The capital city of Portugal offers a cultural experience for ambitious travelers
November 21, 2011
LISBON, Portugal -- Lady Lisbon is the beautiful and captivating capital city of Portugal, filled with art and mystique. Its cobbled streets, tiled walls and staggered buildings are inimitable and full of gilded history.
It is easy to digest this eclectic scenery while strolling the winding walkways of each neighborhood. When a trolley passes, however, be prepared to suck in your gut as the sidewalks are unreasonably narrow -- but that's part of the city's charm.
In recent years, Lisbon has become a hodgepodge for contemporary culture, art and dining, and its tourism has grown exponentially. The bustle of the city is contrasted by the lazy beach towns shadowing the coast, making it a well-rounded trip for the no-holds-barred traveler.
Lisbon boasts quite a few must-sees, representing both past and present. The Belem Tower is a 16th century icon built in honor of explorer Vasco da Gama. The detailed stonework of the fortress depicts historical figures, exotic animals and religious relics reflecting the spirit of the 1500s.
The impressive Saint George's Castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge) can be seen from almost everywhere in the city. Perched on the highest hill in the Alfama area, it offers a history lesson, as well as the best views of the city.
Jeronimos Monastery provides insight of the Manuelinean architectural style. Its ornate archways and geometrical design almost overshadow the adornments within its interior. Intricately carved pillars, stained glass windows and the combination of religious figures and secular rulers laid to rest here fill the monumental 500-year-old monastery.
If museums and cultural sites are on your short list, consider purchasing a Lisboa Card (17 euros for 24 hours; 27 euros for 48 hours; and about 34 euros for 72 hours). This city pass offers free or discounted entrance to more than 80 museums, sights and tours to include public transportation within the city limits.
A lesson in port wine
Portugal is a country of wine, more specifically port wine and, like Champagne, refers specifically to the varieties produced near the town of Porto, which is about 300 kilometers north of Lisbon. Few venues are willing to give travelers a tutorial on the etiquette of the local's drink of choice -- and it may prove to be the best study session in which you can participate.
The Port Wine Institute is located in the Chiado neighborhood and offers 300 different glasses of wine from 1 euro to 25 euros for a full evening of tasting, all served by an informative English-speaking bartender. (Ask questions -- they know it all).
Start with the white and dry port and drink your way through spicy and ruby, finishing with the mellow and tawny. Additionally, small well-paired appetizers are available to stimulate and cleanse the palate.
Lisbon has no shortage of discos and nightclubs and a night out here can easily run into the next morning. Most venues cater to a late-night crowd, opening at midnight and rocking until 6 a.m. But the fist-pumping night life isn't the most prominent form of entertainment among the Portuguese. The quaint and cultural Fado houses release the talent and charm of old-time Portugal. These intimate venues, often standing room only, host folk and acoustic musicians playing and singing the traditional music of the country while eager listeners dine by candlelight.
For an authentic experience, ask a local for a recommendation, most are willing to share their culture with those who are interested in the "real deal."
Let there be surf
In addition to its traditional culture, Portugal teems with surf culture, attracting surfers and kite-boarders from around the world. Lisbon's outlying beach towns offer year-round waves and numerous schools to learn or polish your skills in the water. The ocean is chilly, even in the summer months, but wetsuits, along with all other equipment can easily be rented in most beach towns.
South of Lisbon, the Costa da Caparica beaches extend for over 30 kilometers. The stretch is broken up into several beaches, and the northern ones are always the most crowded due to their proximity to the city.
For a more intimate and local scene, head further south where numerous small beach towns line the coast. Stretching from Santo Amaro to Descida da Fonte de Telha and beyond, these towns share a local flare that can't be imitated in the crowded beaches just outside the city.
Don't drive in the city center of Lisbon -- just don't. It's jam-packed with cars (think around-the-clock rush hour) and navigating in the unfamiliar city will leave even the most timid drivers feeling like Evel Knievel. The heavy traffic of this capital city is best explored by foot, but an array of inexpensive public transportation also exists. One-day tourist passes allow each traveler to ride all public transportation to include metro, buses, trams and trolleys for a full 24-hour period. They can be purchased at any Metro station, in person or through the automated ticket kiosk.
Lisbon's metro stations are designated by large M signs, but can be hard to find. Grab a subway map at the airport at one of the many tourists' booths for easy access. Service runs daily from 6:30--1 a.m. and will take travelers to popular city destinations. As an added bonus, the impressive collection of painting, sculptures and decorative tiles handmade by famous Portuguese artists act as an underground art museum, giving that metro ticket more bang for the euro. Visit stations Baixa/Chiado, Cais do Sodre, Campo Grande and Marques de Pombal for the finest art.
To explore every nook and cranny of the city and the surrounding towns, take the bus. Do as much research in advance as the intricate system is not easily navigated or well-marked, but well worth the price and scenic ride. All public transportation information can be found at www.carris.pt.
A taxi is the quickest way to get from point A to B, and is the right price if traveling with a group of three or four. If traveling solo, or with a partner, it can be expensive, but may be worth the price for its obvious efficiency. Taxis are everywhere and easy to call as waving a cab remains a universal sign.
For inner-city movement hop on one of the many antique trolley cars -- with a slew of other tourists. The routes are well marked and allow citizens and visitors to move to and fro the sloping districts with ease. Be sure to take a ride on the famous Elevador da Bica, which plies the steep streets of the Bairro Alto.
Regardless of how you spend your time in Lisbon, the city oozes culture you can't help but soak in. And after one trip, Lisbon often beckons travelers back, longing for more. Listen to her, she knows best.