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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 1775, 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 much of the rest of Europe, most noticeable in the moderate prices of 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), the Bairro Alto (the major restaurant and nightlife area) and the city's tony neighborhoods, complete with leafy parks. Both the Alfama and Bairro Alto districts have wonderful miradoures or viewpoints to take in the city below, the nearby hills and the wide River Tagus that provides ships such easy access to the city.
For cruise visitors, Lisbon is also a jumping-off point for day-trips 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 and also good choices.
Portuguese is spoken in Lisbon. Outside of tourist areas, English is only sporadically understood.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Portugal's currency is the euro. For the current exchange rate, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. There are plenty of ATM machines 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's about two miles from downtown. A newer port with three berths, Santa Apolonia (or Alfama) is slightly upriver from the city center and conveniently lies next to Alfama, a neighborhood that's popular with visitors.
The Alcantara terminal at the commercial port has a small gift shop and a liquor store that sells port at prices higher than those you'll find in town. Once out the front entrance, turn left for a line of a dozen attractive riverside restaurants and cafes with outdoor and indoor seating, some with free Wi-Fi. Santa Apolonia's port has a more modern terminal building. It was presumably was meant to include lots of restaurants and shops, but as yet there are few services. Once out of the secured dock area, you will find restaurants, cafes with Wi-Fi, ATM's and stores for necessary sundries.
Some cruise lines offer shuttle service to Praca do Comercio, an elegant 18th-century square facing the riverfront near the Baixa (central business district). From the square, many of the major tourist attractions are within walking distance.
Taxis are readily available at both cruise terminals.
If you prefer public transportation, Tram 15 from Alcantara runs to the city center and to Belem (see below). 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 just north of the Rossio, the main plaza.
The metro, buses and trams are relatively easy to navigate, with unlimited-use daily passes available. You can pay in cash to the bus and tram drivers or the ticket collector in the metro stations.
In addition, the Rossio train station offers frequent service to the out-of-town destination of Sintra (40 minutes), while 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 and attraction gives a 50 percent discount to seniors older than 65, making it a better deal for this age group than the Lisboa Card.
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 first in the 10th century, then expanded into a royal palace from the 13th to the 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. 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. every day with an 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 Cara. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.)
Also, check out the Lisbon Cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century. The interior features are more impressive than the exterior, as the structure was rebuilt after the earthquake. (Largo de Se. Open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. 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-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 Rua Augusta -- but it's 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 on the blue and red Metro lines. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.)
Tram 28 may just provide the most popular ride of its type in all of Europe. The ancient, tiny cars begin the run near the Castle 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 at all times. 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. Built at the turn of the last century, it is open from 7 a.m. to 11 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 or 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 in about 45 minutes with points of interest to see 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) that 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 Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) The Museu Nacional de Arqueologia (Archeological Museum) features a range of antiquities, from coins and jewelry to Roman mosaics and Egyptian funerary masks. (Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) 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 Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) 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. (Av. de Brasilia. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., extended to 10 p.m. on Saturdays.)
Gorgeous, lush and green, Sintra is another city that's 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 daily, 9:45 a.m. to 7 p.m.) At the Castle of the Moors, built in about the 9th century, walk the ramparts for views of the surroundings palaces. (Open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) Don't miss out on exploring 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.
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 -- very 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 of 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.
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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 dozen 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. Try the shark soup, thinly sliced beef in Madeira sauce, squid with roast potatoes, grilled monkfish and rice. (Travessa do Poco de Cidade, 19. Tel. 213 464 868. Open Monday to Friday, noon to 3 p.m. and 7 to 11.p.m., and Saturday, noon to 3 p.m.)
Pap'Acorda, an "in" 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, garlic, olive oil and coriander. Reservations are required. (Rua da Atalaia, 57 - 59. Tel. 213 346 4811. Open Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 2:30 p.m. and 8 to 11:30 p.m.)
Another good choice is the Italian-influenced Casa Nostra. This intimate venue, decorated in pale blue and white, is located inside a century-old street facade in the lively Bairro Alto neighborhood. Try the tournedos al porcini or fresh pasta with truffles, and finish with tartufo or tiramisu. (Tv. do Poco da Cidade, 60. Tel. 213 342 5931. Open Monday to Friday, 12:30 to 3 p.m. and 8 to 11 p.m.)
Staying in Touch
A bank of computer terminals is located at the tourist office at Rua Jardim do Regedor (#50). Internet access costs 1 euro for 15 minutes.
Best for First-Timers: A four-hour tour to Belem and Alfama covers many city highlights. In Belem, visit the 15th-century Jeronimos Monastery 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 a lighthouse. Then it's on to the Monument to the Discoveries, which depicts explorers embarking in a Portuguese caravel. Then head to the medieval and very hilly Alfama Quarter, with its Moorish Castle of St. George.
Best for Venturing Farther Afield: A four-hour "City Highlights and Estoril" tour starts with a drive through Baixa, Lisbon's central business district, and a stop at Alto do Parque Belvedere for a great view of the city and Tagus River. Driving west, the coach arrives at the riverside resort town of Estoril to see the Roman ruins and Estoril Casino. After a bit of free time for a stroll, the return route pauses at the Belem Tower, the Monument of the Discoveries and Jeronimos Monastery.
Best for Religious Pilgrims: The "Our Lady of Fatima Tour" lasts almost seven hours and includes scenic drives out into the countryside to Fatima, 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
The tourist office is located along the arcade on the west side of the Praca do Comercio.
On the Web: Lisbon Tourism Board
Lisbon Tourism Board Web Shop + Information Portal
Portugal Official Tourism Website
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Western Europe
The Independent Traveler: Spain & Europe
--by Theodore W. Scull, Cruise Critic contributor