Travelling to Lisbon

The picturesque port town of Lisbon – Europe without the crazy – comes into its own.

Lisbon’s Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge was designed by the same engineer as the Golden Gate. Back: The BCBusiness Guide to World Travel

The picturesque port town of Lisbon – Europe without the crazy – comes into its own.

Lately the hills of Lisbon have become as metaphorical as they are scenic. Not so long ago, the Portuguese capital was a symbol of European renewal, a city reclaiming its past glory and waking up to a glorious future. More recently, Portugal has been included with the likes of Spain and Ireland in guessing games about the next big Greek-style economic collapse. Visitors can believe the first story and safely ignore the second. Few old-country destinations offer so much in a compact package, still relatively untrammeled by tourist mobs and at prices a fraction of those in Paris or Rome. Lisbon today is Europe without the crazy.

This Iberian port city has known ups and downs before. Once the centre of a great colonizing empire, Lisbon gradually found itself on the margins politically as well as geographically. For 36 years, Portugal was ruled by Antonio Salazar, the 20th century’s longest-serving Fascist leader. When Salazar died in 1970, it led to a political rebirth. An attempt to reclaim the nation’s great cultural and architectural legacy took hold in the early ’90s, and gradual economic revival raised Portuguese hopes in the nascent years of the European Union. 

Despite recent setbacks on that latter front, Lisbon remains a city of rare charm, both beautiful and accessible. Most of its neighbourhoods are easily reachable on foot, but you’ll still want to take transit – specifically Tram 28, a bump-and-grind ride uphill and down through the scenic heart of Lisbon. The city’s old cable cars will remind many of San Francisco (as will the Ponte 25 de Abril, a suspension bridge designed by the same engineer as the Golden Gate), though unlike Frisco’s popular attractions, the trams of Lisbon are not primarily for tourists. Other scaling options include funicular rail cars and, right in the centre of town, a giant, ornate elevator that dates back to the 19th century and seems lifted out of a Jules Verne story.

The large medieval Castle of St. George looms over the city, but it’s not necessary to climb that far to get some magnificent views. Lisbon is dotted with miradors, viewpoint plazas on the city’s hilltops, offering wide vistas of red-tiled roofs and the wide Tagus River that empties into the Atlantic. They make for great destinations or just way stations on your wandering from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, including the elegant old shopping district of Chiado, the hilly labyrinth of Bairro Alto, the old city lanes of Alfama, quaint lovely Graça to the east and the once-separate precinct of Belém to the west.

Unlike Lisbon’s other close-knit neighbourhoods, Belém requires a tram ticket, or perhaps a tour bus. They congregate in the big waterfront parking lot across from the huge Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (Hieronymites Monastery), a UNESCO world heritage site that seems to stretch forever. The monastery is an impressive sight. Still, it’s a safe bet that many of the tourists have come to visit a little pastry shop just a stone’s throw from the huge Gothic structure. The location is no accident. The little bakery, Antiga Confeita Ria de Belém –sometimes called simply Pastéis de Belém – owes its success to a secret recipe that came from the monastery itself. Pastéis de nata are custard tarts. Since the early 19th century, the monastery has raised money by selling them through this little shop. Nowadays custard tarts are sold all over town, but everyone knows that only one bakery makes the real thing because only one bakery knows the true recipe. Hence the tour buses. Let the shifting tides of economic fortune do their worst; Lisbon has some domestic industry that should stay hot.