Spread over a string of seven hills north of the Rio Tejo (Tagus River) estuary, Lisbon presents an intriguing variety of faces to those who negotiate its switchback streets. In the oldest neighborhoods, stepped alleys whose street pattern dates back to Moorish times are lined with pastel-color houses decked with laundry; here and there, miradouros (vantage points) afford spectacular river or city views. In the grand 18th-century center, calçada à portuguesa (black-and-white mosaic cobblestone) sidewalks border wide boulevards. Elétricos (trams) clank through the streets, and blue-and-white azulejos (painted and glazed ceramic tiles) adorn churches, restaurants, and fountains.
Of course, parts of Lisbon lack charm. Even some downtown areas have lost their classic Portuguese appearance as the city has become more cosmopolitan: shiny office blocks have replaced some 19th- and 20th-century art nouveau buildings. And centenarian trams share the streets with "fast trams" and noisy automobiles.
Lisbon bears the mark of an incredible heritage with laid-back pride. In preparing to host the 1998 World Exposition, Lisbon spruced up public buildings, overhauled its subway system, and completed an impressive second bridge across the river. Today the former Expo site is an expansive riverfront development known as Parque das Nações, and the city is a popular port of call for cruises, whose passengers disembark onto a revitalized waterfront. Downtown, all the main squares have been overhauled one by one.
In its heyday in the 16th century, Lisbon was a pioneer of the first wave of globalization. Now, the empire is striking back, with Brazilians and people from the former Portuguese colonies in Africa enriching the city’s ethnic mix. There are also more than a few people from other European countries who are rapidly becoming integrated.
But Lisbon's intrinsic, slightly disorganized, one-of-a-kind charm hasn't vanished in the contemporary mix. Lisboetas (people from Lisbon) are at ease pulling up café chairs and perusing newspapers against any backdrop, whether it reflects the progress and commerce of today or the riches that once poured in from Asia, South America, and Africa. And quiet courtyards and sweeping viewpoints are never far away.
Despite rising prosperity (and costs) since Portugal entered the European Community in 1986, and the more recent tourism boom, prices for most goods and services are still lower than most other European countries. You can still find affordable places to eat and stay, and with distances between major sights fairly small, taxis are astonishingly cheap. All this means that Lisbon is not only a treasure chest of historical monuments, but also a place where you won’t use up all your own hard-earned treasure.