Lisbon, Portugal History

It is located in the west of Portugal, on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, on the right bank (to the north) of the estuary of the Tagus River. The city occupies an area of 84.8 km². The city limits, contrary to what usually happens in large cities, are well defined within the limits of the historical perimeter.

This produced the creation of several cities around Lisbon, such as Loures, Odivelas, Amadora and Oeiras, which are de facto part of its metropolitan perimeter.


According to, the history of Lisbon has known times of splendor, when hundreds of curious adventurers, including Vasco da Gama, jumped into the sea eager to discover and explore new lands that made it a maritime power, and times of disaster and misery, which left it to edge of ruin. However, nothing could prevent Lisbon from re-emerging as a thriving city and looking to the future.

Its legendary origin

Legend has it that it was Ulysses who founded Lisbon on his return home from the Trojan War. Ulises would have called the city Olissipo, a derivative of his name that in turn derived from Olissipona, Lissapona, to the current voice of Lisbon for English, Lisbon for Spanish and Portuguese.

In fact, it is not known for sure if it was the Greeks or the Phoenicians who founded it in 1200 BC and named it Olissipo, a derivative of Allis Ubo, which in the Phoenician language means “enchanted port”.

Its beginnings

At first the city was disputed by Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians, due to its strategic location for maritime trade. It was the Romans who occupied it back in 205 BC, and they called it Felicitas Julia. It was part of the Lusitania colony and was the most important city in the Iberian Peninsula when Julius Caesar came to power, in the year 60 BC.

When the Roman Empire fell, the barbarian tribes advanced, and Alans and Swabians occupied the city. The Visigoths were the ones who had taken the city when in 711 the Muslims from North Africa invaded and occupied it for 450 years. Traces of this period can still be seen in the winding streets of Alfama and the Castle of San Jorge.

The first kings

The first king of Portugal was Alfonso I Enriques, who expelled the Muslims in 1147, and below the castle of Saint George he built a cathedral, the Sé, where the remains of Saint Vincent arrived, a martyr in the fight against the Muslims and later patron of Lisbon.

In 1256, under the reign of Alfonso III, the city became the capital of Portugal. With his son Dinis Lisboa he expanded commercially and culturally and in 1290 the first university was founded. The city was expanded at the foot of the castle and in the Baixa area. When the city was sacked by Enrique II of Castile in 1373, Ferdinand I had walls built to protect its 40,000 residents.

The Age of Discovery

After Christopher Columbus set out on his voyages in search of the Indies, many sailors dreamed of going to sea to try their luck too. One of them was Vasco Da Gama, who in 1497 embarked in Belém and opened the route to the Indies bordering Africa.

The 26 of January of 1531 the city suffered an earthquake in which thousands of people died. However, the wealth obtained from the spice trade, also increased by those from Brazil, turned the city into a power, the commercial center of Europe. In these times, Manuel I raised the Torre de Belém and the Mosteiro Dos Jerónimos, as thanks to God for so much wealth.

In the 16th century, the Plaza de Comercio (Terreiro do Paço) was laid out in front of the river, and the Bairro Alto emerged, with merchants who came to settle in the city. The inquisition installed its regime of terror and numerous executions took place in the Plaza de Comercio and in the Plaza del Rossio.

When Sebastian I died, the absence of heirs encouraged the Spanish to occupy Portugal in 1580. They were not expelled until 1640, when the Duke of Braganza ascended the throne as João IV.

The gold brought from Brazil renewed the prosperity of the city and King João V undertook ambitious building plans, including that of the Aguas Livres Aqueduct, which carried water from the Alcántara Valley. All prosperity fell in a few minutes when a new earthquake shook Lisbon on November 1, 1755, leaving it totally destroyed.

Pombal’s projects

The reconstruction of the city was in the hands of the Prime Minister of José I, the Marquis of Pombal. He had planned a grid layout, with the city center in the Baixa area. The efficiency with which he dealt with the crisis and the energetic development of his plan made him the political figure of the moment.

When Napoleon invaded Portugal, the king had to flee to Brazil, the capital of the empire passed to Rio de Janeiro and the projects were not continued, causing the decline of Lisbon. However, Pombal’s design can still be seen today in the streets of the Baixa, which is why it is called Baixa Pombalina. The plan took a long time to materialize and the Arc de Triomphe that closes Rua Augusta was finished a hundred years later, in 1873.

The twentieth century

During the second half of the nineteenth century came economic revitalization. Roads, railways were built, trams circulated, a retaining wall was built in the Tagus. In 1908 they assassinated King Carlos and his son Luis Felipe when they were passing through the Plaza de Comercio and two years later the monarchy fell.

Antonio Oliveira Salazar, who established a dictatorship from 1926 to 1968, continued to modernize Lisbon to the detriment of the rest of the country. In 1966 the Salazar bridge was raised over the Tagus, which was renamed the 25th of AprilBridge , commemorating the Carnation Revolution of 1974, which ended the dictatorship.

End of the century Lisbon

After the revolution, the country experienced years of great euphoria and changes in politics. Portugal became part of the European Community in 1986, which meant that the economy evolved favorably. In 1988, tragedy struck the city again, when fire swept through the Chiado neighborhood.

The losses in terms of building heritage were considerable and one of the best architects in Portugal was summoned for the reconstruction: Alvaro Siza Vieira. Lisbon was the European capital of culture in 1994 and the site of the 1998 World Expo, the theme of which was the ocean, a way of paying tribute to its unrivaled maritime history.

Lisbon, Portugal History