A cultural guide to Lisbon
As Portugal’s capital, Lisbon is world renowned by default, however, few other European cities have such a diverse past. The city’s varied history enhances its culture in every facet, from architecture to art, to music and its population. You can explore all aspects of the city from the comfort of your rental car in Lisbon. Book with easyCar before you leave for ease of pick-up and rates you won’t want to miss out on.
The city’s history extends further back than many of its counterparts to the time of indigenous Iberians. Since then it has changed hands between empires and seen the influence of a plethora of civilisations. Today, the remnants of these varied cultural forces are dotted around the city and surrounding region, in the form of castles, churches and fortifications.
If you’re planning on visiting Lisbon, you’ll find everything you need here to put your trip into context, picking out little gems that may have passed you by. We’ll take you from Lisbon’s origins all the way to the present day to see how the city is overcoming challenges to evolve into a sophisticated and cosmopolitan 21st century capital.
A Constant Evolution: Lisbon through the ages
Like many great cities, Lisbon was nurtured because of nature. Its strategically advantageous position at the mouth of the River Tagus allowed the city to flourish as a seaport for trade, with perfect access to Western Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas. Furthermore, being just over 30 kilometres inland from the Atlantic coast gave it shelter from the sometimes brutal oceanic climate over the centuries, providing the stability it needed to develop.
Lisbon is Western Europe’s oldest capital, predating even Rome. In its early years as a trading post, indigenous Iberians, Celts and Greeks passed through before the arrival of the Romans in 219BC. Despite holding onto Lisbon for over 700 years, the collapse of the Empire around 500AD led to the invasion of present-day Portugal by Germanic tribes.
The Moorish conquest of in 714AD brought about Muslim rule in the city until 1147 despite attempted conquests by the Normans and Alfonso VI. Whilst there are few visual remnants of this period in central Lisbon, the magnificent Castle of the Moors lies just a short drive from the city centre in the green hills of the Sintra Natural Park. Dating back to the 8th and 9th centuries this castle was designed to protect the surrounding agricultural lands, and offers breath-taking views from the mountainside.
Following the return of Portuguese rule in 1147 thanks to Afonso I’s successful siege, Lisbon enjoyed a period of relative stability and prosperity, inheriting its status as capital from Coimbra in 1256.
The 15th and 16th centuries could be classed as a golden age in the city’s history, with riches being gathered from the growing Portuguese Empire which extended to Asia, South America, Africa and the Atlantic Islands. This period of discovery saw the construction of two of the city’s most treasured buildings, the Jeroimòs Monastery and the Tower of Belem, which are testaments to the wealth that Lisbon enjoyed and have been classed as world heritage sites by UNESCO since 1983.
The 1755 earthquake was a drastic turning point, rasing the city to the ground but allowing for new, elegant districts, such as Baixa Pombalina, to grow out of the reconstruction efforts. After being occupied by Napoleon and losing the Brazilian colony, a period of political instability ensued, culminating in the rise to power of the longest surviving dictatorship in Western Europe – the Estado Novo regime that lasted from 1926 to 1974.
Portuguese democracy arrived in 1975, and was followed by membership to the European Community in 1986. The last 25 years have seen the rise of city’s global profile with Lisbon being awarded European City of Culture in 1994, the World Expo in 1998, as well as hosting the Euro 2004 Football Championships.
Visual timelines: Buildings to look out for
The imposing medieval Castelo de São Jorge located in the ancient Mouraria district is impossible to miss, looking over the city centre from one of Lisbon’s seven hills. It is an impressive and well-preserved fortified citadel and a great photo spot.
Jump forward to the 18th century and you’ll find the elegant and expansive Praca Do Comercio, rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake to function as a hub for trade and government activity in the city. Today it is a bustling square that opens out to the Tagus on one end and the main shopping district on the other, whilst being flanked by restaurants with plenty of outside seating.
A unique feature of Lisbon is the Elevador de Santa Justa, a fabulous neo gothic lift that opened in the early 20th century and that still serves its function today, as a way to connect the lower town with the upper town.
The recent past and Lisbon today
The fallout from the global financial crisis of 2008 hit the city hard, with many of the central districts now feeling rundown and neglected. Somehow this hasn’t dented the spirit of Lisbon’s population, and they remain welcoming, laid back, unpretentious and stylish. This resilience has allowed the city to maintain its popularity as a tourist destination, as well as one of Europe’s major areas of economic activity, due largely to its growing financial sector and vast container port. Hire your car in Lisbon to unlock all this city has to offer.