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Lisbon, Europe's westernmost capital and Portugal's cultural hub, lies on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Tagus River. The city is a delightful mix of must-see museums, castles and cathedrals. Its charming neighborhoods feature residences decorated with colorful tiled facades, sidewalk cafes along pedestrian thoroughfares and enchantingly original boutiques. The sidewalks are often paved with black and white volcanic stones in patterns specific to this city.
Lisbon has a refreshingly noncommercial feel, old-fashioned and relaxed, and exploring on foot is a delight. Portugal enjoyed its heyday long ago, and some of the older buildings that reflect this era are as opulent as they get. However, much of the city was leveled in the devastating earthquake of 1755, so visitors will notice that the city's architecture is not as old as that found in some European capitals. Prices tend to be lower than in the rest of Europe, especially in the moderately priced meals, wine and entrance fees to the main attractions. If you like fish and shellfish, you've come to the right city. Pastry shops abound, many with lovely storefronts, providing sit-down respite for coffee, tea and something sweet.
Lisbon is a city of hills, and the up-and-down geography adds to its charm. One of the best ways to experience it is via a tram ride through the medieval Alfama district, Baixa (the central business district) and the Bairro Alto (the major restaurant and nightlife area). Both the Alfama and Bairro Alto districts have wonderful miradoures, or viewpoints, to take in the city below, the nearby hills and the wide Tagus River that provides ships such easy access to the city.
For cruise visitors, Lisbon is also a jumping-off point for daytrips to Portugal's resort towns -- such as Estoril, near the mouth of the Tagus and lovely Sintra with its palaces up in the hills -- or a Catholic pilgrimage to Fatima.
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Port, the fortified sweet wine for which Portugal is famous, makes for a marvelous souvenir. Before you go on a shopping spree, check your country's custom restrictions on bringing liquor home from abroad. Hand-painted tiles and cotton embroidery are classic Portuguese trademarks.
Portuguese is spoken in Lisbon, though many people understand and can speak English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Portugal's currency is the euro. For current exchange rates, checkwww.oanda.com or www.xe.com. You'll find plenty of ATMs and exchange bureaus in town. Be sure to change some money if you plan to pick up snacks or ride the buses, trams or metro.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock in two locations along the Tagus River. The commercial port of Doca de Alcantara, with its traditional passenger liner terminal, lies just east (upriver) of the 25th of April bridge (a dead ringer for San Francisco's Golden Gate). It is walkable from there into town, but some cruise lines provide shuttle services into the center. Also, there is an efficient rail, bus and tram system -- or take a taxi to the center and to Belem.
A newer port with three berths, Santa Apolonia (or Alfama) is slightly upriver from the city center and conveniently sits next to Alfama, a neighborhood popular with visitors.
The Alcantara terminal at the commercial port has shops, taxi ranks, a few restaurants, cafes and other facilities.
Santa Apolonia's port has a more modern terminal building. There are few services inside, but once out of the secured dock area, there are restaurants, cafes with Wi-Fi, ATMs and stores for necessary sundries. It is close to the city center.
Some cruise lines offer a shuttle service to Praca do Comercio, an elegant 18th-century square facing the riverfront near the Baixa (central business district in the lower town). From the square, many of the major tourist attractions are within walking distance as well as "Main Street," Avenida da Liberdade, which lies to the northwest and is a broad boulevard with upmarket hotels and chic shops.
From Santa Apolonia, a Blue Line Metro stop is located across the street from the terminal entrance alongside the Santa Apolonia railroad station. It's just two stops to the city center at Baixa-Chiado or three to Restauradores Square just north of the Rossio, the main plaza.
The metro, buses and trams are relatively easy to navigate, with unlimited-use daily passes available at ticket machines. In addition, the Rossio train station offers frequent service to the out-of-town destination of Sintra (40 minutes). Cais do Sodre station, just downriver from the city center, runs frequent trains to the riverside towns of Estoril (30 minutes) and Cascais (35 minutes), stopping near the Alcantara cruise terminal en route. From Santa Apolonia, trains run to Fatima (1.5 to 2 hours).
Watch Out For
Pickpockets are stealthy and omnipresent, especially on public transit or along busy sidewalks and pedestrian-only streets. Leave your valuables onboard, and secure any credit cards and money you take along.
On the positive side, nearly every museum gives a free entry or 50 percent discount to seniors older than 65, making it a better deal for this age group than the Lisboa Card. You will have to show an ID card when purchasing tickets with a discount.
Alfama, the ancient Moorish quarter, is the oldest in Lisbon -- though some of it had to be rebuilt in the 18th century, following the devastating earthquake in 1755. It's fun for its cafes, little shops and labyrinthine streets. Note: The Alfama neighborhood is especially convenient if your ship docks at Santa Apolonia, but it also requires a steep climb along very narrow sidewalks and twisting cobbled streets.
The main event there is the 10-towered Castelo de Sao Jorge, or Castle of St. George. Built in the 10th century, then expanded into a royal palace from the 13th to 16th centuries, it's one of the few structures that survived the quake. The views down to the Baixa district, across to the Bairro Alto and out along the Tagus River are splendid. Geese and ducks roam around the castle gardens, which are surrounded by native trees. Be sure to visit the relatively new museum that displays the artifacts collected on the site, from the Romans to the Moors. (Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily; admission charge)
Directly above Santa Apolonia sits Igreja de Santa Engracia e Panteao Nacional, a whitish Baroque marble church with pink and brown marble interiors, built over almost 300 years (1681 to 1966). Since the beginning of the 20th century, many rulers and national heroes have been buried there. Entry is free, but you can pay a small fee to climb 181 shallow steps to the inside of the great dome and onto the roof for a 360-degree view. (Campo de Santa Clara; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday)
Also, check out Lisbon Cathedral which dates to the 12th century. The interior features are more impressive than the exterior because the structure was rebuilt after the earthquake. (Largo de Se; open 10 a.m. to 7 pm. daily)
The Baixa and Rossio districts are the central shopping and tourist areas. Several attractive parallel streets run between Rossio Square and Praca do Commercio, and it's worth picking ones with little car traffic for a peaceful roundtrip on foot. Some of the older storefronts are simply beautiful, with art nouveau facades. Most small shops take long siestas, so do your shopping before the 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. lunch break if your ship departs in the late afternoon. On nice days, cafes set up tables in the center of the traffic-free Rua Augusta, which is a better place for a drink than a meal.
Calouste Gulbenkian Museum houses the art collection of this Armenian oil industry tycoon. He moved from Paris to Lisbon in 1942 during WWII and died there in 1955. His foundation created this outstanding museum in 1969, located in a lovely park just outside the center but easily reached by metro. The collection is almost encyclopedic, including Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian, Far Eastern, Asian and European art and sculpture, as well as fabulous carpets, extraordinary silverware and an outstanding collection of Rene Lalique jewelry. Black and white photos show some items in his original Paris home, but there is no crowding of objects -- just lots of space for showcasing the art and artifacts. (Avenida de Berna, 45A, metro stop is Sao Sebastiao or Praca de Espanha; open 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday)
Tram 28 might just provide the most popular ride of its type in all of Europe. The ancient, tiny cars begin the run near the Castelo de Sao Jorge and twist and turn down into the Baixa district, then up again into the narrow streets of Bairro Alto. The journey ends at Praca da Estrela (30 minutes) or Parada dos Prazeres (45 minutes). As some streets are so narrow, steep and curvy, no bus could possibly replace the trams. They're often crowded and targeted by pickpockets, so stay alert. If you see two trams coming along together and the first one looks full, let it go by, and you'll have a better chance of getting a seat. Pay onboard, or use your day pass to hop on and off.
The Bairro Alto is a rabbit warren of cobbled, winding alleyways with beautiful tiled houses and small squares. It's a great location for a peaceful wander during the day. (It gets livelier at night.) The hilly neighborhood is home to some of Lisbon's more intriguing restaurants. (See Lunching below.) To get there, take Tram 28 or, to avoid the steep climb, use the Elevador de Santa Justa at the end of the street of the same name. Opened in 1902, it runs from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and often has long lines in the warmer months.
Been There, Done That
Located five miles along the Tagus River, west of Lisbon's city center (and two miles west of the Alcantara cruise ship terminal), Belem (which means Bethlehem in Portuguese) offers lots of space, excellent museums and plenty of snacking and dining options. The well-defined cultural district is set around elegant parks and along the Tagus River waterfront. To get to Belem, take Tram 15 from Figueira Square or Comercio Square. Or take a taxi from Praca do Comercio or from Alcantara if your ship is berthed there. You can also have a nice walk to Belem along the riverfront. The 45-minute walk features many points of interest along the way. For snacking, head for Rua de Belem, which has plenty of cafes and pastelarias (bakeries).
Belem is anchored by its dramatic 16th-century tower. The Torre de Belem was built in the powerful Manueline architectural style, employing elaborate carvings with religious, natural, royal and maritime themes. Also on the riverfront stand, the Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Discoveries Monument) marks 500 years since the death of Henry the Navigator, Portugal's great 15th-century explorer. The monument depicts a caravel -- an early sailing ship that could maneuver in all wind conditions, allowing some of the first world explorations by sea -- and other important navigators, such as Vasco da Gama.
Belem's cultural highlights include the 16th-century Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (Monastery of St. Jerome), built by Dom Manuel I in his Manueline style. It features elaborate carvings, cloisters, a church with three naves and the tomb of Vaso da Gama. Ascend to the choir level to view the church from on high. (Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.) The Museu Nacional de Arqueologia (Archeological Museum) features a range of antiquities, coins, jewelry and Roman mosaics. (Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.) The Museu da Marinha (Maritime Museum) focuses on Portugal's Golden Age of Discoveries, with models of merchant, naval, sailing and fishing ships and royal yachts. (Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.) All three are located in one continuous line along the Praca do Imperio. The Centro Cultural de Belem across the street exhibits contemporary forms of art, music and theater in a modern stone building. (Open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday.)
Gorgeous, lush and green, Sintra is another city worth a visit. Its main attraction is an elaborate Moorish Castle, but it's also famous as Portugal's only city with three palaces and a castle within town limits. You can visit the Palacio Nacional da Pena, an eclectic fantasy built in the 19th century with Moorish, Gothic features and bright colors. It once served as royalty's summer home. (Open 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily)
At the Castle of the Moors, built around the ninth century, walk the ramparts for views of the surroundings palaces. Also, explore the cobbled town center, with its sidewalk cafes and shops. Trains operate every 15 minutes from Rossio Station, located at the northwest corner of Rossio Square in downtown Lisbon. Plan on a 40-minute trip each way. (Open 9:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily in summer and 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in winter)
The turn-of-the-last century resort town of Estoril, located just to the west of Lisbon, is easily reached by frequent trains from Cais do Sodre station. Roman ruins are found there, but the big attraction is the Estoril Casino -- likely the inspiration for Ian Fleming's James Bond novel "Casino Royale."
Fatima is an important Roman Catholic pilgrimage site, located 88 miles north of Lisbon. In May 1917, three Portuguese children reportedly saw the Virgin Mary, who instructed them to pray. Since that time, devout Catholics and other interested travelers have gone to the site to see the huge neoclassical Our Lady of Fatima Basilica and the Chapel of Apparitions, built on the ground where the children said they saw the Virgin Mary standing.
Portuguese cuisine features lots of fish, soft-shell crabs and meat and rice dishes. When you sit down, the server may put bread, butter, one or two kinds of cheese and an hors d'oeuvre on your table. You will be charged for each one, so politely say no thank you for what you don't want, and it will be taken away.
Lisbon's most interesting restaurants are located in the hilly Bairro Alto neighborhood, adjacent to and above Baixa. The restaurants are intimate, indoors (no room for sidewalk cafes) and full of charm -- usually with a bar to one side for the locals and table seating on the other. On Rua das Portas de Santo Antao, just north of the Rossio, numerous sidewalk cafes beckon. A few outdoor/indoor restaurants are located to the left as you exit the Alcantara Terminal. Pick one where you see lots of people, preferably locals. If you're docked at the Santa Apolonia terminal, head to the Alfama district just above. The best restaurants there are often the ones without touts outside soliciting business.
For local cuisine, Cocheira Alentejana, sporting a peasant-style decor, is full most nights. Specialty of the house is dogfish soup and migas with pork (Travessa do Poco de Cidade, 19; 213 464 868; open noon to 2 a.mMonday to Friday, 7:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday; closed Sunday)
Pap'Acorda, a popular place for hobnobbing, is a two-room restaurant with bar that serves classic Portuguese seafood and ribs. Try the Spanish mussels, shellfish and rice, or acorda -- a seafood dish with eggs, bread, garlic, olive oil and coriander. Reservations are required. (Rua da Atalaia, 57–59; 213 464 811; open noon to 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday)
Tagide, a funky tapas bar, offers two lunch options: one course for 8.50 euros or three for 12.50 euros, including a glass of wine and coffee. If you prefer to order separately, try the clams in white wine and garlic or roasted peppers and cheese. Leave room for custard tarts served with cinnamon ice cream. (Largo da Academia Nacional de Belas Artes 18 and 20, Chiado; 213 404 010; open 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to midnight Tuesday to Thursday, extending to 1 a.m. Friday, and 2 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday)
Staying in Touch
You'll get free Wi-Fi connection in many cafes in Lisbon, though you might have to ask the waiter for a password. For a password-free connection, head to the Armazens do Chiado mall in the city center. Other malls, including Amoreiras and Colombo, also offer free service.
Best for First-Timers: A four-hour tour to Belem and Alfama covers many city highlights. In Belem, visit the 15th-century Monastery of St. Jerome and the Maritime Museum for a thorough dose of Portuguese maritime exploits. The coach will also stop at the riverfront 16th-century Belem Tower, which doubled as a prison and lighthouse. Then, it's on to the Monument to the Discoveries, which depicts explorers embarking in a Portuguese caravel. Finally, you'll go to the medieval and very hilly Alfama Quarter, with its Moorish Castle of St. George.
Best for Venturing Farther Afield: Take the seven-hour tour to Evora. More of an open-air museum than a town, Evora owns UNESCO World Heritage status. Visit the Royal Palace and Franciscan Monastery and enjoy time by yourself to visit the main square filled to the brim with gorgeous shops, bars and restaurants.
Best for Religious Pilgrims: A tour to Fatima lasts around seven hours and includes scenic drives into the countryside. Fatima is one of most sought after pilgrimage sites for Roman Catholics. Visit the basilica and chapel built on the site where three children claimed to witness the Virgin Mary in 1917. Some tours include lunch, or you can grab a quick meal to allow more time to explore and pick up souvenirs.
For More Information
On the Web: Lisbon Tourism Board
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Other Mediterranean Ports
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--By Theodore W. Scull, Cruise Critic contributor