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Portugal's capital, like many bustling cities, is defined by its neighborhoods.

There's Baixa, the heart of the city, with its shops, banks and cafes.

Bairro Alto, a working-class district, perks up at night, thanks to its restaurants, bars and clubs.

Sophisticated Chiado offers theaters, bookshops and designer stores.

And the Alfama overlooks all of them, topped by the commanding Castelo de Sco Jorge, built by the Moors in the 11th century.

But for me, the character and spirit of this city of 565,000 is best seen in its public squares -- open spaces big and small, decorated with historic monuments and modern art, where tourists mingle with locals rushing for the Metro, browsing adjacent shops and lingering at sidewalk cafes.

Savoring a pastel de nata, or custard pastry, best served warm and sprinkled with confectioners' sugar or cinnamon, I watch life in Rossio, Lisbon's main square.

People sit and read newspapers by the fountain, while parents and grandparents lead children over wavy black-and-white cobblestones representing the sea. Busloads of Spaniards settle around the column topped by the statue of Dom Pedro IV, singing, cheering and gearing up for a pivotal soccer match. Vendors roast chestnuts, laminate anything you want, and sell lottery tickets.

"Squares are traditional meeting places," says Claudia Costa, 31, a tour guide who was born and raised in the narrow streets of the Alfama. "People congregated there during earthquakes. There's nothing tall to topple on them."

There are so many squares that Costa can't even guess the number. This city, which was rocked by an earthquake in the 14th century and shaken by a 6.0 "big tremor" last year, is defined by the Great Earthquake of 1755.

On Nov. 1, 1755, All Saints Day, with most of the 270,000 residents in churches for Sunday Mass, three tremors leveled cathedrals and palaces, businesses and homes. The quake and resulting tsunami and fires killed 90,000 people and devastated the city.

That's why the buildings of Lisbon, which was occupied by the Romans in 205 B.C. and occupied by the Moors in A.D. 714, are closer in age to those of the United States than to those in the city's European counterparts. A few historic landmarks remain, but most have been rebuilt.

The outlying neighborhood of Belem, anchored on the Tagus River, suffered the least damage, so that's where we head first, to see original 16th century monuments to Portugal's great explorers.

>Belem

Catching the 15E tram at Figueira Square, I ride with my wife and daughter three miles along the river, past two cruise terminals, getting off in front of the National Coach Museum.

The former riding school, part of Belem Palace, houses one of the largest and most valuable collections of royal coaches in the world, and is one of the city's most popular attractions. Most of the gilded coaches are from the 17th to the 19th centuries, with a simple wooden coach used by Phillip II, former king of Spain and Portugal, dating to about 1600.

The main hall, with its paintings, murals and 18th century architecture, is equally impressive -- it could just as easily have hosted a royal banquet as the royal horses.

We also can't pass up the Casa Pasteis de Belem, birthplace of the custard pastry in 1837 and guardian of its secret recipe. There are tour buses out front and a takeout line out the door. A series of dining rooms is adorned with original tiles.

"There are 600 seats, and they're filled by locals on Sunday, when they sell 50,000 custards," Costa later tells us. "They sell 10,000 on weekdays."

Nourished, we cross the street to the dramatic block-long, white limestone Jeronimos Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site. King Manuel I ordered it built in 1502 to commemorate Vasco da Gama's voyage to India.

Both the church, built on the site of a sailors' chapel founded by Prince Henry the Navigator, and the Cloister are examples of Portugal's unique Manueline style -- a combination of Gothic, Renaissance and Moorish architecture, embellished by nautical elements such as ropes, shells, anchors and nets.

Following directions in Rick Steves' Portugal guidebook, we spot sculptures of historic figures, whimsical gargoyles (monkey, cricket and kitten), and da Gama's tomb. King Manuel's personal symbol, the armillary sphere -- a globe surrounded by movable rings for navigation -- pops up everywhere.

We have the expansive complex almost to ourselves on this temperate, midweek afternoon in March, weeks before peak season starts.

Across the busy boulevard -- we eventually find the pedestrian tunnel under it -- the Monument to the Discoveries and Belem Tower provide bird's-eye views of the river the explorers sailed on. The tower, also a World Heritage monument, stands at the mouth of the harbor -- the sailors' last vision of home as they headed off to sea and the first on their return.

Our hotel, the Executive Suites VIP Eden, is perfectly located for exploring the city. The 1930s art deco building, originally a theater, stands majestically across from Restauradores Square in Baixa. Within a few steps are a Metro station, the Rossio train station with its horseshoe-shaped archways, and Hotel Avenida, Lisbon's first five-star hotel, which opened in 1892.

Stretching north from the square is the Avenida da Liberdade, or Liberty Street, "the Champs Elysees of Portugal," Costa says, lined with fancy shops and businesses -- no residences.

Following Costa, we head off on a four-hour tour of Lisbon's three main neighborhoods.

>Bairro Alto

After buying Metro passes, we board the Elevador da Gloria, one of three funiculars in the City of Seven Hills. "There are really more than seven hills," Costa says on our 30-second ride up to Bairro Alto. "Rome has seven hills, so we have to have seven hills."

At the top, gardens provide a panoramic view of the city. Nobles lived in this neighborhood until the earthquake of 1755, when they moved to Belem and the nearby city of Sintra, Claudia says.

We bypass the Port Wine Institute -- it's too early to sample some of the 300-plus ports -- for Sao Roque Church, built by the Jesuits in the 1500s and named for the patron saint of plague victims. Its facade is plain, but inside, eight side chapels -- each for a different noble family -- dazzle with gold figures that actually are gilded chestnut carvings and marble inlaid with artwork resembling tiles.

Sao Roque is the only church in Lisbon with original tiles, Costa says. It was restored in baroque style in the early 1800s. In 1836, they stopped burying parishioners beneath the center floor boards and started removing the remains, hoping to stem the spread of the plague.

The most lavish chapel, named for St. John the Baptist, was built in Rome in the 1740s as a gift from Portugal's king to the pope. Precious gems and materials such as agate, jade, alabaster, ivory, gold, silver and bronze were used to display the riches of Portugal's colonies in Asia, Africa and South America. But the pope rejected the gift, so the chapel was disassembled, crated and shipped here, Costa says.

We walk single file along sidewalks barely wider than curbs to Trinity Convent, originally a monastery dating to 1294, which was destroyed several times by fires and earthquake. Original 19th century tiles in what once was the monks' dining hall -- now a beer hall -- depict the elements -- earth, wind, fire and water -- and the four seasons.

To the rear, in a nonsmoking room, a mural shows monks enjoying the beer they made. These days, students start their night here with beer and a Portuguese beef stick for about $14, then head to the disco and bars, Costa says.

It's too early for beer, too, so we move on to Carmo Square and the National Guard headquarters, where dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar's successor was overthrown in 1974. The relatively bloodless coup is known as the Carnation Revolution, for the flowers that the people put in soldiers' rifles.

The shady square is named for neighboring Carmo Convent and Church, the city's most vivid reminder of the 1755 earthquake. Built for the Carmelite Order in 1389, only the towering Gothic walls and arches remain, with a museum inside.

>Baixa-Chiado

Standing along the glass cases inside Cafe A Brasileira with the locals for a late breakfast, we sample light, phyllo-like pastries filled with eggs and ham, or topped with apple or pineapple. Outside the 105-year-old cafe sits a statue of Fernando Pessoa, one of Portugal's greatest poets, who hung out here with his literary friends in the 1920s and '30s.

This district between two hills was leveled by the earthquake, but was quickly rebuilt by the Marquis of Pombal, who laid out the streets in an easy-to-negotiate grid.

On many blocks, the 18th century neoclassical buildings look cloned, Costa points out, because after the first house was built, workers would copy it.

>The Alfama

When we miss the quaint yellow tram to Sco Jorge Castle, Costa says we're better off taking the bus.

"The tram is dangerous," she explains. "Pickpockets."

The castle tops Lisbon's highest point, the "cradle of the city," dating to Roman occupation, Claudia says. The first fortification dates from the sixth century, when it was occupied by the Visigoths, followed by the Moors. Portugal's first king, Afonso Henriques, captured it in 1147.

By the 20th century, the castle was in ruins when the dictator Salazar ordered the destruction of all forts. Ironically, he then saved the landmark by having it rebuilt with the original stones, which would have disappeared otherwise, though they are mixed randomly. Costa points out red bricks as remnants of the Moorish fort.

From gardens with cork and olive trees and colorful peacocks, we get the best views of Lisbon. Instead of climbing the towers, we walk along the ramparts, through a little district of shops and cafes, and then down the hill along narrow, winding streets.

As we descend countless steps, Costa explains that they were built to make it more difficult for the enemy to haul cannon and other equipment up the hill. And the labyrinth of streets was designed for foreigners to get lost.

Without Costa, the plan would have worked on us.

Back in Baixa, our half-day tour ends at a restaurant Claudia recommends for dinner. Open only a month, Adego do Artur isn't in any guidebooks.

Our guide joins us at a sidewalk table for drinks and a snack, continuing to give us tips for the rest of our five-day stay.

That night, the three of us return for traditional Portuguese food: Iberia pork, rice fish (a mild fish and shrimp in a tomato broth), and a skewer of veal and shrimp. Claudia also recommended the cuttlefish (tastes like squid), but I save that for another night at another place.

***

If you go:

Peak seasons are April to mid-June and late September through October. During our mid-March visit, temperatures in the mid-60s were perfect for walking the streets.

Getting around: Trolleys, funiculars, buses, and the Metro (subway) make it easy to explore the city -- just take precautions to thwart pickpockets. The honor system is used, so be sure to have a ticket or risk an on-the-spot fine of about $160.

The AeroBus ticket for our ride from the airport to city center (about $5) also was good that day for trolleys, funiculars and buses but not the Metro.

The one-day 7 Colinaspass covers the Metro, funiculars, trolleys and buses for about $5.40, including 75 cents for the card, which can be bought and reloaded at all Metro stations.

Information: www.carris.pt, www.metrolisboa.pt.