One of the oldest cities in the world (older than, say, London and Rome), Lisboa is filled with history, beauty and light. That’s right, light. The capital of Portugal is the sunniest city in Europe, with an average of 2799 hours of sunshine/ per year. This may not seem important to you if you already live somewhere sunny, but trust me, the light in Lisbon is simply… different.
Lisbon is magical. Walking the old neighbourhoods of Lisbon transports you to a different time; there’s art everywhere – the buildings (old and new), the tiles on the walls, street-art… even the pavement has mosaics; there’s a castle on a hill and palace on a mountain that will make you feel like you’re in Neverland; there are white sandy beaches nearby; rooftops with breathtaking views; food to die for; old factories turned hipster villages and old brothels turned burlesque bars…
Yes, you can find all of that (and more) in Lisboa.
Now that you’ve booked your plane ticket, here are a few suggestion of where to stay and what do do.
WHERE TO STAY?
Try to stay somewhere central so that you can walk pretty much everywhere or at least get good train/metro connections. Also you’ll get a bit more of the city vibe. Here’s a few places I’d suggest:
- Bairro Alto – mind you that this is the pub area, so Friday and Saturday nights, odds are, it will be noisy. Still, it is one of the most iconic neighbourhoods of Lisbon. I’d deffo stay here, regardless the noise! (In fact, I did stay here with one of my friends, regardless the noise, and it was great being able to get everywhere without having to Uber all the time). Try to stay higher up, closer to Principe Real. There are loads of really nice restaurants within walking distance.
- Principe Real – really nice area at the top of Bairro Alto. Lovely restaurants. It might be a bit pricier, not sure
- Chiado/ Baixa – downtown area
Tip: if you select ‘Misericordia’ in the ‘neighbourhood section’ at Booking.com, you’ll get all of these neighbourhoods
- Alfama/Sé – this area is the hill opposite to Bairro Alto, where St.Jorge’s Castle stands. It’s also quite central, and an old neighbourhood of Lisboa. Great views of the city and the river Tejo (Tagus).
WHAT TO DO?
Ok foccus. There’s a lot to do, so you’ll need to be organised so that you can fit all of this into your itinerary. The * asterisk marks the must see/ highlights.
Principe Real/ *Bairro Alto
I’d start at Principe Real (a lovely square) and make my way down Bairro Alto. You should definitely walk the streets of Bairro Alto to get a feel for the city. Watch out for dog poop though. You don’t want that kind of feel. There are loads of restaurants but watch out for tourist traps. Although the food is good everywhere, really (actual food suggestions under ‘Dreamifood’). While here, make sure you check out viewing point number one: *Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara with stunning views over the castle, downtown, and the river.
Get to the main square – Praça Luís de Camões – and maybe, if you fancy a delicious custard tart, head to Manteigaria, the place with the best Pastéis de Nata ever. “Aren’t these the same as Pastéis de Belém though?”; No, not really, but they are heavenly, and maybe, who knows, you won’t taste the difference, but who cares? They’re delicious (honestly tastes like heaven) and that’s all you should care about. (But never call a Nata, Belém, and never ever call a Belém, Nata. Not in front of Lisboetas (people of Lisboa) anyway). Right, keep going down Rua Garrett, the shopping street, all the way down to Rossio. (You’ll find your way there, I trust you).
- Convento do Carmo – before heading to Rossio, at Rua Garrett take Rua do Sacramento all the way to Carmo Square, where you’ll find the ruins of Carmo Convent. Next to it, on the right hand side, there is a little street which will take you to the top of the Santa Justa Lift (without having to pay for the ride). You’re welcome.
- Side streets – there are loads of nice shops, restaurants and beautiful tiled buildings on the side streets, so go ahead and get lost in Chiado. There’s a particularly beautiful building at Rua Trindade/ Largo Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, called ‘Casa do Ferreira das Tabuletas’.
Right, downtown should include: Rossio square (and its beautiful train station), Restauradores square, Praça da Figueira, Rua Augusta and all the way to Praça do Comércio (the main square by the river).
If you want the best views in the city this is where you need to head. To go to Graça, I recommend starting at Martim Moniz square, and climbing up Rua dos Cavaleiros + Calçada de Santo André + Calçada da Graça. And you’ll reach viewing point number two:
- *Miradouro da Graça (officially Miradouro Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, but no one uses the official name). Stop here, enjoy the view, maybe grab some food at Botequim (see under ‘Dreamifood’) and then continue to viewing point number three:
- *Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte – this is the highest of the highest, the top of the top, the viewing point of all viewing points in Lisboa. It is breathtaking, I promise. I wouldn’t make you climb all this way without a very good reason.
Tip: you don’t have to walk if you don’t want to (I am a walker, but hey, I understand if others aren’t). There is a tram, number 28 – absolutely packed with tourists – or there are the lovely tuk tuks. They are everywhere in town and will take you to all these viewing points and more. It’s fun, albeit a bit bumpy.
Mouraria and *Castelo de S. Jorge
I think some Lisboetas might disagree with me on this one, particularly since you now have to pay to go in, but I always, always, recommend a visit to St. Jorge’s Castle (viewing point number four). I love it. Sure the view is not as impressive as Nossa Senhora do Monte, but it’s just magical. Something about it being so old maybe? Dunno. But do it. Oh, if you’re doing it, why not walk from Graça to the Castle? That way you can get a taste of the streets of Mouraria. Make sure to stop at:
- *Miradouro de Santa Luzia – viewing point number five
- Miradouro das Portas do Sol – right next to it
- *Sé de Lisboa (or church of Santa Maria Maior) – Built in the 12th century, it’s one of my favourite churches in Lisboa.
Tip: if you don’t want to you don’t have to stop at all of the viewing points. One of my friends mocked me saying ‘I have seen the same view from 300 different angles‘, haha. I do love a good view. Anyway, if you’re going to skip a few, don’t skip the Nossa Senhora do Monte in Graça, it really is the best one.
If you still feel like walking (kudos to you) and you’re close to Portas do Sol, take the little stairs down and explore the old neighbourhood of Alfama, the oldest district of Lisbon. You’ll probably end up at Rua do Jardim do Tabaco (probably); if that’s the case you should totally check out the very peculiar ‘Casa dos Bicos’.
It’s a must. You can’t visit Lisboa and not visit Belém, it just doesn’t make sense. Maybe head there in the morning and have breakfast at *Pastéis de Belém – the birthplace of all that is good and delicious. Insider tip: there’s always a queue outside but inside the place is massive so, even if there is a queue for sitting, it will go super quick. I absolutely 100% recommend having at least one Pastel while you’re there. It’s just they taste much better fresh from the oven. In Belém, you should also visit:
- *Mosteiro dos Jeronimos – you don’t have to pay to go inside, but do visit the church, it’s beautiful (and free!)
- *Torre de Belém – walk across the gardens to the river side and all the way to the Tower. Maybe have an ice cream there
- Centro Cultural de Belém (CCB) – it’s a cultural centre, with theatre rooms, galleries, exhibitions, etc., and its garden has a great view over the river. And it’s a nice place overall.
Alcântara, LX Factory
What used to be an abandoned industrial complex, is now a pretty cool (slightly hipster) place boasting restaurants, art, bars, quirky shops and one of the cutest bookshops you’ll ever see. It’s worth the visit and maybe staying for lunch or dinner. You can also check out Rio Maravilha’s rooftop right under the 25 de Abril Bridge, it’s pretty cool.
Important tip: Lisboa is very hilly and the pavement isn’t always the best. Sure thing it’s beautiful to look at, but not always practical to walk on. And it can get pretty slippery, particularly when it rains. Wear comfortable shoes is what I am saying. And ladies, if you’re planning on partying at Bairro Alto or Cais do Sodré, no point wearing heels really. Trust me on this.
If you have more time, I always recommend visiting either Sintra and/or Cascais. It depends on how much time you have, and if you don’t have time for both, picking one of the two depends on what you’d rather: mountain views with old palaces or a little town by the sea? Here’s a little break down of what to do and see in each town.
Sintra always feels magical to me, sort of like a fairy tale backdrop. It’s a picturesque town set in the hills, surrounded by woods, forest, mountains, palaces and villas, exotic gardens and more. It is has been classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and fairly so, the place is stunning. If you choose to visit, you can either drive there (tricky to park in the town centre, but easier up in the castle and palace) or take a train. There are tuk tuks in Sintra too that will take you all the way up to the castle. Or you can walk up (feeling like a workout?). Here’s what you should deffo check out if you visit Sintra:
- Sintra town centre – it’s a charming little town with great restaurants, great food (must try the typical Queijadas de Sintra), and cute little shops.
- Quinta da Regaleira – beautiful (and romantic) gardens, part of an old estate. It has a well, a pound, a lake, beautiful stairs and windows, small bridges, all designed in the most exquisite way. Like most things in Sintra, it feels very fairy taley. Also, Instagram heaven, if you’re into that.
- Castelo dos Mouros – a beautiful medieval castle, set on the top of the hill boasting beautiful views.
- *Palacio da Pena – the most beautiful palace I have ever seen. OK, so technically I have not been to that many palaces, and maybe I am slightly biased, but I do believe visiting Pena Palace, if you have the time, is worth every penny. The colours, the tiles, the gardens, the views… magical. Absolutely effing magical.
Important tip: the weather in Sintra can be a bit temperamental; if it’s bright, warm and sunny in Lisboa it does not mean you’ll find the same weather in Sintra (in fact, quite often it’s the opposite), so pack a cardigan and maybe an umbrella.
Cascais is a beautiful town by the sea, a few 30km from Lisbon. It has beautiful sea views and wonderful restaurants. It’s a beautiful car/train ride from Lisboa (by car take the Avenida Marginal). I have written about Cascais on the blog before, a little ‘what to do/see’, which you can check out here.
WHICH WAY TO THE BEACH?
Right, if you have a little more than just a weekend in Lisboa, and it’s summer, or just hot, you might want to go to the beach am I right?
There are loads of options, it highly depends on what you want and whether or not you’re driving.
If you can’t be bothered to rent a car, probably the easiest beaches for you to get to are the ones accessible by train. This would be the whole ‘Cascais train line’. You can take a train from Cais do Sodré, and anywhere between Carcavelos and Cascais there’s a beach (there are a few beaches before that but I wouldn’t recommend it).
My favourite? São Pedro do Estoril. Not for any particular reason other than I’ve been going there since I was 15 years-old and it’s just my fave. It’s good on a windy day as the cliffs will shelter you.
Carcavelos is the largest one, but in the summer months it gets really crowded. You also have Cascais and Praia da Poça (check this post for more info).
Long stretch of white sandy beach
Now, if you want really long stretches of white sandy beaches, then you should head to Costa da Caparica. You can get there by public transport but it’s too much hassle. Honestly just rent a car or maybe try Uber? It’s absolutely stunning.
Keeping it cool
There are also the beaches after Cascais – beginning with the beautiful Guincho, and then the ones across Sintra (Praia da Adraga, Praia Grande, Maçãs…). Guincho is absolutely stunning, and usually much less crowded than all the other ones. Unfortunately there’s a reason for it: it’s really windy. Like really windy. You have to be really lucky, but if you are, then you’ll have the best beach day ever. Also good for Surfing, I hear.
Lisboa also has a very good nightlife. You can start at one of the millions of rooftops all over the city, head to one of the bar neighbourhoods (Bairro Alto or Cais do Sodré) and then head to one of the many clubs (yup, the night is long and full of… bars and clubs?). I am not much of a clubber, so I’ll leave you with my recommendations for rooftops and bars:
- Park – It’s a lovely place but it tends to get a bit overcrowded with tourists these days. My friend called it the ‘Erasmus bar‘, haha. Jokes aside, the view is still pretty awesome and worth a visit. Go just before sunset. The entrance is through a parking lot: take the lift all the way up, walk through the parked cars and you’re there.
- Rio Maravilha – lovely space, amazing decoration. Sometimes there’s live music. The rooftop is pretty cool. Also, the toilets are insane! Honestly they must be the best/scariest toilets ever. I found dinner slightly overpriced but my British friends seemed to have enjoyed it. I’d go more for drinks and the overall atmosphere rather than a proper meal.
- Pensão do Amor – this used to be a brothel but it’s been converted into a very cool bar. It gets crowded after midnight, so you may want to get there slightly before. Not too early though (I got there at 10pm with a friend and it was empty and she was totally judging my ability to pick bars in Lisbon, when all the sudden BOOM: it was packed).
- Adamastor, Miradouro de R. de Santa Catarina – this is a lovely place to hang out on a summer evening, just before sunset. It’s more like a kiosk, not really a bar, but it has a beautiful view over the city and it’s a great place to just have a couple of beers with friends. Really nice atmosphere.
- Topo Martim Moniz – I really love this one. At the top of an old shopping centre, you’ll find a very cool bar that serves great drinks. For the Gin lovers out there, I’m told that here they do it pretty good (I don’t drink Gin, so wouldn’t know. Aperol Spritz is good even if much sweeter than everywhere else).
That’s it. This is as far as I go. I am not much of a party person, so these are the ones I feel 100% confident in recommending to you. I am sure there are plenty more.
WHEN TO GO?
Spring is lovely as it isn’t too warm (although you should watch out for April showers). July and August can be particularly hot and crowded. The months of September/October are also a good option, as it’s usually still nice weather.
June is a very good month, but it is also the month of Lisboa’s festivities so there will be a lot of singing and dancing in the streets, as well as improv restaurants in the old streets of Lisboa. If you ask me,that is the perfect time to go, but it depends if that’s your thing or not. However avoid the 12th June as the whole city will be out on the streets and it’s absolute chaos.
And that’s it, but oh there’s so much more to Lisboa: Avenida da Liberdade, Marquês de Pombal, Campo Pequeno, Parque das Nações, Cristo Rei, Estrela…
If you are visiting Lisboa and have questions about other spots, feel free to contact me, using the comments section below.
For food in Lisbon, check out this post!