What to see. When a bit of a city looks like a chessboard, it is highly likely some luminary’s fever dream, and in keeping with the maxim, the Baixa was thought up by the Marquess de Pombal, the minister of Joseph I of Portugal, in the wake of the devastating quake of 1755- being on the tip of the European continent, Lisbon also less luckily lies on a fault line as well. The up side of this arrangement is that it’s easy to navigate- straight roads lead down from the Rossio (officially Praça Dom Pedro IV), acting as the city’s main square, towards the estuary, where the Praça do Comércio, facing the river, offers great views.
Turning left from the Baixa you can climb towards the Castelo São Jorge- taking the easy way up, namely the lift, or the hard but rewarding version of going on foot, which allows you to check out a couple of lookout points- miradors- on the way there. The queue is rather considerable at the castle as well, with a single adult ticket costing 8.5 euros, but as the grounds are large enough, an early morning visit will probably be still bearable and the fabulous views of the city are well worth some queuing.
A somewhat unexpected bonus to the castle café is the flock of definitely fine looking, but incredibly fractious peacocks, who will occasionally let out sounds akin to the last death cries of a pterodactyl. They are also fiends for the leftover cakes on the table, so if you suddenly see them lounge towards you, they might just want someone’s last crumbs of pastel de nata in lieu of your eyes. But that’s only a might.
Keeping to the left when descending from the castle will lead you to the picturesque Alfama, about which all guides will quickly tell you that it got its name from the Arabic al-hamma, meaning hot springs. You can still encounter several public bathhouses strewn along the jumble of narrow streets very reminiscent of the medinas of North African cities, and plenty of fado restaurants, in case you’re in for a little heartache under the Mediterranean sun. While plenty of Portuguese restaurants comply to the Southern European habit of closing for the afternoon, the Alfama has many small, often family run ones that offer unsophisticated but excellent food throughout the day- though early openings are definitely not the norm.
To the left of the Baixa you’ll need to climb again to get to the neighbourhood of Chiado- an activity to which you must generally be resigned to when in Lisbon. The already mentioned Elevador do Santa Justa can take you up to Rua do Carmo, but it’s much more exciting to walk along Rua Garret, which is strewn with bars and stores- plenty of bookstores too, among them Livraria Betrand, which opened in 1732 and is thus considered the oldest still functioning bookstore in the world.
From the bustling Praça Luís de Camões you can descend towards the river, and from the train and ferry station of the Cais do Sodré there are direct connections to the neighbourhood of Belém and the town of Cascais, which is popular in summer for its beaches. Belém has many attractions of its own- though plenty of them are churches, and pretty as those might be, some time ago, in Rome, after visiting the approximately 27th church in the centre, I decided I’ve had enough of them for the remainder of my life. I thus only visit a church per town, usually randomly, which in Lisbon’s case was the Sé de Lisboa cathedral.
Belém does however have other attractions too- primarily the Belém tower, which played a significant role during the age of Portuguese maritime discoveries as the gateway to Lisbon. Originally built on an island, it joined the mainland when the Tagus was diverted after the 1755 earthquake. Somewhat upriver of the tower you may admire the Monument of Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimientos), which is is basically many many important Portuguese people eternally teetering tentatively on the brink of the abyss, about to fall into the darkening waters of the Tagus.
From the tower, it’s only a short walk to the Jeronimos Monastery and the adjacent (in)famous pastry shop, but instead of adding yourself to the critical mass of visitors, we’d recommend a nice walk upriver on the banks of the Tagus, to get a closer view of the spectacular 25 de Abril suspension bridge. Often compared to the Golden Gate bridge, with which it shares the paint shade named International Orange, it was built in 1966 and was known as the Salazar bridge up to the Carnation Revolution of April 25th, 1974, from which it got its current name.
At the foot of the bridge you can spend the better half of a day in the LX Factory, a former manufacturing complex which now hosts various arts galleries, bars, co working spaces and shops, among them the spectacular Ler Devagar bookstore. (Yes, you guessed it it right, it’s Lisbon Hipster Central, and we love it.)