From epic hillside views to haunting Fado music and impossibly pretty streetscapes, Lisbon was born to knock your socks off with charm. UNESCO World Heritage Sites sit alongside rowdy bars and cobbled laneways that tempt you to lose your way, over and over again.
Exploring Lisbon means delving into cool neighbourhoods and finding views that seem evermore incredible than the last. It’s hard to put the camera down, with a gasp-worthy shot around every corner. However, when you do, you’ll sink into an atmosphere that’s entirely unique to this ‘City of Seven Hills’.
Best things to do in Lisbon
As one of the oldest cities in western Europe, Lisbon is a feast of historic wonders. On this story-filled backdrop, however, there’s always the undertone of trendy clubs, quirky shops and gourmet bites that speak of the city’s modern, creative flare. Get set for endless surprises in between mouthfuls of bacalhau – Portugal’s prized salted codfish – when you visit Lisbon
Jump on the tram.
Not only do they get you around with ease, but Lisbon’s historic trams let you experience a transportation system that’s been going strong since the 19th century. Rattling their way around town, you’ll come to love the sound of the vintage yellow carriages, called Remodelado, and the convenience of the modern Articulado.
The number 28 tram is the most popular for visitors, connecting Martim Moniz with Campo Ourique while crossing the districts you’ll want to check out. Not quite so romantic is the modern number 15, but it’s a great way to get from the city centre to Belém, with scenic river views along the way.
Take your time exploring Alfama.
If you dream of exploring a maze of cobbled streets filled with ancient houses and secrets of the past, Alfama will be among your top reasons to visit Lisbon. The atmospheric streets wind up and downhills. While this might provide a bit of a workout, you won’t even notice among the rich heritage and artisan vibe of the city’s oldest neighbourhood. Historically known for the poverty, grit and grime of sailors and dock workers, Alfama is now almost too cool for school under the gaze of its colourful and ancient buildings.
Climb up to Sao Jorge castle for 360-degree views, admire the majestic Lisbon Cathedral and head to a hole-in-the-wall bar to hear Fado music. Most of all, though, it’s an absolute must to just let yourself get lost here in lanes filled with street art, cafes and a buzzing social vibe. If you want to buy something unique, shop at the famous Feira da Ladra, commonly known as the ‘thieves’ market’.
Bask in the magnificence of Baixa.
One of the world’s biggest ever recorded earthquakes, along with a tsunami, destroyed the Baixa district in 1755. Rebuilt in neoclassical style, it’s now the city’s main tourist district, complete with grand architecture, lively plazas and high-end shopping opportunities.
There’s more to it than meets the tourist-weary eye though, beyond the impressive Commerce Square. Downtown Lisbon is the home of the world’s oldest operating bookstore, Livraria Bertrand Chiado. Pop into the Museum of Design and Fashion, ride the Elevador de Santa Justa from the low town to the high town and fill up on cured meat, cheese and sangria at the Mercado da Baixa food court.
Live it up in Bairro Alto and Chiado
Within easy walking distance of the Baixa district and each other, Chiado and Bairro Alto are the neighbourhoods to visit for artsy cafes, theatres and nightlife within a bohemian vibe. Chiado’s claim to bohemian fame is the cafe A Brasileira, a past haunt of a poet, Fernando Pessoa, and a long line of romantic intellectuals and creatives. This is an ideal neighbourhood for simply strolling, shopping and sipping coffee on sunny outdoor terraces, before heading to the theatre by night.
On the other hand, Bairro Alto’s quiet, picturesque streets come alive after sunset, with rooftop terraces for cocktails, Fado shows, indie bars and plenty of festive action happening out on the streets. The best approach is to bar-hop through the cobbled lanes and find the vibe that suits you, as there’s something fun for everyone.
Chill out in Belém
There’s plenty to see in Belém, but with its leafy green spaces, river views, peaceful pathways and succulent seafood restaurants, this is the spot to chill out and relax after traipsing up and down the hills of Lisbon. You’ll see the iconic landmark of Belém Tower, with its rhinoceros gargoyle and Arabic watchtowers. For an even better view, take a boat trip on the Tagus River.
Jeronimos Monastery is another sight to behold, a World Heritage monument built on the site where Vasco Da Gama spent his last night before leaving for India. Then, there’s Belém Palace, resting elegantly upon a hill with its pink-tinged exterior offsetting gorgeous landscaped gardens. No visit to Belém is complete without a taste of cinnamon-topped egg custard tarts from Pastéis de Belém.
View-hop around town
Obviously, this city of seven hills has a whole lot of views to discover. Spread across the city, terraces – known as miradouros – offer cafes and panoramas you’ll never get sick of admiring while sipping sangria. You’ve definitely seen the Insta-worthy views of Lisbon’s orange rooftops and pastel buildings from Miradouro Da Portas Do Sol.
A garden setting accompanies the endless horizons at Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara. Have a snack at the cafe at Miradouro da Graça, especially on sunset. The highest viewpoint is Miradouro da Senhora do Monte. With the castle sitting on the opposite hill, it’s also one of the most romantic.
If you’re visiting Sintra, you’ll find yourself truly spoiled for choice when it comes to site-seeing. The historic town is located just a short hop from Lisbon and is dotted with landmarks and tourist sites. The striking Palácio da Pena, which is also UNESCO world heritage site could easily fit the bill as yet another Disney palace, but plan wisely, Sintra is often completely covered in mist, making it actually difficult to see the amazing sites.
Best time to visit Lisbon
It’s always a good time to visit Lisbon, with loads of sunshine for much of the year. However, if you’re looking to save some money or avoid the prime tourist rush of summer, go between March and May or September and October. You’ll find temperatures that are perfect for exploration and cheaper rates for most things.
How to get there
There are direct flights from across major cities in Europe to Lisbon, along with easy connecting flights from major global cities. The Aeroporto de Portela is the biggest airport in Portugal and you can take the Metro, buses or taxis to reach the city in about 30 minutes. If you’re travelling from Spain, there’s an overnight train from Madrid too.
Getting around Lisbon
Lisbon is a walker’s paradise and this is the best way to run into unusual sights and surprises off the tourist track. Other than the tram system, you can hop on the Metro or buses for short trips. For day trips, catch the train to Sintra or Cascais, or further afield in Portugal.
Where to stay
First of all, choose the district that suits you best, whether that’s to be near the nightlight in Barrio Alto or Cais do Sodre, the colourful character of Alfama or a less touristy area, like Graca.
You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to hostels and budget-friendly hotels. Check out Selina Secret Garden with a rooftop deck and pool, relaxed Lisbon Calling in a historic building and the trendy HUB Lisbon Patio Hostel.
Money and costs
As far as European capital cities go, Lisbon is one of the least expensive and offers great value for money. On a budget, €50 a day will certainly get you by for a hostel room, food and a bit left over for fun. It’s best to get a Lisboa card for frequent rides on buses, trams and the metro, which is €6.40 for an unlimited, 24-hour pass.
In terms of food, expect to pay about €6 for a meal in a central cafe or food court and €1.50 for a beer in a local venue. Avoid tourist restaurants and you’ll eat like a king on a budget.
Lisbon travel tips
Lisbon is a safe, welcoming city that’s both swarming with tourists and full of local pockets of authenticity. Because of the ‘tourist’ side of things, of course there are pickpockets and scams around that are easy to avoid when you remain aware. You can also expect cheeky, but harmless drug dealers selling what they’ve got in some areas, sometimes after they’ve tried to sell you sunglasses.
Endlessly quirky, always fascinating and breathtakingly picturesque, be very prepared to have those socks knocked off by Lisbon’s spellbinding allure.
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