The Long and Short of Lisbon

Wild walks, warehouse cafes and street art in Portugal's capital. | By Mariëtte du Toit-Helmbold  
Lisbon
Perched on the banks of the Tejo River in Belém, Padrão dos Descobrimentos is a 170-foot monument that pays tribute to Portugal’s Age of Discovery. Photo by: Philippe Michel/ agefotostock/Dinodia Photo Library

Natural Wonder

The Jardim do Parque das Nações is a green belt within the city itself, designed to create the largest continued green area in the city. Gardens with beautiful indigenous and exotic vegetation, cafés, and the riverside walkways make for an enchanting backdrop where locals and visitors love to congregate. As far as truly natural wonders go, the Tejo (Tagus) River is an impressive sight. Take a ferry or a wildlife tour down the river and you might even spot the dolphins.

 

National Park

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The custard tarts served at Pastéis de Belém since 1837 are notable in the city/ Photo by: Felix Lipov/shutterstock

The Pena Palace and Park located in the Sintra Mountains is a must visit. The park was developed at the same time as the palace by King Fernando II and Baron von Kessler and is the epitome of 19th-century Romanticism. The palace is at the centre of the park which spreads across 200 hectares of forest with a labyrinth of paths and narrow roads that connects the palace to the many other points of interest in the park. The park includes the Tapada do Mocho and the Moorish Castle and is enclosed by a stone wall. More than 500 species of trees from all over the world are in the park, which together with the extraordinary complex of parks, gardens, palaces, country estates, monasteries, and castles makes the cultural landscape of Sintra a UNESCO World Heritage site protected by national legislation since 1995.

 

Archaeological Site

The most significant archaeological site in Portugal is Foz Côa, a UNESCO World Heritage site with more than a hundred glacier-scrubbed panels containing at least 5,000 zoomorphic engravings of animals and etched symbols. The 30 discovered rock art sites are considered some of the most important in the world. Foz Côa is the area around the Coa River Valley and can be reached via any of the three villages of Vila Nova de Foz Coa, Muxagata, or Castelo Melhor. Visitors can book a tour from one of the Archaeological Park’s three visitor centres. Bookings must be made at least a week in advance as access is only with a four-wheel-drive tour to one of the sites.

 

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Placed in a converted industrial complex, LX Factory (top) is filled with graffiti and houses over 50 hip shops, coffee joints, restaurants and bars; The terraced vineyards of Douro Valley (bottom) are a UNESCO site and home to dozens of quintas (wine estates). Photos by: carlosanchezpereyra/iStock Editorial/Getty Images (street art), Terry Eggers/iCorbis/Getty Images (valley)

UNESCO Site

There is no shortage of UNESCO sites in Portugal. For wine lovers, the enchanting Douro Valley UNESCO site is a must-experience. The descendants of the original landowners have produced wine in this ancient valley for more than 2,000 years. It is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world. The deep valleys, carved by river and man, create the perfect climate for the terraced vineyards where, with knowledge handed down from one generation to the next, world famous ports and wines are being made. Wine tourism is on the rise in Portugal with more and more vineyards open to the public offering unique tasting experiences and tours.

 

Cultural Experience

Lisbon is wildly colourful and creative with a growing urban and street art scene that tells its own stories about the city, whether in protest or purely for its aesthetic appeal. Check out “Banksy meets Damien Hirst” street art by the Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto, known by the tag name Vhils. His work is represented in several countries now in private and public collections. You will see one of his most famous pieces near the entrance to LX Factory, certainly the coolest place to hang out in Lisbon. It is an old strip of factory buildings that now house an eclectic mix of trendy restaurants, designer shops, and independent creatives.

 

Best Day Trip

Évora is a beautiful Alentejo city and another UNESCO World Heritage site where you can enjoy some of the best food in Portugal. Steeped in history with whitewashed houses, ochre, and granite, and a historic centre encircled by a ring of medieval walls, it is hard to believe that people actually live here. It is also a university town with students making up 10,000 of its 50,000-odd inhabitants. For wine lovers, Colares is a seaside wine region where sand-plant, phylloxera-resistant vines still exist. This charming walled town in the heart of the Alentejo wine region is a great escape for culture and cuisine lovers.

 

Off the Beaten Path

Skip the crowded and touristy Rossio plaza and wander through the cobbled streets of the up-and-coming Marvila neighbourhood with its art galleries and artisan breweries. The new cool district with many old warehouses being transformed into co-working spaces, skating rinks, artisan breweries, and art galleries, the neighbourhood is home to Fabrica Moderna, a factory where ideas are transformed into products. Like the rest of Lisbon, Marvila comes to life after dark with a variety of bars and eateries. If you’re looking for an after-party, EKA is the place to go. Be warned though—locals can party until lunchtime the next day.

 

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The Vasco da Gama Bridge (left) in Lisbon is the second longest bridge in Europe at just over 17 kilometres in length; Palácio Nacional da Pena (right) is a colourful palace built in the early 20th century in a smorgasbord of architectural styles. Photos by: aamorim/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images (man), Moritz Wolf/imageBROKER/ Dinodia Photo Library (castle)

Most Iconic Place

Make sure that you include a visit to Belém, the historic heart of Lisbon, located at the mouth of the Tagus River. This is where legendary Portuguese explorers set sail from. You can get there by tram or better yet, get a boat from the river station to Lisbon’s gateway to the Atlantic sea for beautiful views of the city from a different perspective. The Belém Ferry is much cheaper than one of the boat tours and crosses to Porto Brandao on the southern side of the Tejo. Take a walk along the Tejo estuary between the Padrão dos Descobrimentos and the Torre de Belem and then reward yourself with a few sweet pastéis de nata (Portuguese custard tarts) from the traditional home of this local delicacy, the Pastéis de Belém.

 

Late Night

Lisbon never sleeps. So, if you want to experience Lisbon’s nightlife, base yourself in the bohemian neighbourhood of Bairro Alto. It is a quiet corner of Lisbon during the day, but is transformed into one big party at nightfall with late night shopping, many great traditional and international restaurants, Fado houses, and too many bars to choose from. It is a popular weekend destination and you will find locals and visitors bar-hopping till the early hours of the morning.

 

Historic Site

The great monastery Mosteiro dos Jerónimos was built by King Manuel I in 1496 in celebration and to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for Vasco de Gama’s successful voyage to India. It is one of the most beautiful examples of Manueline architecture, unique  to Portugal with Gothic, Moorish, and Renaissance influences and maritime details. The Jerónimos Monastery contains the tombs of Portuguese royalty and many important figures from Portuguese history, most famous among them, Vasco De Gama. While in the area, also visit the nearby Tower of Belém, also part of the World Heritage Site and a monument of Portugal’s maritime accomplishments.

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