With so many wonderful things to see and do in Lisbon, just one blog post wasn’t enough. I hope you enjoyed touring through the Alfama and the Baixa neighborhoods in my previous blog; Lisbon, Portugal Part I! Continuing my tour of Lisbon’s eclectic neighborhoods, this post will guide you through the Bairro Alto and Belém districts of Portugal’s capital city.
Exploring Bairro Alto Neighborhood:
The Bairro Alto neighborhood is one of the most charming districts in Lisbon. Designed in the 16th century with a grid-plan layout, cobbled sidewalks, and narrow streets, this working class neighborhood once housed ship workers, centuries ago. Through the years, Bairro Alto became popular with Portuguese artists and writers. Now this district, has charismatic bohemian vibes, which pairs well with the rugged charm of a working class neighborhood. With seemingly two separate identities; quiet and empty streets during the day, and vibrant nightlife in the evening with energetic bars, restaurants, shops, and Fado Houses staying open late into the night. I would recommend visiting during the morning/early afternoon and return during the evening to experience the difference in this picturesque neighborhood. The Bairro Alto district seems to be the heart of Lisbon.
Since the Bairro Alto is known as Lisbon’s high town, one of the best ways to reach this district is from the neighboring Baixa district. You will find the Elevador da Glória (funicular) near the obelisk at Praça dos Restauradores in Baixa. Catch the funicular (€3.50 one-way or free with LisboaCard) at the bottom of the hill for a 265-meter ride up the steep hill into the Bairro Alto. Enjoy the brightly colored buildings and graffiti displayed as artwork on the building facades from the interior of the restored funicular. The charming and iconic Elevador da Glória has been carrying locals and visitors up that steep hill since 1885.
At the top of the hill, to the right of the Elevador da Glória, is the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara (San Pedro Belvedere). This park and lookout point provides breathtaking and sweeping views of Lisbon. Take some time to enjoy the views, locate other historic landmarks of Lisbon from afar, and feel the breeze from the Tagus River. After admiring the views, start your walk through this picturesque neighborhood (directly across from the park/lookout is the Port Wine Institute).
After enjoying the views from Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, get lost in the cobbled streets of Bairro Alto. I would suggest putting away your maps for a few blocks and just take in this charming neighborhood (that’s exactly what we did!). With beautifully colored painted and tiled building facades, charming wrought-iron balconies and street lamps, laundry hanging from above, and cobbled lanes that lead you through this delightful neighborhood.
After getting lost for a while, grab your map (or ask a polite local) to locate Largo Trindade Coelho, a small square which houses the São Roque Church. The São Roque Church was built in the 16th century as one of Lisbon’s first Jesuit churches. With an amazing false-domed painted wood ceiling, numbered floor panels which use to be tombs (the tombs have been empty since the 19th century when diseases such as the plague sickened entire communities), altars with heavy gold leafing, and mosaic floors. The Chapel of St. John the Baptist was made in Rome, disassembled and shipped to Lisbon, and is considered to be the most costly (per square inch) chapel ever constructed in Portugal! After viewing the church, visit the São Roque Museum directly next to the church. This museum holds an impressive collection of 16th and 17th century church art and artifacts.
Leaving the São Roque church, continue walking downhill on Rua Nova da Trindade and pass the Cervejaria da Trindade (the oldest beer hall in Lisbon with a beautiful display of 19th century tiles) and also pass the Livraria Barateira (Lisbon’s biggest used bookstore, as a book lover, I was in heaven!). After drinking a beer in the oldest beer hall and browsing through the biggest used bookstore in Lisbon, continue toward the Largo do Carmo (follow the signs for the Convento do Carmo). Largo do Carmo is a beautiful small square with an old fountain as its centerpiece and jacaranda trees from South America. Bordering the square, are the headquarters of the National Guard with an officer standing guard, and the Convento do Carmo (Church of Our Lady of the Carmo Hill). The Convento do Carmo (€3.50 or 20% off with LisboaCard) was built between 1389 and 1423. Suffering from substantial damage during the 1755 earthquake and fire, the church was supposed to be reconstructed, but budget cuts did not allow the restoration. With minimal preservation, visitors can view this primitive structure, marvel at church elements that date to the 14th century, and walk through the rugged, open-topped ruins. Visit the small, attached Carmo Archaeological Museum to view the collection of Carmo church artifacts (tile panels, stones, statues, and tomb facades).
Just past the Convento do Carmo, is a small lane which will lead you to the Elevador de Santa Justa. Completed in 1902, this 150-foot tall elevator, connects upper (Bairro Alto) and lower (Baixa) towns. The Elevador de Santa Justa was designed by an architect who studied under Gustav Eiffel (designer of the Eiffel Tower) and has a Neo-Gothic design. There are two viewing floors, the ramp-level from the Bairro Alto (free) and the top-floor viewing platform (€5 roundtrip or free with LisboaCard). The roundtrip fee includes access to the top-floor viewing platform and the wooden-paneled elevator which takes you down into the lower Baixa neighborhood. From the ramp-level entry, climb the spiral, open staircase to the upper viewing platform for breathtaking views of Lisbon. (After taking in the views, climb down the opposite spiral staircase to the ramp-level entry. Then either take the elevator down into the Baixa district or walk back through the lane beside the Convento do Carmo to finish your walk through the Bairro Alto district).
Grab your map and make your way downhill to the Rua Garrett, a lively pedestrian-only street, with bars, restaurants, and shops. Almost directly across from the Baixa-Chiado Metro stop is the famous Café A Brasileira. This 100-year old, Art Nouveau café was once a popular spot for Lisbon’s literary and creative thinkers of the 1920s and 1930s, and frequented by some of Lisbon’s greatest poets. Outside the café is a statue of one of the most famous 20th century Portuguese poets, Fernando Pessoa. Inside, patterned marbled floors, mirrored walls reflect light from hanging chandeliers, and rich wood accents on the bar and booths are aged to perfection. We stood at the beautiful wooden bar, ordered a cappuccino and pastel de nata custard tart while soaking up years of history in this little café.
The Baixa-Chiado area is a popular shopping and theater district. If you continue on Rua Garrett, following the mosaic sidewalks which will lead you downhill past local shops and a shopping mall. This is where the Bairro Alto meets the Baixa neighborhood. A walk through the vibrant Bairro Alto district delivers visitors a picturesque view of one of Lisbon’s most distinctive neighborhoods. It is the perfect neighborhood to lose yourself and to discover the grandeur of Lisbon.
Exploring Belém District:
Belém is approximately three miles west of downtown Lisbon. The Belém district houses many important sights from Portugal’s Golden Age and was the send-off point for ship voyages during the Age of Discovery. Most of the buildings in Belém survived the 1755 earthquake, so visitors are treated to beautiful and stately buildings reminiscent of pre-earthquake Lisbon.
By taking either the #714 or #728 bus, or the #15E trolley (catch public transit for Belém at either Praça da Figueria or Praça do Comércio) you will arrive in the Belém district in about 20-30 minutes. We caught the #714 bus out to Belém, I received a wonderful 10-minute, Portuguese history lesson from an elderly gentleman. He spoke five languages, had traveled the world, and was eager to point out historical buildings that maps or guidebooks don’t discuss. This conversation is just another example of how friendly the Portuguese people are, and how smiling and saying hello to the person next to you can give you a lifelong memory! We departed the bus at the first stop in Belém at the National Coach Museum (we opted not to tour this museum). Since it was a sunny day, we walked to the Monument to the Discoveries (about a 10- 15 minute walk from the bus stop).
The Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos) was originally built for the 1940 World Expo. In 1960, Lisbon honored the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator by rebuilding the monument. Walking around this huge monument (170-foot tall), try to recognize the many explorers whom are carved into this concrete structure. From Prince Henry the Navigator, King Manuel I, Luís de Camões, Philippa of Lancaster (the only woman on the monument and Henry’s mother), Vasco da Gama, Magellan, and a few others that defined the Age of Discovery. In front of the monument is a giant marble map in the pavement, a gift from South Africa. Inside the Monument to the Discoveries there is not much to view, but you can take the elevator to the top viewing platform (€3 or 30% off with LisboaCard) for gorgeous views of the 25th of April Bridge, Tagus River, Cristo Rei (Christ of Majesty overlooks Lisbon from across the Tagus River) statue, and the rest of Belém.
Leaving the Monument to the Discoveries walking along the Tagus River head toward the unique Belém Tower (€6 or free with LisboaCard). The Belém Tower was built from 1515 to 1520 in a Manueline design. This white, carved stone tower once protected Lisbon’s harbor and now invites visitors to explore its maritime past. Take a moment to marvel at the exterior, with exquisitely carved stone facade which features maritime ropes, Manuel’s coat of arms, armillary spheres, and shields from the Order of the Cross. While the river waves crash near your feet, you can’t help but ponder about the sailors who saw this tower as the last sight when leaving Lisbon and the first sight when returning to Lisbon, hundreds of years ago. Cross the short wooden bridge to explore the interior of the tower. The interior is pretty bare, with a few artifacts scattered about. Climb the 120 stone spiral stairs to the top viewing platform, you will be greeted with wonderful views of the 25th of April Bridge, Tagus River, Cristo Rei statue, and the rest of Belém.
After visiting Belém Tower, walk along two busy, parallel roads (Avenida da Índia and Avenida de Brasilia) and cross over them at the pedestrian bridge or take the pedestrian underpass that puts you directly in front of the Jardim da Praça do Imperio and Jardim Vasco da Gama. Enjoy the gardens and water fountains, then walk towards the Monastery of Jerónimos (church is free to visit, cloister costs €10 or free with the LisboaCard). Initial construction of the Monastery of Jerónimos was commissioned by King Manuel I in 1501. Many additions, throughout hundreds of years have cohesively formed this spectacular limestone church and monastery. The Monastery of Jerónimos was built upon the site of a small church which housed praying sailors on their last night before embarking on dangerous voyages. The grandness of the church and cloister is breathtaking, with spectacular details throughout. Meticulous carvings feature lace-like motifs throughout the cloister, gargoyles, animals and sea creatures are carved into the beautiful stone, massive columns dwarf the church pews, and the high vaulted hallways let the sun warm-up the passages. Find your way to the stairs which take you to the overlook inside the magnificent church and marvel the interior, then walk along the upper passage of the cloister and look down into the courtyard. Both interior and exterior facades are remarkable, the Monastery of the Jerónimos is the architectural highlight of Belém! (I would suggest visiting early morning, with fewer crowds, you will feel like you have the entire cloister to yourself!)
Leaving the Monastery of the Jerónimos, and once again admiring the exterior of the church, take a short walk on Rua de Belém to the Casa Pastéis de Belem. Casa Pastéis de Belém opened in 1837 and is the birthplace of the custard tart called pastel de nata. This café makes over 20,000 custard tarts per day! Order from the front counter for a quick takeaway snack, or sit at one of the many tables in the back (the café looks small from the outside, when in fact there are plenty of tables in the back). Served warm, crunchy on the outside, with a cream filling (sprinkle cinnamon and powdered sugar on top for extra sweetness), these custard tarts are the popular sweet-treat of Lisbon. Enjoying a few pastéis de nata treats and an espresso was the perfect end to our Belém walk.
From Alfama’s tangled streets, Baixa’s historic downtown, Bairro Alto’s working class roots with a bohemian vibe, and Belem’s maritime history which celebrates Portugal’s Golden Age, each neighborhood offers unique characteristics to make Lisbon an eclectic and charming European city! Lisbon is a world-class city that offers centuries of history, forty museums (including the Gulbenkian Museum and the National Tile Museum), stunning views, and friendly locals. Just a note to visitors, most historical sights and museums are closed on Mondays, so plan accordingly (it’s the perfect day to visit Sintra). If you have any questions about anything you read, please let me know, or visit www.visitlisboa.com or www.visitportugal.com!
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