The History And Culture Of Lisbon
Among one of the oldest cities in all of Western Europe, Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon is not only chock-full of amazing things to see and do, but it also possesses a fascinating history and rich culture that far too few know the true depths of. Come with us as we explore and uncover the intriguing historical timeline and cultural tapestry of Lisbon city.
Lisbon City: The Origin Story
It may surprise you to learn that Lisbon city was actually first settled by the Celts, then later founded by the Phoenicians before being ultimately conquered by the Greeks and Carthaginians and integrated into the Roman province of Lusitania. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Germanic tribes invaded the capital city and set up control under the banner of the Kingdom of the Suebi up until the year 585, which paved the way to — and ushered in — the era of Muslim power in Lisbon, Portugal.
Invasion of Islamic Moors
Upon invading and taking control of Lisbon city in 711, the Islamic Moors changed Lisbon’s moniker to al-Usbuma. A few decades later, in 789, Lisbon would be reconquered by Afonso II of Asturias, who managed to hold on to power in Lisbon city until 808.
Onward, Christian Soldiers: A Recapturing
In 1147, Afonso I led a group of Christians (a fleet of the second crusade) to retake the capital city, the victory upon which began Lisbon’s now well-marked foray into maritime glory.
In fact, it was during the reign of one of Alfonso I's progeny, Afonso III, that the capital city of Lisbon established itself as the entire nation’s recognized base and central operations port for maritime expansion. It was also during the reign of Afonso III that the capital city of Lisbon officially became the capital city of Lisbon (being moved from the previous capital of Coimbra). Throughout the 14th century, Lisbon — many thanks to its merchant oligarchy and the House of Aviz (the second dynasty of the kings in Portugal) — thrived.
A New Era: Lisbon’s Renaissance
After Lisbon city established its port as being among the most vital ports in the world (around the 15th century, to be exact), a collection of warehouses and customs offices known as the Casa da Guiné e Mina was founded. The purpose of the collection was to officially oversee all facets of overseas trade and thus further strengthen Lisbon city’s power and reach.
Lisbon, Portugal’s good fortune and wealth became known across the globe, bringing an influx of new arrivals from all corners of the world — many of whom brought with them their own maritime knowledge and prowess, which only further influenced Lisbon’s ruling authorities to further invest in maritime endeavors (particularly the country of Henry the Navigator).
Expansion to Asia and Slave Trade Center
Among its not-so-proud moments in history is the fact that Lisbon — after further increasing its already impressive wealth by branching out to conduct business with Asia, Africa, and even Brazil — became the most important slave trade port in the entire continent of Europe. Speaking of freedom — or not — the Duke of Alba seized power over Portugal in 1580, recognizing the Spanish King Philip II as the King of Portugal. A modicum of freedom finally followed, when in 1640 independence was restored and Lisbon city continued to thrive.
Destruction and Reconstruction
It is often said that nature obeys no man, and this was seen as true when Lisbon city suffered a devastating earthquake on November 1, 1755. The quake destroyed a vast majority of the proud and regal city, and determined to restore it to its previous splendor, the 1st Marquis of Pombal, Sebastião José de Carvalho, focused his energies on rebuilding Lisbon Baixa specifically, complete with. The creation of grand, Classical style avenues continues to impress travelers from across the world even to this very day.
Following a brief period of control under Napoleon, who captured Lisbon in 1807, Lisbon city was recaptured by the British. Not long after, in 1833, the constitutional monarchy was reinstated and would remain intact for nearly a century, when in 1910 the Republic was officially declared. This (first) Republic would last until 1926 when the anti-democratic party seized power and installed a second Republic, which was known as the New State, or Estado Novo.
A military coup on April 25, 1974, would then usher in the Third Republic. An interesting fact about this particular coup, which is also known as the “Carnation Revolution”, was considered to be a bloodless coup, and ushered in a period of concurrent years that saw Lisbon city completely changed, marked by an immense influx of immigration and exponential growth.
This influx was particularly seen amid the turmoil of World War II, as the capital city of Portugal soon became synonymous with being a sanctuary and place of refuge — or at least a port to pass through en route to America or the UK — for those individuals exiled from their own lands by the powers that be.
Where Things Stand Today
Portugal officially joined the European Union in 1986, and just over a decade later, in 1998, Lisbon city was host to the World Expo — a monumental moment for this proud country, and the preparation for which can be seen clearly via its urban infrastructure to this day.
Lisbon Landmarks Tell Its Tale
You simply cannot separate Lisbon city’s history from the truly impressive and awe-inspiring architecture that acts as concrete and visible constructions bearing witness to the passage of time. For instance, there’s the hilltop bastion of Lisbon’s São Jorge Castle, which boasts a proud statue of Dom Alfonso Henriques, the vanquisher of the Moors. The Lisbon palace within the fortified walls also once housed Portuguese royalty, although it now houses restaurant patrons and museum-goers instead.
Also paying homage to Lisbon’s history is Lisbon’s Belem Tower, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built way back in 1520 for the purpose of guarding the entrance to the capital city’s vital port. As for São Roque Church, the opulent decor of this Roman Catholic church— complete with precious stone inlays of lapis lazuli and amethyst — bears witness to the wealth and power of the Portuguese empire at the time (18th century).
As commerce was the true boon to Lisbon’s economy, it is fitting that the majestic Praça do Comércio (also known as Commerce Square) be included in the landmarks that “live on” to tell Lisbon’s historical tale. This bustling plaza was once Lisbon’s main marketplace — a bustling gathering space where traders would peddle their goods.
The Bittersweet Beauty of Fado
Finally, no article speaking of Lisbon’s history and culture would be complete without mentioning fado. Wound like a golden thread throughout Portuguese culture is fado, the musical expression that has become so intrinsic to the people and nation that it is like the air they breathe, and with good reason — it is a hauntingly beautiful aural pastime that defies definition. There is a distinct wistfulness and nostalgia that is evoked within when one hears fado, which makes perfect sense, as the actual word “fado” itself can be traced back to its Latin roots in “fatum”, a word meaning destiny.
Sometimes likened to Argentina’s iconic tango music, fado is said to have originated among the citizens residing in Lisbon city’s poorer areas plagued by a sense of fatalism and melancholia. These most humble districts, such as Lisbon Alfama and Lisbon Bairro Alto, and more, still house Lisbon Fado clubs (Casas de Fado), where you can go and experience this overwhelming aural art for yourself.
At fado's very core is what is known as “saudade”, which can be easiest translated as an intense sense of longing and nostalgia, and after hearing it for yourself, you will understand what people mean when they say that fado captures your heart, then never lets it go.
Getting Here is Easier Than Ever
Now that we have discussed the fascinating history and culture of Lisbon, you will surely want to come and learn more in person, and witness it all for yourself! The good news is that now, travel to Lisbon is more convenient than ever, with direct flights to Lisbon airport available from most European capitals and big cities, and now, there are even flights to Lisbon available from North America and the UK, with direct flights from Toronto to Lisbon, JFK to Lisbon, and London to Lisbon being among them!