Forming a perfect grid around three main parallel streets, the bustling Baixa district of downtown Lisbon is the beating heart of the Portuguese capital.
Designed by the Marquês de Pombal after the great earthquake of 1755, it represents the first real city planning project of modern times.
In the days following the disaster, the Marquês (real name Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo) quickly set about ‘burying the dead, caring for the living and closing the harbours’.
Distinguished and timeless, his Cidade Pombalina (as it is sometimes called) is remarkable for its simplicity, and the innovative geometrical layout he created remains largely intact today.
Once the site of the royal palace for over four hundred years, Praça do Comércio is a delightfully inviting riverside square that’s often compared to Venice’s Piazza di San Marco. Considered Pombal’s pièce de résistance, its shaded arcades are now home to some of Lisbon’s most popular bars and restaurants, the majority offering outdoor tables for al fresco dining.
A short stroll east of the square brings you to one of the most remarkable and unique buildings in Lisbon, the Casa dos Bicos (House of Pointed Stones), built in 1523 and now the headquarters of the José Saramago Foundation, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Accessible through the magnificent Triumphal Arch – the top of which is now accessible to tourists by elevator – Rua Augusta (the main artery leading away from Praça do Comércio and indicated on the Google map below) is a lively pedestrianised thoroughfare lined with shops, cafés and eateries.
The names of Rua do Ouro (Gold Street) to the west and Rua da Prata (Silver Street) to the east refer to the wares sold in days gone by, although many upmarket jewellers still trade on them.
At the top of these three roads (Augusta, Ouro and Prata) are the main squares of Praça da Figueira (Lisbon’s main marketplace in Pombal’s reconstruction of the area) and Rossio, the city’s centuries-old centrepoint notable for its black and white mosaic pavings and two splendid fountains brought in from Paris in 1890.
There’s much for visitors to see and do in the Baixa, with many of the main attractions located in close proximity to each other, meaning that the whole of Lisbon’s splendid downtown district can easily be navigated on foot.
Overlooking the entire scene, and with breathtaking panoramic views from a viewing gallery at the top, the iconic Santa Justa Elevator has been hauling tourists and townsfolk up to the capital’s fashionable Chiado quarter from early morning until late at night since 1902.
Just off Praça dos Restauradores – a majestic square that commemorates Portugal’s liberation from Spain in 1640 – the Glória Funicular has been performing a similar function up to Lisbon’s old Bairro Alto quarter since it was first inaugurated in October 1885.
Nearby lies Lisbon’s main tourist office at Palácio Foz, suitably housed in a lovely pink palace built by Francesco Savario Fabri just after the 1755 earthquake.
Running north for about a kilometre and a half, the broad tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade (Lisbon’s Champs Élysées) retains its elegance with many of the original kiosks and buildings, such as the Neo-Classical Tivoli Theatre halfway up on the right.
And at the top end of this fine boulevard, high on its enormous monument, the statue of the Marquês de Pombal proudly watches over the part of the city he once raised up from its smoking ruins in the mid-18th century.
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