When I visited Madeira for the first time in May, I came back desperate to book another trip that would replicate the wonderful time I’d had there and potentially even top it. After doing a bit of online research I realised that Lisbon is basically one large street party during most of June due to the ‘Santos Populares’ festivities and less than a month later I found myself in the stunning ‘City of Light’. I was well aware that when you have high expectations of a place, they do not always match up with reality. Lisbon, however, lived up to every promise and more for me. So let me share my favourite places with you and also some logistical tips for first time visitors. As there was way too much information to pack into just one post, I decided to do two additional ones for Best Day Trips from Lisbon (tips for Sintra and Cascais) and Lisbon during the fun-filled San Antonio Festival in June and will add the links here once they are done. You can easily spend 5+ days in the city, but if you only have 2-3 days, try and prioritize based on your interests and you’ll still have an amazing stay.
Arrival and Where to Stay
Lisbon’s airport is close to the city centre and very well connected by the local metro. It’s one of the nicest metro systems (spacious and clean) I’ve come across and easy to navigate, so when you leave the airport head to the metro entrance, buy a Viva Viagem card (50 cents, reloadable) in one of the machines (press British flag for English, also usually friendly staff around to help) and load it with a few euros (one trip with your card is only €1.35). I also found the city centre really safe to walk around at night and after a few days I felt thoroughly at home, even though I don’t speak Portuguese (yet).
In terms of where to stay you have many enticing options to choose from. As I booked my trip quite late, I ‘ended up’ near Rato metro station and the beautiful Jardim das Amoreiras (Mulberry Tree Park), which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it was a pleasant, quiet neighbourhood and easy to walk to most places while I also had excellent metro, tram and bus connections right at my doorstep. If you prefer to be in the thick of things (and are OK with e.g. more noise in the streets at night), Alfama, Barrio Alto, Chiado and Baixa are all great options. So is Belem by the sea (just a few minutes away by train or bus) or even Cascais or Estoril (if you prefer a beach holiday with a bit of city sightseeing thrown in). I would choose a hotel over an Airbnb as like in many other popular cities more and more locals get pushed out by holiday rentals nowadays. If your accommodation is anywhere near a Pingo Doce supermarket, rejoice, as you’ll easily get all your basic supplies and more there (the one near Rato was so good and I even got to know some of the staff after a few days).
Castles, Museums and Other Highlights
Lisbon offers a huge choice of attractions and it can be a bit overwhelming. My usual strategy is making a shortlist of personal ‘must sees’ based on guidebooks and online research and then grouping them by area. I also usually start out with a walking tour to get my bearings and some historical background (so many differently themed ones available in Lisbon), but as I arrived during the San Antonio festival, I somehow never got around to it this time as I was so busy exploring the different neighbourhoods.
Some of my favourites included:
– The Castelo de Sao Jorge (on left in pic above) with spectacular views, I highly recommend booking a tour, as it made it so much more interesting
– A tour of the Casa da Amalia Museum (the actual former home of Amalia Rodrigues, incl. her still alive African Grey parrot Chico), one of, if not the most famous, Portuguese fado singers whose song ‘Cheira Bem, Cheira a Lisboa’ (smells nice, smells like Lisbon) is a popular singalong in all the squares during the June festivities and at football matches; there is also a fado museum in the Alfama area, if you want to learn more about its history
– Berardo Museo Arte Deco (next to LX Factory), which I found by talking to another traveller, they do a fantastic guided tour in English including a wine/port wine tasting in their own bar at the end (all just €5) and the furniture and artwork displayed are excellent
– Livraria Bertrand, the world’s oldest bookshop, they’ll even stamp your bought book for you as a souvenir and have a nice little café at the back if you need a break from exploring
– LX Factory (pronounced ‘l-shish factory’) where you can visit local artists’ studios, the cool Ler Devagar bookshop (pic below) and have a meal or drink in one of the lovely cafes on site
– Carmo Convent, beautiful church ruins and an archaeological museum plus a chance to meet resident feline Carlota
– Cross the river by ferry (use your Viva Viagem card) from Cais de Sodre to Cacilhas and take a bus/tuk tuk (negotiate, I paid only €3)/walk to the Cristo Rei statue for wonderful views over the city, walk along the waterfront for street art and restaurants
– Discover old Lisbon in Alfama, Mouraria and Graca on foot with its small lanes, street art and stunning viewpoints plus the Campo de Santa Clara flea market on Tuesdays and Saturdays (next to Sao Vicente church)
– Campo de Ourique is a non-touristy neighbourhood and the last stop of the 28 tram where you can stroll through the beautiful historic Prazeres Cemetery
– Rua Augusta Arch is worth the €3 to get to the top and admire the view over the River Tejo and the huge Praca do Comercio
– Casa dos Bicos (‘House of Spikes’) was built on the old city walls and is now housing the Saramago museum
– Belem has several attractions including the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos monastery and the Berardo Collection Museum, an impressive modern art museum, plus the Padrao dos Descobrimentos monument and of course the Torre de Belem
Bear in mind there are lots and lots of other places to visit and the above are just suggestions based on what I managed to fit in and thoroughly enjoyed.
Ride the Historic Lisbon Trams
A trip with the 28 tram is simply a must-do and the queues are often long, but there are also other lines like the 12, 24 and 25. I managed to hop on the 28 in Praca Camoes (€1.50 per trip with your Viva Viagem card, just hold it onto the machine at the front, or pay the driver directly (€3). Masks were still required in all public transport in summer 2022 without exceptions. Do not stick your camera or head too far out the window as the trams travel fairly fast and the streets are narrow. Please be considerate to locals using the trams as their daily transport and offer your seat to e.g. an older person who needs it more than you.
Public Transport Day Pass or Lisboa Card
I personally did not have enough time to fit in enough museum sightseeing this time to make it worth getting a Lisboa card (24, 48 or 72 hrs), but you can make a list of things you definitely want to see, add up the cost and check if it is worth getting it, it might well be. However, the public transport passes are very useful and start at just €6.45 for a 24 hr city centre one (more in the next section plus be aware that you can either load zapping credit OR a 24 hr transport pass onto one Viva Viagem card at a time, I just bought two separate ones and marked them accordingly).
Historic Elevators and Lifts – Cheapest Option Plus Beat the Queues
This is probably the best money saving tip I can give you in terms of attractions and public transport. Load a 24 hr card for €6.45 onto your Viva Viagem card and it’ll include the expensive but unmissable ‘fancy’ transportation around the city centre (normally €3-4 a pop).
Santa Justa Lift: 45 m high tower, do not queue for ages with the tourists at the bottom, walk up the stairs, cross the street, turn right up the hill and in 5 mins you are at the viewing platform at the top, queue at the left to take the elevator down (only 20 seconds!)
Gloria Elevator (pic above): Ride it either way between Avenida Liberdade and the Miradouro Sao Pedro de Alcantara, with some fun street art along the way
Bica Elevator: Ride it up from Rua de Sao Paolo (not far from the ferry and Timeout Market) or down from Travessa do Cabral (iconic photo looking down, which is also near Praca Camoes, 28 & 24 tram stops plus the Mantegueria pasteis de nata shop).
The Beautiful Miradouros, Parks and Quiosques of Lisbon
The stunning viewpoints and cute little park kiosks are my very favourite thing about Lisbon! While we have ‘munro bagging’ in Scotland, in Lisbon you can do a walking tour of the 7 hills and stop off at each of these little oases along the way. They are a great place to enjoy a coffee, a snack or a glass of local port wine, watch local life go by, cuddle a dog (see my insta for the cutest ones I met), admire the many exotic trees, read a book and enjoy the sunshine or a sunset with a view over the city. My favourites include Alcantara (last pic below), Principe Real, Luzia, Monte, Catarina, Portas do Sol, Amoreiras (pic above), Graca, Alegria, Camoes, Estrela and there are many, many more. I cannot recommend highly enough to make time for some of these tranquil moments even if you have a busy sightseeing schedule planned.
Eat Your Way around Portuguese Specialities
Timeout Market: in the Mercado da Ribeira across from the Cais de Sodre ferry terminal, this is THE place to sample lots of different specialities in one location ranging from simple soups (€4-5) or desserts to top of the range cooking (from around €10), don’t be put off by the bustle and noise when you first enter, pick a few things to eat and take a seat at one of the large communal tables with other people from around the world and enjoy your delicious meal
Pasteis de Nata de Belem (pic above; singular: um pastel de nata): arguably the best custard tards around, so try them there (sit-in queue often shorter, beautiful tiled-covered, historic building) and watch them freshly made during your visit to see the other attractions of Belem
Queijadas da Sintra/Travesseiro da Sintra: there are a lot of different types of queijadas (small cakes) in Portugal, named after places or people like queens and apart from the pasteis de nata, I also recommend trying these (ideally in Sintra), they are all extremely sweet though
Casa do Alentejo: this well-hidden gem in Rua das Portas de Santo Antao (near Rossio station) is a restaurant in the former 17th c. Alverca Palace, enjoy the hearty food (pic below) in the sunny courtyard
Cataplana: is a Portuguese fish stew and also the name of the clam-like copper pot it is cooked in, so delicious
Pasteis de Bacalhau: not sweet this time as they are salted codfish cakes and you can sample them as starters or snacks in various cafes or kiosks
Ginjinha Bars: there are several of them dotted around the city centre, e.g. A Ginjinha and Ginginha do Carmo (chocolate cups), where you can try this sweet local speciality, a sour-cherry liqueur
There are so many other yummy things to sample, you’ll be spoilt for choice. While I was doing research for my trip, I also came across the To Lisbon with Love podcast and found their food and drink recommendations particularly good.
If you are in any way interested in music, attending a live fado concert during your visit is a must. However, there are a lot of music experiences geared mostly towards tourists that might be entertaining, but not always that authentic. After doing lots of research, I found Real Fado Concerts (check their insta) and booked a show in a former underground water reservoir built in 1864 right under Principe Real Square. The young singer, Beatriz Felicio, plus the two guitarists were fabulous, the audience small (maybe 15) and the sound fantastic due to the unusual location (pic below). Casa da Amalia also do live concerts in their garden a few times a week and I also heard about two recommended venues called Duque da Rua and Senhor Vinho plus there is a fado walking tour you can join. Most fado concerts (with or without food) tend to be from €20 upwards.
Another place I really enjoyed is Hot Club de Portugal Jazz Club in Praca Alegria, one of the oldest (since 1948) and most prestigious jazz clubs in Europe. It is open Tue-Sat from 10pm-2am, so arrive a few minutes before opening to get a seat (usually around €10, cash only, the bar had very reasonable prices and the club a very relaxed atmosphere).
As I was in Lisbon during early summer, I tried to make the best of outdoor events and music, but there are plenty of good indoor venues, too. If you’re looking for a low-key evening with inventive local food and wine in a friendly neighbourhood with good live music almost nightly, look no further than the Flores da Pampa restaurant (I enjoyed some fun West-African kora music when I was there) in Praca dos Flores.
I really fell in love with Lisbon and its people and I hope you do, too. On my last morning in the city, I ventured up to the highest miradouro of them all, the Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte and came across a wall with tiles that read: Boa Viagem, Lisboa espera por ti – Happy travels, Lisbon is waiting for you. What a beautiful message and just what my heavy heart needed to hear as I was so reluctant to leave this stunning place, which I’m sure I’ll return to again and again.
Disclaimer: All photography Ⓒ Life is a Festival. Any prices mentioned may be different by the time you visit and may vary, so please confirm them before you go.