Every city has its secrets and strange twists in the course of history. Lisbon is no exception. For example, can you guess how many football clubs are registered in the Lisbon district? Or what is that square manhole cover in the Rua da Prata?
We’ve got a number of these sometimes weird but always interesting facts about Lisbon for you.
- Oldest city in Western Europe
Lisbon is the oldest city in Western Europe. In fact, only Athens is estimated older if you look at Europe as a whole. Lisbon was founded by the Phoenicians in 1200 BC., a people of seafarers and merchants. The location on the Tagus river and on the Atlantic coast was apparently too good to miss out of. One of the theories about the emergence of the name Lisbon is that it comes from the Phoenician pronunciation “Allis Ubbo“, which means “safe haven”.
Technically, Lisbon is not the capital of Portugal. There are no official documents that confirm that. Apparently it happened by chance when King Alfonso III settled with his court in Lisbon. That made sense of course, since Lisbon was already the largest and most important city in Portugal.
- The Raven
The raven is the symbol of Lisbon. According to legend, two ravens travelled with the body of São Vicente, the patron of Lisbon. Vicente Zaragoza was buried in the Algarve, near Sagres, since the year 303. King Afonso I had the body dug up and shipped it to Lisbon. You can also find this story in the Lisbon coat of arms.
- Black and white streets
Many streets and squares in Lisbon are tiled in black and white. This is said to have its origins at São Vicente: white represents the clothing of the Crusaders, while black was the favorite colour of São Vicente.
- City on seven hills. Right?
Like Rome, Lisbon is built on seven hills, and is called “cidade das sete colinas“, the city on seven hills. Yet there are many who doubt this: are there seven hills? Or is it eight? When do you call something a hill exactly?
- 11 Miles
The Vasco da Gama bridge is the longest bridge in Europe with over 11 miles. Related fact: the Guinness Book Of Records writes about a dinner that 15,000 people attended. Where was that dinner? Yep, on the Ponte Vasco da Gama, at the opening in 1998.
- Long-term construction site
Another Guinness World Record in Lisbon: the Santa Engrácia Church (nowadays the Panteão Nacional) is considered the church with the longest time between start and completion. The work started in 1681 and was only finished in 1966. It’s obvious that all kinds of things were going on during the intervening years: curses, dead architects and other priorities almost made this a prayer without end.
- 14 Million Benfiquistas
As it turns out Guinness just can’t get enough of Lisbon: the football club SL Benfica has the biggest fan club in the world. The number of official fans is estimated at more than 14 million. Of these 14 million there are 170,000 officially recognised as Sócio.
You won’t find the next fact in the Guinness Book of World Records, but Lisbon was the first city in the world to import Guinness beer from Dublin. There are other documents that tell us that Guinness was already shipped to Lisbon in 1811.
- 214 Football clubs
Back to football. Portugal in general and Lisbon in particular is crazy about the game! That is why there are no less than 214 registered football clubs in Lisbon. Sporting CP and SL Benfica are certainly not the only ones.
Most walls in Lisbon are full of graffiti and other street art. There are several tours that you can book that lead you past these highlights. A considerable part of the graffiti was actually commissioned by the city authorities to brighten up some of the dilapidated walls.
- DThe big earthquake
In the early morning of November 1 1755, Lisbon was hit by a massive earthquake. A large part of the city was destroyed by this quake with a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale. Estimates of victims in Lisbon range from 10,000 to 100,000.
The oceanarium in Lisbon is one of the largest aquariums in the world. The large basin has more than 5 million water. The tank is 20 feet deep and has a diameter of roughly a hundred feet. You should definitely see that yourself.
Both the oldest bookstore in the world (Livraria Bertrand, 1732) and the smallest (Livraria do Simão, <35 sq ft) can be found in Lisbon. Has anyone called Guinness? Again?
- Stronghold of spies
During the Second World War, Portugal was neutral. This made the country extremely attractive for (rich) refugees. Especially the casino in Estoril, west of Lisbon, was a popular place. The fact that a lot of spies were sent there from all the intelligence services shouldn’t come as a surprise. The most famous of them has to be Ian Fleming. Yes, that Ian Fleming.
- The biggest casino in Europe
Speaking of which, did you know that the casino of Estoril is the largest casino in Europe?
- Tie straight?
On Rossio square you can find the only public clothing mirror in the world (as far as we can tell). For real. You can use this mirror to fashion your clothes, or your hair, or whatever. On the mirror it says “componha o nó da sua gravata“, which translates to “compose the knot of your tie”.
- Secret of Pastéis de Belém
Only five people in the world know the recipe of the Pastel de Belém, de originele Pastel de Nata. the original Pastel de Nata. They have memorized the recipe, there is no written version. These five men therefore never travel simultaneously with the same aircraft or car. Just imagine …
- “Is this seat taken?”
In Cafe Martinho Da Arcada, a classic Lisbon café, there are two tables where you can’t sit down, they are permanently reserved for two of Portugal’s most famous writers: one for Fernando Pessoa and one for José Saramago. Incidentally, you can just join Pessoa outside of Cafe A Brasileira.
- Those trams …
Not only Ponte 25 de Abril seems to have its roots in San Francisco (Golden Gate bridge), city officials were looking at San Fran for another symbol of Lisbon: the well-known yellow trams are modeled on what they had in the mid-19th century in California. In 1873 the first tramway started in Lisbon, and the trams were, appropriately, called Americanos.
- Dolphins in the Tagus
In ancient times it was quite normal to spot dolphins in the Tagus river. Nowadays it is a bit harder. This seems partly due to the pollution and I can imagine that all the bustle of shipping also doesn’t help. But, if you’re really lucky you can still see them. You will have a better chance if you go down south south a bit further: from Setubal there are several companies that organise trips on the water.
- Galerias Romanas
Under the streets of Lisbon lies a genuine, 2000 year old Roman city, the Galerias Romanas. Really. With corridors, bridges and rooms. After the earthquake of 1755 this came to light during works there. And you won’t believe your eyes when you see how you enter the place: through a small square metal hatch in the middle of the street! Unfortunately you can only go in a few days a year, which makes planning your city trip a little more difficult.
That about wraps it up! How much of these did you know? And, even better, what facts are missing in our list? Let us know in the comments!