Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, is one of the oldest capital cities in Europe and, according to the 2017 World Travel Awards, the best city break destination in the world. That’s quite the title to live up to! Let me assure that the city does not disappoint. There are plenty of things to do and lots of great food choices so to help you plan your trip, I have narrowed down what I think are the best things to do in Lisbon.
There’s an energy to Lisbon that I find unique; it’s an overall feel-good sensation that is contagious. And the light? The light is what always wows me, even after 20+ years living here.
Best things to do in Lisbon
Alfama, Lisbon old town
With tourists almost outnumbering local residents, Alfama has become the image of gentrification and over tourism used in every article and political statement on sustainable tourism over the past five years.
Getting lost in the winding, narrow cobblestoned streets of Alfama is still a must-do experience in the city and one of the best things to do in Lisbon.
For the sake of sustainability, steer away from anything that looks like a tourist trap, remember that Alfama is (still, for the most part) a residential area and mind the locals’ quality of life, and, if you pick one of the many Lisbon tours available, choose one that follows responsible travel guidelines.
Belém, The Hot Spot For Manueline Architecture
The Age of Discoveries (15th to 17th centuries) opened Portugal to the world and the world to Portugal. Vasco da Gama set sail from Belém, determined to find an alternative sea route to India, and the far western end of Lisbon will forever be linked to that historical period.
Manueline Architecture style (named after King Manuel the first, the main patron and supporter of the Indian Ocean explorations) mixes the straight lines of the Renaissance period with the aesthetic influences of the intricate details of Hindu temples.
Viewpoints Over The City
Last time I counted, there were over 30 viewpoints (official and non-official) to see Lisbon from the top. They don’t call it the city of seven hills for nothing and so, of course, seeing the city from up high is one of the best things to do in Lisbon.
As much as I’d love to list them all (yes, there is no such thing as too many photos of Lisbon’s terracotta rooftops, the glistening lazy waters of the Tejo river, and the iron-red bridge 25 de Abril), Miradouro do Monte Agudo, Miradouro de Santa Luzia, and Panorâmico de Monsanto are my all-time favorite.
The views from St. George Castle, Santa Justa lift, and Portas do Sol are popular among tourists (and, therefore, slightly crowded during high season).
For History buffs, the view from the top of the Rua Augusta Arch is the perfect spot to see the before and after versions of the 1755 Great Earthquake – Alfama, on the right, as the before, and Baixa (in the center) and Chiado (on the left), as the after.
Fado, Unesco World Heritage Site
Historians say that Portugal’s Urban Song (classified as World Heritage by UNESCO) was born in the bohemian low-life bars and brothels in Mouraria, the old Moorish quarter, in the early 1800s.
Fado means fate in Portuguese and most of the classic songs speak of love, jealousy, heartbreak, and saudade (sorrow, roughly translated). You don’t have to understand the language to feel completely blown away by a live performance in any of the casas de Fado (Fado houses) in one of the typical neighborhoods of Bairro Alto, Alfama, or Mouraria.
Start your cultural immersion with a visit to the Fado Museum in Alfama to explore all the ins and outs of the music genre, listen to some of the most popular tracks, and see the only award won by a Portuguese fadista (Fado singer) at the 2014 Latin Grammy Awards.
The Mighty River Tagus
The Tagus river, the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, stretches for over 1,000 km (over 600 miles) from Sacedón in Spain until it reaches the Atlantic Ocean near Belém in Lisbon.
The river is so wide, that tourists usually confuse it with the ocean. It’s an honest mistake.
If you’re willing to go for a long walk (or a bike ride, or run), take the 8 km (5 miles) trail from Cais do Sodré to Belém. You get to see the shifts in architecture (from industrial warehouses in Cais do Sodré and Alcântara to mansion-like houses and wide-open gardens as you get closer to Belém) and, if you get there by sundown, the famous golden hour at Torre de Belém.
There are plenty of riverside cafés and restaurants for pit stops along the way.
Lisbon’s Best Food & Drink Options
Grilled sardines and pasteis de nata are Lisbon’s undisputable culinary calling cards but there is so much more to discover. Lisbon is one of Europe’s oldest cities, built on layer upon layer of diverse cultural influences over the eight centuries of its existence as the Portuguese capital and it shows – in architecture, in customs, and, well, in food.
Pastéis de Nata
“Where to find the best pasteis de nata?” is the most-asked question in Lisbon. Tourists ask out of genuine curiosity and locals use it as an excuse to root for their favorite custard tart place in town.
The selection is usually narrowed down to two options: Pastéis de Belém and Manteigaria. I suggest a test-taste of custard tarts from both places. I take no sides because I genuinely liked them both on different occasions and for different reasons.
Insider’s hint: I recently learned at a pastry class that all handmade pastéis de nata have a spiral at the bottom. It means that the dough was thumbed down (yes, literally) into the little cake pans.
Tasca Zé dos Cornos
Eating at a tasca (a low-key, tavern-like restaurant, best compared to a chophouse) is the best way to try typical Portuguese food. No frills, no fuss, just good food in gigantic portions. For vegans and vegetarians, tascas are always a tough call though because meat- and fish-based dishes are all you see in the menu.
At the family-owned Tasca Zé dos Cornos, the service is fast, the food is cooked with a homey touch, and the single portions are big enough for two.
The catch-of-the-day style of menu at this no-meat restaurant in the heart of Lisbon always includes a vegan/vegetarian dish and a fish/seafood dish.
Lunch menus are the best value option at Organi Chiado and getting there closer to opening hours (12.30 pm) gives you a better chance to take a seat at the small terrace outside.
Everyone from the Portuguese Prime Minister to local celebrities have been to Mezze, so I think it’s fair to say this is the hottest restaurant in Lisbon right now.
Run by former Syrian refugees, Mezze serves delicious middle eastern food at the Arroios Market, in the heart of the most culturally diverse neighborhood of Lisbon.
This bar/art gallery is curated by the famous Portuguese street artist Alexandre Farto aka Vhils.
Vhils selects one street artist per year, local or not, to decorate the bar so it doubles as an art piece. The first featured artist was Argentinian-Spanish Felipe Pantone and the installations rotate every September.
Terraços do Carmo
Blink and you might miss this terrace bar just behind the ruins of the Carmo Convent in Chiado.
With a glorious and unobstructed view of St. George Castle and the back of the Santa Justa lift, Terraços do Carmo is perfect for an end-of-the-day drink before dinner when the weather gets warmer.
Getting Around Lisbon
If you don’t mind hilly streets, you won’t mind walking around the city as you explore the best things to do in Lisbon. The city is small and mostly walkable, and exploring on foot will give you more chances to admire the typical black-and-white pavement patterns known as calçada portuguesa and the mix-and-match of architectural styles in the old quarters.
For longer distances (or when in need to rest your feet), make use of the great public transportation system consisting of the Metro (operated by Metro Lisboa), trams and buses (operated by Carris), suburban trains (operated by CP), and cross-river ferries (operated by Transtejo and Soflusa).
Purchase a Lisboa VIVA card for €0.50 (available at Metro, ferry, and train stations) and top it off as you need at any station or shops and kiosks with a Payshop or MOB sticker. The card is valid for one passenger, so if you’re traveling in a group, each person will have to buy their own card.
One-day tickets (valid for 24 hours) for buses, trams, and Metro cost €6.30 and one single ticket costs €1.45.
Usually, people queue for transportation and, in the Metro, it’s expected of you to wait for people to come out first before going in. In buses and trams, passengers enter through the front door and exit through one of the rear doors.
Places To Stay In Lisbon
The city is small, but where to stay in Lisbon is not the easiest question to answer. Do you want to experience life as a local or do you want to be closer to all the things to do in Lisbon that everyone talks about?
Alfama, Mouraria, Chiado, and Bairro Alto concentrate most of Lisbon’s Airbnb listings which makes them the most touristic places to stay in Lisbon.
If staying at a hotel is that part of traveling you never let go of, then choose hotel hubs like Marquês de Pombal, Baixa or Oriente. The catch with the Oriente area (also known as Parque das Nações) is that it’s closer to the airport and one of the international train stations, but away from the city center and major landmarks.
Most hotels in Lisbon are listed on Booking.com, so make sure you browse the search engine for special deals and to compare prices.
Don’t Miss Out On Lisbon’s…
There is something about how sunlight hits the city’s tiled buildings and bounces off the river Tejo that makes Lisbon a photographer’s dream. To be frank, you can get away with just a point-and-shoot camera. That’s how effortlessly photogenic the city is.
The best spots are Portas do Sol viewpoint in Alfama, Cais das Colunas near the river in Baixa, and Belém (Torre de Belém, in particular).
Whether you’re exploring the finest Portuguese chef-owned restaurants in Príncipe Real, browsing the food court of Time Out Market, or going on a quest to find the best tascas, there is no such thing as boring food in Lisbon.
Lisbon has something for every palate, including plenty of vegan and vegetarian restaurants to choose from.
These are some of the dishes you will find frequently on the daily specials: bacalhau à brás (salted cod fried with eggs, onions, and chips), pataniscas de bacalhau (salted cod fritters), peixinhos da horta (green beans tempura), polvo à lagareiro (octopus baked in a sea of olive oil).
Lisbon Things To Know
Spanish sounds nothing like Portuguese
Avoid the faux pas of attempting to speak the neighboring country’s language to a local (some might take it lightly and kindly correct you; others may not). From 1581 to 1640, due to a succession crisis (meaning the Portuguese king at the time died and left no heirs), Portugal was ruled by Spanish kings and… well, let’s just say the 1640 Independence Day on November 1st is still a celebrated National Holiday for a reason. Portuguese people hold no grudges against the Spanish but, you know, to each their own.
Fresh fish and seafood restaurants are one of Lisbon’s biggest tourist traps. If a restaurant doesn’t display its fresh fish, suspect that it’s not a reputable place recommended by locals.
Be prepared to walk
Pack comfortable shoes because walking up and down the cobblestoned hills of Lisbon wears you out. Use funiculars (Glória, Bica, and Lavra) and elevators (Santa Justa, Castelo at street Chão do Loureiro, and Baixa at street Fanqueiros) as shortcuts whenever you can.
Although Lisbon is far – I hope – from becoming the next Barcelona, Venice, or Dubrovnik when it comes to overtourism, do have a responsible and sustainable approach to traveling in the Portuguese capital. Support local business as much as possible and avoid the tourist traps at busy touristic streets in Baixa, Alfama, and Chiado. Choose a hotel over an Airbnb if you can or, if short-term rentals are part of your traveling style, choose a single unit over a building with serviced apartments.
Lisboetas (Lisbon’s residents) are welcoming, pleasant, and speak, at least, one foreign language (usually English).
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Sandra Henriques Gajjar
Sandra is a freelance web content writer born in the Azores and based in Lisbon for 20+ years. Since 2014 she’s been blogging about travel, culture, and the people she meets in between at Tripper, a blog about sustainable cultural tourism.