As the oldest continuously inhabited city in Western Europe, Lisbon has a history that teems with Iron Age tribes, Roman dictators, Moorish conquerors, and explorers of all stripes. And nothing tells the city’s story better than its buildings.
The architecture of Lisbon not only blends the city’s rich past and vibrant, kinetic present, it also reflects the city’s ongoing resilience.
Whether you prefer antiquated cathedrals, marvels of modern design, or anything in between, Lisbon has exactly what you’re looking for.
If you venture west of Lisbon’s central squares (Rossio Square and Praca do Comercio), you’ll find Jerónimos Monastery, one of the city’s key attractions. The monastery is a prime example of Manueline architecture, a style unique to early-16th-century Portugal and reflective of the Portuguese empire at its opulent height. If you arrive first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon, you’ll have the best chance of avoiding the exceptionally long lines the monastery is known for. And, while you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to explore Torre de Belém, which dates to the same period, and Pasteis de Belém, a landmark of the culinary sort.
For a perceptible understanding of the destruction wrought by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, look no further than the Convento da Ordem do Carmo. Built around the turn of the 15th century, the convent and accompanying church exemplify a minimalist Gothic style befitting the mendicant lifestyle of their former residents. While the convent has been rebuilt since the earthquake, the church remains a beautiful skeleton — a roofless reminder of the city’s tragedy. Walk around the ground’s archeological museum that occupies the space below the convent’s pointed arches, be sure to check out the Carmo’s Gothic tombs, and, if you get the chance, take advantage of the various musical and theatrical acts that play in the space throughout the summer and fall.
Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa (or simply, the Lisbon Cathedral) looks more like an imposing medieval castle than your typical European cathedral. But what it lacks in extravagant adornments, it more than makes up for in history.
The facade and main structure follow a 12th-century Romanesque design, complete with rose windows and crenellations, while elements added later in the 13th century, including the cloisters and the beautiful ambulatory, adopted a more Gothic style. If you pay a small fee, you can see the baroque-style sacristy and continue on to the main chapel to view the Cathedral’s only Rococo elements. If you visit in the late afternoon, the sun hits the stained glass rose window at the perfect angle, projecting a jewel-toned glow on the walls and columns inside.
Gare do Oriente
Take a break from history and step back into the present at Gare do Oriente, located just a short metro ride from central Lisbon. This gargantuan spaceship of a transit station opened in 1998 and serves as a hub for buses, regional trains, and high-speed rail lines. In fact, chances are, if you plan on traveling to other parts of Portugal, you’ll find yourself here anyway. Just make sure you give yourself enough time to get lost in its magnificent architecture before your train departs. Its waves of glass and metal, designed by Calatrava, make waiting for any train a pleasant experience.
Santa Justa Lift
The appeal of the Santa Justa lift isn’t as much the elevator itself, but the platform at the top and the amazing panorama it provides. While the lift was built in the early 20th century, the surrounding Baixa Pombalina district was almost entirely rebuilt after the earthquake of 1755. The resulting Pombaline-style architecture utilized some of the first earthquake-resistant construction methods, a product of revolutionary Enlightenment-era engineering.
The tower’s walkway connects to the hill behind it, so you can walk behind the tower via a nearby street, such as R. Garrett. After your climb, you’ll meet views that rival those of Castelo de São Jorge, but with even more direct sightlines into downtown Lisbon. Look down at Rua Áurea, bustling with locals and tourists alike; observe residents of nearby apartments reading or enjoying a chat out on their; and exhale a deep breath over the endless sea of terracotta roofs.