A History of Lisbon in Five Iconic Places

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One of the oldest capital cities in the world, people have been living and working in Lisbon since at least the Phoenician period, although not much remains of pre-18th century Lisbon after a devastating earthquake almost levelled the city in 1755.

With over 2000 years of inhabited history to explore why not grab a bottle of water, stick on some comfortable shoes and join us as we show you the history of Lisbon through five iconic buildings.

The Roman Galleries

Roman ruins
Image © Carole Raddato via Flickr

Lisbon’s first major period of intense building began when the Roman Republic wrested the city from Carthaginian control in 183BC. Developing into one of the most important towns in Roman-controlled Hispana, ancient Lisbon was a thriving seaport known as Oslipio, and was famous throughout the Empire for its Garum – a pungent fish sauce that the Roman world lapped up like ketchup.

Natural disasters have destroyed most of the architecture dating from this period, but the best preserved section can be found in the Roman Galleries, which lie under the Rua dos Correeiros in Baxia. A network of small cells and corridors that were probably once used for storage, these particular ruins date from the first century AD and are built in typical Roman style. Open for only three days a year, free tours of the ruins run over the weekend of the 20th September.



The next great invaders to visit Lisbon came in the shape of the Moors, who captured the city in 714. This hardy band of Arab and Berber tribes re-built Lisbon into a typical Mediterranean city, establishing important trade links with North Africa and the Holy Land.

Thanks to subsequent invasions and natural disasters, little of this re-construction remains these days, but the quarter of Alfama is one gleaming exception. Nestled under the unblinking gaze of the Castle of Sao Jorge, this warren of streets and small squares is known for its remarkable Moorish domes and flourishes, making it one of Lisbon’s more characterful neighbourhoods.

The Castle of Sao Jorge and Convento da Ordem do Carmo

Convento da Ordem do Carmo

Fortifications had existed in Lisbon since Roman times, but the medieval period saw them arguably reach their zenith. The magnificent Castle of Sao Jorge still dominates the city with its high walls and commanding views. Rebuilt in the 14th century over the Moorish fort that once stood there, it became the seat of almost all of Portugal’s monarchs, beginning with Alfonso III in 1255.

Lisbon’s transformation from medieval seat of power into rich, renaissance city is epitomised by the Convento da Carmo (Carmo Convent in English) which was built in impressive gothic style in 1389. Left in ruins since the great quake of 1755, it has had a chequered history since, famously becoming the scene for last stand of Presidente Marcelo Caetano’s loyalists during the Carnation Revolution of 1975.

Praça do Comércio

Praça do Comércio

The great earthquake of 1755 made a massive impression on the city of Lisbon. Now estimated to be between 8.5 and 9 on the Moment Magnitude Scale, the subsequent fires and tsunami completely erased most of the city’s most iconic structures.

Rebuilt to showcase the very height of enlightenment thinking, the Praça do Comércio (or Commerce Square) exemplifies the new, remodelled Lisbon that rose from the ashes. Centred on a fine equestrian statue of modernising King Jose I, the most striking feature is the huge triumphal arch that frames the gateway to the adjoining Rossio Square. Known as the Arco da Rua Augusta it features statues of the Glory, Ingenuity and Valour (by the French sculptor Calmels) alongside effigies of Portuguese heroes Viriatus, Nuno Álvares Pereira, Vasco da Gama and the Marquis of Pombal – the prime minister who commissioned it.

Elevador de Santa Justa

Elevador de Santa Justa

In line with the history of most major cities, the architecture of Lisbon has been constantly evolving to suit the needs of its citizens.

Perhaps the most bizarre building on the list, the Elevador de Santa Justa (Santa Justa Lift in English) is exactly what it says it is – a huge elevator designed to take you from the streets of the Braxia to the Largo do Carmo 48 meters above.

A bit of a curiosity these days, when it was built in 1908 it was one of several lifts intended to help foot and horse traffic negotiate some of Lisbon’s calve-breaking hills. Constructed in a neo-Gothic style, similar to the Houses of Parliament in London, and featuring some pretty impressive views of the city, it has to be one of the most stylish lifts in Europe!


We think that this makes the building blocks for a pretty good tour around historic Lisbon, but what do you think? If you know of any other hidden architectural treasures, why not let us know by leaving a comment below.