Although humans have occupied the Lisbon area for at least 10,000 years, the Phoenicians originally colonized it about 2,700 years ago as a trading port. This makes it one of the oldest European cities. It was then taken over by the Celts, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, and a series of kings. After exiting a relationship with Spain, Lisbon experienced a failed attempt at democracy (45 governments over 50 years) and 42 years of dictatorship (by Antonio Salazar). It did not become a democracy until 1974.
Lisbon’s Prosperous Years
Despite its history of foreign control and dictatorships, Portugal and Lisbon enjoyed numerous prosperous decades. It fared well under the Moors.
However, its greatest prosperity came during the Golden Age—the Age of Discovery from the mid-1490s to the early 1540s when Portugal was the world’s leading seafaring power. It effectively held a century-long monopoly on the spice and sugar trade with India, captured the gold and other mineral wealth of Brazil, and controlled colonies from Eastern Africa (Angola, Mozambique, etc.) to Brazil and Macau.
Even during World War II, Portugal prospered by remaining neutral and by selling goods (especially tungsten, which was used in shell casings) to the highest bidder.
Earthquakes Changes Everything
All was going too well for Lisbon. In 1755, it suffered a roughly 9.0 earthquake. Churches that were filled during one of the most important religious days of the year collapsed. Lisboans who survived collapsed buildings then faced a 20-meter tsunami. If that wasn’t enough, a devastating five-day fire followed. By the end of the devastation, 85% of the city lay in ruins and 80,000 to 90,000 people (out of a total of about 200,000) died. It was followed by a year in which the city experienced about 500 aftershocks of 3.0 or greater.
Needing to rebuild quickly after the earthquake, the city erected buildings that were plain looking but functional. To beautify the area, the city paved its sidewalks and plazas with lovely (although slippery when wet) mosaic patterns of small (typically from one to four square inches), smooth hand-cut and laid white stone, glass and terracotta tiles. Although the work involved in laying and repairing these lovely monotone stretches is intimidating enough, add to this the special treatment given to prominent squares and sidewalks in upscale (especially Chiado) shopping streets. These sidewalks are adorned with a wide range of geometric designs which are created with black tiles within the white backgrounds. While most of these designs are relatively straightforward, others can be quite intricate.
Lisbon’s Diverse Neighborhoods
It was great irony that taxed people’s faith in God and King when the hard-working, religious parts of the city experienced the worse damage during the earthquake. Yet the Red light district (Alfama), which lays on another geologic plate, escaped with little damage. As a result, different sections of the city have very different histories and very different characters.
Lisbon’s central business district, Baixa, is nestled between the river and two hills: Alfama on the east and Barrio Alta on the west. After the earthquake totally devastated the area, the city was rebuilt in a grid.
Baixa’s wide avenues, large squares are largely flank by neo-Classical buildings, and churches. See more here.
Alfama is Lisbon’s oldest and first settled neighborhoods. It is certainly the most atmospheric of the city’s neighborhood with its warren of narrow, winding streets and alleys, postage stamp-sized parks, and small homes–some of which date from Moorish times. The area is primarily the home to fishermen and laborers.
Alfama was also the birthplace of Fado, the sorrowful music that still emanates from the doors and windows of many of the neighborhood’s many bars and fado clubs every evening.
Click here for more of what to see in the neighborhood.
The Belem neighborhood is known for its seafood restaurants and colorful houses. Although it is about 10 km from Baixa, it is easily accessed by a bus and is well worth the trip.
Showcasing Lisbon’s Age of Discovery in Belem
Belem was the headquarters of Portugal’s Age of Discovery. The caravels set out and returned here on their voyages. Manuel I spent many of the profits that he earned in creating Manueline-style monuments in the area. The neighborhood also has a palace, a monastery, a tower and a homage to the Age of Discovery.
The neighborhood has some lovely tropical and an Italian botanical gardens, a large concentration of museums and two large art museums. In short, you can easily spend a day here exploring.
Click here for more on what to see and do in Belem.
Where to Eat in Lisbon
We cannot claim to have eaten in a lot of places in Lisbon, but when we travel we try to find good food that represents local cuisine. Here are our reviews on some of the places where we ate.