Over the past few years, tourism has spiked and flourished in Lisbon and throughout Portugal, bringing welcomed attention, and tourism economy, to this once underrated and underappreciated European destination. With so much recent attention on Lisbon’s growth, we had to experience this city for ourselves.
We visited Portugal for nine days in early October – after the crush of summer tourists had vanished, but while the warm sunny days lingered. It is a small country with compact cities so we were able to visit several cities during our stay. You can read our recommendations for Porto and Sintra. We’ll have a blog on the Algarve coming soon.
With a few days to see and experience Lisbon, below are some top recommendations of sights to see, things to avoid and places to eat.
Walks of art. There is simply nothing else like the sidewalks of Portugal anywhere else. The black and white mosaic cobblestone sidewalks are laid by hand by Portuguese artisans who create masterful designs throughout the city and the entire country. The sidewalks are especially exquisite in Lisbon.
The streets are a maze. It may take a day to get oriented. The narrow, twisting, medieval style streets make navigating this city more difficult than others we have visited. Enjoy the journey, but don’t even think about driving. There are many narrow one-way alleyways, streets without vehicle access, and absolutely nowhere to park. This is a walking city (with lots of hills) – wear comfy shoes – and plan to use the trolleys and metro.
Mass Transit is the way to go. Travel by metro and trolleys in Lisbon is easy and intuitive. We recommend purchasing the rechargeable transit card called Viva Viagem. There are several purchase options and we recommend getting the “zapping” option which seems to be the most versatile if you plan to be in Lisbon for more than a couple days. It costs .50€ for the card and then you can add any increments of 5€. Using this card option makes the cost of transit cheaper, and in addition to access to metro, trolleys and buses it can also be used for the surface train to Sintra. From what we understand the other types of metro card passes for visitors won’t work on surface trains, so zapping option is the best fit if you plan a day trip to Sintra (which we highly recommend!). Any Euros you apply to the zapping card can’t be refunded if you don’t use them, so be conservative and add more money to the card later if necessary. 10€ went a long way for a couple days in Lisbon! Also note that each person needs their own card (sharing among family members isn’t allowed).
Avoid the Hop on, Hop off bus. In many cities these tourism buses are a nice way to orient yourself to the city by helping riders get a sense of where many of the must-see attractions are located and providing some fun information you may otherwise not learn during your visit. Not so in Lisbon. Because most of Lisbon’s attractions are located in the historic parts of the city, where buses can’t navigate, the bus tours traverse the more accessible but uninspired parts of the city, and it will cost a pretty penny for this privilege. We also wasted a lot of time waiting for the bus to arrive and eventually depart as it made a couple stops in city center. What we didn’t realize was where we loaded onto the bus would be the most interesting thing to see until 5 miles later when we got off the bus in Belem. Belem was the location we knew we wanted to visit, but could have gotten there much faster, cheaper and easier via the trolley. The bus tour took a meandering excursion through Lisbon’s business district. It was visually and otherwise uninteresting. We can’t stress enough – avoid the hop on/hop off bus in Lisbon.
Visit Belem. The UNESCO-listed Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (monastery) and tower are exquisite. There was a huge line and long wait to visit the monastery’s cloister. Though we hear this is quite beautiful, we weren’t feeling very patient for lines that day, and we knew we would be need to wait in line for a pastry at the famous Pastries de Belem so we let our stomachs choose where we lingered and opted to skip the cloister and instead walked straight into the church (which is free and doesn’t have a line) to see the architecture. (More on the pastries below in the Eating in Lisbon section).
The exterior of the monastery is stunning, and the church is exquisite. The Belem Tower (Torre de Belem) is worth checking out. Built between 1515-1520, the tower protected Lisbon’s harbor. This tower was the last sight sailors saw as they left their homelands during the Age of Discovery and the first thing they saw when they returned home. Interestingly, when this Tower was built, the river went nearly to the walls of the monastery (which today is quite far away from the water’s edge), and the tower was mid-river. Today, the Tower sits right at the edge of the water.
The Best Views in Lisbon: Lisbon is the city of seven hills, which means there are several high points for great views. Our favorite places to watch the sunset and take in the view of Lisbon include a lovely, blue tiled observation deck in the Alfama part of the city called Miradouro De Santa Luzia (pictured above). From this vantage point you can look out over the traditional red tiled roofs and white buildings of the Alfama (historical district) and watch the sun set over the water.
The Sao Jorge Castle is another great place to take in a magnificent view of Lisbon. There isn’t much to see inside, but it is enjoyable to walk the castle walls and look out over the city. You can purchase a glass of wine or grab a bite to eat while within the castle walls enjoying the observation decks. Cost to enter is 8€.
Eating in Lisbon: We have a few recommendations based upon our experience.
Cervejaria Ramiro: This is a top rated restaurant in Lisbon for seafood recommended by locals and visitors alike. It was touted by Anthony Bourdain and recently by Phil Rosenthal on the show “Somebody Feed Phil.” We had to give this place a try. And I’m so glad we were early birds! We didn’t have reservations and we knew there would be a line (apparently there is always a line), so we arrived at 5:30 p.m. Our wait was estimated at 30 minutes. Within a few minutes of our arrival, a flood of people poured in and the wait time increased by an hour. Bottom line: Get here early. A nice perk for waiting? A beer dispensing machine in the waiting area that accepts (only) 2€ coins. Have coins handy.
The restaurant is huge and the service is quick, the environment feels a bit hectic, but the prices are good for such a hot restaurant. We had a fun and quirky experience talking with a couple from Australia seated next to us. They had also chosen this restaurant because they saw it on Somebody Feed Phil. What a small world (and what incredible influence he has! 🙂
We enjoyed a bottle of wine, an entire Rock Lobster, garlic shrimp, bread and olives for a total of 115€. It was our most expensive meal in Portugal, but worth it. My only regret is that I didn’t ask for a garlic butter sauce for the lobster – the shrimp were amazing. Everything is better with garlic 🙂
TimeOut Market. We have a mixed review for this place, which is also highly touted by tourism books and visitors. If you have very limited time in Portugal, this place can give you a one stop shop for trying a lot of different traditional Portuguese fare. Just prepare to spend twice as much as you may pay for the same items elsewhere. And while food halls are all the rage, they have an unattractive cafeteria feel about them. On the plus side, the food was good, we met other travelers and had fun conversations and I was able to have more port wine from Taylor’s which was one of our favorite port cellars in Porto.
By The Wine. Stop in here for a glass or two of wine. The atmosphere is spectacular. The entryway is an arch made of thousands of wine bottles. My husband found his perfect wine fit here thanks to a solid recommendation by the bartender, and he isn’t an easy fit. For the record, it was Hexagon, and we are kicking ourselves that we didn’t buy a crate of it and ship it home!
Pasteis de Belem. This bakery is famous for creating the recipe for these custard tarts more than 150 years ago. They have since become a traditional Portuguese favorite, and this bakery has kept their particular recipe a secret. They have a reputation as the best place to get these tarts in the country. We tried the custard pastries in numerous locations around Portugal, and we tend to agree, there is nothing like the ones you get here at Pasteis de Belem. TIP: There is always a huge line, down the block, for their carry out. Walk past the line, go inside the restaurant and try to get seated. There are 400 tables (this place is WAY bigger than it appears). While there was a line down the block for their carry out, we only waited about 5 minutes before getting seated in their quaint patio area where we indulged and enjoyed the famous tarts. The hype is justified. These WERE the best pasteis we had in all of Portugal. Don’t even think about ordering just one.
Have a few days in Lisbon? Definitely take a day trip to Sintra! Nearby Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a lovely town filled with colorful, eccentric, and mesmerizing castles and palaces. One castle dates back to the 10th century! It is a must-see destination, and it’s only a 40-minute train ride outside Lisbon. A perfect place to spend a day. See our highlights and recommendations for Sintra.