LISBON, THE CITY OF EXPLORERS, Bahar Sinem Özkesici Ünal | 05.06.2014

Portugal has always been on our destination list, but we continuously postponed our journey due to complicated connecting flights. As soon as Turkish Airlines announced they were starting direct flights to Lisbon, we started making plans for our trip to the city we have been wanting to visit for so long. I can honestly say that we have never had this much fun in a European city.

I have always felt connected to Mediterranean and Latin culture, and the countries belonging to these cultures have always held their own special place in my heart. Portugal became one of them right away. Portugal is a very cute European country that bundles you up like one of its own. The cultural resemblance to Spain, the spit and sawdust ambiances, the warm climate and locals all come together to make you surrender to their embrace.

Though today it is in the middle of economic crises, in the 16th century, with the most powerful armada, many famous explorers and lots of colonies, it used to be one of the most powerful kingdoms of Europe. When you wander around the city, the historical remains make it very easy to get a sense of grander times.

Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal since 1260, was established around 1200 BC by the Romans at the point where the Tagus River meets the Atlantic Ocean. Phoenician, Carthaginian, Greek, Roman, Visigoth and Arabian civilizations came and went, leaving a very rich and a rooted heritage in Lisbon. Today, the flamboyance of the houses decorated with ceramics, the dynamic live style, and the very friendly and lively locals make Lisbon one of the most vigorous and colorful cities of Europe.

Lisbon, typographically, very much resembles Istanbul. Just like Istanbul, it was established on seven hills and is full of small streets running up and down the hills.

For transportation within the city, trams are used, just like the historical tram on Istiklâl Avenue. There are still yellow and red tram lines regularly working in every district of the city. The narrow streets, the laundry hanging on balconies and from windows, the spit and the sawdust restaurants resembling our little cheap restaurants where tradesmen often eat, the melancholic local music, Fado, everything, everything will remind you of Istanbul.

The Gulf Stream makes Portugal the warmest country in Europe. It has a subtropical Mediterranean climate. Assuming it would be very hot in summer, we planned our vacation for late autumn, and went for week in November. During the day, the temperature was 25 C°, at night it was around 20 C°. It was neither too hot nor too cold, just perfect for strolling around and sightseeing.

You can get from the airport directly to the city center by subway, getting around the city once you arrive is also easy. Of course, you always have options like cabs and shuttles, but within the city borders I recommend getting daily passes to travel by subway, tram, ferry and train. My favorite forms of transport were the nostalgic funicular and the good old tram; I advise using these as much as you can.

We had made a very good decision by choosing a hotel by Rossio Square; it was very close to the main districts we planned to visit, and strolling around during the day and night was very easy. I highly recommend staying in this area.

Lisbon is composed of three districts: Baixa, Bairro Alto and Alfama.

Baixa district is the center of the city; you will also find Rossio Square here. This district never sleeps, and with many historical places, restaurants, cafes, malls and entertainment venues gathered here, don’t be surprised to find the district active 24/7. It was a bit of a shock to hear that the colorful Rossio Square used to be the place where executions and bullfights were held. Don't hesitate to try the typical local restaurants, despite the spit and sawdust style, you'll find very delicious stuff there.

On the way to the seaside there's a long, wide pedestrian zone with each side of the street full of stores and packed with tourists. It resembles Istiklâl Avenue very much, and leads to Rua Augusta. By the way, don't forget to buy salted roasted chestnuts from the peddlers. At the end of the road, you pass through a big historical gate which leads to the bay area, here you will be welcomed by the huge Commerce Square. The Square is also known as Palace Square. It has historical value for the Portuguese as the location of the royal palace. Unfortunately the palace was destroyed in 1755 by the great earthquake which caused huge amounts of damage across the whole city. The square has since been rebuilt from the remains.

On the bay onto the Tagus River, not the ocean. Lisbon is located on one of the branches of the river which connects to the ocean. When you leave Lisbon, you can also reach the ocean easily.

Wandering around the historical streets and checking out the windows of the boutiques in Baixa district, we came across the Santa Husta Lift, and were fascinated by its elegant iron beauty and Gothic style. The lift was designed by Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard, a student of Gustave Eiffel (the architect who designed the Eiffel Tower), to connect Baixo with Bairro Alto District in the 1900's. The lift is a tourist attraction and there is always a long queue in front of it.

When we went up to Bairro Alto district by the lift, we were greeted by a magnificent view of Lisbon. We could see the narrow alleys and the district reaching out to the bay from the castle of Sao Jorge on the hill across from us.

Because of the restaurants and the entertainment centers, this district comes alive at night. I strongly advise you have a dinner at one of the restaurants with great views, followed by a coffee at Kafe Brazil, where there is a statue of the famous Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. The writer used to spend most of his time in this cafe. You can reach Bairro Alto district by climbing the stairs from Baixa District.

On the stairs there are lots of restaurants jammed to the rafters with customers. It probably goes without saying that the Trindade Theater, established in 1867, is also in this district.

Alfama district is just behind the Castle of Jorge which is situated on the hill just across from Bairro Alto district. This is the oldest district of the town and Fado, the local music genre of Portugal, was born here. There are lots of places with live music, where you can listen fado; they are called “Fado Taverns.” The word Fado comes from fate and destiny. It's a form of music characterized by the mournful, longing and happy tunes and lyrics of Portuguese women waiting for their husbands who would go sailing for months at a time. The origins of Fado can be traced back to the early 19th century, and are often sung by Fadistas, women singers wearing shawls around their shoulders and accompanied by guitar players. Each Fadista sings three songs and they don't use microphones. One of the best and most well-known Fado taverns is Senhor Vinho. The narrow alleys with laundry hung from the apartment windows makes the feeling of antiquity more distinct in Alfama District.

To get to the top of the district, the Castle of Sao Jorge, you can climb up the narrow streets with the tourists groups and then catch a tram.

The castle is presumed to have been built by Iberian and Celtic tribes in the 6th century BC. It has hosted Moorish kings and the Portuguese Empire. Checking out the best view of the city from up here can make you nauseous, but the scenery is magnificent. Be on your guard for pickpockets and the thieves in this district, especially at night. If you go back down the street easily return to Baixa district.

Around Lisbon:

Belem is the municipality of Lisbon, a historical district and a must see. You can get to this district by the trams located from just a little ahead of Commerce Square. When you arrive in Belem the first thing you'll see is a long queue in front of a patisserie. This is because the patisserie is the Pasteis de Belem which has been baking the famous Tarts of Belem since 1837. The Tart of Belem is a kind of spiraled up French puff pastry forming a nest full of custard. The process of making the tarts takes two days. They are usually finished with a sprinkle of castor sugar or cinnamon. We liked the one with cinnamon; don't come back without trying one.

After eating our pastries we continued on our way until we reached a structure resembling a solemn palace: The Jeronimo Monastery which survived the earthquake of 1755. The monastery was built to honor the discovery of India and the return of Vasco de Gama. The graves of Vasco de Gama and the Portuguese kings are also inside this monastery.

If you leave the monastery and cross the street to reach to the bay, you'll see the famous Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos), which has become the symbol of the city. It was conceived in 1939, by the Portuguese architect José Ângelo Cottinelli Telmo, and the sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida, for the Portuguese World Fair opening in June 1940 as a monument to honor the Portuguese Age of discovery during the 15th and the 16th centuries. The 52 meter high concrete prow of a ship leaving the harbor has the figures of 30 famous monarchs, explorers and scientists like Prince Henry, Vasco de Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Pedro Álvares Cabral, and Bartolomeu Dias.

If you proceed along the bay, you'll see the Belem Tower. It's a fortified tower located in the mouth of Lisbon Harbor. It was built in 1515 to protect the city. The tower is also known as the spot where the explorer ships left the city during the age of discovery. It has also been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Side.

Sintra: When you visit Lisbon, spare a day to visit this charming town. It takes around 40 minutes to get there from the train station at Rossio Square, and there is a train every half hour. Sintra is located at the foot of the Sintra Mountains, inland from Lisbon. It's an old, touristic town, well groomed and beautiful with roots going back to 1154.

After the old city and the Sintra National Palace (Palacio National) in the city center, you should definitely try to visit the Pena National Palace at the top of the hill. You can reach the palace by shuttle departing from the city center, don't even consider going there on foot unless you are up for quite a hike. The colorful towers of the palace give it a look straight out of a fairy tale. It's also a UNESCO listed heritage sites. If you have the time. It is possible to drop by the Castle of the Moors on the way up to Pena.

If you want to spend some time at one of the ocran beaches while you are in Lisbon, I can recommend two coastal towns, Estoril and Cascais. You can easily get there, from either Lisbon or Sintra, by train or bus. Don't miss the opportunity to have a delicious seafood lunch at one of the restaurants on the bay with ocean views, or to swim in the ocean and enjoy the sandy beaches.

You can reach the westernmost point of mainland Portugal and continental Europe, the Cabo da Roca from Cascais by shuttles, and get a certificate, for 10 Eur.

To see the modern side of Lisbon, you should visit Estaçao do Oriente, which is one of the subway stations on the way to the airport. This architectural masterpiece with pillars like palm trees was designed by the grand architect Calatrava. After passing through the mall just across from the station, you can reach the Expo District on the bay, and see the park and the modern architectural pieces designed for the Expo '98 World Fair.

If you spare a week to Lisbon, you'll have a chance to visit all the places that I mentioned. above and it will be a very enjoyable holiday that you can hardly forget. 

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