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Lisbon

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, the capital of Portugal (and known to the Portuguese as Lisboa) is a common stop-off on many cruises. Although it’s a modern European city, there’s something charmingly relaxed about Lisbon and its inhabitants. The pace of life is a little slower than elsewhere in the western world, and time seems to stretch so that it’s no longer as important as it seems in New York or Chicago.

Panorama of Lisbon
Lisbon Panorama

One of the most wonderful things about this city is the climate. If you’re visiting as part of a cruise, the chances are that you will arrive between April and October. But the weather is surprisingly moderate all year around. During the winter Lisbon’s southerly latitude gives it the benefits of a warm Mediterranean climate. In summer, the scorching heat of central Portugal is mitigated in the city by cool winds blowing of the Mid-Atlantic.

Ruins in LisbonLisbon has a history which stretches back millennia. It first became capital of Portugal in 1147, when Christian re-conquerors recaptured it from the Muslim Moors who had held it – along with much of the Iberian peninsula – for several hundred years. Since then the city has not looked back.

 

That’s not to say it hasn’t suffered a few reverses. Unlike most major European capitals, which have buildings dating back to medieval times, Lisbon has relatively few standing buildings that were constructed before 1755. In that year a great earthquake struck, flattening the city and killing thousands of its inhabitants. Since then things have been relatively quiet on the geological front, and the citizens of Lisbon have put up some beautiful buildings to replace what was lost. One district – the Alfama – was largely untouched by the cataclysm, and survives, intact, to this day.

Mosteiro Jerónimos
Mosteiro JerónimosAs Lisbon was rebuilt pretty much all in one go, it has an architectural uniformity unlike nearly any other European city. The effect of this is anything but dull, though. The beautiful neo-classical facades of some of the buildings in downtown Lisbon are as beautiful and absorbing as many more famous wonder of architecture in cities like Venice and Paris. The other respect in which Lisbon is unlike many of its European sister-cities is its layout. The capitals of most countries on the continent have downtown areas that have grown organically from lanes and alleyways, and are consequently easy to get lost in. This is not the case with Lisbon. The earthquake allowed the city authorities to impose some ideas about town planning that would not have been thought of in the middle ages. For the past couple of hundred years or so Lisbon has been laid out on a grid system. Because of this, at times it can feel more like an American city. Some neighborhoods of Lisbon feel rather like Boston, MA – a city thousands of miles away that was being constructed at roughly the same time in roughly the same style.

Lisbon BridgeThe downtown district of Lisbon is known as Baixa. If you like shopping, it’s one of the greatest places in the world to indulge yourself. The three main streets of Baixa are Rua Augusta, Rua da Prata and Rua Aurea. The name of this last one translates as “Gold Street” – which is appropriate, as you can find any number of excellent jewelry shops and boutiques down here. Portugal has long been a center for fine jewelry and other handicrafts. Its heritage as a major maritime nation has endowed Portuguese culture with a high respect for those who can work well with their hands. Over many years it also provided the New World gold – often stolen from the native Indians of South America – with which a tradition of great jewelry and gold work was established. These days the precious metals are, mostly, sourced more ethically - though the standard of work remains exceptionally high.

Belem Tower
Belem TowerIf you like antiques, Lisbon has much to offer you. Antiques stores offering objects d’art and items of furniture from the country’s past are clustered in Rua Dom Pedro V in the Bairro Alta region. Before you buy, make sure you have the means to ship your purchases home. Most of the better dealers will arrange specialist crating and shipment for you – though it could be best to hire a customs broker to manage the import at the US end.

Lisbon is a lovely, relaxed city with great shopping, friendly people, excellent food and an exciting night-life. If you’re here for a single day as part of a cruise you should be able to enjoy yourself enormously just walking around and taking in the sights and sounds of this marvelous, exotic old port city. Portugal has much more to offer beyond Lisbon, of course – but its capital is probably its most beautiful and appealing face.

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