Despite being almost 900 years old, the City of Seven Hills continues to build a cosmopolitan framework on top of layers of cultural heritage. The melancholic, UNESCO-listed Fado is just one tiny portion of its history.
Of all the best things to see on a trip to Lisbon, there are seven that will make the guidebooks but can often be overlooked if travellers are short of time. Each one of these represents a piece of Lisbon’s cultural identity and are worth prioritising during your time in one of the world’s oldest cities.
Casa Fernando Pessoa
The last official address of Modernist and Lisbon-born poet and writer, Fernando Pessoa, is a rare open window into his life and complex work.
Pessoa experts begin their guided tours at the ground floor and culminate in his bedroom on the first floor – long beyond the scheduled one hour.
For those with more time to explore beyond his ‘Book of Disquiet,’ spend some time browsing the onsite free-access library where you can leaf through pages of every published book by and about Fernando Pessoa.
Palácio da Ajuda
Lisbon was shaken by a violent earthquake and subsequent tsunami on November 1st 1755. Despite the destruction, the event propelled the Portuguese capital into a renovation of the downtown area.
In the ensuing redevelopment, the Royal Family relocated from Belém near the river, uphill and as far away from the Tagus as they could. After 40 years in a temporary location, construction began on the Palácio da Ajuda in 1795 but it was never completed.
Luckily for travellers the unfinished palace is still on show. Standing in the central courtyard, you can see the archways to the wing that was never built – and never will be. From 2020 onwards, that side of the building will be closed and repurposed to showcase the Portuguese Crown Jewels.
In the meantime, visit the Palace for a peek into how different generations of Portuguese royals lived.
Atelier-Museu Júlio Pomar
Until his passing in May 2018, Júlio Pomar never ceased to create, continually inspired by the work of younger artists.
His workshop and museum reflects his spirit. It begins with a bright building designed by renowned Portuguese architect Siza Viera and ends with a space he reserved to showcase other artists’ work in dialogue with his own pieces.
He’s frequently labelled as a Modernist, although his multifaceted career shows more a man using different art forms to express himself. The museum is tucked away in a side street of The Triangle neighbourhood, across the road from where the artist used to live.
Fundação Arpad Szenes – Vieira da Silva
The museum of the Arpad Szenes – Vieira da Silva foundation is tough to find when you’re looking for it and easy to miss if you’re not.
Although Vieira da Silva was based in Paris, she frequently returned to her home city. Set in the former Silk Fabrics Factory since 1994, the museum feels like a bespoke art gallery – with high ceilings and the exposed wood beams that first caught the artist’s eye.
Her own work and the work of her husband, Arpad Szenes, make up the permanent collection. Periodically, the museum showcases work of other artists with whom the founders were close friends or shared similar creative traits.
Museu do Teatro Romano
This museum was my first real-life contact with a Roman ruin, when I moved to Lisbon in 1997. Most reviewers will say that there isn’t much to see but I’d have to disagree. Seeing an excavation almost happening in real-time was a lot more than I could have hoped for. Twenty years later and it still fascinates me.
After a two-year renovation, the museum reopened with a more engaging collection. Nowadays, I particularly enjoy heading up to the mezzanine to see the intricate, colourful threads intertwining and revealing the variety of cultural influences on Lisbon over time.
The Romans ruins? Well, they’re actually just a small part of this mesmerising Roman theatre museum.
Sé de Lisboa
The Old Cathedral is one of the most photographed monuments in Lisbon. Visitors snap away on the way up to the Castle, on the way down from Alfama, or during that exact moment iconic tram 28 is passing in front of it. Quite the postcard-perfect picture, right?
Yet, if it weren’t for a guided walking tour I went on recently, I would never had bothered taking a closer look at the glorious architecture of the actual building.
The cathedral is a mix of styles due to the various add-ons and post-earthquake reconstructions over the years. Other decorative elements simply look out of place yet add to the overall charm of this fascinating building. The seashell carvings under a pillar on the right side, I was told, are what remains of the old Mosque. A Star of David to the right of the entrance, again looks disconnected from the building as a whole – I’m still trying to trace its origin.
Eating out at ‘Tascas’
Eating in Lisbon is more than just a basic need, it’s a cultural event. Sitting at the table to eat a proper meal is mandatory, even during a tight lunch break.
That’s where the term ‘tascas’ comes in. Meals at Lisbon’s small, family-run restaurants are affordable and well-portioned. Daily specials are usually served in a 3 for 1 package: a meal, a drink, and an espresso.
‘Tascas’ are loud and crowded and you might end up sharing the table with strangers, but service remains fast and efficient. Regular customers often skip the menu in favour of the daily specials – simply, hearty, homemade Portuguese cuisine. Tasca Zé dos Cornos is one of my favourite spots to enjoy this tradition, on the edge of one Mouraria – one of Lisbon’s most culturally diverse neighbourhoods.
Lisbon has a rich history dating back to before the Romans, and cultural traditions have certainly transposed over time. Yet, what remains is a wonderful celebration of hundreds of years of reinvention and progression. My favourite parts of Lisbon are its architectural delights such as Sé de Lisboa, its fantastic food scene, and world class art found in numerous museums and galleries – in particular the unique Ateller-Museu Júlio Pomar. It’s a city of magic and difference, which makes it a pretty special place to visit.