10 Photos: Exploring the Highs and Lows of Lisbon

Dec 12, 2015

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Our “10 Photos” essays include tips on exploring destinations, redeeming for hotels and flights and more. TPG Contributor Lori Zaino walks us around Lisbon’s many neighborhoods and points out special monuments, beautiful buildings and local haunts to enjoy while wandering through the city.

In Lisbon, Portugal, even the most mundane details have allure, from the soft glow of street lamps to weathered, crumbling doorways. The city is one of my favorite European capitals to visit, as it’s both fabulous and incredibly cheap; a long weekend in Lisbon won’t cost you much, especially if you can leverage your points and miles to get and stay there.

Walking up to the Alfama district can be quite the workout
Walking up to the Alfama district can be quite the workout.

Start off by heading up towards the hilly, cobblestone streets of the Alfama district, the oldest neighborhood in Lisbon, where architecture spans the 12th to 18th centuries. Most buildings here tend to have small, narrow doorways, designed to encourage efficient heating and keep building costs low.

Tiny doors and lots of tiles
Tiny doors and lots of tiles.

Throughout all of Lisbon — though especially in older neighborhoods like the Alfama — you’ll see hand-painted ceramic tiles (or azulejos, as the Portuguese call them) on the exteriors of many homes and churches, as well as everything from park benches to street signs. Some tiles depict religious images or scenes of Lisbon and Portugal, while some are simply marked with patterns. Lisbon’s tile trend began back in the early 14th century, after King Manuel I was awed by the intricate Moorish tiling around the city of Seville, Spain; after he decorated his own palace in Lisbon with ornamental ceramic tiles, the fashion spread across the Portuguese capital.

Portugal may the only place in the world that adds such beautiful decoration to an otherwise ordinary street lamp.
Historically, Lisbon has rarely missed a chance to add intricate decoration to otherwise plain architectural details.

These days, much of this original tiling is either chipped, cracked or simply discolored. However, the fact that much of Lisbon’s decor and architecture seem to be on the verge of crumbling only adds to its romantic charm.

Taking trams around Lisbon is not only a fun way to get around but a very cool experience in iteself
Taking trams around Lisbon is not only a fun way to get around but a very cool experience in itself.

If you just can’t deal with the hefty uphill climb to the Alfama, you can always take one of the city’s vintage tram cars up and then walk back down. The cheerful yellow Tram 28, one of the city’s famous Remodelado trams built in the 1930s, is an attraction in itself; you can pick it up in the Martim Moniz Plaza, and its winding route will take you through/up some of Lisbon’s prettiest neighborhoods and toughest hills. Tickets start at a couple of euros, and you can combine your tram ride with other methods of public transport.

The Saint George castle and surrounding Lisbon
The Saint George castle and surrounding Lisbon.

Tram 28 goes past the famous Ladra flea market, which is held every Saturday from dawn until dusk and sells artisan-made souvenirs, used books and vintage clothing, stamps and coins, antique furniture and homewares, and much more; for the best finds, be sure to arrive early in the morning. After your visit to the market, stroll or tram your way to the 11th-century Moorish Castelo de Sao Jorge (Castle of St. George), set on the top of one of Lisbon’s highest hills and affording gorgeous views of the entire city. Tickets cost 8.50 ($10) euro to enter the castle and grounds.

A view of the Golden Gate's twin bridge, the 25th of April bridge
A view of the Golden Gate’s twin bridge, the 25th of April bridge.

Following your tour of the castle, be sure to check out the Portas do Sol (Gates to the Sun) viewpoint and its nearby terrace cafe/bar, which are set right on the Tram 28 route and offer sweeping vistas over the rooftops of the Alfama, the Tagus River, and the famous 25th of April bridge (known as the Golden Gate’s twin for reasons that will become obvious as soon as you see it). Completed in 1966, this bridge was originally named after Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar, but was later re-named with the date of Portugal’s revolution — April 25, 1974. Just beneath this bridge, between the Baixa and Belem districts, the up-and-coming Santo Amargo Docks neighborhood features waterfront dining and hip nightclubs.

Xmas elevator
Some Christmas decorations along the Santa Justa elevator and nearby streets.

After you spend the morning exploring the labyrinth of the Alfama district, head back down to the Baixa, or “low” district. All year round you can find lots of shopping, restaurants and hotels here, but its especially beautiful during the winter holidays, with ornate light displays and ornaments hung high over the streets.

The low district features a special elevator, the only vertical lift in Lisbon used for public service. Built in 1902, this lift connects the Chiado district (set beside the Baixa) with the higher streets of the Bairrio Alto, or “high” district, which includes the Carmo Convent and Monastery. Vertical lift tickets cost 5 euros ($5.70) apiece, and allow you two rides and access to the viewpoint at the top.

The roofless Carmo convent ruins.

Dating back to the late 1300s, the ruins of the Carmo Convent and Monastery now include an archaeological museum. The church was badly damaged in a huge 1755 earthquake that threatened to wipe Lisbon off the face of the earth; this natural disaster destroyed the convent’s roof as well as its library of more than 5,000 books. Elsewhere in the city, the earthquake claimed Lisbon’s original opera house, the Royal Palace and many private homes.

The stunning Torre de Belem in Lisbon, Portugal
The stunning Torre de Belem in Lisbon, Portugal.

Twenty minutes outside Lisbon’s historic center is the Belém area, home to a trio of the city’s most enduring structures, which collectively pay homage to Portugal’s 15th- to 18th-century “Age of Discovery,” when its numerous maritime expeditions/discoveries made it one of the most powerful countries in the world. Hop on the 15 Tram for an easy journey to/from Belém.

Commissioned by King Manuel I and finished in 1519, the majestic Torre de Belém (Tower of St. Vincent), a four-story limestone fortress built atop a small island in the Tagus River, is both a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal. Just down the street from the tower, be sure to visit 19th-century pastry shop Pasteis de Belém for one of the city’s eponymous, iconic pastries made from egg yolks and sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar.

The Discovery Monument.

Nearby the tower is another UNESCO World Heritage site, the enormous Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jeronimos Monastery), which dates back to 1501 but wasn’t finished until 100 years later; for four centuries, this structure was home to a rotating order of Hieronymite monks. Just a few minutes away is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Discovery Monument), a statue-studded structure which was erected in 1939 as a tribute to Portugal’s explorations and remains a great place to wander and daydream beside the Tagus.

Traveling to Lisbon

Arrive: Lisbon’s largest airport is Lisbon Portela (LIS), set a little more than four miles north of the city.

Star Alliance — TAP is Portugal’s national airline, and flies nonstop from Newark (EWR) to LIS. Using United Mileage Plus miles for a one-way partner award on TAP will require at least 30,000 miles for economy or 70,000 miles for business. United also operates nonstop flights from EWR-LIS, and one-way awards at the saver level start at 30,000 miles in economy or 57,500 in business.

Oneworld — You could use AAdvantage miles to fly American Airlines to London-Heathrow (LHR) and then hop over to Lisbon on a low-cost carrier like Easy Jet or Ryanair (or on a BA connection). If you can snag a SAAver or off-peak award, a one-way trip will cost you as little as 20,000-30,000 AAdvantage miles in economy; 50,000 miles in business; or 62,500 miles in first. A more economic alternative would be to use Avios to fly Iberia from major US cities (including New York-JFK, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami) to Madrid (MAD), allowing you to avoid the huge fuel surcharges charged by British Airways.

SkyTeam — You could also choose to fly Delta to Madrid (MAD) and then use a low-cost carrier to arrive to Lisbon. For each one-way flight on Delta, you’ll need a minimum of 30,000 SkyMiles in coach or 62,500 in business.

Stay: Sheraton Lisboa Hotel & Spa: This Starwood Category 3 property offers 369 modern rooms with flat-screen TVs, views overlooking the city and Sheraton Sweet Sleeper beds. The Spirito Spa features VIP suites, a fitness center, heated outdoor pool, Jacuzzi, hammam, sauna and hair and manicure spa services; access to the spa is 12.50 euro ($14) per day. Room rates start at 179 euro ($200) per night or just 7,000 Starpoints. 

Fontecruz Lisboa Marriott: Located right in the city center on Avenida de Liberdade, this Marriott Autograph hotel offers a luxurious stay at a very reasonable cost. All rooms have free Wi-Fi, marble bathrooms, desk with ergonomic chair and some rooms offer balconies. Rates start at 114 EUR ($130 USD) or 35,000 Marriott Rewards points per night.

Spend: Credit cards such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Citi Prestige Card don’t charge foreign transaction fees, making them ideal to use while on vacation in Portugal. To see more cards without these fees, check out Top Credit Cards With No Foreign Transaction Fees.

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