Looking for a short break to someplace different, we went to Lisbon, a bustling city on the bay of the Taugus River, on the western edge of Europe.
This is a city that predates the Romans, prospered under them, grew in the Middle Ages, led the exploration of the world, was led by a succession of kings, suffered a revolution and dictatorship and has emerged as the capital of a vibrant democracy — and is one of the most enjoyable places on earth.
It is also one of the most affordable cities in Europe, with rooms in new downtown hotels for as low as $125 in high season, and dinner for two as low as $50, with a bottle of nice Portuguese wine. Inexpensive city transport tickets are available in multiday options and can take you anywhere in the city, by bus, tram or the subway.
Lisbon’s city center is a valley, surrounded by hills that rise sharply over it, providing spectacular views of the city and river. The lower part of historic center was almost totally destroyed in a catastrophic earthquake in 1755 and it was completely rebuilt under the leadership of the Marquise of Pombal, the king’s chief minister and the virtual dictator of Portugal. The site of the destroyed palace became Praça Commercio, an elegant square that is surrounded on three sides by arcaded buildings and on the south by an esplanade overlooking the broad Tagus River.
Exploring the city, the high life
Some of the most exciting places to explore are the Alfama and the Mouraria neighborhoods, the most ancient and historic parts of town. Located on the steep hillsides overlooking the downtown area, they are dominated by a castle and filled with narrow streets and alleys that wind around its contours. Three major sites, the Castelo de Sao Jorge, the Museum of Portuguese Decorative Arts and the stout and formidable cathedral, with its excavations of earlier buildings, can easily fill most of a day.
But be sure to see the nearby Museo Antoniano (St Anthony was a local boy before heading off to Italy) and the excavations of the newly discovered remains of the Roman Theater. There is more to explore here than major sites. At the Igreja de Graça sit on the wall and look out over the city hundreds of feet below. Within the castle walls there is another largo with expansive views over the city and particularly of the waterfront , the city center and the Chiado district across the valley. Look, too, for the campo of Santa Clara with the Church of Sao Vincente, the National Pantheon – burial place of many Portuguese kings and the Sao Vincente Museum, a treasure trove of azulejos, decorative tile panels picturing life in the 17th and 18th centuries.
And life at ground level
At the foot of the Alfama, the section from the Praça do Commercio to the Teatro D. Maria II (the Opera House), is the historic commercial center of the city, dating to Pombal’s time. Called the Baixa, the lower town includes the expansive Rossio, a square surrounded by historic cafes At its north end, beside the Opera House , the baroque Dominican church was the site of a horrendous anti-Jewish pogrom during the inquisition in 1599, commemorated today by a moving monument. The Rossio is also where you will find the beautiful neo-Moorish railroad station.
And up the other side
For a different view of the city, walk down the Rua Almada to the elevator designed by a student of Eiffel that will take you to the Chiado, a hillside section overlooking it from the west side. The ruins of the Carmo church, destroyed in the 1755 earthquake are open and nearby the Museo Sao Roque. From the ruins of Sao Roque walk up the Rua Sao Pedro Alcantara to the tree-shaded terrace of Mirador Sao Pedro Alcantara, for another outstanding view of the city below and the castle crowning opposite hill. This is a perfect place to have a coffee or glass of wine in the evening and watch the oblique rays of the setting sun bathe the castle walls and ramparts in a golden glow.
TAP, the Portuguese airline, flies to Lisbon from Boston and JFK airports daily and is also partnered with Jet Blue. Flight time is about 6.5 hours, an hour longer on the return flight.