I’ve travelled the world far and wide, but no place made me fall in love as much as Lisbon. The pastel colored houses, hilltop views, vintage trams, and windy cobblestone streets all conspire to make Lisbon an utterly charming place.
While it still has much neglect and faded facades from years of financial crisis (though this is not without a kind of raw beauty), the city is undergoing incredible revitalisation. There is a ton to do in Lisbon, and while you can have a great weekend city break here, I think you just as easily spend a whole week.
In fact, I’ve been living here for five months now and keep discovering new things! Read on for my tips on some of the best places to visit in Lisbon.
How to best enjoy Lisbon
The best way to see Lisbon is to walk. If you’re the kind of travel romantic who enjoys puttering along cobblestone streets, sitting down at a cafe patio for some people-watching, or just getting lost on purpose, then you’ll feel right at home.
Don’t fixate just on the tourist sights, as half the fun is just to explore at random. Turn a corner and you won’t know what you’ll find next: maybe some colorful traditionally tiled buildings, a quircky crafts shop, a spectacular view of the river Tejo, or maybe some incredible street art (Lisbon has lots of it, more than any other city I’ve been).
Don’t just stick to the most touristy neighborhood of Alfama. It’s wonderful, but it’s also just a tiny slice of what Lisbon has to offer. Be bold and explore!
A few things you could skip
You’ve probably already seen some Top 10 lists, which always have the exact same things in them. But if you ask me, these ones are not all they’re hyped up to be:
Sao Jorge Castle. This castle perched atop the hill above Alfama features prominently in many Lisbon vistas, but inside its walls it’s quite a let-down. For amazing castles and palaces, be sure to go to Sintra.
Tram 28. This vintage tram line passes through many of Lisbon’s nicest districts, and it’s great in the winter. But in the summer high season, these trams will have hundreds of sweaty tourists packed inside like sardines with selfie sticks poking out of every window. Queuing also takes ages, making this experience not at all compulsory. If you do ride tram 28, watch out for pickpockets. (Lisbon’s three funiculars have less of a capacity problem and I think make for better alternatives.)
Queing for the Santa Justa Lift. This iron Neo-Gothic elevator built in 1901 is wonderful, but it’s not necessarily worth the long queues at the bottom entrance. You can simply go to Praça Largo Do Carmo [map] and walk past the Museu Arqueológico for immediate access to the public walkway and the stairs to the observation platform.
Belem Tower. Possibly worth a quick look on the outside if you’re in Belem anyway, but inside it’s really just a staircase. A typical tourist trap.
I know this may sound negative, but I’m just trying to save you some time! In the next few sections, I’ll point out some other sights that I love.
Things to see in Lisbon
Alfama, Mouraria & east of center
Alfama [map] is a beguiling maze of narrow cobblestone streets, sprinkled with chalk-white chapels and cozy squares shaded by orange trees. It feels like a village inside a city, and getting lost here is just a delight.
In some ways Alfama is the most typical part of Lisbon, with little old grandmothers gazing out the windows, and musicians performing traditional melancholic fado music. At the same time, it’s also the most touristy area, with many tour groups jamming up the narrow alleys in summer. Despite this, Alfama still has to be recommended as one of the first places to see in Lisbon.
There are a couple of sights in these parts, such as the Sé Cathedral and the excellent National Tile Museum, but the best thing you can do is to simply wander around and enjoy the atmosphere. At night, you can have dinner while listening to a fado performance. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, you can easily feel the intense emotion of the songs. Avoid the overpriced Clube de Fado and try to catch some fado at a smaller restaurant somewhere.
The neighborhoods adjacent to Alfama are equally worth exploring. São Vicente to the east is absolutely lovely; check out Santa Engracia Church and the Feira da Ladra [map] flea market that takes place every Tuesday and Saturday. Graça, to the northeast of Alfama, is off the usual sightseeing track and has kept a lot of local flavor, with Miradouro da Graça [map] one of the city’s best viewing points. The multicultural Mouraria area to the north of Sao Jorge castle is a bit rougher around the edges (there are many decaying buildings here) though it contains many hidden treasures as well.
You can easily spend a full day exploring just these areas, and much more if you have the time.
Bairro Alto, Baixa & Chiado
The downtown area of Baixa is not quite so interesting, as it has a dull grid layout and a few too many tacky souvenir shops and bad tourist restaurants (seriously, don’t eat here). The main square of Praça do Comércio [map] is impressive, though somehow nothing really ever happens here, so I think it warrants only a quick look. The best aspect of Baixa is that it’s close to everything and has numerous metro, tram, and train connections, so if you’re in a hotel or hostel here you’ll be in a strategic location.
Chiado is a more elegant part of town, with many shopping streets and fashionable boutiques. Further uphill is Bairro Alto, which doesn’t have that much going on during the day, but becomes a buzzing nightlife area after dark (see: nightlife).
One of the best things you can do in this very center is to walk along the riverside, then have a meal at the Timeout Market along Cais do Sodre [map]. This seriously amazing project has brought together some of the best food of Lisbon under one roof, and it’s hugely popular with locals and visitors alike. It’s a home-grown Lisbon concept that’s proven so successful that it’ll be making its way to London and New York.
Principe Real & São Bento
This slightly fancy yet laidback area welcomes you with many quality restaurants and hilltop views of the city on all sides. This is one of my favorite bits of Lisbon.
Some things to do here:
- Jardim do Principe Real [map]. This gorgeous leafy square is one of my favorite spots in the city. Sit under the huge umbrella-shaped cedar tree, or grab a coffee at the Esplanada Cafe. There’s a small crafts market here every Saturday.
- Jardim Botanico de Lisboa. It’s a lovely little stroll through these gardens, and entry is just € 1.50. You’ll also find the Natural History Museum next door. (The gardens are closed until march 2017 for renovations.)
- Reservatorio da Patriarcal. This is a bit of a secret; explore cavernous underground water reservoirs and aqueducts hidden below Principe Real square. Tours on Saturdays via the Water Museum.
- Pavilhão Chines. This incredibly quirky bar is worth a visit even if it’s for just one drink. Its five rooms are filled with historic toys and unusual artifacts, making you feel like you’re in a crazy antique museum (where you can also drink a cocktail or play a game of pool).
- Jardim Fialho de Almeida. This lovely tiny square is a great spot for coffee or lunch. The cafe Tease just around the corner does great breakfast and even better cupcakes.
Santos & Lapa
Lapa and Santos are two calm residential neighborhoods, which may not have so much in terms of tourist sights, but they’re lovely areas to base yourself in or to have a wander.
Several centuries ago, Lapa was a favorite summer destination for the English aristocracy. Today, many French people are gobbling up real estate mainly in Santos, turning the renovated houses into residencies or rental apartments. Santos has been branded Lisbon’s design district, and a new pedestrian-only street is to be opened in 2017. It’s central but a little off the beaten path, and a good choice if you want to rent an apartment in a quiet area.
Two things are worth pointing out in particular in Lapa: the marble Basilica da Estrela [map] is lovely, and climbing its tower will give you great views of Lisbon. The Tram 28 line ends up just in front of it. Opposite is the magical little park Jardim da Estrela, with beautiful trees and two lovely kiosk-style cafes. There is a little crafts market here every Sunday, except in winter. When I’m not travelling, you might find me here having a coffee alongside the pond.
Belém & Alcântara
Just west of the bridge on the river, Belém [map] is essentially Lisbon’s museum district and the place to get your cultural fix. The adjacent Alcântara neighborhood [map] sits just under the bridge, and while it was once very run-down, it’s now gentrifying rapidly. Belem and Alcântara are within reasonable walking distance of each other and so they’re easily combined.
Things to do here:
- Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. This former monastery is among the most celebrated historic monuments in Portugal, and an impressive example of Gothic architecture.
- The Berardo museum is a phenomenal modern art museum, featuring works by iconic artists including Warhol, Picasso, Dali, Pollock, Mondriaan, and many more. It’s one of the best cultural sights in Lisbon, and entry is free.
- Housed in what was once the Tejo Power Station, the Electricity Museum features a mix of science and art exhibits against the backdrop of the station’s original boiler rooms and generators.
- Just next door is MAAT, Lisbon’s brand new museum for art, technology and architecture. It won’t open fully until April 2017, so for now, just enjoy the futuristic building which sits like a giant manta ray above the Tejo riverbank.
- Eating Pastéis de Belém. You can buy typical Portuguese egg tarts anywhere in Lisbon, though the ones from Pasteis de Belem are only available here and based on a carefully guarded recipe from a monastery. Tourists sometimes queue up for up to an hour to buy them, though to be honest, I think the normal Pasteis de Nata are way tastier. (Full disclosure: some have been threatened with murder for saying this.)
- LXFactory. These former factory halls have been turned into a vibrant creative hub with various cafes, workshops, and small quirky businesses. The refurbished spaces and its cool location under the April 25 Bridge make this a fun little wander. Don’t miss the Ler Devegar book store which still has huge printing presses inside. The main street of LXFactory turns into a market fair every Sunday.
- Art Deco & Art Nouveau museum. Also just around the corner from LXFactory, the excellent Gerrardo museum will be housing an art deco collection in a wonderfully tiled building, starting early 2017.
- Tapada das Necessidades. Little-known and admittedly in need of maintenance, this park nevertheless offers a peaceful escape from the city. Inside you’ll find a giant cactus garden and some cool abandoned villas. In front of the Palácio das Necessidades, you have one of the best views of the 25th of April bridge. If you need to get from Alcântara to Lapa/Estrela, you can walk it via this park.
Not many visitors head into the more modern city center away from the river, which is understandable as there’s already so much else to see. Still, I recommend at least taking the metro to São Sebastião station (which is under 10 minutes from Baixa-Chado) which has several key sights nearby.
Parque Eduardo VII [map] is an expansive city park with exotic plants, a monument and panoramic views, while the recently renovated Estufa Fria is a large botanical greenhouse and one of the most pleasant green spaces in the city. The Calouste Gulbenkian museum has a wide-ranging collection of art both classic and modern.
Almada [map] is across the river, but don’t worry, it’s very easy to get to! Ferries leave from Cais do Sodre station all the time and take just five minutes (get the boat to ‘Cacilhas’).
The town of Almada has plenty of cute restaurants and shops, as well as a marina with an old frigate and submarine. Walk along the docks past abandoned warehouses for beautiful views of Lisbon as well as two superb restaurants: El Ponte Final and Atira-te Ao Rio, both right on the waterfront with marvelous bay bridge views (reservation recommended).
Just a bit further, you can take the Elevador Panoramico da Boca do Vento to get high up on the cliffs. Here, the Casa da Cerca [map] has some nice gardens, art exhibitions, and a lovely place to have a coffee with a view. The Cristo Rei statue, Lisbon’s mini version of Rio’s Cristo Redentor, is another 30 minute walk further west.
Where to stay in Lisbon
You can find many excellent short-stay rental apartments via sites like Booking.com, Airbnb, and HomeAway. The apartments in Alfama are quite small and cosy. If you want to be near the center but in a bit more local/residential area, try Santos or Lapa, the upscale Principe Real or Chiado, or perhaps somewhere along Avenida Libertade (a Parisian style tree-lined avenue with easy metro access). Be careful with apartments in Bairro Alto as the noise levels can be severe in some streets at night.
Get $25 off your first Airbnb
If you sign up for Airbnb with this special link, you get $25 off your first booking (or the equivalent in your local currency). I also get some free Airbnb credit for this, so it’s a win-win. 🙂
Your best bet for hotels is to search on Booking.com, which has one of the larger selections of independent and boutique hotels.
You’ll be spoiled for choice as the hostel scene in Lisbon is seriously out of control. Lisbon hostels keep winning all the international awards! (Last year, a whopping 6 out of the 10 ‘Hoscar’ award winners for medium size hostels were in Lisbon.) You’ll find anything from funky backpacker favorites to fancy boutique art hostels. Below are some of my ❤ favorite picks:
|Home Lisbon Hostel||The best choice for solo travellers. A great atmosphere and the daily home-cooked meal by the owner’s mum guarantee interaction with other guests. Book early as it fills up fast.|
|Lisbon Lounge Hostel||An award-winning and artfully decorated hostel offering both bunk and twin private rooms. The communal dinner lets you quickly make new friends here as well.|
|This Is Lisbon Hostel||A calm hostel near the Sao Jorge castle, with an amazing terrace where you can have breakfast with gorgeous views of the city. While it’s pretty low-key, I loved staying here.|
|Sunset Destination Hostel||Located above the Cais do Sodre train station, this stylish hostel has an impressive rooftop where you can hang out or have a swim with views of the Tejo river. One of the world’s top-rated hostels.|
|Hub New Lisbon Hostel||It may be a little on the larger side, but it’s in an excellent location and has a giant ball pit. Yes, seriously, a ball pit. Amazing.|
|Alfama Patio Hostel||A perfect summer hostel thanks to a lovely funky garden with hammocks and regular BBQs. Social but not a party hostel, it’s great for all types of travelers.|
Getting around in Lisbon
Lisbon is best explored on foot. Avoid gimmicky tourist vehicles such as segways or tricycles as many locals aren’t big fans. Tuk-tuks were a huge nuisance but have become more regulated, with only quiet electric ones still allowed and on main thoroughfares only. Keep in mind the tuk-tuks are relatively very expensive though as they’re only aimed at tourists (this isn’t Bangkok!). Taxis are the cheaper way to get around.
Lisbon has many trams, subways, ferries, and commuter trains that can get you to places cheaply and efficiently. When you buy a ticket, you’ll get a paper “viva viagem” card. Hang on to this as it can be recharged. Select the option to add so-called “zapping” credit, which can be used with any combination of public transit.
Cabs are dirt cheap by northern European standards. You can get a ride from, say, Alfama to Belem for around €6. Ride-sharing platforms like Uber and Cabify operate in Lisbon as well, so be sure to sign up to them if you haven’t already.
Promo code: get free taxi rides
Cabify is essentially the Spanish version of Uber, which operates in Lisbon. If you sign up for Cabify using this link, you get €8 of free credit on the house. Sign up now and you’ll be able to get at least one or two free cab rides in Lisbon, and more if you get your travel partner(s) to sign up too.
Lisbon has a fun and unpretentious nightlife. There are plenty of fancy cocktail bars and clubs and the like, but I think it’s the hole-in-a-wall bars and the people drinking on the street that make going out in Lisbon especially fun. The nightlife in Portugal starts very late; locals won’t have dinner until around 8 or 9, and won’t go out until 11 at the earliest, which may seem strange to many from northern Europe.
The cobblestone labyrinth of Bairro Alto [map] is quiet by day, but transforms into essentially a big open air party at night (mainly on Thu to Sat). It usually doesn’t truly kick off until midnight, when the streets suddenly fill with people. Many of the small grungy bars have live music or a small dance floor inside, and some of them sell pints for as little as one Euro.
Pink Street [map] in Cais do Sodre was once a red-light district but is today a regular nightlife area. Some of the places here still have some of the original décor from when they were brothels. Pensão Amor is especially interesting as it has multiple floors and a really cool burlesque-style interior. Many bars and clubs along Pink Street stay open until early morning, so when Bairro Alto closes many people move here.
Bairro Alto and Pink Street are the main areas for going out, though they can get packed. For something a little more chilled out try Bica (especially Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo along the funicular line) or Largo do Intendente (where Casa Independente is a popular spot).
Apart from the bar scene there are also many clubs, especially inside some of the converted old warehouses along the river. The most famous one is Lux, part-owned by John Malkovich (which is always a fun fact to mention).
A few Lisbon travel tips
Some tourists are shocked to find there are drug dealers on Praça do Comércio or Rossio Square. Most of these guys are actually scam artists targeting tourists. They’re annoying but harmless; simply say no thanks or ignore them, and they’ll go away.
If a restaurant places bread, olives, or other side items on your table, know that these aren’t free tapas. If you touch them you have to pay for them and they’re usually pricey!
While you should keep an eye out for pickpockets, Lisbon ranks as one of the safest cities in Europe.
Apart from the oldest generations, most Portuguese speak either good or excellent English. Don’t assume speaking Spanish will earn you brownie points; it’s very different from Portuguese, and English is really the most widely spoken and favored foreign language.
Lisbon itself can easily keep you busy for a whole week, but there’s even more to see in the wider region!
The seaside town of Cascais is a popular spot and just 30 minutes by train. There are some narrow beaches all along the Cascais line, though the nearest wide sand beach is Costa da Caparica (it’s about 1 hour from Lisbon center). The seaside town of Sesimbra is another highlight to the south. The old castles and palaces of Sintra are just 40 minutes away from central Lisbon, and are worth spending at least a full day at (or better yet, two or more days). I’ll be linking here to posts about them when they go up.
Lisbon’s second city of Porto is about 3,5 hour by train. Be sure to check out my guide to Porto.view my guide to porto »
Lisbon pocket guide
Having written nearly 4000 words in this post, I feel like I have still barely scratched the surface! For more info, you can of course get a complete travel guide. Lonely Planet has a great pocket guide to Lisbon costing just €10. You can grab it digitally or in print at the Lonely Planet shop, or you can get it from Amazon.