Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
With its friendly locals, picturesque vistas, good food, even better wines and ports, interesting mix of architecture and tons of activities to enjoy, Lisbon is a great destination. Get in the mood with our 9 fun or interesting facts about the Portuguese capital!
Pin it for later:
1. Lisbon is older than Rome!
No, Rome, founded in 753 BCE is not Europe’s oldest capital! The Greeks beat it by far when they built Athens in 3,000 BCE. Lisbon impressively ranks second in the list of Europe’s oldest capitals as it was created in 1,200 BCE by the Phoenicians, excellent sailors who found and funded a safe harbour there.
Then conquered by the Greeks, later by the Carthaginians, and ruled by the Romans from 205 BCE, before being dominated by Germanic tribes, later governed by the Islamic Moors from 711 CE, except for a short Norwegian occupation on their way to the Holy Land, Lisbon was taken back by the Christian knights in 1147. The city became the capital of Portugal in 1255. If many traces of these foreign influences were destroyed during the terrible 1755 earthquake (check fact #5), they remain present in the language, food and culture, making Lisbon an interesting and cosmopolitan city to explore!
2. No fancy chef but instead Portuguese monks invented the egg custard tarts!
According to all sources, pastel de nata is THE must-try food in Lisbon. And clearly, all sources are right! The delicious sweet egg custard tart can be found all over town under the name pastel de nata (or pastéis de nata in its plural form), and a very long line of tourists and locals is omnipresent in front of the “Pastéis de Belém” shop in the namesake district to taste the very specific pastéis de Belém that can be found only there. The line tends to be so long that one can clearly wonder whether it is worth it or not.
Located a stone’s throw away from the characteristic 16th century Jerónimos Monastery with its endemic Manueline style of architecture, it is within the cloister that the secret recipe of the pastéis de Belém finds its origin. Like in every convent, the Catholic Hieronymite monks running the monastery stiffed their clothes with egg whites. With spices from the profitable seafaring being stored in their cloister, sugar and cinnamon were quickly combined to the leftover egg yolks to bake egg custard tarts. Following the Portuguese Liberal Revolution, religious orders were abolished in 1834, and the monastery, like all others, got closed down. Out of need, the very popular recipe of the conventual sweet was sold by the monks to a local family who is still baking the mouth-watering pastéis de Belém according to their original and top-secret recipe: the namesake shop is the only place where they can be found.
Today, the fifth-generation runs the shop where 20,000 of the much sought-after one-portion tarts are sold each day! Do yourself a favour, and do wait in line (or better, visit early in the morning!): the crunchiness of the perfectly baked dough, the sweetness of the custard, the perfect texture of the cream, the cloud of cinnamon, the warmth of the ultra-fresh pastry coming straight out of the oven make the pastéis de Belém the absolute best egg-custard tarts in Lisbon!
- In case you do not make it to Belém (but please, do go and admire the Jerónimus Monastery – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – at the very least!), our best pastéis de nata are located in town at Pastelaria Santo António.
- Do not get discouraged by the queue in front of Pastéis de Belém, it moves fast. Your best bet is to enter on the side to be seated and to admire the interior and observe the baking process. Apart from their best-selling egg custard tarts, their rice flour cakes and cod fish cakes are an absolute killer too!
3. Tiles are hot!
You find them everywhere in Lisbon, on the pavements, fountains, façades, in the train station, inside homes, churches, and restaurants: Portugal’s famous azelujos!
The know-how of this signature Portuguese craft comes straight from the Moors. Azulejo comes from the Arabic word “az-zellij” (meaning tiling or polished stone) and the people of Lisbon have been using these colourful tiles since the 13th century. Apart from being decorative, the tiles have been functional as their glazing is waterproof and therefore essential to make façades more durable.
Throughout the centuries, the Hispanic-Moorish craftmanship of ceramic tile making has evolved as well as the patterns, from the Moorish geometric motifs to more religious ones as the clergy used to be the main commissioner of the arts. The tiles were telling liturgic stories in a very graphic and beautiful way, often fully covering walls of churches and making religion easier to understand to common people. The northern influence of the Delft Blue and other Flemish workshops is also perceptible, especially in the absolutely stunning Church of the Covento de Madre Deus in the lovely Museu Nacional do Azulejo. Today, more modern patterns are designed to decorate bathrooms and kitchens in an array of colours – and are a wonderful souvenir to bring back from Lisbon.
- The National Tile Museum, set in an early 16th-century convent, is the best place to see a wide collection of tiles from the 15th century till the present day.
4. Lisbon used to be world’s largest warehouse
Pepper, saffron, cinnamon, coffee, tobacco, tea (check out fact #9 for a myth buster!) silk, porcelain, but also elephants, rhinoceroses, leopards, monkeys, gazelles, etc. Everything was traded in town when Portugal became the world’s first maritime super power! Lisbon turned into a very wealthy and cosmopolitan capital.
Pioneering the Age of Discovery in the 15th century, the Portuguese Empire was the first to round the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, to reach India by sea only ten years later with Vasco da Gama -who is buried in the Jerónimos Monastery -, and to land in today’s Brazil in 1500. The Portuguese established very profitable trade routes to South America and to the Far East, all the way to Japan, beating all their competitors to it. They amassed an incredible quantity of gold and other riches that shaped Lisbon.
Symbols of this supremacy are a cornerstone of the Manueline architecture with its seashells, ropes, crosses of the Order of the Christ (that took over from the Templars) and armillary spheres (ancestors of the GPS, Ptolemy’s representation of the cosmos, a symbol of economic, political, and maritime power). If you look closely, you will notice that this sphere that can be seen everywhere in town and is even represented on the Portuguese flag!
5. The first international aid fund
Unfortunately, all the riches of world’s largest warehouse (see fact #4) were lost in the 1755 earthquake that destroyed most of Lisbon. The oldest district, Amalfa built by the Moors and the district of Belém that was back then out of town were rather spared. The worst and greatest earthquake ever recorded in Europe so far was followed by a tsunami and fires, killing thousands. In its wake, the first international aid helped rebuild Lisbon as the first modern European city, with its 3-story buildings, perpendicular streets, large avenues with arches, pragmatic constructions, and a modern sewage and water system.
- The Lisboa Story Centre tells the story of Lisbon and the earthquake in an engaging way, making it a perfect introduction to the city.
6. The longest bridge of the EU as a tribute to Vasco da Gama
With its 17 kilometres (10.6 miles), the Vasco da Gama bridge was opened in 1988, precisely 500 years after Vasco da Gama returned from India. It connects the east and west of Lisbon by spanning the Tagus Estuary.
However, when exploring town, you are more likely to come across the architecturally more aesthetic 25 de Abril Bridge which design is based on the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Walking, or better biking along the Tagus Promenade is a great way of exploring the trendy marina, especially when coming back from Belém.
7. The westernmost point of continental Europe is only a short ride from Lisbon [Cabo da Roca]
There is something special about ticking off the extreme geographical points of a continent. Some are tougher than others to reach. The westernmost point of continental Europe is only a short drive away from the centre of Lisbon.
Majestic cliffs against which powerful waves crash into rise out of the Atlantic Ocean at the stunning Cabo da Roca. Criss-crossed by narrow hiking trails, the nature reserve is a wild escape from the most populated city of Portugal with its 3 million inhabitants.
- With your own transport, it is easy and efficient to combine Cabo da Roca with a visit to the Cascais Natural Park, also known as Sintra for a day-trip. Set in the mountains with its micro climate and unique vegetation, the UNESCO World Heritage Site hosts impressive mansions of kings, noblemen and bourgeois.
8. Just like Rome, Lisbon is built on 7 hills
Walking in Lisbon is going to have you go up and down! The upside is that many belvederes offer unobstructed views on the capital. The view from the Castle Saint George is stunning. Walking up the narrow staircases through Alfama leads to the popular Portas do Sol with its nice atmosphere, and the neighbouring mirador of Santa Luzia with its azulejos and bougainvillea, perfect for a romantic sunset!
To make it easier on pedestrians, a tram was installed in 1873 – just like in San Francisco, and the exact same year! Today, it has become so popular for tourists to ride the scenic tram line 28 to discover town that locals commuting have a hard time finding a seat and do get tired of selfies…
9. And you thought the 5 o’clock tea was British?
Think again! The very British 5 o’clock tea tradition was actually initiated by a Portuguese! In 1662, the daughter of Portugal’s King John IV, Catherine of Braganza married King Charles II of England. If she packed loose-leaf tea with her as she enjoyed this daily habit – a fashion for Portuguese aristocrats that started in the 1500s thanks to a direct trade with China from the Portuguese colony of Macau – her very large dowry included the harbour of Bombay (today’s Mumbai) that greatly expanded the tea possibilities of England! Indeed, back then, England had no direct trade with China as Hong Kong became a colony only in 1841 and tea in England was reserved for medicinal use. The new fashion set by the Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland converted the aristocracy to tea drinking, and the people followed the rich and famous as tea became more affordable!
Bonus: Whatever you do, you won’t avoid codfish!
The 11 million of Portuguese people eat about 20 percent of all the cod fished worlwide! It has been part of the Portuguese eating habits since the 15th century, and had greatly contributed to the doubling of the population between 1450 and 1650. If historically the protein-rich catch was brought back from Newfoundland, today, most is imported from Norway. It is still so popular in Portugal that some claim there are about a thousand different recipes! So no matter what, you’ll have some codfish in Portugal, and will discover a wide variety of recipes!
And should you visit in the summer, sardines are also very popular, especially during the Saint Anthony festival celebrating the true patron saint of Lisbon. The Alfama district turns into an open air grill where locals set up brightly decorated shacks, turn on their loudest speakers to play some popular Portuguese tunes, and turn the whole barrio into a gigantic sardine party!
- To explore different areas in town while learning about Lisbon’s history and discovering the city through the eyes of passionate locals, join a walking tour by Hi Lisbon.
- To freely move around by tram and to enter the most interesting sights, consider the Lisboa Card: is well worth it!
- With its nice weather, biking around Lisbon is ideal, and an e-bike can help with the 7 hills! Make sure tires are thick to conquer tram tracks, and try the vintage e-bikes by Boost Portugal.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)! The black pins will lead you to other articles: