19 interesting facts about Lisbon

Lisbon, capital of Portugal, is the only European capital on the river and on the sea, with some great beaches. But did you also know...?

By Saga team

Published 22 May 2024

Heard about Lisbon and you'll have heard about the hills. Yes, there are seven of the them on which the city is built, and they're invariably steep and narrow in the old town.

But worry not, as that doesn't mean you have to climb them. That's what the city's wonderfully clanky and rattling old yellow trams and municipal elevators are there for, to do to the hard work for you.

Tram number 28 is the most famous tram in Lisbon and one of the city’s best rides. Built in England in the early 20th century, from polished wood and chrome, they clunk up and down the steepest streets almost brushing the sides of buildings on the way.

Starting at sea level in the city centre, the tram heads up steep hills through a veritable maze via the Alfama district, reaching St Georges Church at the top for wonderful views – especially at sunset.

And speaking of sunset, in the hours before sunset, locals often wait and watch the ferries go between the Estação Fluvial and Barreiro on the other side of the Reiver Tejo – it is tradition.

This is an amazing wine bar located downstairs in an old bathhouse where the underground tunnels once piped all of Lisbon’s water. It's well worth a visit!

The Great Earthquake of 1755 almost destroyed this important European port. The destruction of the city and the death of 40,000 people led to the end of Lisbon’s golden age.

The Marques de Pombal was the minister responsible for rebuilding the city and there is reference to him in many places – usually just “Pombal”.

It's not just the Tower of London that has an association with ravens, these birds are one of the city’s symbols. The story goes that when the remains of Saint Vincent were brought to Lisbon in 1173 by sea, the boat was piloted by ravens.

Thereafter ravens were kept in the cloisters of the Baroque Treasury until the last one died in 1978 – but the symbol remains.

The São Vicente de Fora church is a reminder of the sixteenth-century city and is open to visitors. Among the tombs is that of Catherine de Bragança, the widow of Charles II of England – and she is said to have introduced tea-time to the British.

Once a meat warehouse on the docks, Lux is now one of Europe’s top clubs. Past visitors have included Prince, Cameron Diaz and Madonna. The rooftop terrace has amazing views with several bars. But be warned – nobody arrives before midnight.

Lisbon has fado bars (fado means fate) ...and lots of them. Fado is thought to have derived from music from the 18th century when immigrants from Portugal’s colonies settled in the Alfama district. Think love, death and fate.

Spellbinding and mournful Fado melodies wafting out of small bars onto the higgledy-piggledy streets of the old town capture so much of the essence of traditional Lisbon.

The haunting folk sounds of Fado were born in Lisbon's Alfama district. Hear it live - which you must - and you will detect echoes of elements of its disparate roots in Moorish and flamenco styles.

But while the genre's fame has rightfully spread beyond Portuguese shores as one of the authentic greats of what's still sometimes called world music, Fado is at heart all Lisbon's.

There are several classic funicular lifts including the Elevador da Bica up to the hillside district of Bica, and the Elevadir Panoramico da Boca that lifts you 30 metres up a cliff face to the old part of Almada for fabulous views across the city and the river.

In addition to the beaches of Sintra, Cascais and Estoril which are easily reached, Lisbon has her very own city beaches at Carcavelos and Guincho – both an easy bus ride.

There are 24 excellent golf courses close to Lisbon with a couple of them just a 15 minute drive from the centre – something special for a capital.

Don't be fooled by the gin-based name of Lisbon's favourite drink. Ginjinha, the city's signature grog usually served in shot form, isn't an off-the-wall relative of mother's ruin.

This sour cherry liqueur (the name comes from the ginja berries used to make it) is, however, available for sensible sampling from innumerable hole-in-the-wall joints in old town Lisbon, and in bespoke ginjinha shops.

Ginjinha bars are usually tiny affairs of no more than a few square feet. Join Lisbon locals as they stop on the street for swift shot of ginjinha which customarily has a bit of fruit at the bottom of the glass or cup. And don't forget to spit out the pips. It'd be rude not to.

Lisbon’s oldest restaurant is all gilt and mirrors and boasts fantastic modern Portuguese cuisine and a Michelin star.

We're talking the famous Portuguese custard tarts, pastel de nata. The Casa Pastéis de Belém is where they were invented. You must try one while you're there.

Guests at the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz (one of Lisbon’s best hotels) can see the sights in an unusual way. You get a personal driver-guide and are whizzed around in your own sidecar. And if you aren't staying at the Ritz, independent sidecar tours are also available.

Striking a remarkable resemblance to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the 25th of April (Ponte 25 de Abril) Bridge opened in 1966 to link Lisbon with the south banks of the Tagus (Tejo) river.

It's over 2 km long and the main pillars are almost 200m tall. One lane is made of wire mesh – allowing the bridge to expand as necessary.

The Alcantara district by the bridge is the new nightlife hub in Lisbon since bars, clubs and restaurants opened in old converted warehouses.

Hidden serenely in the mists of the mountains in the greater Lisbon region is the village of Sintra, a location which retains a mystical place in Portuguese culture.

Sintra is home to royal palaces, ornate chalets and mysterious gardens, perched in a location which, through the centuries, has been a source of inspiration for writers and poets, including Lord Byron.

The seclusion of Sintra has had an irresistible lure for royalty, and its hilltop, multicoloured Pena Palace is a breathtaking gem of 19th century romanticism which has been given UNESCO World Heritage status.

In parkland below the palace, the Quinta da Regaleira estate had a rich history linked to the rituals and secrets of freemasonry.

The estate's secret gardens and wild woods are home to symbolic structures, initiation wells, tunnels, fountains and lakes which give the place a pervading air of mystery.

Visitors to Fronteira Palace are habitually thrilled by the beauty of its rooms and gardens. The so-called 'Room of Battles' is famed for some of the most exquisite tilework you will see anywhere, in a country feted for its beautiful tiles.

There are also superb 17th and 18th century frescoed panels and paintings to enjoy, while Fronteira's formal gardens, replete with statues, fountains and, yes, more beautiful tilework are a particular delight.


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