Twice a year you can visit these Roman galleries under Lisbon

Twice a year you can visit these Roman galleries under Lisbon

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About twenty years ago, as I was wandering through downtown Lisbon, I had a chance encounter with a hole in the ground in the middle of street Rua da Conceição. 

It was my first visit to the capital, and I thought that, for sure, it was destiny showing me this rare attraction. I had been given the exceptional opportunity to visit Lisbon underground and the secret Roman galleries under Baixa.

Today I know it happens regularly twice a year (I just happened to be there at the right time). Back then, there was no such thing as Social Media, and the lines were smaller. Now, to know the next time the Roman galleries will open, follow Museu de Lisboa on Facebook.

EDIT 1: Changes have been made to how you can visit this attraction. Since April 2016, the City Council charges a small fee per person. You must book your visit in advance here.

EDIT 2: There are ongoing plans to transform this into a permanent and easier to visit tourist attraction.

A passage between two Roman galleries underground Lisbon
Most of the passages between the Roman galleries are narrow and low

What will you see underground Lisbon?

In 1771, while rebuilding the city after the great earthquake in 1755, constructor workers found what seemed to be a foundation-like structure. Specialists then traced it back to the Ancient Roman Empire era, from the first half of the 1st Century AD (estimated).

Once they started building the sewage system in the 18th Century, only city workers could access the galleries, and parts of them were permanently blocked. However, you can still see the robust structure that, literally, holds part of the Baixa Pombalina up.

When the Romans built it, it was meant to level the ground and stabilize it enough to hold their constructions.

You’ll see part of the labyrinth of tunnels (keep your head down!) and cracks left by what has been the biggest earthquake in Lisbon.

A crack on the ground that dates back to the 1755 Great Earthquake
A crack on the ground that dates back to the 1755 Great Earthquake

Why should you book a visit to these Lisbon Roman galleries?

If you like once in a lifetime findings, this is one of them. I confess that seeing it once is more than enough, and not much has changed — it’s wet and damp, and in most places, you have to mind your head and duck down as much as you can. What would have changed anyway?

The affordable entry fee makes you think, “why not, as long as we’re here?”. And the knowledge that it only opens twice a year for one weekend helps build up the mysticism around it.

As I waited in line, many tourists who were passing by approached me asking, “what’s down there that people line up to see??”. I did my best to explain the historical importance. Some of them were curious to come back the next day, others not so much.

The Lisbon underground Roman galleries' guide ducks to move from one gallery to the next
There are sections of the Lisbon underground Roman galleries where you can't stand up straight

The dedication of the volunteer guides is inspiring. They don’t get paid to do it, they will give up their free time once a year, and they are willing to share their knowledge.

On a regular day, the river floods these galleries. Before the new sewage system, people used to lower buckets through holes on the street to fill with water for cooking and cleaning.

For visitors to see this piece of History, there is a collective effort going on. Police officers reroute car and bus traffic. The fire department pumps the water out a few days in advance. And, of course, let’s not forget the volunteer guides.

A group of tourists paying attention to the guide as she explains the History of Lisbon underground Roman galleries

Read about other things to see in Lisbon:

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