Things to Do — By Paul Bernhardt on September 19, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Lisbon’s most famous buildings also showcase the city’s finest architecture.

When construction began in 1502 of Mosteiro dos Jerónimos it marked a style of architecture that became known as Manueline. Named for Manuel I, who reigned over Portugal from 1495 to 1521, a period that coincided with the country’s golden Age of Discovery, this unique form of architecture celebrated the voyages undertaken by Portuguese explorers to distant new lands by incorporating decorative maritime motifs into the design, ornamentation such as the armillary sphere, the Cross of the Order of Christ and twisted rope. The exuberance extended to repeated patterns of pearls, shells, and exotic foliage, cables and anchor chains.

Located west of Lisbon in the riverfront suburb of Belém, the monastery was designed by master architect Diogo Boitac – later replaced by João de Castilho in 1517 – and stands as a monument to the exploration and conquest by those intrepid navigators in the late 15th and early 16th century.

Also in the vicinity is the Torre de Belém, another fine example of Manueline artistry.

Torre de Belem

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Dating from around 1515, this exquisite tower used to stand in the middle of the River Tagus and acted as a departure point for the fleets of caravels setting sail to discover trade routes. Over the centuries, land reclamation has seen the tower become accessible by foot and is today a cherished visitor attraction. Indeed, both the tower and the monastery are recognised by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites and are two of the most famous historical buildings in Lisbon

Less celebrated perhaps but equally unique in architectural style is the remarkable Casa dos Bicos. Located on Rua dos Bacalhoeiros on the edge of the city’s Alfama district, the “House of Spikes” is so named because of its unusual façade – it’s faced with 1125 diamond-shaped stones that lend it the look of an insulated sound recording studio.

Casa dos Bicos

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Dating from 1523, the curios landmark was originally the home of Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese Viceroy of India. The building’s two top storeys were destroyed during the earthquake of 1755 but remained in the possession of the Albuquerque family until the 19th century. It fell into disrepair soon afterwards and was only restored and rebuilt in the 1980s.

It is currently being renovated as the headquarters of the Fundação José Saramago, a foundation named after the Portuguese writer and Nobel laureate José Saramago (1922-2010) whose ashes are interned next to the building.

A familiar sight above the rooftops of Lisbon’s Baixa (downtown) district is the Elevador de Santa Justa. There’s good reason why this Neo-Gothic lift conjures up images of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The architect was Frenchman Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard, a student of Alexandre Gustave Eiffel. Constructed of iron and made attractive with a confection of filigree, the 32 m (105 ft) tower links Rua da Santa Justa with Largo do Carmo, in Bairro Alto. Passengers reach the lofty viewing platform via the cabins that travel up and down and carry thousands of tourists throughout the year.

Obviously, Lisbon can deliver its fair share of historical eye-openers. But for a more contemporary perspective, there’s really only one place to go – Parque das Nações.

The “Park of Nations” lies to the east of the city centre along the waterfront. Originally the site of Expo ’98, an imaginative urban regeneration programme transformed the former showground into a district characterised by its contemporary architecture and state-of-the-art visitor attractions.

Oriente Station

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The main railway station, Estação do Oriente, exemplifies the daring and innovative approach taken by designers in personifying the location. Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was charged with designing the rail hub and his ribbed, gull-wing canopies towering over the platforms take on an almost organic quality, especially when illuminated at night.

Portugal’s most famous living architect, Álvaro Siza, designed the Portuguese Pavilion for Expo’98. The building won the national Prémio Valmor for architecture, and it still manages to impress with its thin concrete pall that appears magically suspended between the lateral structures.

And it’s fitting that Portugal’s most popular tourist attraction, the Oceanário de Lisboa, built as a centrepiece for the World Exposition, is also noted for its impressive good looks. Designed by American architect Peter Chermayeff, the oceanarium is a reminder of how modern and contemporary architecture can still function on a practical and accessible level.

Tags: architecture, contemporary sites, famous buildings, historical buildings, historical sights, visitor attractions