Home Videos Spirit of the city: Lisbon

    Spirit of the city: Lisbon

    What to see

    Belém Tower

    Belém Tower (Torre de Belém) was designed by Francisco de Arruda in 1515 to protect the mouth of the Tagus. The architecture of the tower is in the Manuelin style, a flamboyant extension of Gothic design, and boasts a remarkable mix of exterior decoration. It was commissioned by King Manuel I, and for a time was used as shelter by captains and crews before they headed off on expeditions to the coasts of Guinea. The tower gets incredibly busy at weekends, so be sure to visit during the week if you don’t like crowds. Don’t let the long spiral staircase inside put you off when you are there though, because at the top, there are views which words simply can’t describe.

    Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

    The Calouste Gulbenkia Museum (Fundaçao Calouste Gulbenkian) is run by a private foundation, and its collection contains pieces belonging to many different cultures. It holds pieces from Persian, Ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Armenian and Muslim cultures, and was bought from the Istanbul-born Calouste Gulbenkian, an Ottoman citizen of Armenian descent. The collection which Gulbenkian amassed during his lifetime is the core of the museum exhibits, and it also contains paintings by the “Old Masters” of Europe. World-famous names like Manet, Monet, Renoir, Rembrandt and Van Dyck all have works among the 6000-piece collection, which makes the museum one of the top places to visit in Lisbon.

    Jerónimos Monastery

    The design of Jerónimos Monastery (Mosterio dos Jeronimos), built in 1502 in memory of the explorer Vasco de Gama whom King Manuel I sent to India in search of spices, was undertaken by one of the era’s greatest architects, Diogo de Boitaca. Interestingly though, between 1833 and 1940 the building was used as a religious school and an orphanage. Over time, the monastery also came to be a monument for all the country’s explores, while its cemetery is the final resting place of many famous names, like Vasco de Gama himself and the 16th-century poet Luís Vaz de Camoes. The monastery is a symbol of the Portuguese Renaissance, and the reliefs around the north and south entrances are incredibly impressive, as is the interior, particularly the ceilings of the main hall.

    National Museum of Ancient Art

    The National Museum of Ancient Art (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga) is a spectacular museum set in a wonderful palace which has been standing since the 17th century. The collection includes paintings by Portuguese and other European artists, as well as ceramics, porcelain, gold, silver, furniture and glass. The museum also contains pieces taken from the lands discovered by Portuguese explorers. Just some of the collection’s must-sees include Portuguese palace painter Nuno Gonçalves’ St. Vincent Panels, Albrecht Dürer’s St. Jerome and Lucas Cranach’s Hunting Near Hartenfels Castle.

    Águas Livres Aqueduct

    The Águas Livres Aqueduct (Aqueduto das Aguas Livres) extends a full 18 km from Lisbon to Caneças, and is made up of 109 arches. The size and scale of the aqueduct is incredible, considering it was the result of 18th-century engineering technology. It was built on the orders of the 24th King of Portugal, Dom Joao V in 1728, and was designed by Italian architect Antonio Canevari. However the aqueduct took an incredible 107 years to complete, and wasn’t finished until 1835. But perhaps all that time was worth it, because the structure managed to withstand the effects of one of the world’s most destructive earthquakes, the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Unfortunately the aqueduct gained infamy for being a crime scene of the Portuguese serial killer Diogo Alves.


    With a history of settlement dating back to the 5th century, a wall built by the first inhabitants of Alfama, the Visigoths, can still be seen today. However it was the Maghreb that gave the area its shape and atmosphere. It was an area for the upper strands of society until 1755, when people of lower classes settled here after the devastation caused by the Lisbon Earthquake. The streets of Alfama look more like they belong in the countryside rather than the center of Lisbon, and as you explore them, you’ll see women cleaning fish caught from the Tagus in front of their traditional stone houses. Be sure to wear sensible shoes though, because the streets can be quite steeply sloped. If you visit Alfama in June, you’ll be able to experience the color and excitement of the Festas dos Santos Populares festival.   

    Praça do Comercio

    Praça do Comercio extends to the bank of the River Tagus, and because it where seafarers would enter the city, it’s also been known as the Gate of Lisbon. Before the earthquake of 1755, it was the site of the royal palace Palácio da Ribeira, and it’s for that reason it’s still referred to as Palace Square. In the middle of the square stands a statue of King Jose I, created by the sculptor Machado de Castro in 1775. The monumental arches which join the square to the Rua Agusta are an excellent place to start your exploration of the city.

    What to eat

    Pasteis de nata

    The origins of pasteis de nata are believed to have come from the Jerónimos Monastery in the city. The monastery would consume huge numbers of eggs, using the whites to starch the monks’ habits. The leftover yolks were then put to good use as the monks came up with all kinds of delicious cakes and creamy sweets. Monks who had fallen on hard times at the beginning of the 19th-century revolution began selling these creamy cakes. Soon they came to be known as pasteis de nata or even pasteis de belém. After selling the recipe to a sugar refinery 1837, the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém was built and introduced the sweet to the entire city. The pâtisserie is still there today and is a great place to enjoy one of these cakes along with a coffee.


    Lisbon is positioned right were the River Tagus meets the Atlantic Ocean, and so seafood plays a major role in the city’s cuisine – cod holds a special place in its culinary tradition. It’s the main ingredient of the national dish, Bacalhau. With salted cod being the main ingredient, there are about 365 different ways to prepare Bacalhau, and 25 different ways to serve it. “Bacalhau a bras” is one of the most popular varieties and you’ll find it being served all over Lisbon. This recipe includes cod, scrambles eggs, potatoes, rice, parsley and onion, and is served along with black olives.