The Oldest City in Western Europe

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“Is there anywhere else you’d like to see?”  My mom asked over a Facetime session a while back.  “We’re thinking of visiting again and thought we could meet you somewhere to extend our trip a bit.”

“Lisbon.”, I said without hesitation.

Since my wife had already been and the kids were in the thick of school, I opted to meet my parents solo in what I later learned is the oldest continuously inhabited city in western Europe.  Yes, it apparently pre-dates Rome by centuries.

If the photos this time around are a little lacking, it’s because I took mostly video clips.  Feel free to check out the video summary of our visit at the end of the post.

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A view of the “river” from a prominent viewpoint in the Alfama neighborhood

Like Rome, Lisbon refers to itself as sitting on seven hills.  I always thought that the water you see in pictures was that of a harbor or bay that connects to the Atlantic so I was confused when the locals kept referring to the “river”.  Upon further review, I guess it is a river.

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Someone once told me Lisbon was like “an old San Francisco”. I can’t say I disagree.

We found an Airbnb apartment centrally located on top of one of the hills called Bairro Alto (High Neighborhood) and had nice walking access to just about everything on our list.

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Highlights included walking around the different neighborhoods, visiting a few museums, and eating the food.

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I lean heavily on apps like TripAdvisor when traveling to new cities to figure out what warrants our attention.  So when I saw a museum with a strange name toward the top of the list (but located very much outside the usual tourist area), I had to ask our taxi driver about it.  Hugo had a hard time recalling the site and said that rarely anyone goes there.  Highly rated and not well known?  Sounded right up our alley.

The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum is one of the largest private art collections around.  I found it to be well laid out and interesting because of the variety of artifacts on display.  Carpets, tiles, sculptures, furniture, paintings, and jewelry – a little bit of everything from different origins and time periods.  The wealthy Armenian philanthropist’s motto was “nothing but the best”.  It seemed the most well known works were paintings from Rubens, Rembrandt, Rodin, and Renoir.

Another museum filed in the ‘little out of the ordinary’ category on the other side of town is the National Tile Museum that allows a deeper understanding of Portugal’s important artistry in azulejo.

Decorative tiles are everywhere!
Decorative tiles are everywhere

Physically Portugal’s location is at an arm’s length away from the rest of Europe.  And that arm in its way is Spain.  As a result, there feels like a sense of resentment of Portuguese against the Spanish.  I found that saying I was American and speaking English got me a lot further than speaking Spanish and saying I lived in Spain.  A few Portuguese told me with pride that language-wise, they could understand Spanish without trouble but the reverse is not true.  Most Spaniards can’t understand spoken Portuguese.

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I didn’t know what to expect in terms of food.  Obviously they use similar ingredients found in Spain, including a healthy amount of seafood but the dishes are prepared quite differently, perhaps even more simply.   Meats are typically grilled, rices are found in stews.  I still remember a pork, potato, and pickled vegetable dish that was unlike anything I’ve had before.  Really nice, cheap too.

Belém

Another district a tram-ride away from downtown Lisbon very much worthy of a visit is Belém at the mouth of the River Tagus.

It’s also home to Portugal’s most famous treat – an egg tart pastry called pasteis de nata (nata means cream).  You’ll find these desserts in every cafe around Lisbon and I’ve been told all over Portugal as well.  But only one manufacturer is able to call them by their original name:  Pasteis de Belém.

You cannot visit Lisbon without trying this delight from its blue-awning outfitted bakery and storefront.  These cream filled treats when done right are surrounded by a flaky pastry and are to be consumed minutes after coming out of the oven.  Rumor has it, the exact recipe hasn’t changed since it opened and is very closely guarded and only known by a couple of “master confectioners”.

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In operation since 1837

Another must-see if already in the area is the beautiful Jerónimos Monastery.  As you can imagine, I’ve seen my share of churches, cathedrals, monasteries, and convents and after a while, they all seem to blend together.  But this one, as done in Manueline style (whatever that is) definitely stood out.  It wasn’t overly gaudy or grandeur but rather ornate, delicate, and beautiful.

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Tomb of explorer Vasco da Gama in the monastery
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Monument to the Discoveries – The Portuguese are very proud of their ‘Age of Exploration’ during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Sintra

An easy daytrip from Lisbon is the picturesque town of Portugal’s monarchs – Sintra.  Filled with historic mansions against a backdrop of green hills, there is much to see including a medieval Moorish castle and historic town center.

Being a sucker for expansive views, we elected to visit the whimsical and colorful Pena Palace that’s perched up on top of a hill that overlooks the town and nearby coast.

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Pena National Palace

While not particularly old, it does look like something out of Disney and the best part includes walking up to the entrance through a lush, somewhat tropical park that surrounds the entire property.

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Set high atop a hill with views of the coast.

Overall

While Lisbon can’t keep up with other capital cities like Paris or London, it can hold its own in the cost of living department, above average food, and really friendly and welcoming people.

My biggest gripe about Lisbon may be the lack of parks or dedicated green space within the downtown area or near the water.  It’s not until you get out to Belém that you find some open space.  But in the end, I would very much recommend a visit if anything to experience the warm Portuguese lifestyle.

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A visual summary of our trip to Lisbon.  In a song.  My parents are the stars of the show.

 

 

9 thoughts on “The Oldest City in Western Europe”

  1. Absolutely loved it! I had the same experience, had the same gelato, stayed on Rua Augusta (you have pictures of it) I would add Cabo di Roca, the westernmost point of Europe in a cliff setting, just like in Ireland and Pasteis de Nata at Manteigaria in Bairro Alto!!

    1. Prices are definitely higher than Granada, but only by a little bit and *very* reasonable when comparing to equivalent sized cities around Europe (in the 500K – 1.5Mil population range). I’d venture to guess it is also the cheapest western European capital of all, but would have to back it up with some googling.

      And no, understanding the language for me was next to impossible and also think it is difficult for native Spanish speakers. Written word is a little easier but verbally, there are times when Portuguese spoken in Portugal almost sounds Russian to me.

      1. I’ve heard from almost everyone that Portugal/Lisbon is very inexpensive. Then one person said it’s pretty expensive, especially food (not sure what that’s relative to; Eastern Europe perhaps??).

        Shame about the language but yeah, I can’t make out more than 1 out of 20 Portuguese words with my Spanish skills. Maybe enough to order a beer or a meal but not enough to ask for directions.

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