I’ve learned that big cities are a hassle no matter where in the world you travel. If you have a rental car, driving in European urban centers is incredibly stressful. That’s why I chose to ride the bus into Lisbon and let someone else deal with traffic.
My base in Óbidos offered a simple solution. A comfortable bus picked me up less than a five minute walk from my Airbnb and dropped me off in Lisbon city center one hour later for $8. Best deal of the trip I’d say.
One of the first things you learn about Lisbon is that the city you see today is relatively new (by European standards). On November 1, 1755, a powerful earthquake leveled much of Portugal’s capital. An ensuing tsunami and fire increased the devastation. More than 35,000 people died. At the time, Lisbon was one of the largest cities in Europe.
Ruins of the Carmo Convent in central Lisbon were preserved as a memorial to the earthquake. Today the site appropriately serves as an archaeological museum. Stone arches inside rose to an open sky, providing silent testaments to the day Lisbon crumbled.
Legend has it that Lisbon, similar to Rome, was founded on seven hills. There were incredible views out over the city from the top of each hill but you had a workout hiking up and down each one.
I found that Lisbon was an interesting mix of modern and an almost whimsical past. Rickety trams clicked and clacked their way up the hills as electric cars whirred by.
It was a great city to just wander rather than trying to hit a list of major sights. You were bound to get lost anyway in the winding streets of the old town. Rare for Europe, the city’s commercial center actually had a grid-like street plan built after the earthquake.
I’d compare Lisbon to San Francisco in the States. Both cities are on the ocean, have hills and trams. Both suffered devastating earthquakes. Lisbon even had a suspension bridge spanning its bay that resembled the Golden Gate.
I peeked inside this store for Portugal’s national football (not soccer) team. Led by star Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal is still alive in the current World Cup. When the team is playing, life pretty much comes to a standstill here, with everyone gathering around their TVs. Portugal’s historical rivals include Brazil, Spain and France.
I jumped on a local train to go a few minutes down the coast for a visit to the Belém neighborhood in western Lisbon. A massive monument to Portuguese explorers was built there as a nod to its place as the point where ships departed Lisbon.
Belém also housed Jerónimos Monastery, erected in the early 1500s near the launch point of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s first journey. Da Gama became the first European to reach India by sea after he sailed around the south of Africa at the Cape of Good Hope. His remains were interred in a prominent carved tomb in the nave of the monastery’s church.
Da Gama’s discovery and the subsequent Portuguese armadas that sailed to India for spices helped build the small country into a serious world power in the 1500s.
So much of Portugal’s history and culture, its national identity really, stem from the Age of Discovery.
Thanks for coming along on the trip. If you have questions or suggestions, tweet @JasonRMatheson. Missed an entry? Click here.