Exploring Lisbon

| Wednesday, 05 Mar. 2008

What to see in the capital city of Portugal; shopping, history, beaches, amazing seafood

Some cities shield their souls from outsiders. Lisbon, with its warm natives, easy transport system and relaxed pace, does the opposite. The graceful metropolis situated at the mouth of the Tagus River invites visitors to idle in its cafes, stroll narrow winding medieval streets, and marvel at its past, even if you only have one day to explore.

Lisbon is a feast for the eyes, the stomach and the heart. At every turn, delight in the city's mix of azulejos (painted tiles), mosaic pavements, winding cobblestone lanes, tree-lined boulevards flanked with Art Nouveau buildings, and painterly vistas from strategic vantage points. A bounty of tempting pastelarias, tapas bars and restaurants provides fuel for hiking the hilly terrain, and Lisbon's rich light, mellifluous language and friendly ambiance make your heart sing.

Take a five-minute cab ride (about $5) from Cais da Rocha (the cruise terminal) to Belem, birthplace of Portugal's Age of Discoveries. Spend 90 minutes visiting the grandiose 16th-century Manueline-style Mosterior dos Jeronimos, a monastery entrusted to the Order of St. Jerome until 1834; and Torre de Belem, a fortress used as the starting point for navigators who set out to discover trade routes.

 

Belem, technically a suburb of Lisbon, has many museums, parks and gardens. When you only have limited time, it's not possible to see everything. Cross over to the riverfront via the pedestrian underpass and visit the Monument to the Discoveries, a caravel-shaped carved tribute built in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. From there, wend your way back to bustling Rua de Belem for a traditional pasteis de nata (custard-cream tartlet) and uma bica (a small cup of strong black coffee) at Antiga Casa dos Pasteis de Belem at 90 Rue de Belem. Then head one street over toward the river to Artesanato Portugues on Rua Vieira Portuense for traditional crafts including painted tiles, corn dolls and ceramics.

 

Before leaving Belem, stop at the National Coach Museum, a former riding school transformed into a final resting stop for Europe's finest collection of 17th to 19th-century coaches.

 

From Belem, catch the 15 Tram (1 Euro) for the 20-minute ride to Praca do Comercio, the arcaded square where Lisbon's downtown (Baixa) begins. A stroll along Rua Augusta, the main artery, ferries you past leather and clothing stores, crowded cafes, artists selling watercolor streetscapes and a relentless gaggle of sunglass hawkers. Continue north through Rossio, a large square that has been the city's staging ground for bullfights, festivals and burning heretics, but today is home to souvenir shops, jewelers and cafes.

 

For a temporary respite from the hustle-bustle, walk or hail a cab west to Jardim Botanico, a fairyland garden of lofty palms, exotic trees and dense shady paths. This 10-acre jewel is a good place to linger with a book and gather steam for more city pleasures.

From the garden, thread your way along Rua Escola Politecnica to Bairro Alto, an historic, picturesque enclave of funky shops and family-run tascas (inexpensive restaurants). Along the route, stop at Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara, a belvedere with a sweeping view of eastern Lisbon. The vista spans the battlements of the Castelo de Sao Jorge to the 18th-century Penha da Franca church. A tiled map on the balustrade helps you locate landmarks.

 

Then head south along Rua da Rosa and stop for lunch at Bota Alta at 37 Travessa da Queimada, Cevejaria Trindade at 20c Rua Nova da Trindade or Casanostra at 60 Travessa do Poco de Cidade. Seafood, naturally, is a good choice, in particular shellfish, dried cod and grilled sardines. A popular dish is porco a alentejana, a mixture of pork and clams. Try the buttery Serra cheese or a vanilla flavored rice pudding.

 

Although port is mostly an after-dinner drink, you may want to sample port while you're ashore. Choices range from vintage to full-bodied to aged tawny to less sweet. Ask your waiter for his recommendation.

 

After lunch, take a quick spin through Chiada, Lisbon's high-rent literary district adjacent to the eastern edge of Bairro Alto, but leave time to visit Alfama, the city's oldest nook. Wander along Rua Garrett, named for the author and poet Joao Almedia Garrett (1799-1854) and peruse the wonderful bookshops. Fernando Pessoa, Portugal's most famous poet, is seated at a table outside Cafe Brasileira, a 1920s literary watering hole, which is a good place for a beer or a cup of tea.

 

Devote the rest of the day to Alfama. To gain some perspective of its height, start at the observation terrace at Castelo de Sao Jorge and snake your way down through the district -- a pastiche of small shops, restaurants with a handful of tables, churches and stone houses adorned with laundry flapping from windows. At the bottom of the steep hill, make a final pit stop at Santos Oficios Artesanatos at 87 Rua da Madalena. The lovely shop carries woolens made from sheep, pottery from the Alentejo region, corn dolls from the Douro Litoral region and other locally made crafts.

Chances are you'll feel a tug in your gut when it's time to catch a cab back to the dock. Lisbon casts a quick spell, and its intoxicating grip makes it hard to leave. Lisbon befriends you -- and you will promise yourself a return visit.

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