LISBON, Portugal — For anyone considering a trip to a European city, Lisbon perhaps isn’t a destination that springs immediately to mind. The Portuguese capital’s singular charms, however, are drawing an increasing number of visitors.
The port city on Europe’s southwestern edge can’t boast the scale or variety of, say, Paris or London. What it offers is a small scale suited to walkers, a sedate pace of life, little crime and lots of history. The famously hospitable Portuguese are another asset, and the restaurants can lay on exceptional fish and seafood from the Atlantic.
During the Age of Exploration 500 years ago, when Portugal led Europe out of the Mediterranean and established an empire spanning from Latin America across Africa to Asia, Lisbon was one of the world’s wealthiest cities. But a massive 1755 earthquake destroyed many of the greatest Lisbon monuments.
Though the city swiftly modernized after Portugal joined the European Union a quarter century ago, it has retained an old-time attractiveness as well as a beguiling blend of people from the country’s former colonies in Africa, India and Brazil.
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Here’s a rundown on neighborhoods (and get more visitor info at visitportugal.com):
BELEM: This area on the north bank of the Tagus River was the launchpad for the great Portuguese ships and dauntless mariners who set off to discover the world beyond the horizon in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Belem, which translates as Bethlehem (the voyages had a strong religious component), has the Jeronimos monastery and church from 1601, broad gardens, and a large marble map on the riverbank showing the places the Portuguese encountered, and when, as they radiated across the globe. The Portuguese like to think of it as the ground zero of globalization.
The local pastry shops sell the famous, and irresistible, Portuguese custard tarts. Across the river, next to the April 25 Bridge that bears a striking resemblance to San Francisco’s Golden Gate, a giant statue of Christ overlooks the city, its arms open.
ALFAMA: The Alfama quarter is distinguished by its narrow, cobbled streets on the hillside below Lisbon castle, where archaeologists have found traces of occupation dating from the seventh century B.C. Once home to medieval Jewish and Moorish settlements, the quarter has an endearing shabbiness and lived-in feel. Walking through the quiet streets often involves ducking under washing hung out to dry and slaloming between smoky barbecues where fish is being grilled.
BAIXA: This downtown district was rebuilt after the 1755 quake in what for Portugal is a rare gridiron pattern. Many old-fashioned stores, as well as modern international chains, line the streets of Baixa. Look down at your feet and admire the sidewalks decorated in the black-and-white patterns of traditional Portuguese paving, which is also found in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, and Macau (a former Portuguese colony), in China.
Rua Augusta, a pedestrians-only street, links two main squares — Rossio and the riverside Praca do Comercio, where government offices have moved out to make way for al fresco cafes and restaurants.
CHIADO: The quarter’s heyday was in the late 19th-century Belle Epoque when writers and artists gathered at its cafes. Outside the Cafe a Brasileira, a statue of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s best-known 20th-century poet who also wrote in English, is one of the city’s most photographed sights. A 1988 fire damaged many historic buildings. The reconstruction was overseen by Alvaro Siza Vieira, who has won the world’s top architecture prizes, and the quarter has preserved its elegant, sophisticated atmosphere.
PAULA REGO MUSEUM: Paula Rego is one of Portugal’s most famous modern artists. She fled Antonio Salazar’s dictatorship, which ruled over Portugal for four decades in the last century, and settled in London in the 1950s, but her work still draws powerfully on Portuguese culture and her childhood memories around Cascais, a seaside town just outside Lisbon where some of her work is housed. The 30-minute train ride from the capital traces the coast’s contours, with magnificent views over the Atlantic. Cascais also offers beaches and a long promenade.