The history of Lisbon: Portugal’s capital of exploration and commerce
From Phoenician fort to Roman city, Moorish settlement and great European hub of exploration, Lisbon has lived many lives. Barry Hatton traces the history of the capital on the Tagus.
Lisbon ticks all the right boxes for a settlement. It sits atop a high, steep-sided hill alongside one of Europe’s longest rivers at the point where it meets the world’s second-largest ocean, and has a large, well-protected natural harbour.
The Phoenicians established a fortified settlement here in the seventh century BC – quite an important one, as the discovery of a Phoenician cemetery in 2014 confirmed. The Romans also recognised the spot’s strategic value: they arrived in 138 BC, and stayed for over five centuries.
Olisipo: Lisbon under the Romans
The location was good for the Romans for several reasons. The Tagus was rich in fish, especially the ones used for garum – a smelly, fermented fish sauce. It also provided an ideal stopping-off point on the route north out of the Mediterranean, to the British Isles or France.
They planted their city, Olisipo, on the south-facing slope of what’s now the castle hill. At the top was a fortification, with the settlement spreading along the riverbank and surrounded by a defensive wall.
Olisipo became a wealthy, important Roman city, with a 190m-long hippodrome on the site of what’s now officially King Pedro IV Square, better known as Rossio Square. It also had a theatre seating more than 3,000, the remnants of which can be visited just north of the Sé Cathedral.
Al-Ushbuna: Lisbon under Islamic rule
After Roman rule in western Europe collapsed, Olisipo largely fades from the historical record. Several tribes invaded from the north-east during this period, including the Visigoths – who stayed for about three centuries – but they left little trace.
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The next big watershed moment came in the eighth century, with the arrival of Islamic invaders from north Africa, who took the city in AD 714, calling it Al-Ushbuna. They built a citadel on top of the Roman fortress, where St George’s Castle (Castelo de São Jorge) currently stands.
Spreading downhill from that bastion is the distinctive Moorish labyrinth of the old town – the Alfama and Mouraria districts – which bear some semblance to a North African souk. When you wander the winding alleys, ducking under washing hung out to dry and sniffing the aroma of grilling sardines, it conjures up a flavour of what it must have been like 12 centuries ago.
The so-called reconquest of the peninsula by Christian forces reached Lisbon in 1147. A European coalition army of crusaders travelling from the north stopped off in Porto, where the bishop persuaded them to come and help King Afonso Henriques of Portugal take Lisbon.
What we know of the siege mostly comes from an English crusader’s letter home, now held at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. He provides a thrilling account of how the crusaders built two siege towers, and used battering rams and catapults to attack the city walls. The siege lasted from 1 July until late October, when the Moors finally surrendered.
Lisbon and the birth of Portugal
This marked a pivotal moment for the Portuguese kingdom, which was only half a dozen years old at that point. One Portuguese historian claimed that the conquest of Lisbon wrote out the nation’s birth certificate.
The city now grew quite quickly, with the next king, Dinis, continuing the momentum, extending the city walls – a 30m stretch of what he ordered built was discovered during work on the Bank of Portugal in 2010.
One of the most interesting sites from that period is the Carmo Church and monastery (officially known as the Convent of Our Lady of Mount Carmel) in the downtown area next to Rossio Square. It’s now a roofless ruin, but still retains glorious soaring arches like great stone ribs.
Its construction began in 1389 on the orders of arguably Portugal’s greatest military leader, Nuno Álvares Pereira – a key figure in Lisbon’s story.
Álvares Pereira became the richest man in Portugal after the King João I, and a great national hero. He led the army when Portugal was fighting for survival against Castile in the 1383–85 war, and helped put João on the throne. He also won a major victory over the Castilians at Aljubarrota in 1385, with the help of English longbowmen, defeating a much bigger army. His triumph galvanised Portugal, showing that this little country could prevail against the odds.
João I married Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt. Some of their children, including Henry the Navigator, would become what the Portuguese refer to as the ‘illustrious generation’ – the figures behind the Age of Exploration.
Lisbon during the Age of Exploration
In the 15th century, the stars aligned for Portugal in a spectacular way. Its empire burgeoned, driven by technical ingenuity, the geopolitical guile of its leaders and daring ambition.
Crucially, Portugal had impressive naval architecture: it had caravels – the swiftest craft on water – plus large galleons called carracks.
The Portuguese quickly built up an impressive knowledge of the winds and the ocean currents. They had excellent mathematicians, and invented astronomical instruments such as a simplified astrolabe.
Lisbon was behind all of this power that Portugal projected across the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and beyond. It became the first European power to reach Japan, in 1543. And the upshot was that back in Lisbon it rained money.
Initially, the Portuguese sailed along the African coast, reaching Madeira and the Azores. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias became the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope and reach the Indian Ocean. At the end of the 15th century, Manuel I sent Vasco da Gama off from Belém, the riverside area just west of central Lisbon, on his great voyage to India.
Manuel’s successor, João III, hatched the ambitious India Plan to divert the lucrative spice trade with the Orient through Lisbon instead of Venice – to bring these hugely profitable goods to Europe by sea instead of overland. King João III, known as the coloniser, expanded Portuguese power still further, stabilising Brazil, which the Portuguese officially ‘discovered’’ in 1500.
Lisbon’s imperial wealth
The vast wealth harvested during the early days of the Age of Exploration was concentrated in Lisbon, which became one of the biggest and busiest ports in Europe. It was an Aladdin’s cave of exotic goods from Africa and the Orient: gold, silk, jewels, sugar and spices, enslaved people from Africa, Chinese porcelain, Indian filigree, monkeys, parrots and more.
It was also a Renaissance melting pot. As well as Europeans, people arrived with these returning voyages from Africa, India and Brazil. This was a time of plenty for the church, which travelled together with the crown on these voyages of discovery. Churches, convents and monasteries multiplied in Lisbon, taking prominent hilltop locations.
In 1498, Manuel I set in motion a plan to move out of St George’s Castle to the riverside, which shifted the city’s centre of gravity and completely reshaped its growth. The building of his palace on the river – the Paço de Ribeira, which no longer exists – triggered an urban revolution.
The palace was said to be one of the most luxurious and stunning Portuguese dwelling ever seen, housing artwork by old masters, around 70,000 books, an elaborate royal chapel. Around it sprang up the trappings of the empire: India House, the Royal Mint, the Royal Armoury – and the king could gaze out from his palace and see it all.
The greatest surviving monument from that time is the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém. This was Manuel I’s big prestige project built on a vast scale, and the very ornate style in which it was designed is known as Manueline. It stands right by the river, so any ship sailing into Lisbon had to pass it – sending out a clear message: we are very rich, but also very pious.
Lisbon’s Castilian interlude
After flying so high, Lisbon came back down to Earth with a bang, when the quixotic young king Sebastian’s unwise military adventure in North Africa handed the keys of the kingdom to Castile.
Sebastian acceded to the throne in 1557, at the age of just three, so the country was ruled by regents until he turned 14 in 1568. He then reigned for only ten years before his death on the battlefield in North Africa, seduced by tales of chivalry and the glorious feats of his royal ancestors.
Sebastian ordered the rebuilding of the old royal quarters in the castle, and in fact was the last Portuguese monarch to sleep there. But after his African misadventure, Lisbon went from the seat of the royal court and an imperial capital to being just another provincial city.
That was because the throne passed to Phillip II of Spain: grandson of Manuel I, and son of Isabella of Portugal. And so, in 1580 he also became Felipe I of Portugal – changing everything.
There’s only a very faint footprint of Spanish rule in Lisbon, which Castile mostly ignored. The most noticeable legacy of that period is the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora – a massive building, Felipe’s pet project. It’s a very sober, imposing building with two towers at the front to make it look like a cathedral.
There was a gradual groundswell of Portuguese nationalism, with a group called the Forty Conspirators plotting against Spanish rule. And in 1640, independence was restored on 1 December – which is still a public holiday in Portugal.
That opened another new chapter for Lisbon, boosted later that century when gold started flowing from Brazil. The first shipment arrived in Lisbon in 1699; one legendary gold nugget, which was mined in Brazil in 1732, weighed more than 20kg.
This second period of huge wealth helped pay for major projects such as the Lisbon Aqueduct, which still stands.
It also fuelled opulence and flamboyant consumption under King João V. His son, José I, built a glittering, grandiose Royal Opera House by the Riverside Palace, equal to any in the rest of Europe. Unfortunately, it would last only 215 days.
Devastation and restoration
On 1 November 1755 a hugely powerful earthquake devastated Lisbon. Three violent tremors hit in quick succession, followed by a tsunami the height of a double-decker bus that rolled up the Tagus, then a six-day fire that turned sand to glass.
Central Lisbon was built on gravelly earth, which shifted – and the city collapsed. All those great buildings – along with the treasured artworks, books, and official records of the Age of Exploration – were lost, either in the quake or the fire or the tsunami.
The king, José I, became a nervous wreck, and handed over the rebuilding of the city to the Marquis of Pombal, a towering figure in Portuguese history who still overlooks his work from a pedestal in the middle of Lisbon’s biggest roundabout. This uncompromising but enlightened despot was given carte blanche to reconstruct the city, rebuilding downtown Lisbon in a sober, symmetrical gridiron pattern a million miles away from those narrow, sinewy Moorish streets of the Alfama and Mouraria.
Lisbon in the aftermath of the Peninsular War
As winter approached in 1807, there was a frenzy along the riverside at Belém – Napoleon’s army was bearing down on Lisbon, and anyone with money, power and influence was scrambling to get out. The elite planned to uproot Portugal and just replant it 8,000km to the south-west, in Brazil.
These early days of the Peninsula War marked the start of a wretched century for Portugal. Lisbon was stripped of its status and its treasures as the echoes and repercussions of the French Revolution were felt across Europe.
In 1820, there was a liberal revolution in Portugal, which led to the country’s first election. King João VI, who by this point had been in Brazil for almost 14 years, finally returned in 1821. The following year – amid fears that Brazil could be reduced from a kingdom to a Portuguese colony –his son Prince Pedro declared Brazil’s independence, becoming Emperor Pedro. And when João VI died in 1826, he was proclaimed King Pedro IV of Portugal too.
Pedro’s exiled brother, Miguel, challenged him for the Portuguese throne, sparking a civil war. It ended with a triumph for Pedro’s liberal faction in 1834, which resulted in a dissolution of the monasteries and convents, their premises taken over by public institutions.
In the 1830s, a generation of new intellectuals emerged, including dramatist Almeida Garrett, who drove the construction of the Queen Maria II National Theatre in Rossio Square.
Another place worth visiting from that period is the Ajuda Palace, started in 1796 but only partly finished in the first half of the 19th century. Because it took so long, it started out as a baroque palace and ended up as a neoclassical one.
The next watershed moment came in 1851, when the Duke of Saldanha seized power in a military insurrection, and brought about what’s called the Regeneration. Fontes Pereira de Melo, the government minister of public works, oversaw another major redevelopment of the city. New avenues were built, new public transport installed, new drains and sewage networks laid.
The chief engineer of Lisbon City Council, Ressano Garcia, took his cue from Baron Haussmann’s ambitions in Paris, introducing parks and gardens and woodlands. And later that century, Lisbon’s trademark funiculars were installed.
Lisbon under Salazar’s dictatorship
In 1908, King Carlos I and his son and heir were assassinated. The carriage in which they were riding at the time is on display at the National Coach Museum in Lisbon; you can still see the bullet holes from that attack.
It was the starting pistol for more unrest that century, including the Republican Revolution of 1910 that brought bloodshed, barricades and cannon fire in the streets of downtown Lisbon. King Manuel II fled – and that was the end of the Portuguese monarchy.
At the time of yet another military coup in 1926, António Salazar was a professor at Coimbra University, between Lisbon and Porto. He was named as finance minister and, eventually and incredibly, balanced the national books – so impressing the military that in 1932 they appointed him the head of government.
He came to rule as a repressive dictator, staying in power until 1968. Through that turbulent period, dissent was repressed and the population kept largely poor. He did, though, keep Portugal out of the Second World War, and during this time Lisbon became known as Europe’s quayside because of the numbers of refugees fleeing the Nazis, mostly sailing to the US.
Amid all that, there was one remarkable event in 1940: the Portuguese World Exhibition, staged in Belém to mark the founding of Portugal in 1140 and the restoration of independence in 1640, but also to show off the Portuguese empire.
A first version of the riverside monument to the discoveries was created in the shape of a stylised caravel poking out into the river, with statues of 32 Portuguese heroes alongside it – Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama among them.
Salazar’s public works minister, Duarte Pacheco, extended and improved Lisbon with new housing estates and new sanitation. He built the National Stadium, the National Library, Lisbon Airport, the Royal Mint, the Lisbon University campus, all in a very new, rather brutalist style – typical of Estado Novo, the ‘new state’. But the main contribution, in visual terms at least, from that period is the Salazar suspension bridge, which looks like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, built in 1966.
The Salazar regime came to an end with what’s known as the Carnation Revolution. On 25 April 1974, Lisbon woke up to find tanks in the streets – and Portuguese society turned on its head overnight.
At the time, Portugal was fighting to quell independence movements in its African colonies – Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Cape Verde, and São Tomé and Príncipe – all of which now soon gained independence, and half a million expat Portuguese flooded back to Lisbon.
In 1986, Portugal joined the European Economic Community – now the European Union – which brought a cash bonanza to a country that was very poor at the time. Then, the Expo '98 World’s Fair brought about Lisbon's so-called Big Bang, continuing and expanding the development programme – extending the underground network, building skyscrapers and much more.
The Expo’s main legacy was the Vasco da Gama Bridge, Europe’s longest at the time stretching for 17.2km. It’s a very can-do, wind in your hair kind of monument – a symbol of the wider retooling of a city that’s now such a fascinating, engaging place to explore.
Barry Hatton was talking to Paul Bloomfield, travel journalist and host of our podcast series History's Greatest Cities
What to see: Lisbon in five places
From Roman colony to Moorish citadel and springboard for global exploration, Portugal’s capital has played many roles. Barry Hatton highlights five sites to explore in Lisbon.
1. Castelo de São Jorge
More palimpsest than palace, the layers of history visible in this hilltop citadel reveal the capital’s tale since its earliest days. This is where the Romans built their fortification after founding their settlement of Olisipo in 138 BC, on the site of an even earlier Iron Age settlement, traces of which are found in the north-eastern corner of the Castle of St George.
Following the victory of Christian forces over Islamic occupiers in the 1147 Siege of Lisbon, King Afonso Henriques transformed the Moorish citadel into his royal residence. After Manuel I moved his home into a more luxurious palace by the river in 1511, the castle served other purposes, used as a prison among other things.
Its ramparts, ruined by the 1755 earthquake that devastated the city, remained in ruins till they were heavily renovated under dictator António Salazar in 1938. Today, the castle is like a crow’s nest: from this eyrie, the city spreads out at your feet across a patchwork of terracotta roofs. Visit early in the morning or evening, when the soft light gives the castle’s yellowish stone a golden hue.
2. Centro Cultural de Belém
In some ways, this building is a missed opportunity. Constructed in 1993 as a cultural and conference centre, its pale, blocky, square form is in stark contrast to the ornate, overwrought decorations of the nearby Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.
But it’s a fine place to visit for concerts and other events, and to explore the excellent collection of modern art in its Museu Coleção Berardo – including works by Picasso, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koon and Piet Mondrian, as well as pieces by top Portuguese artists such as Paula Rego.
As a bonus, it’s just along the street from Pastéis de Belém, a Lisbon institution baking what some claim to be the capital’s finest pastéis de nata – the custard tarts created by the monks of Jerónimos well over three centuries ago.
3. Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
The Jerónimos Monastery, with its cloisters and church, are simply magnificent – and a testament to the vast wealth brought back to Lisbon during its golden age of exploration and trade.
Commissioned by Manuel I in 1501, construction took more than 100 years to complete. It’s the supreme example of the architectural style dubbed Manueline, with rich, detailed, ornate stone carving. Look for the beautiful azulejos (typical blue decorative tiles) in the refectory, the spectacular roof vaulting in the nave, and the 19th-century tomb of explorer Vasco da Gama.
You’ll also find the empty tomb of young King Sebastião, whose death in battle in north Africa in 1578 led to nearly six decades of Spanish rule in Portugal.
4. Aqueduto das Águas Livres
This vast aqueduct, rising above the west of the city, is sober and simple in style, not like the highly decorative Manueline monuments elsewhere. It’s plain and it’s to the point, its splendour lying in its sheer scale – an emphatic reminder of the bounty that Brazilian gold brought to the capital.
Started in 1731, a passion project of João V, its Arco Grande (Great Arch) is 65 metres high and 28 wide – reputedly the biggest stone arch of its kind in the world. It’s said to have three keystones, and can be sundered only by a special kind of sound. It’s not known what that sound might be, but obviously it’s not the sound of an earthquake – because it survived the massive tremor of 1755. to younger visitors.
5. Palácio Nacional da Ajuda
After the city was razed by the earthquake and resulting tsunami of 1755, King José I ordered a new palace to be built in the Ajuda hills above Belém, where the ground was solid. Thus began an astonishingly lengthy period of construction lasting 240 years.
Started as a baroque edifice, it was ravaged by fire in 1795, and abandoned when the royal family fled to Brazil on the approach of Napoleon in 1807. It was used as a royal residence by Luis I from 1861, but still incomplete at the time of the 1910 revolution, when work stopped again.
It was ‘finished’ at the end of the 20th century, though the western wing was completed only in 2021. Today it houses a priceless collection of royal treasure, including gold and diamonds from Brazil, plus textiles and artefacts from Japan and elsewhere.
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