout of the lower areas quickly gives way to the hilly, narrow, winding, unpredictable and cramped streets of districts such as Alfama and Bairro Alto. The elegant dining rooms and smart rooftop bars of expensive hotels seems like a different world compared to the excellent restaurants disguised behind an inconspicuous façade in a modest Bairro Alto street. Quality patisseries and restaurants thrive side by side with late night bars and noisy discos. The old, tiny squeaky trams (one of the city's trademarks) are no less of a contrast to the efficient metro network.

The Portuguese capital is often perceived as less frantic than other million cities, and traffic and barkers are less aggressive than in many other tourist destinations.



The Castle of São Jorge, constructed in the 10th century, crowns the historical Alfama district.

According to legend, Lisbon was founded by the mythical Greek hero Odysseus, during his travels home from Troy. However, most historians believe that the city was founded around 1200 BC by Phoenician settlers, utilizing the calm and fresh waters of Tagus river and the proximity to the sea. The Phoenecian name of the city is Alis-Ubo, meaning "safe harbour". Eventually it became part of the Carthaginian Empire. After the Punic Wars, it became the main trading hub of the Roman province Lusitania, under the name Felicitas Julia Olisipo, later Olisipona. During the decline and fall of the western Roman Empire, the Iberian peninsula was invaded by Vandal and Visigothic tribes.

In 711, Lisbon was captured by Muslim forces. During this period, the Castle of São Jorge was expanded. Much of the Moorish heritage is preserved in the nearby Alfama, the oldest standing district of the city. In 1147, a Crusader army en route to the Holy Land helped King Afonso I conquer Lisbon and return it to Christian rule. After the completion of the Portuguese Reconquista some hundred years later, Lisbon was made the capital of Portugal.

Golden Age

The Golden Age of Portugal, and consequentially Lisbon's history, started in the 15th century. In 1415, the young prince Henry "the Navigator" conquered Ceuta, thereby establishing the first European overseas colony. He later founded the Sagres school of navigation in the Algarve region and thereby sparked the age of discovery. During the reign of King Manuel I "the Fortunate" (1495–1521), Portuguese navigators found a way around the Cape of Good Hope, and Vasco da Gama eventually found the Cape Route to India, thereby ending the Venetian monopoly over European-Far Eastern trade. King Manuel gave his name to the "Manueline" architectural style, of which the Tower of Belém in western Lisbon is probably the most well-known example. On marrying princess Isabella of Aragon, Manuel I ordered the conversion or expulsion of the Jewish and Muslim populations. The Portuguese colonial empire grew steadily through the centuries, and eventually came to include the Azores and Madeira in the Atlantic; Brazil in South AmericaAngolaCape VerdeCeutaGuinea BissauIvory CoastMombasaMozambiqueSão Tomé e Príncipe and Zanzibar in AfricaCeylonEast TimorFloresFormosaGoaHormuzMacauMalacca and Moluccas in Asia. The Portuguese Oriental trade led to the establishment of the Japanese port city of Nagasaki in 1571.


With the loss of heirless young king Dom Sebastião in 1578, Portugal enters into a period of succession crisis. By 1580 the Portuguese nobility keen to avoid a civil war that would disrupt the empire, agreed to enter into an Iberian Union under king Phillip II of Spain, cousin of Dom Sebastião which becomes Phillip I of Portugal. Due to the Spanish disinterest in Portuguese empire matters and beligerance against the English, the union brings deep discontent within Portugal while the Windsor Treaty with England is suspended due to Spain's Crown commissioning of Portugal maritime assets and resources towards the Great Armada's failed invasion of England. The aftermath caused serious setbacks to Portugal's capacity of maintaing such a vast empire. By 1640 the restoration of Portugal soverenity is re-established and the marriage of king Charles II of England with Princess Catherine of Braganza, is celebrated as means of independence reassertion and surety.


Following the Great Earthquake, Marquis Pombal led the effort to redesign and rebuild the lower town in an organized fashion

The darkest known nature caused catastrophe in the history of Lisbon occurred on All Saints Day (November 1) 1755, when one of the most powerful earthquakes in history destroyed two thirds of the city. The earthquake was powerful enough to break windows as far away as London, and may have killed as many as a 100,000 people in the Lisbon area. The catastrophe led to disillusion with the optimism in contemporary enlightenment thought, inspiring the French philosopher Voltaire to write "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster" and Candide. However, the reconstruction of the city, organized by the Prime Minister Marquis of Pombal, became an expression of the enlightenment architectural ideal, with broad streets in rectangular street patterns. The reconstructed areas in Baixa are therefore sometimes called "Baixa Pombalina" and the new buildings were designed with an innovative built-in earthquake resistance framework system. Alfama, in the eastern part of the city, was the only part of the city centre which survived the destruction, and is consequentially the only area which has preserved its medieval irregular street pattern.

In the early 19th century after being invaded by France, Portugal fought in the Napoleonic Wars on the anti-Napoleonic coalition side. Although on the winning side of the war, the exiled king João VI and his government decided to set up permanent court in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1808. In 1822, declared independence from Portugal. A few years later, the sons of João VI vied to rule Portugal by hook or by crook, eventually going into a civil war between the two brothers, autocratic prince Miguel and his more liberal brother Pedro IV. Pedro IV won the war, but died only a few months after the victory, thereby leaving the throne to his teenage daughter Maria da Glória. During her reign, the nearby palaces in Sintra were constructed. During this era, fado music was developed in the Lisbon region.

1900 to today

In 1908 King Carlos I of Portugal and his heir, Luís Filipe, were assassinated by republicans on Praça do Comércio. The young prince Manuel was also wounded, but survived and assumed the throne. However, only two years later, in 1910, he was dethroned and exiled in a republican coup. In 1916 the Portuguese republic entered World War I on the Allied side. The Portuguese democracy didn't last long. In 1926 General Óscar Carmona seized power and imposed a dictatorship. He appointed Prof. António de Oliveira Salazar as finance minister who later became prime minister; he then implemented a corporatist governing style known as Estado Novo (New State), under which the state reorganized all aspects of life from an economic perspective while ignoring civil liberties. During World War II Portugal asserted a neutral position, but ceded the Azores to the Allied cause. After WWII Portugal, becomes a NATO founding member. During the Cold War, Portugal enjoys record levels of economic growth. In 1961 the Indian Union unilaterally annexes Goa and by 1960 the African colonies want independence but Salazar refuses their demands and plunges Portugal into lengthy anti independence wars while in metropolitan Portugal, civil discontent rises due to the suppression of democracy and civil liberties. State security apparatus PIDE/DGS, arrest, torture, exile and sometimes kill dissents and pro democracy activists. In the early hours of April 25th 1974, a military coup led by leftist junior army officers followed by massive civilian support on the streets of Lisbon, ousted the dictatorship government. Soon after the revolutionary period, Portugal became a democracy and independence was hastily and haphazardly granted to their overseas colonies. Approximately one million overseas, mostly destitute Portuguese, returned to Portugal and become known as retornados. Economically, the country faced ruin but international loans kept it afloat. The new "Constituição" enshrines democracy and everyone's human rights. By 1986 Portugal is accepted into the EEC now EU and gradually begins recovering. In 1998 Lisbon hosted the International World Fair, Expo 98. As part of the fair, the new "Parque das Nações" neighborhood in eastern Lisbon was built, while in the same year the Vasco da Gama Bridge across the Tagus, was inaugurated as the longest bridge in Europe and Lisbon native José Saramago wins the Nobel prize in literature.



Portugal may be a Southern European country, but Lisbon is a port on the Atlantic coast, so be prepared for wind and rain

Lisbon enjoys a Subtropical-Mediterranean climate, with mild winters and very warm summers. Strongly influenced by the Gulf Stream it is one of the mildest climates in Europe. Among all the metropolises in Europe, here are the warmest winters on the continent, with average temperatures above 15.2°C (59.4°F) during the day and 8.9°C (48.0°F) at night in the period from December to February. Snow and frost are nearly unknown. The typical summer's season lasts about 6 months, from May to October, with an average temperature of 25°C (77°F) during the day and 16.2°C (61.2°F) at night, although also in November, March and April sometimes there are temperature above 20°C (68.0°F) with an average temperature of 18.5°C (65°F) during the day and 11.2°C (52.2°F) at night. Rain occurs mainly in winter, the summer is very dry.

Lisbon is very close to the ocean and that brings windy and fast-changing weather, so you'd better bring a jacket or an umbrella with you, at least in winter, spring and autumn.


The city stretches along the northern bank of the river Tejo as it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. As the terrain rises north away from the water, steep streets and stairways form the old tangled neighbourhoods or give way to green parks in the western suburbs. Basic navigation is easy by learning the main axis from the Praça do Comércio (the waterfront) through Rossio (main square) and Avenida da Liberdade (main street) to Praça de Marquês de Pombal and Parque Eduardo VII on the top. Each neighbourhood (such as Alfama or Bairro Alto) is distinct and easy to recognize. The hilltop castle and the waterfront are clear reference points, and landmarks such as the Santa Justa elevator, the Rossio station façade, the massive Cathedral (Sé de Lisboa), the white dome of Santa Engrácia and Augusta street arch (Arco da rua Augusta) also add to the sense of direction. Also look out for the two huge bridges across the Tejo. Navigating the winding, hilly and narrow streets can be challenging however, only the most detailed map give the precise location.

It's often said that Lisbon lacks a defined "downtown", but tourists will find most of their points of interest in the relatively compact area centered around the vast Praça do Comércio, facing the river. This is the starting point of the pedestrianized grid of Baixa (lower town), which immediately borders other historic quarters of AlfamaChiado and Bairro Alto. Further northwest from Baixa stretches Avenida da Liberdade, a broad boulevard resplendent in leafy trees, chic hotels and upmarket shops, terminating at the circular Praça de Marquês de Pombal. The financial centre, however, is further removed (hence the notion of "no downtown") up north towards the hills, and not directly connected to the historic districts.

Other districts of interest to the tourists are generally those by the riverside - the historic Belém in the southwest, the modern Parque de Nações in the northeast and the gentrifying Alcântara by the Bridge of April 25.




Rossio square linking the Baixa to Avenida de Libertade

In December 2012, Lisbon was reorganised into five zones (zonas), which are further divided into 24 civil parishes (freguesias). While the zonas reflect the actual characteristics of each area well, which also aids orientation for the tourists, freguesias serve mostly administrative purposes and are of little interest to tourists. More important are the unofficial bairros (neighbourhoods), which lack administratively defined boundaries, but are entrenched in local tradition and referred to in most guidebooks and even official publications. The main characteristics of each zone and most prominent bairros are outlined below.

Centro Histórico

The historic centre of Lisbon is the river-front belt formed by the hills of Bairro Alto and Alfama and the flat area of Baixa between them. It contains the following bairros:

·       Baixa - this part of the city was completely rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake by the Marquês de Pombal. The planned layout, greatly different from what you will see in the more ancient neighbourhoods, is a testimony to the ideas of the Enlightenment.

·       Chiado - take a stroll along the historical streets of this elegant shopping district, stopping for a cup of coffee with the statue of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal's great Modernist poet.

·       Alfama - this neighbourhood still bears signs of the Moorish presence in the city, with the buildings very close to each other, and very irregular streets. It's very atmospheric and a great spot in which to wander around. Thanks to the firmer rock it was built upon, it was relatively spared during the Great Earthquake and therefore retains the charm of the winding alleys and azulejo-covered crumbling walls.

·       Bairro Alto - head uphill to Bairro Alto and give your legs a good workout, or take one of the elevadores (funiculars) for stunning views of the city and some wild partying in Lisbon's most popular nightclub district.

·       Principe Real - the trendy district with all the fancy shops is just a 5 minutes walk from Bairro Alto


The grand Praça do Marquês de Pombal is perhaps the most central place in Lisbon, where three major Avenidas meet.



The geographic centre of Lisbon is also its economic and civic centre, with the main shopping and leisure boulevard of Avenida da Libertade, the large parks, prominent museums, and modern office towers scattered across Avenidas Novas and the hills of Campolide.


Head to the east to Belem to better understand Lisbon's relationship with the Atlantic Ocean



Zona Ocidental, or the western zone, extends west of the historic centre along the riverside and encompasses the following bairros, which here actually coincide with official fregusias:

·       Alcântara - rapidly gentrifying former docks, dominated on the western end by the supports of the gigantic new bridge over the river

·       Ajuda - the hilltop district known for the royal Palácio Nacional da Ajuda and adjacent Jardim Botânico da Ajuda



Sourced from Wikivoyage. Text is available under the CC-by-SA 3.0 license.

What To See

View all places

What To Do

View all experiences

Where To Stay

View all accomodations

Other destinations you may like