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  • Writer's pictureBen West

A Short History of Lisbon (& 52 Cultural Attractions)



With a population of around three million and growing prominence in commerce, politics and the arts, contemporary Lisbon is steadily becoming a global city. Yet when navigators from the Kingdom of Portugal began to explore the seas in the 15th century, drawing the first lines of a great maritime empire, the city that would become that empire’s capital had a much lower status. It was considered to be a remote outpost on what was believed to be the most distant edge of the known world.

Lisbon skyline

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History of Lisbon

Multicultural Foundations

With seemingly all peoples – Celts, Phoenicians and Greeks – stopping by or settling in the early days, Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world. It has been part of the Roman Empire, governed by Germanic tribes around the 5th century, and by Arabs from North Africa in the 8th, before the Portuguese nation emerged as an idea, and sometimes as a state, several hundred years later. Its rich and multi-ethnic history is reflected in the diverse architectural styles it displays: from Romanesque to Gothic, and Baroque, and everything in between. Highlights include the medieval castle dominating the skyline and the impressive 16th-century Manueline monastery of Jerónimos, but one of the loveliest things about Lisbon is the beauty and charm even of its ordinary buildings, its richness in hidden gems.

Geography and Resilience

Lisbon owes its life to the River Tagus (or Tejo in Portuguese), and lies on the north bank of its estuary, about 13 kilometres from the river’s entrance into the Atlantic Ocean. Such a strategic position, and the magnificent natural harbour it affords, explains some of the historical prominence the city has achieved. Yet Lisbon’s elegant arrangement of streets originates in something much more modern and disastrous: a devastating earthquake in 1755, accompanied by a tsunami and days of fire, which destroyed almost all the city’s centre. An event so cataclysmic profoundly affected Portuguese society, but also the European intelligentsia: for Voltaire, the earthquake bolstered his philosophical case against the existence of a Christian God. The resulting blank canvas afforded by the natural disaster allowed Lisbon to be rebuilt after careful planning, with narrow, twisting streets replaced with broad avenues.

Beauty in Terrain

One of the first things you’ll register is Lisbon’s numerous hills. Fringed like Rome by higher ground, its position blesses it with many striking vistas. Some of the best views of the city are to be enjoyed from the miradouros, the terraces located on seven of its hillsides. Yet the city is beautiful close-up as well as from afar. Lisbon is a marvel for the eyes, with its multicoloured houses and their pretty balconies, its curving alleyways and cobbled streets, historic boulevards and monuments, bougainvillea-clad squares, and elegant parks and gardens.

Cultural Epicenter

Lisbon is the cultural capital of Portugal, and formerly of the Portuguese Empire. Alongside its beautiful churches and Pombaline civic architecture, it possesses numerous world-class museums and galleries, such as the National Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Museum of Ancient Art, the latter containing one of the biggest art collections in the world. It also has impressive cultural institutions, such as the fortress-like Belém Cultural Centre, and many of these show Lisbon at its most innovative and cutting-edge.

Timeless Charm

Despite its modernity – in recent years many stunning buildings have been constructed, such as the Pavilhão de Portugal and the Torre de Controlo do Porto de Lisboa – the city still keeps the character of a 19th-century metropolis. Traditional food markets remain lively, and near the city’s intimate port varinas (or fish-sellers) draped in long black skirts still carry their wares in baskets on their heads, while fragatas (historic crescent-shaped boats with sepia sails and black hulls) sway in the water.

Culinary Discoveries

Lisbon’s cuisine is waiting to be discovered, shaped both by the Atlantic and the cultures of countries colonised by Portugal. Fish and seafood dominate, but its custard-filled pastries (or pastéis de nata) are justly world-famous too.

Retaining Identity

Unlike many cities in the modern era, Lisbon has not lost its character and its charm. It has embraced the world and its status as a global city, but has retained a strong Portuguese flavour and its own individual character.

Lisbon's 52 Top Cultural Attractions

Embarking on a deep dive into the cultural fabric of Lisbon could be quite a task, given the city's richness in history, art, and architecture. To make this endeavor manageable and truly enjoyable, we've compiled an exhaustive resource - a list of 52 standout cultural attractions in Lisbon. Spanning from captivating museums and iconic structures to bustling squares and monumental sites, this list offers an essential blueprint for those wanting to uncover the city's vibrant cultural pulse. Here, then, is your ultimate guide to Lisbon's cultural marvels.

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