The navigating conditions and the safety offered by the estuary of the Tagus always favoured the presence of people in this area. The oldest vestiges of this presence date bake to pre-historical times.
Historians believe that the Phoenician, in the 12th century B.C., acknowledged that Lisbon was very well situated and thus established a commercial port of the Northern Bank of the Tagus river.
The strategic importance of Lisbon caught the attention of other nations of sailors and explorers and in 205 B.C. the city of Lisbon was conquered by the Romans who called it Olisipo and received the motto of “Felicitas Lulia”. When the Roman Empire fell, the Suevi and Visigoths started controlling the city. The Moors conquered Lisbon – Asch-Bonnah – in 714 A.C. and developed the port by carrying out commercial activities on the Mediterranean and Atlantic.
In the 11th century the process of internal reorganisation of Europe changes and with the development of the crusades, maritime traffic and commerce increased considerably. Afonso Henriques, aware of the strategic importance of Lisbon within the international context, directed his expansion movements to the south so as to establish a Portuguese influence zone along the coast guaranteeing the support of the crusades for the conquest of Lisbon, fundamental for the control of the Tagus estuary, a large natural port that would improve greatly the importance of the territory within this European context. So, on 28th June 1147 a fleet with 164 ships carrying an army of 13 000 crusaders entered the Tagus.
The port that played a fundamental role in the conquest of Lisbon from the Moors and later in the defence of the nation, is closely linked to the city that emerged and flourished with it.
At the beginning of the 13th century the navigational methods developed a lot with the use of the compass that aided navigation and the introduction of the rudders affording the boats greater stability and manageability. Bigger ships and with greater load capacity are built in this period.
In the first quarter of the 13th century the first regular lines from the Mediterranean to England and Northern Europe, via the Strait of Gibraltar appear and all ships call Lisbon as they travel along the Portuguese coast.
Boasting a remarkable geographic position, the port of Lisbon quickly becomes a part of the international maritime routes.
After having played a fundamental role in the defence of the nation, at the beginning of the 2nd Dynasty, - when 13 galleys and 40 Spanish ships tried but with no success to close the port during the 1384 siege – Lisbon, and its port assured more than once national independence after having contributed in a decisive manner towards the formation of the country.
In the reign of King John I when the country was at peace a march started towards the exploration of new places and new markets. At the time Lisbon was already considered a big cosmopolitan metropolis visited by ships from various places.
The sailors that left Lisbon and went to sea played a fundamental role in the era of the Portuguese discoveries. The discoveries increased the boarders of the known world and made Lisbon a key port for global commerce.
The Portuguese navigators challenged the profound belief that was enrooted in Europe at the time – that earth was flat and they were able to contradict this idea by joining the continents for the first time. In 1487 Bartolomeu Dias reached and passed the Cape of Good Hope. In 1497 Vasco da Gama set sail from Lisbon and returned two years later after having discovered the maritime route to India. This trip and others helped Lisbon become a rich country and placed Portugal in the limelight. Note that it was during this era that safety and vigilance at the entrance of the Tagus estuary was reinforced by building forts: on the left bank of the Tagus, forts were built from Cabeça Seca (Bugio), to Almada.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Luso-Spanish commerce developed greatly – Spanish control from 1580 to 1640 – scouring was done in the Tagus river and the port of Lisbon gains fundamental importance as a port of call, with navigation in the direction of the Mediterranean and of the Atlantic Ocean; products from Brazil – wood, sugar and gold from Minas Gerais – are unloaded in Lisbon.
In 1755 the earthquake destroyed various constructions, such as the Palácio da Ribeira, the residence of King John II and on the ground floor the Casa da Índia. Lisbon was rebuilt bearing in mind the commerce.
In the 19th century with the arrival of the steam engine there is need to modernise the port of Lisbon and so studies and projects are made leading to the inauguration on 31st October 1887, by King Luís I, of the works of the port of Lisbon.