Update: Lisbon currently suffers from overtourism. The place is packed, especially in the summer (July & August) and in the center. If you don’t like crowds, you might want to avoid staying in the neighborhoods of Alfama, Mouraria, or Castelo, or visit in the off season. You could also consider other places in Portugal like Coimbra, Porto, the Alentejo or Algarve.
I’ve travelled the world far and wide, but few places I’ve liked 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.
It still has its share of neglect and faded facades after years of financial crisis, but the city is currently 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 a year now and keep discovering new things! In this Lisbon city guide, I’ll tell you about a few 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:
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 an equally good experience and photo opportunity.)
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 kind of just a staircase. It’s a bit of a tourist trap with many tour buses passing through this area. While the tower has some historical significance, it’s not worth the long wait.
Pasteis de Belem. I’m surely gonna get crucified for this, but I don’t think the Pasteis de Belem are that special. The story is great — the recipe has been carefully passed on through generations of monks, etc. etc. — but on the weekends especially the queue for this place is nuts. If it looks like you’ll be queuing for an hour, just grab any fresh regular pastel de nata egg tart from a nearby bakery. They’re almost just as good.
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 and anti-Airbnb grafitti featuring on some of the walls. 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 (with many decaying buildings) 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 soon.
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 [map]. 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 september 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 [map]. 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 [map]. 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. They 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 some nice 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. While it was once very run-down, the streets and squares have been renovated recently and the area is gentrifying.
Belem and Alcântara are within reasonable walking distance of each other and so they’re easily combined.
Things to do here:
- Mosteiro dos Jerónimos [map]. 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: I have been threatened with murder for saying this.)
- LXFactory [map]. 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. Go to Rio Maravilha for cocktails and rooftop views of the bridge.
- 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 [map]. 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 to 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, a Lisbon city guide would not be complete without recommending 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 fantastic Calouste Gulbenkian museum has a wide-ranging collection of art both classic and modern.
Almada [map] is just 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 amazing 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.
Other areas to explore
Some more suggestions for the intrepid explorers…
- It feels like the neighborhood of Marvila might become the next hip area of Lisbon in a few years. A creative hub similar to LxFactory will open here in the future. For now, you can find some craft breweries (like Dois Corvois) and some hidden restaurants.
- The immigrant neighborhood around Martim Moniz square is popular with the locals. While not as picturesque as other parts of Lisbon, you’ll find some great food trucks and salsa dancing in the weekend evenings. Go to Topo Bar for cocktails with a view of Sao Jorge castle, though it’s up to you to find the elevator hidden inside a nondescript Chinese shopping center…
- Parque das Nações is a modern part of the city that’s often recommended by locals, but I think for international tourists it’s only mildly interesting. The amazing Oceanarium is great for a rainy day though!
Tours & activities around Lisbon
It’s certainly fun to wander aimlessly around Lisbon, but you may also want to book some tours or activities for your Lisbon trip. The following tours are sure to add a unique element beyond what you can do independently (some of these are affiliate links):
- Make Your Own Pasteis de Natas – Mini Workshop
A super fun and unique workshop run by a local travel blogger and Joao, owner of Pastelaria Batalha in Largo Camoes. You’ll get to make your own famous Portuguese egg tarts while hearing amusing anecdotes from Joao’s life as a baker.
- Sintra, Cascais, and Estoril: Full-Day Tour from Lisbon
Hit up all the major sights outside of Lisbon in a single day
- 2-Hour Sunset Cruise along the Tagus River
The bridge and the old city simply look amazing from the river at sunset!
- Arrábida Kayak Tour from Lisbon
Add some nature to your trip on the beautiful rocky coast just south of Lisbon
- Lisbon Gourmet Walking Tour and Tastings
Learn about the Portuguese culinary history, try port wines, traditional tapas, and more.
- Sintra – Cascais: 6-Hour Electric Bike Tour from Lisbon
Sintra itself can be easily reached by train, but it’s difficult to explore beyond the town… unless you have an electric bike! You’ll see the Sintra national park, visit Quinta da Regaleira, and go to several villages.
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.
You’ll be spoiled for choice as the hostel scene in Lisbon is seriously out of control! 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. Be sure to take a look at my list of the best hostels in Lisbon.
Your best bet for hotels is to search on Booking.com, which has one of the larger selections of independent and boutique hotels.
Getting around in Lisbon
Lisbon is best explored on foot. Many tourists like to take tuk-tuks to see the sights, though these are relatively very expensive as they’re only aimed at tourists (this isn’t Bangkok!). Taxis are usually the cheaper way to get from point to point.
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.
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.
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).
Best time to visit Lisbon
I think the best time to visit Lisbon is in the spring, from April to June. The weather is lovely and there aren’t quite as many tourists yet as in the summer.
June is especially a great time to go as it’s a month filled with festivities and street parties.
That said, Lisbon can be enjoyed year-round! For more details, check out my best time to visit Lisbon post.
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 though; it’s very different from Portuguese, and English is really the most widely spoken and favored foreign language.
More about Lisbon & Portugal
- Exploring Lisbon, Portugal – A Weekend City Break
- A Local Guide to the Best Hostels in Lisbon
- Top places to visit in Portugal
- 10 Cool Things to See and Do in Porto
- The Azores: Europe’s Undiscovered Adventure Islands
- Moving to Lisbon: 9 Things You Should Realistically Know