The seven hills Lisbon is built upon are located at the mouth of the Tagus River. This ideal location was notice very early in world history as there is evidence of settlements from the Iron Age (7th century BC), but the first fortification did not arrive until five centuries later. As with most locations in the Iberian the Romans, Visigoths, Muslims, and then local Christians have ruled the land.
One very interesting thing about Lisbon was how much one earthquake changed its world. The earthquake of 1755 registered 8.5-9 on the Richter scale, killed 15-20% of the population, and destroyed 85% of the existing structures. This is why there is so precious few historic sites before this day.
One of the buildings to survive is the Jerónimos Monastery started in 1501 and completed 100 years later. In this World Heritage Site, monks lived and worshiped while assisting and counseling sailors leaving from the nearby port. The monastery contains a beautiful, huge, gothic church and a cloister built in a square around a courtyard. The church became a royal tomb in the late 17th century and you will also find some cool confessionals that have small rooms entered from the church side (confessors) and a separate room entered from the cloister side (monk hearing the confession) with a wall and screen between the two. Other wonderful aspects of the monastery are the refectory (dining hall) and chapter house (meeting room). Make sure you arrive early before the line to get in get too long. Also, check out the History Museum and Maritime Museum within the monastery.
The other World Heritage Site in Lisbon is the Tower of Belém. Built in 1516 it too survived the earthquake. This fortified tower is five stories and almost 100 feet tall with an attached fortified courtyard and battery placement. Originally it was built on a rock outcropping in the river, near the shore, to supplement other fortifications in the defense of the mouth of the river. It is said this was the last thing sailors saw when they left Portugal. A little hint for you, if you buy a combined ticket with the monastery then you can bypass all the people waiting to buy a ticket. They let people into the tower every 45 minutes and so and the ones with tickets go first.
Near the tower you will find the 1958 Monument to the Discoveries. It was first made as a temporary exhibit and then enlarged and built again on a permanent basis. This is a romanticized monument to the 15th and 16th century when Portugal was the leading maritime country and exploring the globe. (see the cover photo)
Down the street from the monastery you will find a real Lisbon treat, Pasteis de Belem. This pastry shop sells a custard like desert with cinnamon and powder sugar on top. They use a secret recipe from the monks themselves and it is GOOD!
If you walk just a little farther you will come to the Presidential Palace, which once was the royal palace and is still in use to this day for the president. It was first built by King John V and survived the earthquake. You can visit the attached museum everyday and on Saturdays there are guided tours into the palace itself.
As neat as everything I have mentioned was, our favorite place in Lisbon was by far the Coach Museum. This little known and less visited museum is a couple blocks from the palace. It is the biggest collection of horse drawn carriages in the world. They have so many from the 17th-19th centuries and many of them are from royal families in Europe. It is absolutely amazing how beautiful these things got and roaming around you can just image Cinderella emerging from one of them!
So far everything I have told you about is within half a mile of each other in the Belem area next to the river. You can easily spend a couple days just in this area of town, but I wanted to explore a little bit more so I found the Igreja do Carmo in the Bairro Alto area. This convent and church was founded in 1389 and was a beautiful building until the Earthquake of 1755 when it was damaged so much it had to be abounded and the monks moved. Since that time, it was never really repaired, but used for various other uses until it became a memorial for the earthquake. Now you walk into an open-air church with the gothic arches of the nave still intact, which is hauntingly beautiful! In the front of the building you will the find the interesting Archeological Museum.
There is so much more to see in Lisbon, but we were ready to head to the nearby small towns of Cascais and Sintra. With that said I did want to check out the historic trams and elevators (called ascensores). Funny thing about the trams is there are only five even though the numbers go to 28 (They have #12, 15, 18, 25, and 28). There are five elevators, which are really trams that go uphill, and they were built between 1884 and 1902. Both are as much as Lisbon as the trollies are part of San Francisco!