Like all European cities, Lisbon oozes with history (truly, you can’t turn a corner without running into a castle or a UNESCO World Heritage Site), but it’s also been home to a meaningful renaissance as of late, with flocks of young creatives taking advantage of the city’s inexpensive rent and high livability factor. The result is a celebration of Portugal’s unique culture both in real time, and with respect to the countless monarchies and armies that ruled the city in centuries past, all in a locale that’s a stone’s throw from both seaside resorts and wineries that are considered some of Europe’s best.
The city itself is built on a series of hills that are most easily navigated by foot, and though that’s all the better for burning off egg pastries and extra glasses of port, you’ll also want to take advantage of trams (most famously the antique Tram 28) to assist with some of the more onerous steeps. The many elevations of the city also offer constant viewpoints, with photo-worthy vistas of the river from nearly every street and restaurant.
I’ve traveled much of Portugal over many trips now having visited the beautiful town of Porto and the Douro Valley in the north, as well as the Algarve region in the south. Lisbon is a must visit for any trip to Portugal!
Tourism on Hyper Speed
From my conversations with locals and expats alike, Lisbon and Portugal as a whole has experienced a tourism renaissance of sorts in the past 5 years. Not to say that no one visited Lisbon before, but the exponential growth the country has seen in recent years is quite something. It’s reminiscent of my trip to Iceland, a country that saw few tourists until they aggressively marketed the beauty of their country after the financial crisis in hopes to stimulate the economy.
The majority of the tourism increase is seen in the main cities of Lisbon and Porto. Discount airlines connect all of Europe to these cities and cheap transatlantic flights from the US can be had for $400 or less.
I visited in early March on a beautiful weekend. The weather was absolutely perfect hovering around 20 degrees during the day and cooling off to 10 at night. There was an abundance of tourists during this time of year but nothing overwhelming like visiting Dubrovnik in the summer. With that said, I don’t think I would ever visit Portugal in the summer months when the real swarms of tourists are out.
I will however return to Lisbon and road trip to the other smaller towns in the country on another trip because everything about Portugal is just amazing.
What to do and see in Lisbon?
I wasn’t expecting this but Lisbon has an insane amount of things to see and do. For some reason, I just figured Portugal’s capital city would be okay for a day or so but it’s simply not the case. I was here for three days and I felt like I had barely scratched the surface.
After you’ve seen the main sights, the city itself is just a very liveable place that you just want to immerse yourself in the day to day life. I’ve not had that with many other big cities in Europe.
Walk the streets of Lisbon
Lisbon is the biggest city in Portugal. It is a beautiful mix of old and new. While not as beautiful as say Porto in the north, it has its charms in its own way that I very much enjoyed. The streets are beautiful and you can easily get lost in its unique history.
Lisbon, and Portugal as a whole are famous for its mosaic tiles, otherwise known as azulejos. You will see them dotting the facade of many buildings. Most buildings have the same azulejo tiles on the whole building while a few paint a picture (these are cool).
These tiles date back to the days of the Moors in 13th century but did not take off fully until the 16th century. Not only are they beautiful to look at, but they also help regulate the heat of the buildings during the hot summer months. These detailed art pieces have become incredibly valuable and have are now commonly stolen and resold on the black market. This is why you’ll see plenty of buildings with chunks of tile missing.
Tram 28 to Alfama – must-do in Lisbon!
One of the most iconic things about Lisbon is the yellow trams that ride above ground. These old school trams date back to the 1930s and are the basis of the trams in San Francisco. In fact, much of the cities are similar as San Francisco is also built on hills.
A single ticket to the tram costs €3 which is a steep price to pay for such a short train ride. However, this has become more of a tourist attraction than a viable mode of transport.
Barrio Alto and Chiado neighborhoods
I definitely spent most of my time hanging out in the picturesque parts of Barrio Alto and Chiado. During the day, cobblestone streets, bohemian cafes, and picturesque trams make it a wonderful place to walk around. At night, vibrant bars and delicious restaurants take over showcasing the gauntlet of Lisbon life. These are the central neighborhoods of Lisbon so you’ll see all the crowds here at night, but it is peaceful and quiet during the day.
We spent a lot of time walking through these neighborhoods on the walking tour learning about the history. These neighborhoods were once the areas for the poor but of course have since changed into the neighborhoods that all the tourists want to stay in with Airbnb.
Praça do Comércio
One of the most important and therefore most visited places in Lisbon is the Praça do Comércio , which is 170 × 170 meters in size. This central square is right on the banks of the Tejo, where you can experience a beautiful sunset in the evening.
The imposing triumphal arch Arco da Rua Augusta takes you directly to the promenade and some of the city’s important sights. The old royal palace used to stand on the Praça do Comércio, but it was destroyed by the earthquake in 1755. Today it is a tourist magnet all day long and, in addition to numerous cafés and restaurants, offers a colorful hustle and bustle.
Cobblestone streets, narrow streets, old houses, hills and popular landmarks. The Alfama district is home to some important historical buildings in its tight bustle, such as the Se Cathedral, the Castelo de São Jorge, the Panteão Nacional and the Igreja de Santo António. Alfama was spared the earthquake at that time, probably due to its location on the hills. As a result, the construction of the houses and the labyrinth-like streets are still reminiscent of old Lisbon.
A short trip from Lisbon, the Tower of Belem was being built as part of a series of fortifications designed to protect the natural port of Lisbon. Inspired by the return of intrepid Portuguese Explorer, Vasco de Gama from the East, it includes beautiful elements of design from Venice, Morocco, and even India. To get to Belem you can take a train from the Cais dos Sodre station, or take electric tram number 15.
Another popular attraction in Belem is the Belem Tower. The Belem Tower ( Torre de Belem ) was originally built on the banks of the Tagus River to greet incoming ships. It was built in 1521 when Portugal was one of the world’s leading maritime powers. The tower is 35 meters high and sits enthroned on the bank next to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos monastery. Just like the monastery, it also survived the earthquake of 1755 and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tower is one of the landmarks of the city and can also be visited. In summer the tower is open from 10 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. and in winter until 5.30 p.m.
Admission: € 6 per person.
Elevador de Santa Justa
In the middle of the city center of Lisbon, very close to the Rossio square, there is another attraction that you should definitely see. Surely you have already seen the famous Elevador de Santa Justa in photos. This technological marvel has been transporting people from the Baixa district to Largo do Carmo since the 19th century. You can climb 45 meters in altitude with the elevator and enjoy a great view of the city from the platform above.
The elevator is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., in winter only until 9 p.m. The trip up and down costs around € 5. With the ticket you can also go to the viewing platform. If you just want to enjoy the view but don’t want to use the elevator, you only pay € 1.50.
Free walking tour of Lisbon
When in doubt, always go for the free walking tour. There are multiple companies that do this tour every day from the plaza de la Independencia. In summer months, they run them multiple times a day as it’s become so popular.
This tour will visit many of the highlighted sights that I’ve talked about already!
Sao Jorge Castle
Off the beaten track it is not, but the Sao Jorge Castle is great way to get a perspective on the city. The view is well worth the climb to see the moorish architecture in this fort. I walked up the hill, which provided a great work out for my calf muscles. On your way up, there are plenty of opportunities to take some pictures of some of the old style trams that run up and down. Why not take the tram? See above for our responsible travel tips.
Miradouros (Viewpoints of Lisbon)
Lisbon is also called the city of the seven hills, which means that on a walk through the city you will pass some wonderful viewpoints, the so-called “Miradouros” . Mostly these are decorated with the typical Portuguese tiles. My three favorite places for a view over the city are the Miradouro da Graça, the view from the Miradouro de Santa Luzia and of course the view from the Castelo de São Jorge. You will find many viewpoints by chance if you drift through the city.
Visit Sintra Castle for the day
If you’re in Lisbon for a few days and want to do something outside of the city, look no further than the Sintra Castle. Located just 30 minutes from Lisbon, it is an easy trip to make for a half day. The castle itself is huge and sits at the top of a hill. It’s immaculately decorated that it almost looks fake when you first see it.
Explore Sintra Castle
For those who love a good castle, they don’t come much better than Sintra. Set in the greater region of Lisbon, Sintra rises up like a colourful dream from fairytale mountains and forest mists. Located to the North of Lisbon city, and a former royal sanctuary, Sintra is a resort town in the Sintra foothills. There’s more than one palace in Sintra – the most famous (and colourful) is the Pena Palace.
Although Sintra is easily accessible from Lisbon by train or bus, to get the full Sintra experience it is better to spend a night in Sintra – that way you can get up early and have the palaces to yourself before the coach tours and day-trippers arrive!
Get to Sintra from Lisbon
Getting from Lisbon to Sintra. Getting to Sintra from Lisbon is easy. There are trains at least every 30 minutes on weekdays, every 30 minutes at weekends, from Lisbon’s city centre Rossio station. The journey takes 39 minutes and a return (round-trip) ticket is €4.30 (tariff 2016). From the Sintra train station, there are buses that regular go to the castle.
The 434-tourist bus provides an invaluable service as it connects the train station, to the Palácio da Pena and passes the historic centre and the Castelo dos Mouros. Without the bus, it is a 20-minute walk from Sintra train station to the historic centre, or a very demanding 45minute uphill hike to the Castelo dos Mouros and Palácio da Pena. A hop-on-hop-off bus ticket for the 434 bus route costs €6.90 or a single is €3.90, and there is a departure every 15 minutes during the peak season.
Alternatively, you can take a tuk-tuk to the top of the palacio. These tuktuks are everywhere in Sintra and there doesn’t seem to be a set price as you just negotiate. I actually took the tuktuk from the palace down to the city square for €5 pp. I think I remember them saying it is €5-10 per person for a ride which is absolutely insane considering it is no more than a 2km ride. In fact, you can actually just take an Uber from the Sintra train station to the Palacio for less than €5 total!
Alternatively, if you don’t want to get to the train station or be on its schedule, Uber is also a cost effective way to see the castle. From Lisbon, I took an Uber which was around €20 but this dropped me off right at the entrance to the castle. It probably saved me almost 1 hour or so to do this. If you are two or more people, then this is the best method.
Visiting the Palacio Nacional Da Pena
The Palácio Nacional da Pena is considered as one of the finest palaces in Europe, and will be the highlight of any day trip to Sintra.
The vivid colours of the palace are in stark contrast to the lush forest which surrounds it, while decorative stone carvings line the terraces. The interior of the Palácio da Pena is as equally fascinating, being restored to how it appeared in 1910, when the monarchy was forced to fee Portugal due to a revolution.
The price of entry for this palace is €14.00 and allows entry to the staterooms, the terraces and the Parque da Pena. It’s a bit on the pricey end but you already made it this far so why not?
You should also consider buying the tickets online as the lines will be very busy in the summer months. With a mobile ticket, you don’t need to queue to buy your ticket thereby saving you considerable time.
Where to eat in Lisbon?
I had always heard of Lisbon being a culinary destination but to be honest, I really had no idea what Portuguese cooking meant. Portuguese food often is overshadowed by its Spanish cousins but damn was I in for a treat. The gastronomy scene in Lisbon is absolutely on point. If you like fresh seafood and strong flavors, then you will be in heaven here.
I’m a huge seafood fan although I try not to eat as much these days as I am also an avid diver, but I just couldn’t pass up on the amazing offerings in Lisbon. If you like octopus, or pulvo in Portuguese, Lisbon has the best I’ve ever had. It’s literally in every Portuguese restaurant, and it can be had for a reasonable price. I more or less tasted my way around Lisbon’s pulvo scene and here are some of my favorites in the city.
Frade Dos Mares
If you’re looking for a delicious meal with a fantastic atmosphere then you can’t go wrong with Frade Dos Mares. I only found out about it because it was right next to a hotel I was staying in. It’s located slightly outside of the main area but oh my goodness was the food delicious.
They put a slightly modern flair on traditional Portuguese food and the octopus here was some of the best I’ve had in my life. It was perfectly grilled, tender, and immensely flavorful. They offer other seafood dishes too like fish, gambas, and more.
Time out Market
Time Out Market is Lisbon’s modern and grandest food hall. It’s a new age food hall and you can tell by the inside that it was created in the last few decades. Unlike the market in Valencia, you’ll find only prepared meals here. In fact, some of the most renowned chefs for michelin starred restaurants in Portugal set up shop here.
You can get high quality food at a reasonable price. By reasonable, it’s actually not that cheap. This market is largely tourist attracting so you can expect the prices to be higher. For example, I ate at two of the famous seafood stalls in this market and the price for pulpo (mmmmm) was the same if not more than other restaurants, for a fraction of the serving size.
I really liked the vibe of this market and being able to try multiple things. It’s chilled vibe and atsmophere makes it a great place to go with a big group without having to make reservations. However, I would not go as far as to say the food here is the best. There is so much good food to have in Lisbon that you need to go to the quality restaurants!
Another amazing Portuguese restaurant in Barrio Alto with the most delicious pulvo (Octopus).
Versiculo d’O Faia
Okay, I might have a small problem with my obsession with pulvo. This little restaurant had perfect outdoor setting in the heart of Barrio Alto. The food was just to die for.
Pasteis De Nata – Pasteis De Belem
If there’s one thing you have to try while in Lisbon, it is the Pasteis De Nata. In English, this translates to a custard pastry and my goodness is it delicious. I had no idea what this was but all my friends told me it was a must have. I won’t lie, it didn’t look appealing at first, but that quickly changed when I bit into it (and I’m not even a big dessert guy).
It’s essentially a flaky pastry that is stuffed with custard creme, topped with a little cinnamon. The cream is not overly sweet like you may have had with other custard desserts, and it just goes so perfectly with the flaky croissant like exterior.
The birthplace of this delicious treat is at the Pasteis De Nata store in the Belem district of Lisbon, aptly named Pasteis De Belem. Soon after, it was adopted in the rest of Portugal and is now probably its national dessert. While I was in Belem, I had to come to the original to get a taste. While many people would consider this a tourist trap, and places like this generally are, I must say that I greatly enjoyed my pasteis de Nata here. The pasty was fresh out of the oven and warm. While most other places served this dessert cold, a warm version of this is a total game changer.
I waited roughly 10 minutes at the take away line and it was worth every cent of my €1.10. My suggestion? Always get two!
Where to have a drink?
For starters, Lisbon is packed full of amazing rooftop bars where you can soak in views of the ocean along with the beautiful stucco rooftops of the city. Portugal is also a country that loves to drink. Portuguese love a good party so expect to see wine bars, cocktail bars, and regular bars packed full of people during the night.
Drinking outside is not a question, but a way of life in Portugal. Our walking tour guide told us that they once proposed to curb drinking on the streets but it was quickly quashed when riots almost ensued.
Fado is the haunting music that wafts out from the small bars of the Bairro Alto and Alfama districts of Lisbon. It is the “must see” tourist attraction that is slightly less touristy than a flamenco show, which is almost entirely meant for tourists especially once you get out of Andalusia.
These Fado shows were recommended to me by the walking tour but in the end, I didn’t have time to attend one. However, if these types of things are your jam, then there are loads of places that do it in the central neighborhoods of Lisbon.
Rooftop bar at Hotel Mundial
Lisbon is full of amazing rooftop bars. Its rooftop game is so strong that I could spend multiple posts just writing about their rooftops. A drink on one of their many rooftop bars is a must as the Lisbon skyline with the Atlantic at its footsteps is amazing.
I spent an afternoon at Hotel Mundial to watch the sunset and the views were just spectacular. The drinks are nothing to write home about but the prices are fair and let’s be honest, you don’t come to these places for the mixology.
Other Rooftop bars in Lisbon
Lisbon is a spoil of riches when it comes to rooftop bars. Being built on hills, you have so many places with wonderful viewpoints of the city, sea, and hills. Here are a few to check out.
- Sky Bar
- Limao Rooftop Bar
- Park Bar
- Lumi Rooftop Bar and Restaurant
- Topo Martim
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