Lisbon

The capital of Portugal, and westernmost city in Europe, Lisbon is a gem but sadly not an unknown one anymore. In the middle of summer it was heaving with tourists, but there were plenty of places you could escape the crowds, if not the hills!

To start with a couple of places that weren’t that busy, despite being the best museums that I visited in the city, both helped by being a fair distance from the old town. The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum is home to the exquisite collection of Calouste Gulbenkian, an Armenian who lived in Istanbul, France, Britain and Portugal. He made his money in the early boom days of the oil industry in the first half of the twentieth century and spent it on collecting an incredibly diverse and high quality collection, from the Egyptian Art to European furniture.

The surrounding Gulbenkian gardens are very pleasant, and nearby is the Gulbenkian Modern Art Center, housed in a funky building but the contents struggle in comparison with the original museum.

Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum) easily justified the long walk with an extensive collection of beautiful tiles from the 16th century to the modern day.

As a bonus it had a stunning chapel and other elaborate rooms from the building’s past life as the Convent of Madre de Deus, founded in 1509.

There are some wonderful gardens in Lisbon. One of my favourites was the lush Estufa Fria, an enclosed oasis of greenery in Parque Eduardo VII.

Nearby the Jardim Amália Rodrigues had some refreshing looking pools.

Lisbon is built on seven hills, making it tough on the legs (and slippery when wet given the cobbled streets), but does mean that there are numerous panoramic lookout spots. The first I visited was Miradouro Parque Eduardo VII with views straight down to Marquês de Pombal, and the water beyond.

Miradouro de Santa Luzia and Miradouro das Portas do Sol are very close to each other and offer basically the same viewpoint in different directions.

Miradouro Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen was the most relaxed lookout, less busy than others, with a cafe and guy playing the guitar.

The best views are from the top of the hill at Castelo de Saint Jorge. There isn’t much inside the castle, but the setting is impressive, and offers 360 degree viewpoints from around the walls.

For those wanting to avoid the worst of the hills or take a rest from them there are numerous other options to get around, though none appealed to me. Tuk tuks are an unattractive menace, if better now that they are electric and therefore quiet, scooters looked lethal on the hills and cobbles, while the trams are atmospheric but seemingly always full of tourists, and an obvious hunting ground for pickpockets. The efficient and cheap Metro, train and bus services were enough for more, though I mainly walked, averaging about 22km a day…

A unique if expensive and slow (with queues) way to get up a hill is the Eiffel inspired Elevador de Santa Justa built in 1902.

Lisbon has so many wonderful churches, monasteries and cemeteries that I’ll cover them in a separate post but here’s a sampler.

By the waterfront is the vast Comércio Plaza, a rather empty and soulless place I thought, though I can imagine it coming to life with an event, and it’s definitely better as a pedestrianised space, with cars removed a few years ago.

Belém is where many of the great Portuguese explorers set sail, and is now home to many of the major museums in Lisbon. Padrao dos Descobrimentos is an sizeable monument to the epic voyages made during the Age of Discovery when Portugal created the world’s first global empire.

Torre de Belém was built as a fortified lighthouse in the early 1500s and is now a major Lisbon landmark, with queues forming over half an hour before it opened.

An oasis of calm away from the heat, noise and crowds was the impressive Museu Colecao Berardo. This is home to one of the best collections of modern art in Europe, with generally at least one piece from everyone who should be there including Pollack, Richter, Bacon, Warhol, Picasso, Kapoor and many others.

Pastéis de Belém is famous for their Portuguese custard tarts which they’ve been making since 1837. It is now a major tourist attraction judging by the queues, but thankfully they were good enough to just about justify the stress and hassle of buying them.

I ate them in the nearby Jardim de Vasco da Gama, home to welcome shade and one of surprisingly few Thai Pavilions outside of Thailand.

A large part of the pleasure of Lisbon is just wandering the streets, enjoying the varied and often colourful architecture, with little of the modern to intrude.

To end with some street art. There wasn’t a huge amount but what there was was of a high standard.

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