Lisbon has many diverse neighborhoods that are filled with places to explore. Lisbon’s central business district, Baixa, is one area that is not to be missed.
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. Today the central city’s wide avenues and large squares are largely flank by neo-Classical buildings.
Baixa is also home to a number of the city’s more interesting and historic public plazas.
Praça do Comércio (Commercial Plaza)
This huge square is along the river and is surrounded by large yellow administrative buildings that used to be part of the Royal Palace complex. The Arco da Rua Augusta is a triumphal arch at the head of the plaza. Construction was started shortly after the earthquake to celebrate the city’s spirit and to commemorate a few of the city’s citizens. Yet it took nearly a century to complete it. It now serves as a ceremonial entrance into the downtown area. At the Plaza’s center is an equestrian statue of King Jose I. During the city’s Golden Age, the plaza displayed many of the treasures the city’s fleet brought from India and across the Far East.
Praça dos Restauradores
This public square is marked by a large obelisk amongst 17th century architecture and art deco buildings. It commemorates those who fought in the 1640 War of Restoration in which Portugal won its independence from Spain.
The large, popular square is in the upscale Chiado section of Baixo. It has a statue surrounded by two water fountains and is faced by the National Theater. The lovely 19th-century Neo-Manueline-style building is named after the former, architecture-loving King Manuel 1. It blends multiple European styles with Moorish Arches.
Praça da Figueira
The area originally was the city’s primary marketplace. Today it is a transit hub for buses, trolleys, and streetcars.
Two especially important avenues connect these squares.
The lively wide, mosaic-paved pedestrian street in Chiado is lined with cafes and stores.
Avenida da Liberdade
The grand, tree-lined boulevard is modeled on Paris’ Champs-Elysees. It is lined by large commercial buildings and mansions, many of which now house luxury stores on their ground floors.
Although Baixa doesn’t have many buildings of particular architectural or historic note, it does have some interesting structures:
Rossio Station is a 19th-century Neo-Manueline-style building that is named after the former architecture-loving King Manuel 1. It blends multiple European styles with Moorish Arches.
Elavador de Santa Justa is an elaborate 1902 iron and filigree structure with wood-paneled cabins and brass fittings that was built in the early 20th century (by an apprentice to Gustave Eiffel) to ease the uphill commute from Barrio Alta to Baixo. The platform at the top provides a great panoramic view over the city. It is easy to walk the streets to the top and avoid the long wait (an hour when we were there) to ride the elevator.
Teatro Dona Maria II is an 1840’s Neo-Classical building.
Then there are the neighborhood’s churches. Don’t be fooled by their unadorned exterior. The insides of many are beautiful and deserve to be entered. Some of them have played important (albeit not always laudable) roles in the city’s history. These include:
Built in the 13th century, this rather plain church is known primarily for its role in sparking the Lisbon Massacre in 1506 in the relatively early days of the Spanish Inquisition and when Lisbon was suffering from both a drought and the plague. While most priests attributed these natural disasters to divine retribution, this church’s priest blamed the Jews. The congregation turned on those of its New Christian members. This is the name for Jews who recently converted to Christianity under pressure from the Inquisition. They killed them before spilling into the square to kill other suspected Jews. The violence spread through the city killing between 2,000 and 4,000 people over three days. The church is located across the street from the National Theater which, in the 16th century, served as the headquarters for the Inquisition in Portugal.
The 15th century anniversary church is located in Chiado, at the top of the Santa Justa lift. The church was packed the Sunday morning when the 8.7 earthquake of 1755 struck the city. While its walls stood, the roof and windows collapsed, killing dozens of people.
While Baixo is generally one of the city’s more upscale business, shopping and residential areas, it also has two primary entertainment districts that are largely empty during the days but packed at night. These are:
Baixa Alta is reached by stairways, steep streets or at the top of the Santa Justa Elevator, Baixo Alta is a low-rent section squeezed between two of the central city’s most expensive neighborhoods. It is home to more than 300 bars and dozens of eateries ranging from cheap sandwich shops to Michelin-rated restaurants. Among the more interesting of the bars is Arroz, which offers a free drink to any woman who donates a bra to a collection that hangs from the ceiling and the balcony.
The Pink Street, painted in reference to their history of being the center of Lisbon’s Red Light District. The streets were rebuilt and painted in 2011. Today the area is lined with dozens of bars, restaurants and shops and is one of the city’s most popular entertainment districts.