An Architectural City Break in Lisbon- Part 1

OLÁ. Lisbon hadn’t been on my list of places to visit but when a friend suggested it for a city break, I thought it could be fun.  It proved to be a great choice.  I fell in love with the city and, although it was a short stay, its vibrancy was addictive. 

My initial impression was that Lisbon was old-fashioned and a bit ‘down at heel’.  However, as I walked round, I could see areas of renovation and (dare I say it) ‘gentrification’.  A sense of history comes from the ancient tiled buildings, colourful street art, laundry flapping from the windows of homes, and the slippy tiled paths (when it rains you need to tread carefully).  Renovation is along the water front, with buildings such as the MAAT (by Amanda Levete) giving it a modern aura.  We were visiting in June so there was a great party vibe because of the ‘Festas Populares’.  We enjoyed the smell of barbequed sardines, sampled the ginjinha (cherry liqueur in chocolate pots) and danced to the cheesy pimba pop music that was played at the many parties in streets and parks.

Lisbon feels smaller than my favourite city, Barcelona.  That’s because the main tourist area is squeezed between seven hills.  It is easy to explore on foot, but exhausting when it is warm.  Like Barcelona, Lisbon is a coastal city at the mouth of a river.  Lisbon’s river Tagus was the departure point for many explorers who discovered new lands around the world, and returned with new and exciting foods, architecture and cultures.

The influence of migrants from Portugal’s former colonies are easy to see everywhere and the buildings represent an amazing range of styles.  I had pre-planned visits to some of the key architectural features of the city.

Belem Tower

Belem Tower illustrates the eclectic architectural styles of the Portuguese Renaissance.  Built of Lioz limestone it is an impressive 4-storey structure protruding out from the shore-line. Designed by architect Fracisco de Arrudo in 1515, it owes much to the Moorish styles that characterises his work on other Portuguese fortresses in Morocco.  It’s notable for its Portuguese Manueline features – nautical style carvings and rounded shields with the cross of the Order of Christ – but there are hints of other architectural styles such as the Moorish arched windows, balconies and ribbed cupolas of the watchtowers. 

We visited the Belem Tower in the morning before the area became too busy so it was easy to appreciate its role as a striking monument to Europe’s ‘Age of Discoveries’.  For centuries it served as Lisbon’s ceremonial point of departure and return and the statue of Our Lady of Safe Homecoming metaphorically offers protection to sailors.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.


This modern structure (opened in 2016) is the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology and was designed by British architect Amanda Levete.  It’s a short walk/scooter ride along the bank of the River Tagus from Belem Tower.  In my opinion it is an ionic piece of architecture and is probably my favourite building of all in Lisbon.  The new structure is almost organic, in juxtaposition to the historic industrial architecture of the Tejo Power Station.  This contrast is deliberate and, in fact, the power station was refurbished as part of the MAAT project.  It was fun walking over the new building though the ‘geek’ in me wonders what it would be like when it rains. 

You can see that there has been careful thought with the choice of materials.  Limestone is typical of many of the Lisbon buildings and the ceramic tile lining of the overhanging façade are also part of Lisbon’s architectural style.  I’m not sure my photos really do the building justice.  I would love to view the building from the other side of the Tagus or from a boat – maybe another visit to Lisbon is needed!

Funicular railway and Bairro Alto neigbourhood

Our final planned destination was the funicular railway.  Usually people travel on it up Calcada da Gloria but chose to walk up the very steep road.  It was our first day and we had been sitting on a plane too long, so exercise was needed!  It was a slow climb, because we stopped frequently to view the amazing street art.  The road ascends from Praca dos Restauradores to the Bairro Alto neighbourhood and once at the top we were looking out over the Lisbon rooftops.

Apparently, the Gloria Funicular was established in 1885 and was initially moved by a water counter balancing system before becoming steam powered and then being converted to electric in 1915.  I have to say it was fascinating walking up the track and watching it travel. 

Bairro Alto Neigbourhood had a similar vibrancy to Afama but in hindsight felt a little more touristy.  We ate at a wonderful restaurant called Dias no Bairro (Rua do Notre, 81 Bairro Alto 1200-284 Lisboa) choosing to have Portuguese tapas. The streets were filled with restaurant tables and there was quite a bohemian vibe. 

Barrio Alto is one of the places where the buildings mostly survived the Great Earthquake of Lisbon in 1755.    Some of these older buildings look to have had their facades retained but redesigned behind to accommodate the growth of the resident population.  Where a building hasn’t been demolished a mansard roof has been added.

Our trip to this neighbourhood culminated in the Jardim de Sao Pedro de Alcantara.  One of the may Portuguese June celebrations were taking place.  We enjoyed the view out over the city at night.

If you are thinking of visiting Lisbon, or have any questions arising from this item, don’t hesitate to contact me – Alison Taylor-Stokes, ICE Arch Ltd,