A Very Brief History of Portugal and Lisbon


What a rich history this country has! The Iberian Peninsula was first explored by the Phoenicians before the birth of Christ. Next came the Romans, the Greeks, Barbarians, Arabs (Moors) and the Crusaders. In the 10th century, the first Portugese King, Afonso Henriques, declared the independence of what we now call Portugal. In the 14th century, Portugal was conquered by Spain. Napoleon invaded in 1807. Later, several different monarchies ruled but eventually were overthrown by a republican revolution in 1910. From the mid 1920’s until 1968 a military dictatorship governed. During World War II, many European royal families took refuge in neutral Portugal. A democracy was established in 1976. The multi-cultural influences over the years are still apparent today in the architecture, cuisine and language.


Although the city of Lisbon was built in the middle ages, the major event that shaped “modern” Lisbon was the earthquake of 1755 which destroyed 2/3 of the city. Fires spread everywhere and the tsunami that traveled up the Tagus River caused a huge flood. Neighborhoods in the city simply disappeared! It is estimated that over 15,000 people died. Soon thereafter the city planners, led by the Marques de Pombal, began redesigning and rebuilding the ancient city.

It took 23 hours to travel from our house in California to our hotel in Lisbon. After arrival at the Lisbon international airport, we quickly exited customs and took the city bus to the center of town. Our driver was great; at each stop he helped passengers and their luggage off the bus and gave them directions to their final destination. Can you imagine that in a large city in the USA? This was our first, but not last, experience with the friendliness and helpfulness of the Portuguese people.

We stayed at the conveniently located Hotel Lisboa Plaza just off Avenida de Liberdade. This is the main street in Lisbon, leading up from the harbor on the Tagus river, through the alleys of the gothic Baixa to Edward VII park. After check-in we took a long walk to orient ourselves (we didn’t want to go to sleep too early), looking for a market to purchase wine, cheese, fruit, and bread for later. We ended up in Baixa (Lower Town) and were energized by the exuberant and festive youthful crowd. We found a “supermercado” and made our purchases. The tomatoes were especially good and that purchase set a standard for our trip. We ate a lot of tomatoes during our stay in Portugal because they were always juicy, flavorful and aromatic. They reminded me of the homegrown tomatoes of my youth in the mid-west. We also found a very nice, inexpensive bottle of local wine. Like Italy, each region in Portugal has its own vintages and specialties. We had a picnic dinner in our room and, in a further attempt to adjust to the time zone change, we took another walk. Our evening trek led us to a picturesque, classic narrow European street leading up to Bairro Alto, the upper part of town. Lisbon is a great walking city and easy to get around; if you are going downhill, you are heading toward the harbor. What could be simpler? On your wanderings don’t miss the central market, the neighborhood of Baixa with its many shops and restaurants, Alfama, the oldest part of the city with its heavy Moorish influence, and the Bairro Alto. Another wonderful strolling and shopping venue can be found in the Chiado area which is closed off to cars. Sightseeing musts include: Edward VII Park, featuring a great view of the city below, Jeronimo’s Monastery, Belem Tower, the harbor side Discoveries Monument, St. George’s Castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge), and the site of the 1998 World Expo, hosted by Lisbon. At the waterfront World Expo one finds a world class aquarium, a spectacular sky ride, a space needle, many restaurants, fountains, a modern shopping mall and loads of room to wander and explore.

On to Sintra

It was our goal to use public transportation exclusively throughout our trip. The Portuguese national rail system is efficient, clean, inexpensive and punctual. When you are in Lisbon, by all means take a day or two to visit nearby Sintra, a favorite of Lord Byron. Trains run regularly from the Central Station in Lisbon to Sintra. Since there are several train stations, make certain you go to the correct one! Upon arrival in Sintra we stopped by the conveniently located tourist office to pick up city information, various brochures and a map. The staff was eager to help and all spoke English. Exploring Sintra, like most of Portugal, is fairly easy. Just walk! The National Palace and the Pena Park and Palace are two must see spots and part of the Lisboa Card promotion (see money saving tips below). If you are “day-tripping,” you won’t have time to do much more. The Pena Palace is a 19th century, eclectic medley of architectural styles and offers great photo opportunities. Other spots to visit include the Sintra Museum of Modern Art, the Old Quarter, the fabulous Toy Museum, the Quelez National Palace and Gardens and the Monserrate Palace and Gardens. The historic town of Sintra has been classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It is easy to see how it earns this unique distinction.

Good Eats & Shopping

In Lisbon, small family restaurants called tasquiinhas serve local cuisine and home cooking. They are numerous, fun, serve good food and are inexpensive. In restaurants, single meal portions are huge and easily enough for two people to share; french fries are served with almost everything. My entree preferences throughout the trip were the grilled lamb and beef dishes. Appetizers are always brought to the table and typically include olives, cheese, sardines, pates and garden fresh vegetables. Don’t assume they are complimentary; be aware that you will be charged for what you eat. If you taste it, you pay for it! Cod is the national food of the country. It is displayed in food markets and store fronts; dried and salted, hanging or stacked. Everywhere you go, cod, cod, cod.

While exploring Bairro Alto in Lisbon, we discovered Cervejaria Alema, a restaurant founded in 1927. The food is wonderful, featuring both German and Portuguese influenced dishes. The service was very attentive, which we appreciated since we needed help with the non-English language menu. At the Castelo de Sao Jorge (St. George’s Castle), we stopped for a drink at the beautiful Casa do Leao restaurant in the castle. Unfortunately we weren’t there for a meal; the menu and atmosphere were superb however.

The Baixa area, near the harbor, features Rua Augusta, Lisbon’s most famous shopping and dining street. More stores and restaurants can be found in the Chiado (mentioned earlier). This area was the site of a disastrous fire in 1988 that destroyed many important 18th century buildings. The area is being restored, preserving, where possible, the original building facades. In Chiado, don’t miss the famous, historic Brasileira Café on Largo do Chiado, a favorite rendezvous of intellectuals in the 1920s. For casual dining, try the food court in the Garrett Mall shopping center. The chain, Pans & Company, became a favorite of ours for a quick light meal. There are pictures of the food, so you can’t go wrong!

In Sintra, we ate lunch outdoors at the Tulhaus Restaurant, near the local Tourist Office, and enjoyed shrimp in broth and grilled seabass. Appetizers included olives, bread, and sardine pate; a local beer rounded out the meal. Pleasant surroundings, people watching and good food. What could be better?

Travel & Money Saving Tips

An absolute must for your trip is a copy of the Eyewitness Travel Guides Portugal with Madeira & the Azores from DK Publishing (www.dk.com). The guide features landmarks, survival guides, bus routes, street by street suggestions, food specialties, over 1,000 photos, history lessons, menus, useful phrases and maps. All in all, this is the best travel guide I’ve ever used. Make sure to pick up a free copy of Follow Me magazine at hotels and Tourist offices. I would also recommend that you purchase the nominally priced Lisboa Card “Your Password to the City.” This travel promotion allows unrestricted access to public busses, trams, lifts and the underground. Additionally the card gives you free admittance to 26 museums, monuments and the zoo. It can be purchased at any of the Tourist Information Shops around town. There are also other discount cards for shopping and restaurants available. Reminder: work your sightseeing schedule around Mondays when most museums are closed.

The airport is served by bus and taxi. The airport bus is inexpensive but, surprisingly, so are taxis. First class rail tickets are approximately 25% higher than coach, but fares are reasonable to begin with. I am a big proponent of spending a few bucks on guides. The country has a certification process and the guides are well versed in history, architecture, art and local customs. Ours were delightful and not expensive, especially if you find others to share the cost. The coin of the realm, the Escuda, is worth approximately 200 to the US dollar; it is nice to have a strong dollar when traveling internationally. ATMs can be found all around Lisbon. The exchange rate is generally better than at banks and there are usually no service charges on the Portuguese end. Do check with your bank for their international use charge. Make certain that you have a four number PIN (numbers, not letters). A PIN of five or more numbers does not work internationally.

International travel, time zones and jet lag are always the toughest part of any trip. To relieve boredom bring plenty of reading material. For your comfort pack a sleep mask, a travel pillow, and ear plugs. For your health needs pack saline spray for your nose (to prevent drying out of nasal membranes) and antibacterial hand gel. Wash your hands often; this reduces the risk of getting a cold and/or the flu. Finally, drink plenty of water and eat lightly.

Since we were celebrating our anniversary, we splurged on this trip and stayed in a suite at the Hotel Lisboa Plaza. It was tastefully decorated and well appointed, featuring a charming sitting area and a lot of old world charm. There was a decanter of port and a bowl of raisins waiting for our arrival; one of many small, nice touches throughout our stay. The hotel has only 94 rooms and 12 suites and the staff was attentive, well informed and solicitous. Included in the rate is an outstanding breakfast buffet including cheeses, meats, breads and rolls, eggs, fruits, assorted breakfast pastries, cereals and a variety of juices. It’s a great way to start the day and makes the rate even more attractive. Rates begin at $115, but there are value and seasonal dates and rates. The Hotel Lisboa Plaza is rated four stars.

For further information contact:

www.atl-turismolisboa.pt for the Turismo de Lisboa
Portuguese National Tourist Office: 1-800-767-8842
Hotel Lisboa Palace: www.heritage.pt

Coming soon are articles featuring the Alentejo Region, Bussaco Palace and Luso, Opporto and, finally, our gateway city Barcelona, Spain. Next stop – a Pousada and a Palace!

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