According to a 1925 guidebook, Lisbon is “a fair vision in a dream, clear-cut against a bright blue sky which the sun gladdens with its gold. And the domes, the monuments, the old castles jut up above the mass of houses, like far-off heralds of this delightful seat, of this blessed region…” Standing at the top of one of the many towers of Castelo de Sao Jorge, one can certainly appreciate this ‘fair vision’.
Lisbon had been on my list of places to visit for quite some time, mainly due to its Islamic history and heritage. Lissabona, as the Moors of North Africa called it, came under Muslim rule in 714 AD, and lasted almost 500 years. After its recapture by the Christians in 1147, it would eventually flourish as the capital of a vast Portuguese Empire, drawing merchants to the city from around the world, who bought gold, silk and other precious commodities to trade. Sadly, this period of opulence was not to last, when in 1755 a devastating earthquake struck, destroying vast areas of the city. For this reason, little actually remains of Lisbon’s Islamic past, and many of the historical sites that can be visited today, have had some form of restoration work carried out.
There is another reason for the lack of an obvious, visible Islamic legacy; unlike Spain, where rulers built grandiose mosques and palaces that stand proudly even today, perhaps due to its location on the outer edge of the empire (it was referred to as Gharb al-Andalus- West of Andalus), it seems little was built on such a magnificent scale in Lisbon. That said, there are a numerous compelling, historical sites that are worth visiting, some of which hint at the city’s hidden Islamic past. Here are five places to visit.
1. Castelo de Sao Jorge
As I already mentioned above, standing at the top of one of Castelo de Sao Jorge’s many towers, overlooking the river Tagus, one can truly appreciate the beauty of the landscape and the majestic architecture of a city inspired by two proud traditions.
The castle was first built in the 6th century and reconstructed a number of times since. Under the rule of the Muslims, it was used as a residence for the Moorish royal family, and later, once recaptured by the Christians, it was used to defend Lisbon from a possible counter-attack by the Moors, following fortifications undertaken by King Alfonso Henriques. Inside, Islamic artefacts are showcased; a tour of these artefacts takes place every few hours.
We took the metro from Olais to Martin Moniz station to reach the Castelo. You can either take tram 28 (be prepared for long queues) or bus 12 (expect a steep ride!) from Martim Moniz to the Castelo.
2. Panteao Nacional
From Castelo de Sao Jorge, we walked down towards Panteao Nacional. Once used for religious ceremonies, the Panteo now houses tombs of major Portugal historic figures. There is a staircase inside which leads to the top of the building and out onto a terrace, with breathtaking views of Lisbon and its surroundings, as well as neighbouring islands just off the coast.
3. Praca do Comercio
We headed towards the city square for an enjoyable evening, sitting on the bank of the river Tagus. The square, which is one of the biggest in Europe, is bordered with 18th century arches and was the stage for a number of significant historical events, including the fall of the monarchy in the early twentieth century.
There are lots of restaurants and shops around the square, as well as street sellers. A Senegalese seller, Ami, approached us with ‘salam’; a group of them were selling bracelets, among other things. She shared her difficult story with us, about how she ended up in Lisbon, reminding me to be grateful for all I have.
There is a wonderful atmosphere in and around the square, and it’s a great place to meet people and relax in at sunset.
4. Jeronimos Monastery
Jeronimos Monastery, a former monastery of Saint Jerome, is a UNESCO world heritage site. On first sight, I was taken aback by the stunning, intricate Gothic architecture and the vastness of the monastery.
Entry here is free; as I visited on a Sunday, the queue to get in was pretty long. It was however, worth the wait and my appreciation of the architecture only increased once inside. The monastery is one of the stops on bus 728 and tram 15E .
After exploring Lisbon, I headed to Sintra, a town nearby, at the foot of the Sintra mountains. Known for its vast, wild gardens that grow amongst hidden underground tunnels and water fountains, Sintra is a magical place, that deserves at least a full day’s trip. I spent the night in a hotel here in order to maximise my time. The town is easily accessible via train from Rossio station in Lisbon. The journey time is approximately 40 minutes.
My first stop was Quinta da Regaleira. The estate, complete with a palace, chapel and gardens, is like something out of a fantasy novel. The gardens contain ponds, feature fountains, spiral-walled wells, grottos and underground tunnels. There is an air of secrecy, particularly surrounding the wells, which were never used, nor intended, for water collection. Instead, these underground towers were used for ceremonial purposes such as Tarot initiation rites.
Getting here by foot from the centre of the town is straightforward. There is also a hop on-off bus service (no.434) that stops at most places of interest in Sintra.
As I was walking back, my gaze fell upon an edifice with inscriptions similar to those found at the Alhambra in Granada. Sadly the structure was in complete ruin and fenced off.
Castle of the Moors
Hopping on bus 434, just outside the main square of Sintra, we reached the Castle of the Moors. The Castelo dos Mouros was established during the 9th century by the North African Moors to guard the town of Sintra. Here, remains of an Islamic legacy are still visible in the architecture, and a green flag with Sintra written in Arabic, waves proudly in the sky. There is even a legend that a Moorish King is buried under the walls of a water cistern in the castle, the water of which has never dried up. The cistern can be found near the toilets.
Be sure to wear a good pair of shoes as there is a lot of walking and climbing to do! From the many towers within the castle, one can enjoy the majestic views overlooking the Atlantic sea.
Standing tall on top of the Sintra mountains, the Pena Palace is a UNESCO world heritage site, and an expression of 19th century Romanticism. A small monastery once stood in its place, housing a maximum of eighteen monks at a time. However, the 1755 earthquake caused severe damage to the structure, reducing it to ruins. Only the chapel survived, and King Ferdinand converted the site into a palace, to serve as a summer residence for the royal family. The surrounding landscape, which is home to many different types of flora and fauna, came to be known as Pena gardens.
There are three beautiful lakes within the woodland, where I managed to spot a rare black swan sitting upon her throne. One could easily spend a whole day here. Getting lost among the trees in these romantic gardens, we spotted another Moorish inspired, tomb-like structure with an Arabic inscription on it. Among many other things, the garden also has a stable and a farm. During peak tourist seasons, horse-drawn carriage tours of the garden are available. Sunset was fast approaching so we began our descent from the Palace back to our hotel, which was good 30-40 minute walk.
This was our last day in Portugal, so after a wholesome seafood dinner, we spent some time enjoying the moonlit views of the mountains and castle.
- When in Lisbon be sure to try a Portuguese Nata. You may have already tasted this in your local Nandos, but nothing beats a true Portuguese Nata, easily found on the bustling streets of Praca do Commercia.
- If in need of a place to pray, head to the Central Mosque of Lisbon. The minaret and turquoise dome of this beautiful mosque means it is easy to spot. The nearest metro station is Sao Sebastiao, a 7-10 minute walk form the mosque.
 (“Lisboa, What the Tourist Should See – O Que o Turista Deve Ver” by Fernando Pessoa. Published by Livros Horizontes, Lisbon)
Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments below!