Castelo de São Jorge: An Iconic Landmark
The most recognized of Lisbon’s major attractions, St. George’s Castle commands a glorious position near Alfama on the crown of a hill overlooking the Portuguese capital.
This is one of Lisbon’s most popular tourist destinations. Its impressive battlements, engaging museum, and fascinating archaeological site combine to make the castle a rewarding experience for the whole family, and kids especially will love clambering over the sturdy walls and towers that encircle the grounds.
There’s been a stronghold on this site since the Iron Age, but it was a castle that the Moors defended against invading Christian forces before finally being overrun in 1147 by Afonso Henriques. The victorious king built the Aláçova Palace, home to subsequent monarchs until a new royal residence was constructed near the river. (The palace foundations form part of the excavations seen today.)
For the most part, visitors are happy enough to admire the fabulous views from the observation terrace that affords an uninterrupted panorama of the city, the River Tagus, and the distant Atlantic Ocean.
For a different perspective, there’s a Camera Obscura periscope, housed in one of the towers, which provides viewers with an unusual 360-degree projected view of the city below.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos: Built in Honor of Portugal’s Age of Discovery
A highlight of any Lisbon sightseeing tour, the 16th-century Jerónimos monastery is one of the great landmarks of Portugal, a stunning monument of immense historic and cultural significance deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage Site accolade.
Near the riverfront in Lisbon’s attractive Belém neighborhood, the monastery, also known as the Hieronymite convent, was commissioned by King Manuel I in 1501. Built to honor Vasco da Gama’s epic 1498 voyage to India, Jerónimos is as much a symbol of the wealth of the Age of Discovery as it is a house of worship (construction was mostly funded by trade in the spices brought back by da Gama).
Star features of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos include the fantastically elaborate south portal and the beautiful and serene Manueline cloister. Vasco da Gama’s tomb lies just inside the entrance to Santa Maria church.
Oceanário de Lisboa: A Modern Aquarium
The Lisbon Oceanarium is one of Europe’s finest aquariums, and one of the largest in the world. It’s also arguably the most family-orientated of all the city’s visitor attractions.
Designed by Peter Chermayeff and built for the Expo 98 World Exposition in an area now known as Parque das Nações, the oceanarium is home to a mind-boggling array of fish and marine animals, including dozens of different species of birds.
The ingenious layout represents four separate sea- and landscapes, effectively the habitats of the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Antarctic oceans. These surround an enormous central tank teeming with fish of all shapes and sizes including graceful rays, bulbous sunfish, and sleek sharks — kids’ favorite denizens of the deep.
The wraparound plexiglass allows a fantastic close-up view of this magical undersea world, but you should also seek out less obvious, but no less extraordinary species housed in smaller aquaria, such as the exquisitely delicate sea dragon and the comic clownfish.
The different ecosystems are a delight to explore. The Antarctic habitat, for example, showcases playful penguins, while a pair of spirited sea otters steals the show in the Pacific tank.
The Oceanário de Lisboa actively promotes conservation of the world’s oceans, and besides its envious reputation as one of Portugal’s most popular tourist attractions, has garnered global praise for its marine environmental awareness campaigns. But most of all, it’s seriously good fun.
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian: A Priceless Collection of Western and Eastern Art
A sparkling gem in Lisbon’s cultural crown, the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian is also one of the most celebrated museums in Europe. The facility, sited in a lush, verdant park in the north of the city, is named after Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, an Armenian oil magnate born in 1869, who bequeathed his vast private art collection to Portugal shortly before his death in 1955. Following the terms of this endowment a foundation was created, the centerpiece of which is this purpose-built arts complex.
Gulbenkian’s astonishing hoard features priceless artworks from around the world, which span 4000 years, from ancient Egyptian times to the late 20th century. With so many pieces from so many different periods in history to absorb, you can easily spend half a day browsing the exhibition galleries, but your patience will be rewarded with a mesmerizing journey through one of the finest collections of art on the continent.
Outstanding highlights in the Classical and Oriental Art galleries include 11 Roman medallions, part of a hoard unearthed in Abu Qir, in Egypt, struck to commemorate the Olympic games held in Macedonia in AD 242. The 17th-century Persian and Turkish carpets on display are some of the best preserved in the world and clear evidence of Gulbenkian’s keen interest in Islamic art.
. Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga: The National Museum of Ancient Art
The National Museum of Ancient Art is one of Lisbon’s great cultural attractions, and a “must see” on any tourist itinerary. This is Portugal’s national gallery and houses the largest collection of Portuguese 15th- and 16th-century paintings in the country. An equally impressive display of European, Oriental, and African art adds to the allure.
The museum is set west of the city center within a 17th-century palace, itself built over the remains of the Saint Albert Carmelite monastery, which was virtually destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. Fortunately, the chapel survived and is integrated into the building.
Set over three levels, the extensive permanent collection requires a good two hours of your time. Begin by exploring the aforementioned St. Albert Chapel on Level 1 and then meander through rooms exhibiting Portuguese applied art: furniture, tapestries, and textiles, among other objects, many reflecting the influences of Portugal’s colonial explorations. (Look out for the exquisite 17th-century casket from India crafted in silver gilt.)
Indeed, Level 1 houses some truly remarkable works. Notable pieces here include Hans Holbein the Elder’s Virgin and Child with Saints (1519) and the beautiful 1521 portrait of St. Jerome by Albrecht Dürer. The astonishing fantasy that is The Temptations of St. Anthony (c.1500) by Hieronymus Bosch is a highlight.
Jewelry, ceramics, gold, silverware, and art from the Portuguese Discoveries all hold the gaze on Level 2, but make a point of studying the fascinating 16th-century Japanese Namban screens that illustrate the Portuguese trading in Japan.
Level 3 is devoted to Portuguese painting and sculpture. The “don’t miss” treasure is the altarpiece that portrays the Panels of Saint Vincent, painted in 1470-80 by Nuno Gonçalves, the official artist for King D. Afonso V.
The gardens at the rear of the museum deserve a mention. Fine views of the river can be enjoyed from the terrace, and there’s a café where you can relax and contemplate the visual feast just encountered.
Museu do Oriente: Showcasing Portugal’s Presence in Asia and the Far East
West of the city center, near Alcântara, and housing a fabulous collection of oriental art built up by the influential Fundação Oriente, this engaging cultural facility chronicles Portugal’s presence in Asia and the Far East.
The permanent exhibition is set over two levels and grouped around several core areas of oriental art, particularly Chinese. Displayed under subdued lighting, but with individual pieces showcased under pinpoint spotlight, the collection takes you on an incredible journey that traces the cultural and trade links forged between Portugal and India, Japan, Myanmar, Macau, and Timor.
An enormous 17th-century teak door from India embellished with iron and bronze greets you on the First Floor, and opens the way into a hall that dazzles with artifacts such as the delicate Namban screen depicting Portuguese mariners disembarking from the Kurofune to be met by bemused Japanese locals.
Macau, a former Portuguese colony, is well represented by eye-catching pieces like the suspended boat-shaped cradle (c.1877) made from carved, lacquered, and golden oriental wood, cane, and iron.
Elsewhere, an impressive display of Chinese Ming and Qing-dynasty terra-cotta figurines is placed near a set of forbidding 17th-century Samurai chainmail armor.
But make a point of seeking out smaller pieces, items like the quirky collection of Chinese snuff boxes and the silver alloy bracelets from Timor.
The Second Floor houses the extensive Kwok Collection comprising more than 13,000 examples of figures and mythological beings cut from cowhide and parchment and used by puppeteers in shadow theaters from Turkey to Thailand.
The Orient Museum will absorb a couple of hours of your attention, but if you time a visit for mid-morning, you can pause for lunch in the 5th floor restaurant and relive the experience.
Torre de Belém: A Historic Tower
Arguably the most emblematic of all Lisbon’s historical monuments, the Belém Tower squats in the shallows near the mouth of the River Tagus as a symbol of Portugal’s extraordinary Age of Discovery during the 16th century.
Built in 1515-21 as a fortress and originally sited in the middle of the river (the watercourse has shifted over the years), the tower represents the highpoint of decorative Manueline architecture. Its ornate façade is adorned with fanciful maritime motifs — all twisted rope and armillary spheres carved out of stone.
Indeed, so valuable and iconic is this monument that it’s protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Set over various levels, the most interesting interior feature is the second-floor King’s Chamber, where the room opens onto a Renaissance loggia. The royal coat of arms of Manuel I is placed above the elegant arcades.
Climb the impossibly steep spiral staircase to the top-floor tower terrace, and you’re rewarded with a fine panorama of the waterfront esplanade and the river.
Museu Nacional do Azulejo: Dedicated to the Art of Decorative Tilework
Located somewhat off the tourist trail east of the city center, the National Tile Museum is worth seeking out for its unique collection of azulejos — decorative tiles — and the fabulously ornate Igreja Madre de Deus.
Housed within the church and cloisters of the Convento da Madre de Deus, this is the only museum in Portugal dedicated to this historic art form. The permanent exhibition traces the evolution of tile-making from Moorish days through Spanish influence and the emergence of Portugal’s own style.
Exhibited chronologically, some of the earliest example’s date from the 15th century and are displayed as complete panels of intricate patterns in vivid colors. Portuguese tile work features the more familiar blue and white azulejos, with one outstanding piece, a 36-meter tiled panorama of pre-earthquake Lisbon, one of the highlights of the collection.
Elevador de Santa Justa: An Antique Elevator with City Views
Looming somewhat incongruously over the rooftops of Lisbon’s Baixa (downtown) district is the odd-looking Santa Justa Lift, a neo-Gothic elevator and the most eccentric and novel means of public transport in the city.
At first glance, its riveted wrought-iron frame and battleship-grey paint conjure images of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and there is a connection: the French architect Raoul Mésnier du Ponsard, an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel, designed the elevator, which was inaugurated in 1901. It was built as a means of connecting the Baixa with the Largo do Carmo in the Bairro Alto neighborhood, a trendy area of the city peppered with expensive shops, Fado houses, and small restaurants.
Today, it is curious tourists rather than the commuting public who make the 32-meter jaunt to the top, traveling in wood-paneled cabins that still feature the original polished brass instruments. The cabins creak their way to a platform set just below the top terrace. From here, passengers can either exit and walk across a bridge into Bairro Alto or opt to climb the spiral staircase that leads to the upper terrace.
The views from the top are superb and take in a busy urban canvas of pedestrianized streets, picturesque squares, and the omnipresent castle and River Tagus. You can also enjoy a wonderful perspective of the nearby Igreja do Carmo. Expect large queues throughout the summer season.
Another unique form of transport in Lisbon is the Elevador da Bica, a funicular railroad that was constructed by Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard and opened to the public in 1892. Today, it still rises above the steep Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo and whisks passengers up to a panoramic viewpoint. The lower station of this funicular railroad is almost hidden behind a facade on the Rua de S. Paulo with the inscription “Ascensor da Bica” (no. 234).
While here, it’s worth exploring this peaceful little quarter known as Bica, which runs down from the Calçada do Combro/Rua do Loreto to the Tagus. Only a few cars journey here due to its sloping topography, narrow streets, and densely packed buildings.
Sé: Lisbon’s Imposing Cathedral
In the city’s Castelo district near the ancient Alfama neighborhood, Lisbon’s fortified Romanesque cathedral — the Sé — has undergone several design makeovers since the original structure was consecrated in 1150. A series of earthquakes culminating in the devastating 1755 tremor completely destroyed that which stood in the 12th century.
What you see today is a blend of architectural styles, the standout features being the twin castellated bell towers that embellish the downtown skyline — particularly evocative in the late afternoon when a setting sun burnishes the brickwork with a golden veneer.
Inside, a resplendent rose window helps illuminate a rather gloomy interior, and you’re likely to head straight for the treasury where the cathedral’s most valuable artifacts are on display, items that include silverware made up of chalices and reliquaries, intricately embroidered vestments, statuary, and a number of rare illustrated manuscripts.
It’s also worth lingering in the Gothic cloister, not so much for its series of chapels (including one that retains its 13th-century wrought-iron gate), but for the fact that on-site excavations have revealed the foundations of Roman and Moorish dwellings (the cathedral was built over the ruins of a mosque) and the archaeological dig is a worthwhile visitor attraction in its own right.