This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
From the ramparts of the medieval castle of St George, perched high above the city, it’s possible to understand why Lisbon exists. I’ve been coming here to research Portugal’s voyages of exploration and have grown to love this surprising place, rich in history. With its line of hills and the river Tagus beyond, wide as the straits between continents, gleaming in the sunlight, Lisbon is a gateway to the Atlantic.
The Tagus gifted Lisbon the finest harbour on Europe’s western seaboard. From the Phoenicians onwards everyone has stopped off here.
The Arabs held it for four centuries; their original settlement, Alfama, a dense souk of steep lanes through which antique trams hurtle, bells clanging, is where I like to stay. You can get pleasurably lost in its evocative labyrinth, eat a tasty Goan fish curry or visit clubs where fado is sung – the languorous urban blues of Portugal, an expression of love, loss and hard times.
The Second Crusade of 1147 expelled the Muslims and built the city’s stern cathedral on the slopes below the castle. Many of the English knights got no further and settled down – the start of a long Anglo-Portuguese alliance. But it was Henry the so-called Navigator, in the 15th century, who really got Lisbon going, with the voyages of discovery that culminated in Vasco da Gama’s expedition to India in 1497.
A short tram ride will take you to Belém (Portuguese for Bethlehem) downstream on the Tagus, Gama’s point of departure. Belém is an iconic place in Portuguese history. For centuries, ships sailed from here to India, China and Brazil, returning with spices, slaves and gold.
Some of this wealth went to build the city’s great treasure, the 16th‑century monastery of Jerónimos, a World Heritage site, 300 yards long, wreathed inside and out with exuberant carved symbols, like the ornamentation on a Hindu temple. Its church contains the tombs of Gama, Manuel I, the king who ordered his expedition, and Luís de Camões, Portugal’s greatest poet.
Nearby is the romantic tower of Belém, standing offshore in the Tagus, similarly embellished with motifs and carved figures, including the head of the first rhino to be seen in Europe since the time of the Romans. (Manuel sent the live rhino to the pope but sadly it drowned en route.)
The Portuguese come to Belém to revere their past, take the lift to the top of the modern Monument to the Discoveries (another wonderful view) and to eat a local speciality, pastéis de Belém, custard tarts sprinkled with cinnamon and washed down with hits of black coffee.
Spices made Lisbon for a time the wealthiest and most exotic city in Europe. It was the silicon valley of exploration and attracted map makers, merchants and entrepreneurs from across the continent, but its urban fabric was dramatically ruptured by the great earthquake of 1755. It happened on All Saints’ Day. Many people were in church and thousands died. The aftershock was not just physical – in the age of enlightenment it caused debate across Europe about the existence of God. Much of the low-lying city was wiped out in a single day. The grand centre, fronting the Tagus, was rebuilt in imperial style, like London after the Great Fire of 1666, but the stark skeleton of the Carmo Convent remains as a monument to the devastation.
Much of this history can be glimpsed in a series of museums: the Museum of Ancient Arts, which contains treasures from the Orient; the Maritime Museum; the Gulbenkian; and, one of my favourites, the Tile Museum. Azulejos, glazed tiles, are a national art form – you can see examples everywhere throughout Lisbon, but this collection is splendid.
If museums pall and it gets too hot, take a short train ride to the nearby town of Sintra, Lisbon’s green hill station. Perched on an outcrop, it’s noticeably cooler in summer and contains the fascinating National Palace of Sintra – a wonderful mix of Moorish and medieval European architecture, closely connected with another figure of the Portuguese golden age. Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt, came to Lisbon to marry King John I in 1387; she was a guiding influence on the Portuguese court and produced a succession of talented sons, including Henry the Navigator, who steered Lisbon and Portugal on its remarkable voyage.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
A visit in mid-late spring means you avoid the heat of the Portuguese summer or the often unpredictable winter weather. Carnival season takes place in June, when Lisbon’s patron saints, Peter, John and Anthony, are widely celebrated.
You can fly to Lisbon from most UK airports, including London, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester.
What to pack
Both an umbrella and sun cream if you’re going in spring. The weather can switch from Atlantic rain to summer heat very suddenly.
What to bring back
Your house name or number in azulejos – a form of glazed ceramic tilework.
Go up into the hills & see beautiful town of Sintra – where Arthur Wellesley once signed a truce that almost ended his career
Take a tour with the old tram. So romantic and wonderful views of the town
See the amazing ceramic tiles everywhere. Don’t forget a trip up the tower!
Roger Crowley is a writer and historian. His new book, Conquerors: How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire, is published this month and reviewed in our Books section. Read more about Roger’s experiences in Lisbon at historyextra.com/bbchistorymagazine/lisbon