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Lisbon - The City of Discovery
By Ron Kapon, Contributing Travel Editor

Lisbon Aerial View
An aerial view of Lisbon, Portugual shows a city rich in history, architecture and entertainment.
Lisbon, Portugual - Webster?s Dictionary defines "discovery" as ?Disclosing or bringing to light; revealing or making known; a finding out or bringing to sight or knowledge.? This was as good a beginning as I could conceive for my first trip back to Lisbon in 10 years, much too long a period to wait before returning to a place so intensively refreshing. But, a decade is a long time so my refresher course began with the procurement of some updated knowledge to refuel my think tanks and that led me to the Portuguese National Tourist Office, located at: 590 Fifth Ave, 4 Floor; New York, New York 10036, or at: 1-800-Portugal (www.portugal.org). It is, actually, a first step that should be mandatory for any trip that one takes to an undiscovered and either never visited before area of the world or one to which you have not been in some time.

Armed with more maps and ideas than Magellan or Columbus, we headed out in exemplary and prototypical fashion that early explorers never envisioned. That, happily, meant not worrying about working my way across the ocean on some frigate but, instead, being transported by TAP-Air Portugal from JFK non-stop to Lisbon. Flying through the night and getting as much sleep as one possibly could on a red-eye sans enough medication to put most of the passengers to sleep, you are awakened just as the sunlight engulfs the plane?s cabin and we landed, a mere six and a half hours later, in Lisbon. Luggage in hand, it was only a brief 20-minute taxi ride and I was at the centrally located Hotel Lisboa Plaza, just off Avenida da Liberdade, the major shopping and promenading street in town, ideally located only a few blocks from the metro and railroad station.

The sights of Lisbon waited.

Lisboa Card The first stop in the search for discovery should be donning your imaginary tourist cap, lest you be seen for the fairly uninformed visitor you are, and heading over to the Lisboa Welcome Center at Praca do Comercio, near the port and Tagus River. (www.atl-turismolisboa.pt) It is here that you will locate and uncover everything you could possibly want to know about the city, accommodations, show tickets, guide books to museums, shopping and restaurants. You can purchase the three special Lisboa cards there. They are the Lisboa Card for free access to public transportation and free or discounted admission to over 50 museums and sites. The cost is about $11.25 per adult for 24 hours and $4.50 per child. Next is the Lisboa restaurant Card that is the budget meister's best friend with discounts at more than 40 restaurants for a 72-hour period. The tab is $6 per person, or $10.50 for a family with 2 children. Then there is the Lisboa Shopping Card that gives you up to a 20% discount at over 200 shops. That's only $3 for 24 hours. Obviously, the folks that came up with these cards had visions of visitors on roller blades tooling about the city. Still, the costs are worth the purchases, at least the first time around. After that, you put on your own version of bargain hunting attire and hit the streets.

The Welcome Center also has an exhibition of traditional Portuguese handicraft and art, plus an auditorium, caf?, grocery store and a fashion and design shop with clothes and decorative objects for sale. One of Lisbon?s top restaurants Terreiro do Paco is located here and is worth a luncheon once you have toured, familiarized yourself with what you want to accomplish, put your "battle plans" in place and are ready to explore and conquer.

Lisbon Aerial View
St. George?s is the Anglican church for Lisbon in the Diocese of Europe. An incredible view of the city is noteworthy here.
The Lisboa Card allowed me to see the entire city in less than a day. Not that tough. Lisbon is built on 7 hills, so I rode up to St. George?s Church for a panoramic view of the city, camera in hand, and it was magnificent. On to Alfama, the oldest part of the city, with small houses, tiled panels, fountains and perfect for a walking tour if you missed the morning at the gym. The center of the city is Rossio Square. where the train station is conveniently located, and you should absolutely wend you way to Marques de Pombal Square, another large meeting place with many cafes and small shops.

Trains throughout Europe are usually the best way to get around and the Metro system here added credence to that methodology for travel. The Belem area was our destination, where the Belem Cultural Center is also used for exhibits and performing arts. Once there, everything was within walking distance, starting with the Tower of Belem, a 16th Century guardian of the river and a UNESCO World Heritage Building. The Belem Palace is the official residence of the President of the Republic and bespeaks old world tradition. For history buffs, the nearby Jeronimos Monastery was built in the beginning of the 16th century and is the burial site for Vasco da Gama (another UNESCO World Heritage Building). Across the road - you can't miss it (and right beside the Tagus River) is the Monument to the Discoveries built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th Anniversary of Henry The Navigator?s explorations, recalling the Portuguese overseas empire that existed during the 15th & 16th centuries. For those of you that will be inclined to ask, "Portuguese empire?" next to the monument is a map of the world with all their former colonies noted.

Definitely visit, within the same Belem area, the Coach Museum with uniforms and coaches of the royal family in an 18th Century riding ring. The posters available are colorful and worthy of framing to indicate to all that you were really there. After all, why frame and hang posters of places you've never been? Very gauche.

I've always felt that museums are those indoor activities, with rare exceptions like the Louvre in Paris, Van Gogh in Amsterdam, Vatican in Rome, seeing the David in Florence and a few assorted others, that are best saved for rainy days and/or true students of history and art. Seeing and absorbing the people, culture, atmosphere, scope and "feel" of the cities and countries visited has always been my first goal and recommendation to travelers. But, if that is what you wish to do as part of your travels then you should make time to visit The National Art Museum with the finest collection of Portuguese art you're likely to see anywhere, from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century. Then there is The National Tile Museum that shows the art of the tile over the past five centuries and which is housed in the cloisters of a 16th Century convent. Next on the list is The Fado House & Portuguese Guitar Museum, whose description speaks for itself.

Pena National Palace
The Oceans Pavilion is Europe?s largest Oceanarium and was the 1998 Lisbon Expo's centerpiece on Olivais Dock, a man-made island. The $63-million Oceans pavilion consists of two buildings connected by a two-tier pedestrian bridge.
On what we will refer to as "the other side of town" is the National Park, the site of the 1998 Expo and World?s Fair. Although this area is being converted to housing. most of the buildings have been retained and upgraded, among which is the Vasco da Gama Tower, the observation platform overlooking the entire park and I would recommend the chair lift that transcends it all.

The Oceanarium is Europe?s largest aquarium with the Atlantic Pavilion that can hold up to 16,000 people for sporting events or concerts. Should one be taking place while you are visiting it would be worth making plans to attend and becoming involved with the locales despite the fact that you will not understand what they are cheering or for whom. Just enjoy and take lots of pictures.

If you are taking notes and marking things down, don't use the yellow magic marker here but be aware that there is a live interactive Science Center nearby and the country?s biggest bowling center. Leave your bag, shoes and ball at home. This is not why you came to Lisbon. I do encourage you, however, to take the Lisbon by Water route on the River Tagus as one of your first scheduled outings upon arrival. As a matter of fact, as a rule of thumb, always hit the bus and/or boat tours on the first day after arrival to acquaint yourself with the city, make notes and then retrace steps to the sites you had noted before arrival and the ones that have now piqued your interest, historically, photographically, for dining, shopping, exploring or strolling. It is the traveler's must do, much as having your Michelin Guide handy at all times. It is the bible of travel and, to adapt another famous statement to it, don't leave home without it. The river runs between the National Park and the Belem area so the trip will, as you can see, serve your purposes well for familiarization. Use your Lisboa Card and the Metro to return to your hotel.

Pena National Palace
The walk to the Pena National Palace is long (a climb of about 30 minutes from the Old Town to the palace), but it is worth the effort, as the visitor can admire the woods, the mansions with their gardens, the lakes and the fountains.
You're probably going to be within walking distance of the railroad station - but it is just as easy to get there if you are not - so make arrangements to visit Sintra, less than an hour distant. Once more, this entire area has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is worth the trip. Your first stop will be the Pena National Palace on top of a mountain and the hearty among you will surely choose to walk up. Those who are saving their energy for the rest of the trip will avail themselves of the bus, as we did. This 19th Century romantic palace was built in the revivalist style with artwork and souvenirs of royalty evident everywhere, a former royal palace with mixtures of Moorish, Gothic and Manueline architecture style directed by royalty that could not, presumably, make up its mind. Have the camera ready since the conical chimneys visible on the outside of the building are the most photographed sights in all of Sintra. They are still part of the kitchen, which is used, even today, for banquets.

The Queluz National Palace is an 18th Century palace with spacious gardens filled with Baroque statues and is very much like a small version of Versailles. Quinta da Regaleira was built in the early 20th Century and houses the works of sculptress Dorita Castelo Branco. There is a luxuriant park with lakes, a palace, chapels and caves. The Capuchos Convent was built in 1560, is famous for its austerity and reflects the actual living conditions of the Capuchos order. Be certain to book lunch at Tacho Real, probably the best restaurant in town, and then plan to return to Lisbon at nightfall.

How long might all of this take to do? At the speed of light, or thereabouts, maybe 2 1/2-3 days. That is not recommended unless you are on a whirlwind tour, heading somewhere else in short order or have to return home for a previously scheduled and cannot be postponed appointment. The best way, however, is to plan for 4-5 days in Lisbon and the surrounding area, maybe a day or two additionally. That, by the way, only takes into account Lisbon and Sintra. There is still Estoril but that is for another trip, next year. Waiting ten more years simply does not work.


Ron Kapon is seeking wine tasters for the New York Tasters Guild. Please go to www.tastersguildny.com or email him at Ron@tastersguildny.com.