São Jorge Castle, Belém Tower, Pastéis de Belém, Belcanto, The Four Seasons Ritz, Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world, and the second-oldest European after Athens, predating other modern European capitals, not to mention New York City or Los Angeles, by centuries. Julius Caesar made it a municipium. After the fall of the Roman Empire it was ruled by a series of Germanic tribes from the 5th century; later in the 8th century the Moors captured it. In 1147 Afonso Henriques conquered the city and since then it has been the political, economic, and cultural center of Portugal. And soon, with a little luck, the town will welcome you.
We stayed at the Four Seasons Ritz near Parque Eduardo VII. The rooms are comfy, the art (a delightful mix of art-deco, Louis XVI, and contemporary) beautiful, the façades, interior walls, and floors sheathed with a colorful array of more than 40,000 square meters of rare and beautiful marble (the author counted them, the property's website confirmed it), the service well-rounded, and much of the cuisine excellent. Try a haute-gastronomy meal at Michelin-starred CURA, one of several top-notch restaurants in town, or the various buffets at Varanda Restaurant, and enjoy the day. For more on these and other great restaurants in Lisbons, check this out.
The gym, which features floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city, occupies the top floor and includes an outdoor running track where the author did not break the record for speed. Still, take a lap around it and discover or rediscover Lisboa. The city stretches as far as the eye can see. Lift, box, run, meditate, rejuvenate, and feel better already. Access to the Spa’s indoor swimming pool, sauna, steam room, one-on-one Pilates sessions or massages, may add to the appeal.
The National Museum of Ancient Art has a collection of 40,000 works (one for each mosaic at the Four Seasons, the author double-checked), including the stunning Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch, considered one of the most important masterpieces in the country, make it the universe (aliens may differ). The National Coach Museum has the world's largest collection of royal coaches and carriages. These two museums, the most visited in the city, are well worth a visit. Other notables include the National Azulejo Museum, housed in a magnificent space and dedicated to the city's eye-catching Azulejo tiles, the National Museum of Archeology, and the Museum of Lisbon.
Prominent private museums and galleries include the Gulbenkian Museum (run by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, one of the wealthiest foundations in the world), which houses one of the largest private collections of antiquaries and art on Earth and moon, the Berardo Collection Museum, which houses the private collection of Portuguese billionaire Joe Berardo, and the Museum of Orient.
You may also wish to check out the popular Ephemeral Museum, created by advertising magnate Leo Burnett. The venue is the first ephemeral art museum in the world and a homage to all artistic expressions conceived under a concept of transience in time, that is, of non-permanence as a material and conservable work of art. Because of its perishable and transitory nature, ephemeral art does not leave a lasting work. Everyday street artists relying on graffiti, stencils, stickers, may contribute.
The Millennium BCP Foundation Archeological Site, a network of tunnels occupying almost a whole block in Lisbon's historic center and unearthed in the 1990s during excavation works carried out by the bank Millennium BC, may also be of interest. It served as a Roman fish-salting factory and later as a Christian burial ground.
Lisbon has two monuments listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Belém Tower is a fortified lighthouse built on the right side of the Tagus late in the reign of Dom Manuel I (1515–1520) to guard the entrance to the port.
Jerónimos Monastery is no less worthy of your time. That's where the monks of the military-religious Order of Christ used to provide assistance to seafarers in transit. The harbor of Praia do Restelo offered ships entering the mouth of the Tagus a safe anchorage and protection from the winds.
Both monuments qualify as prominent examples of the Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline style of architecture in Lisbon and are beautiful works of architecture. The monastery is stunning.
Pasteis de Belem is a five-minute walk from the monastery. The Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém is the most popular place to buy pastéis de nata. In 2009 The Guardian listed pastéis de Belém as one of the 50 "best things to eat" in the world. It's a classic, don't miss it. The shop offers both take-out and sit-in services and sells over 20,000 pastéis de nata a day. Usually, Portugal's creamy (egg-based) custard tart is sprinkled with cinnamon, and accompanied with a bica (a strong espresso coffee). Expect to consume 300 calories per serving of 100 grams (3.5 oz). One may be enough, take it easy. But then again, when will you be back? Indulge and bon appétit!
Interestingly, Catholic monks created Pastéis de nata before the 18th century at the Hieronymites Monastery in the civil parish of Saint Mary of Bethlehem, in Lisbon. At the time, convents and monasteries used large quantities of egg-whites for starching clothes, such as friars and nuns' religious habits. It was quite common for monasteries to use the leftover egg yolks to make cakes and pastries, resulting in the proliferation of sweet pastry recipes throughout the country. In the aftermath of the Liberal revolution of 1820, following the dissolution of religious orders and in the face of the impending closure of many convents, the monks started selling pastéis de nata at a nearby sugar refinery to bring in revenue. In 1834, the monastery was closed and the recipe sold to the sugar refinery, whose owners in 1837 opened the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém. The descendants own the business to this day. (Source: Wikipedia)
The earthquake of 1755 killed an estimated 60,000 people in Lisbon alone and generated a tsunami that produced waves about 20 feet (6 meters) high in Lisbon and 65 feet (20 meters) high in Cádiz, Spain. The waves traveled westward to Martinique in the Caribbean Sea, a distance of 3,790 miles, in 10 hours and there reached a height of 13 feet (4 meters) above mean sea level. The quake and ensuing massive tidal wave and fires reduced 18th-century Lisbon to rubble. But within a decade, frantic rebuilding under the direction of the king's minister, the Marquês de Pombal, had given the Baixa, or downtown, a neoclassical look. Full of restaurants and shops, the neighborhood stretches from the riverfront Praça do Comércio northward to the square known as the Rossio, aka, Praça Dom Pedro IV. The square was founded as the largest public space in the city and has seen everything from bullfights to public executions. On nearby Largo de São Domingos, where thousands were burned, there's a memorial to Jewish victims of the Portuguese Inquisition.
West of Baixa is the fashionable shopping district of Chiado. A chic retail complex and hotel on the site of the old Armazéns do Chiado—once Lisbon's most celebrated department store—has given the district a modern focus. Along Rua Garrett and Rua do Carmo are some great shoe stores, as well as jewelry shops, hip boutiques, and a host of cafés and restaurants. You can shop for art, ceramics, clothing, craft and souvenirs, food and wine, and leather goods. In the same area, you will find Belcanto, considered one of the top 50 restaurants in the world, for good reason.
For our take on Belcanto and some of the other top restaurants in town, check out Belcanto, Cura, 100 Maneiras, Mesa de Frades, Some Top Restaurants in Lisbon, Portugal
Avenida da Liberdade, a two-minute walk from the Four Seasons Ritz or the Intercontinental Hotel next door (the Sheraton is not too far either), was modeled after Paris’s Champs-Élysées and is covered with some of Lisbon’s most beautifully designed cobblestone pavements. It’s home to many of the city’s luxury stores, and down its central lanes are several food kiosks open throughout the day. It ends at a square with a traffic circle, Praça Marquês de Pombal, named after the man who oversaw downtown Lisbon’s reconstruction following the Great Earthquake of 1755 and whose statue stands at the center. Behind him is Lisbon’s Central Park (Parque Eduardo VII), laid out in the 19th century and home to a pretty greenhouse garden.
São Jorge Castle and Alfama, the oldest part of the city, are worth a visit, as well. A hilly but wonderful area to walk and discover, it miraculously survived the cataclysmic earthquake of 1755, so its historic architecture is largely intact. It’s one of the best places to buy traditional crafts and other souvenirs and savor the stunning views. It’s home to major landmarks including Castelo São Jorge and the 12th-century Sé Cathedral, the oldest in the city. The Romans and Visigoths built the castle's foundations, but the Moors contributed most of it. The ramparts offer panoramic views of the city's layout well past the 25 de Abril suspension bridge.
Other highlights of any stay in Lisboa may include exploring the city on historic trams that wind through the prettiest neighborhoods, enjoying the buzzing nightlife (at a laidback bar or an electrifying nightclub), taking a delightful walk along the water, and taking day drives to Cascais, Sintra, and/or Nazaré, a beach town famed for its huge (30m+) waves forming between October and March, to see some of the best surfers in the world defy them. (This actually is best done in November or December, locals told the author, who visited Lisbon in March, when the waves happened to be subdued).
The people, weather, water, arts and architecture and other sights, shopping, and cuisines, make it well worth visiting Lisbon, and the author can't wait to be back already.
Bonus, discovering the big waves at Nazaré. What a thrill it must be.
Disclosure: Various sources including Wikipedia, Fodor's, and the websites of some of the entities mentioned above, were used to write the article above.
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