TOP SPOTS TO BIKE: LISBON - What to do in Lisbon before your cycle tour?

Thinking to cycle in Portugal, the city capital of Lisbon, is a good place to start. 

Portugal has a great pedigree of cycling and its country roads are such a delight to bike.  However, that doesn´t mean you should skip its capital and head inland immediately upon landing.

 A City made for Cycle Explorers!

An ancient setting, it was, as stories hint, founded by Ulysses himself and has harboured many famous explorers since. Today, it is a bustling cosmopolitan city, which lies only 17km (10 miles) from the Atlantic and with a population of a bit more than ½ a million (“Grande Lisboa” which takes in all the suburbs and villages counts 2 million). Luckily for the traveller it still maintains the relaxed and sedate air of a Mediterranean grand dame.  From trendy galleries, shops, cafes and bars, to remarkable museums, cathedrals, landscape and wonderful succulent seafood, the visitor will be overwhelmed.

Owing to its hilly nature, you may want to get off your bike while you explore Lisbon’s oldest district, the Alfama.  It is made up of baking red tile roofs, fish sold from doorways, and small narrow cobbled streets; their windows hung with washing and bird cages.  Inhabited since the fifth century, it today is a maze of streets, overlooked by the battlements of the medieval castle. For a really insane spectacle, the UCI Lisbon Downtown bike race that used to take place in the Alfama was amazing.  From castle to seaport, the time to beat is under 2 minutes.

The Alfama is best travelled on foot, or even trundle up the steep inclines in the trams whilst pedestrians side-step the tracks with their shopping.  Reminding one of a more elegant day, the tram’s polished wood interiors, absent of garish advertisements for insurance are a treat to travel around the city. So are the elevators or funiculars, and the Elevador da Bica, in the Bairro Alto district is charming as it pulls its wrought iron self up tracks over 40 degrees, past the tiny homes and shops on either side.  Like a European San Francisco, Lisbon’s streets are undulating, the waving lines of houses rising and falling with the earth, it also boasts an impressive red suspension bridge, the 70 metre high, “Ponte 25 de Abril”, in fact the longest in Europe and named after the 1974 Carnation Revolution date.

Unfortunately, like its Californian counterpart its suffering of a tremendous earthquake in 1755 was catastrophic, with over 100,000 people killed and massive building loss.
One of the first times a disaster was made known worldwide and felt around Europe (as far away as Finland and which damaged the Cathedral in Sevilla), the disaster that befell upon Lisbon on the morning of November 1 1755, was to mark it up until its present day.  Struck by an earthquake with an estimated Richter scale reading of about a 9 (the epicentre was 200km out in the Atlantic ocean), the city also suffered an ensuing tsunami and raging fires. Amazingly, the Portuguese capital was to immediately carry on and although devastated with figures of numbers of fatalities reaching to 100,000, it suffered no epidemics. The treasures lost included many examples of Manualine architecture, the records in the national archives including several of Vasco de Gama’s writings, and many frescos, art pieces and churches.

See Fascinating old buildings in Lisbon's heart

The famous pragmatic quote of chief minister Sebastiao Jose de Carvalho e Melo (later to become Marques de Pombal) “What now? We bury the dead and feed the living” speaks of its tenacious attitude and within a year the city was in the midst of being rebuilt. Interestingly the Lisbon city core was one of the first urban centres in the world designed to resist subsequent earthquakes and some of the sights the tourist sees now were the world’s first “Earthquake Proof” buildings. (Models were first built and troops marched around them to simulate the shaking). Melo even 
constructed his own survey and sent out questionnaires that asked very specific details about whether people had noticed differences in animals and water levels prior to the earthquake and for them to detail what damage had occurred. The royal court and family of Joseph 1 was saved at the time, having taken a holiday outside the city, however, King Joseph never got over his claustrophobia that occurred from the quake and could never bear to live between walls again – opting for a tent complex instead.
   The Carmo Church heavily damaged in Lisbon’s centre Baixa, and was left as a stark monument to those who lost their lives in this tragic disaster. The lonely arches soaring skyward in memorial. A small off coast quake near the Algarve in January 2007 – 6.8 on the Richter scale, also caused minor damage both in Lisboa and in Sevilla again, so there are some fears if another
fears of another.

However, the citizens of Lisbon are hardy and have rebuilt the city with a graciousness, which rules its architecture and people.  Hosting Expo ’98, was a vast impetus to improve infrastructure, including tourist services, and the visitor will have little problem navigating the city, although doing it by bike is scary with some of the inclines!

All this hill walking (and there are seven of them in Lisbon) induces a good appetite and if you feel brave, duck into a small café for lunch and try out the vinho da casa (house wine) with of course the huge dishes of bacalhau (salted cod) that are the favourites of this city. Try ending the meal with a very generous shot of whiskey or their famous Vinho do Porto (port) if really intrepid!

This is Lisbon, if you want good honest food, this is the place to come, portions are generous, almost as if they expected you to go out and run a marathon the rest of the afternoon.  They also adore coffee, and casa de chá (tea houses) and pastelarias thrive. They have over ten different words for the type of coffee you might want – but try an “uma bica”, it will knock your socks off, as it is a very potent expresso. And while you are at it, have a queijadas (small cheesecake tart). You will have to stand in line for one, but they are definitely worth it. Of course for medicinal purposes of course, try a GINJINHA - A cure all for all!

You´ll see these little shops around the city, where patrons, stand outside and imbibe tiny cups of morello cherry liqueur. You ask for it “with” or “without”, the cherry that is!  Thought to be a curative for whatever ills you, the activity to stop and have a ginjinha with your friends in Lisbon was such the done thing that many singers, poets and writers referred it into their poems, works and songs.
 
Buy some Bacalhau (salted cod) 
Sustenance is good, especially if you are in a quest for excellent and cheap leather goods, although you won’t have to go far as shoe shops abound, A “well heeled” foot, is a must in this culture and the visitor will be spoiled for choice and  you may want to forgo any cycling at all.

For the ‘Culture Vulture’, architectural sites are varied and Lisbon has some wonderful Cathedrals and the Sé Cathedral (Alfama district) is one of the best to see. This Romanesque church (built in 1150) will shelter you perfectly from a hot sun and in its interior amaze yourself with the sight of the cathedral’s huge Baroque organ. In the shadows, its pipes and horns shoot out from all over the place looking vaguely, like it expects the Phantom of the Opera to show up.

At the other end of town, in Belém, and built by Manual 1 in 1502 for Vasca da Gama’s safe return, is the Monastery “Mosteiro dos Jeronimos”. Its church is inspiring but it is the monastery’s courtyard, which is a lyrical poem of stone works. Manueline is the Portuguese style of architecture you will see. This style flourished in the reign of Manuel 1, continuing after his death. It is a Portuguese take on the Late Gothic style and typified by Maritime Motifs and decoration covers most spaces. Try and find the twisted ship ropes and anchor chains, the seaweed and coral encrusted ship sides in the Manueline examples we’ll see. The Armillary sphere a navigational tool, and the personal emblem of Manuel 1, is one of the most important details. Keep a look out for what  looks like a wrapped baseball. The Cross of the Order of Christ is the other, the sign of the military order that often financed early explorations.
  
 You can´t be in Lisbon without being aware of its nefarious history during WW 2.  Officially neutral it was certainly the place to be. People fleeing from the darkness of war-torn Europe were shocked to arrive.  Parties, parties, parties, shopping, freedom and food!  Meanwhile, traditional and staid Dictator Salazar despaired of the lack of morals, (evident in the women´s short haircuts, their smoking and dresses that did not come down to the ankles) that these new arrivals brought and influenced the Portuguese with.  He preferred to be isolated from the rest of Europe and wanted Portugal to be “A happy people, proudly isolated”, however, being an economist by training and heart, knew an opportunity when he saw one.

Lisbon, the City of Intrigue

The mysterious connection with the dodgy dealings of spies, blackmarketers, and 5th Columnists due to its neutral state during the World War II, its big reserves of tungsten and its strategic Atlantic position made it a hot bed of intrigue. Interestingly enough, both the Allies and Axis forces both kept large diplomatic corps here during that time and the British and German consulates were neighbours! There were so many official and amateur spies in the streets of Lisbon that an American intelligence paper of 1943 reported that “a remarkably high proportion of the population are working for one or more of the intelligence services”.  It was also a safe haven for many European escapees, mainly Jewish people to make their way to and through in their attempt to get to safety in the Americas. One of the most famous pop cultural reference is Resistance leader Victor Laszlo´s getaway with Ingrid Bergman on an “evening plane to Lisbon” in the movie Casablanca with the prized, “letters of Transit” that everyone coveted in Europe at the time.


It may have been the tungsten which allowed Portugal the ability to stay neutral in the war, as it is a rare and valuable source for creating armaments. The Dictator Salazar granted concessions to both the English and the Germans for several mines in the Alentejo, and other parts of the country, starting a mining rush. Salazar, it was rumoured was paid solely in Nazi gold.  More recently, tungsten was used in the making of light bulbs.

This opulence of the Portuguese privileged is also explored nearby in the National Museum of Carriages. These vestiges of another time, mainly carriages from the 17-19th century are in such amazing condition with their sumptuous gilts, velvets, tortoise shell interiors, and ostrich plumes, which they look as if they are ready to be hitched up any minute. The Museum is conveniently located just down the road from the Pasteis de Belém  (84 a 88 Rua de Belém). The Café, founded in 1837 is home to the delicious traditional custard tarts (pasties de Belém) and these are served in the huge bustling place full of coffee drinking Portuguese on their way home. This is also very close to the Torre de Belem. Situated very much closer to the shoreline than originally created (due to a 19th century reclamation of the shoreline), it was commissioned by Manuel 1 as a fortress in the middle of the Tagus river in 1515-21. It was here that Portugal’s intrepid navigators set out from in the epoch of exploration. With its different architectural styles, its Moorish watchtowers, Manueline design motifs and Gothic interior, the Tower is in itself a fascinating monument. 
  
Night time is no restriction to activity and the streets fill with strolling families and outdoor café’s. The Alcantara district under the great Ponte 25 bridge has slick warehouse converted to upmarket restaurants and wine bars while the more eclectic Bairro Alto and Chiado area also line their narrow streets with nightclubs and drinking establishments. 

This is also the time to try and catch some local Fado!


Similar to the Blues in the way its songs portray a pining and sadness of yesteryear. It literally means “fate” and is a singer (male or female) accompanied by a guitar and or viola (a small acoustic guitar). The “guitarra” looks very much like a mandolin in its teardrop shape and has a simple tone that will play the melody and possibly sometimes a solo instrumental. The music’s base is known as “saudade” which is a yearning for the past and what has been lost and what perhaps had been unrequited or never attained. It is a very poignant sound. It has been known for over 150 years as being played and probably has its derivatives from African slave songs. The most famous fadista was Maria Severa who died very young in 1836 at 26 years old. She has inspired everything from songs, to being the subject in Portugal’s first “talkie” movie. Every female fadista wears a black shawl in memory of her. Amália Rodrigues (1921 – 1999) is perhaps one of the world’s most famous fadista and is an icon in Portugal for her involvement in the fado scene for over 50 years.  Some music from former colonies,  like Cape Verde, also has been a popular influence and Cesária Évora, “The Barefoot Diva” (who died in 2011 and gave her last concert in Lisbon) was one of the most popular mournful singers. Internationally acclaimed she was known to stop her concerts midstream and have a cigarette and whiskey.
Whatever you choose to do or go in Lisbon before your Portuguese cycle tour, you will not be disappointed by this European capital and like Vasco da Gama, will be very sad indeed to leave it.

To enjoy Lisbon before your bike trip, look at our Amazing Alentejo bike tour or our Self Guided Blue Coasts which both pass through Lisbon.

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