A while back, I wrote a blog post called Winter Packing Tips for People Who Hate to Be Cold. In it, I shared the garments I like to wear to protect myself from freezing temperatures and snow. I also mentioned that no place in Europe was particularly warm in winter after having encountered a blizzard in Istanbul. Well, that was before I traveled to Lisbon in December! Thanks to the city’s location on the southern coast of the Iberian Peninsula, it is blessed with an abundance of sunshine year round. A light jacket and maybe a scarf were all I needed for comfortable days of sightseeing. True, the bougainvillea might not be blooming, but the mild climate and sidewalk cafes more than make up for it.
A walk through Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood is a great way to get the blood pumping. Streets snake their way up steep hills that will have you panting at the top, both from the exertion and the spectacular views. Be on the lookout for signs that say “miradouro” as these indicate scenic overlooks; my favorite is “Miradouro das Portas do Sol.” The Alfama is one of the oldest parts of Lisbon, and also one of the most colorful. Many buildings are awash in azulejos, the beautiful tiles for which the city is known, while others are brightly painted. I was impressed by the amount of street art breathing new life into the hoary quarter. Classic yellow trams rumble up the main artery, providing a ride for those in need.
At the top of the hill you’ll find the Castle of St George. Strolling along the ramparts of the 11th century Moorish fortress is a must! Lisbon’s orange rooftops will be spread out around you, while the blue water of the Tagus River glistens in the distance. The area directly below the castle has a wide array of souvenir shops, plus plenty of cafes and wine bars to help you rest and refuel. A favorite is Nata Lisboa, which serves some of the city’s tastiest egg custard tarts (excluding the famous Pasteis de Belem, which are in a league of their own).
Speaking of Belem, this neighborhood has plenty more to offer than its namesake pastries (which I wrote about here). The UNESCO-listed Jeronimos Monastery is a testament to Portugal’s significance during the Age of Discovery, when brave men set sail to find new trade routes with the East. The ornately Gothic monastery was paid for out of the royal coffers, which were overflowing with profits from Portuguese colonial imports, namely black pepper. It was given to the monastic Order of St. Jerome. In return, the monks were asked to pray for the sailors and explorers who set off from the nearby Lisbon port, and of course for the king who made it all possible. The most famous of these explorers, Vasco da Gama, is entombed within the monastery’s church. Several Portuguese kings and queens are also buried inside.
Outside the monastery next to the riverbank stands the Monument to the Discoveries. The 56 meter high stone sculpture pays homage to Portugal’s great seafarers, Henry the Navigator chief among them. You can find him standing front and center, staring out to sea with a masted ship in his hands. It’s possible to take a lift to an observation deck at the top, but the high safety walls make it tough to take photos.
Further down the banks is the Tower of Belem, a 16th century structure that was once part of the river’s defensive system. The striking fort is best appreciated at sunset with a glass of Portuguese wine from the ingenious little operation, Wine With a View. Even in December, I was able to sit in one of the provided chairs by the river to enjoy my vinho and the view. I even got to take home a (plastic) souvenir glass!
The medieval city of Lisbon was forever changed on November 1, 1755 when an earthquake of an estimated magnitude 8.0 struck the coast. A 20-foot tsunami washed ashore, buildings collapsed, and fire ravaged what buildings were left. Tens of thousands of people died. Little remains of pre-quake Lisbon as much of the city had to be rebuilt from scratch. One exception is Carmo Convent which stands in ruins as a reminder of the devastation. What was once the largest church in Lisbon is now a hulking open-air shell. A small but interesting archaeology museum has been installed inside the main altar.
Another structure that survived the earthquake is the Mother of God Convent, which now houses the National Tile Museum. This unique collection of azulejos spans 500 years, with many ceramic tiles and murals salvaged from the post-quake rubble. The most notable is a panorama of the Lisbon skyline from 1738 that is comprised of 1,300 blue-and-white tiles. In addition to all the pieces on display, crates of tiles awaiting restoration can be seen behind glass panels in the central courtyard. The convent’s church is itself a work of art, with paintings in carved gilt frames covering nearly every surface, including the ceiling. I reached this somewhat distant museum by riding the red Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus, which also took me to the Lisbon Christmas Market. Local bus 794 is another option. You can find the Lisbon bus and tram routes here.
Are YOU ready to visit Lisbon in winter?