Lisbon is a place that I have been excited to visit for years and have narrowly missed on a couple of trips. When the opportunity came to finally visit the Portuguese capital, I jumped on it. With only a long weekend off from university, I was determined to pack as much in as possible and get the a real feel for the city. Armed with affordable Easyjet tickets from London, a camera, and a desire to leave London’s grey skies for a bit, I was on the way.
After seeing hundreds of photos online of the colourful buildings, and reading dozens of articles gushing over the city’s atmosphere, it’s safe to say that my expectations were rather high. Luckily for Lisbon, it was up for the challenge and not only met those expectations, but somehow exceeded them. Of course, a weekend is never enough in a city as vibrant and historical as Lisbon but it is a good amount of time to get a taste and see the highlights. I may or may not be already plotting a return to Portugal to spend some more time in the capital and visit more of the coast and countryside.
Hopefully this Lisbon Travel Guide will help you see the best of the capital in a weekend, avoid tourist traps, and leave Lisbon feeling reinvigorated. As always, it is written from the perspective of a student traveller, so if you’re looking for high luxury, this may not be the best place (but please feel free to read anyway [icon color=”#000000″ icon=”icon-wink” size=”11px”]), but it will cover the best things to do and general advice.
So, let’s see Lisbon!
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Tourist board website: Visit Lisboa
WHEN TO VISIT LISBON
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Portugal is blessed with decent weather through most of the year, and mostly avoids the bitter winters experienced by other European destinations. Winter temperatures are around 8ºC/15º and summer temperatures are 18º/30º, so the seasons aren’t extreme. Rain becomes a lot less frequent between March – October, which means that you have a chance at better days for exploring during these months.
Choosing the best time to visit Lisbon is a balancing act between best temperatures and avoiding crowds of tourists. The best time to explore the city is during shoulder seasons, avoiding cooler winters and the intense summers. When I visited Lisbon, it was the start of April and I was lucky to have temperatures of 23ºC and sunshine, and although the city was bustling, it wasn’t overrun with the summertime crowds.
Over-tourism [icon color=”#000000″ icon=”icon-hand” size=”14px”]: After speaking to a fair few locals in Lisbon, and seeing the writing on the wall (literally, there is graffiti throughout Alfama on the issue), the city is suffering the effects of over-tourism. If you can, try to visit during shoulder and off seasons to reduce the burden, and avoid staying in AirBNBs in the city centre where locals are being displaced. Shop local, eat local, and stay at local accommodation.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN LISBON
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STROLL AROUND ALFAMA DISTRICT
When people envisage Lisbon, the tiled buildings and narrow cobbled streets of the Alfama District are what usually come to mind. Alfama is one of Lisbon’s oldest districts and mostly survived the 1755 earthquake which destroyed most of the city. Walking through this part of town feels like being in a never-ending postcard, especially as iconic trams forge their way through narrow, vibrant streets.
There is almost no point bringing a map to Alfama as you’re guaranteed to get lost anyway, so you might as well embrace it. Wander slowly and walk through as many winding alleyways and small streets as you can. Alfama is truly a labyrinth with rewards around every corner. You will stumble upon vibrantly tiled homes, a swathe of churches and cathedrals, and jaw-dropping viewpoints. Homes of all pastel shades line the hills, decorated with pot plants and adorned with fantastic street signs and azulejos.
If all the hill walking zaps you of your energy, stop in at any of a number of small cafés and pastry shops to recharge. Life in Lisbon is at a slow and enjoyable pace, so wander slowly and soak up the atmosphere. The Alfama District gets busy, really busy, so try to walk away from the main stretches to find some peace. If it becomes too intense, there’s always the option to sit back with a beer at one of the small bars and enjoy the uninterrupted views.
VISIT HISTORICAL BELÉM
Belém is a waterside district in southwest Lisbon which has several important sites to visit. There are many symbols in Belém demonstrating Portugal’s political and military might, as well as great public spaces to enjoy. The Tower of Belém is the most iconic symbol of Belém and it had a large role in the Age of Discoveries. First built as a mode of defence for the city, the tower sits on a rocky outcrop just off shore and is a beautiful sight to behold. You can see inside the tower itself for €6. Jerónimos Monastery, a UNESCO world heritage site, is the other popular place to visit in Belém. Here, visitors can gain an appreciation for a unique style of Portuguese architecture, and learn about the Age of Discoveries as many explorers sought shelter here.
There are several ways to get to Belém. The journey is flat and there is a bicycle track which goes most of the way, so a lot of people choose to rent a bike and cycle to Belem. Hostels like Goodmorning often offer bicycle rental or even half-day bicycle tours of Belém. I only had a short time to explore Belém so caught the train. The train leaves from Lisbon in the direction of Cascais and costs about €3.00 return. The journey is only 15mins and you get off at Alves and then walk for 15mins to reach the Tower of Belem. You can also catch a tram (route 15), taxi, or Uber.
CATCH THE ROUTE 28 TRAM
For €3, you can traverse the city of Lisbon on the Route 28 tram. The traditional canary-yellow Lisbon tram rumbles its way from the southwest of the city up to the Alfama district and back down again. This particular route is well-known for winding its way through some of Lisbon’s best-known areas, so it is a great way to get your bearings. Although the views of the colourful streets are spectacular, the tram itself is an experience.
With vintage wooden interiors, the tram journey sometimes feels as though you are transported to a different era. Lisbon is a city of hills which the tram has to carefully navigate. Gravity comes into full effect on the declines and the trams manage to pick up a substantial amount of momentum. Make sure you hold on tight as the drivers have to stop and start abruptly!
Route 28 is well-known as incredibly popular with travellers. The drivers have a “take no prisoners” approach, and if the tram is full, they’re happy to shut the doors sharply in your face. If a tram looks busy but you are offered to squeeze on, take up the chance. As the driver on my tram journey said “if you want to wait for a less busy tram, I’ll see you at Christmas”. If you want the tram experience without the busyness, there are plenty of other routes throughout Lisbon – maybe try one in Bairro Alto.
You can either pay the driver directly in cash (€3.00 for a single ride) or purchase and top up a travel card from a station for a cheaper fare.
EXPLORE BAIRRO ALTO
A Lisbon Travel Guide would not be complete without urging you to wander the streets of Bairro Alto. Bairro Alto, as the name may suggest, is an elevated suburb with spectacular views over the city of Lisbon. You can brave the steep walk up or take the Bica Funicular which is as heavily graffitied as the street it climbs. Either way, once you reach the heights, you won’t want to leave for a while. To the right of the funicular there is a spectacular viewing platform at Jardim de São Pedro de Alcântara which gives uninterrupted vistas, and is a good place to rest if you didn’t chicken out and walked up the hill. With several juice carts and a café, it’s a great place to sit and relax.
Bairro Alto itself is known for having beautiful cobbled streets with colourful houses, a splattering of cafés and eateries, and plenty of Lisbon’s famous yellow trams. I enjoyed ditching the map here, like in Alfama, and just wandering around whatever areas took my interest. This approach takes you to quieter streets with a more local vibe, and helps you to get a better sense of Lisbon as a living and functioning city.
Bairro Alto is known for having great nightlife, as it is studded with local bars and restaurants which run until all hours. The typical Portuguese bars are usually quite small and offer cheap drinks and snacks. Bairro Alto has several well-known taverns for Fado music, too. Look for restaurants and taverns with the most locals to guide you to the best spots.
EAT AT TIMEOUT MARKET
TimeOut Market is located near the train station and is a large market full of various food stalls. Any type of Portuguese food you want to try can be found here, as well as plenty of options from around the world. The prices are reasonable and the market is open from 12:00 – 00:00. It can get busy and thus difficult to find a seat at times, but keep looking and eventually one will crop up. Next door to TimeOut there is a local fruit and vegetable market which is also worthwhile exploring.
FIND THE BEST SPOTS FOR SUNRISE AND SUNSET
Are you a sun seeker? Can’t bear to miss seeing the sun come up and down? Will it’s your lucky day. Covering several hills, there are plenty of top-notch vantage points for sunrise and sunset seekers. In a city of colour, beautiful rooftops, and water, there are plenty of beautiful foregrounds for a sensational experience.
BEST PLACES FOR SUNSET IN LISBON
- Miradouro de Santa Catarina
- Parque Eduardo VII
- Miradouro Santa Luzia
- Park Bar
- Miradouro da Senhora do Monte
- Miradouro do Monte Agudo
BEST PLACES FOR SUNRISE IN LISBON
- Portas del Sol
- São Pedro de Alcântara Garden in Bairro Alto
- From the water’s edge or by boat
LISTEN TO FADO MUSIC
Fado music is traditional and unique to the city of Lisbon, and its origins are traced to the early 1800s. A lot of fado music is melancholic, and it certainly has a reputation for that, even the name is theorised to come from the word “fate” or “death”. However there are plenty of fado songs which are more upbeat, it is more about the style of music than the content itself, and it is an experience to witness. Fado is thought to have originated from the port areas of Lisbon, so it is a great to go to one of these areas and hear it for yourself, such as Alfama or Bairro Alto.
There are some fado bars which serve mostly drinks and no food, and other taverns are more restaurant-based with a fado singer. Either way is a great experience. I particularly enjoyed listening to fado music in the Bairro Alto district which had several great restaurants and bars offering fado.
Make sure you respect the singer and musicians as, increasingly, it seems as though people aren’t and maybe it’s because they’re not aware. It’s important to remain quiet during the songs and give the singer your attention, to do otherwise is considered very disrespectful.
TRY PASTEIS DE NATA
If you are in Portugal you have to try a pastel de nata (or several hundred). These egg tarts with cinnamon have made their way across the world as they are commonly eaten in Portuguese colonies, and they are loved in Lisbon. There are plenty of shops throughout the city selling these delicious treats, with many claiming to be the best in the Portugal. The only solution? Try them all and make your own mind up!
TAKE A DAY TRIP TO SINTRA
A common point of conversation amongst travellers in Lisbon is whether you have visited Sintra. The municipality of Sintra lies just outside of the city of Lisbon and is well-known throughout the world for its castles, greenery, and coastline. It is a particularly wealthy part of Portugal with a number of large homes, historical buildings, and luxurious hotels. Sintra has a complex and long history as a place of royalty, religion, and artistry, and it is important to take your time and unpack its story.
It is possible to visit Sintra under your own steam and using public transport, however I visited on a day trip with Goodmorning Hostel. The convenience and experience made it completely worthwhile, and I loved being able to see more of Sintra than just popular Pena Palace. We had a fantastic group of people and hilarious guide who was able to enlighten us about the history of the area and teach us more about Portugal, it was worth it.
PLACES OF INTEREST IN SINTRA:
- Pena Palace
- Praia da Adraga
- Quinta da Regaleira
- Praia Grande
- Cabo da Roca
- Praia da Ursa
I’m hoping to write a full article on the day trip to Sintra in addition to the general Lisbon Travel Guide which is why there isn’t too much information here. When it’s ready, I’ll post it here or you can find it in the ‘Latest Posts’ section.
HAVE A DRINK AT PARK BAR
Park is the hugely popular rooftop bar in Bairro Alto which occupies the top of a multi-level carpark. Although it is busy and the drinks are pricey by Lisbon standards, it’s still affordable and the live music provides a great atmosphere. Park is a great place to catch the sunset as the bar is elevated and has near-unspoiled views toward the bridge.
To get to Park, you can either take the stairs or catch the lift to level five from the ground level. A refreshing mojito here will set you back around €7, or you can get beer and wine for a cheaper price. Park is particularly busy around sunset, so get there early to secure a good spot. Many people leave after the sunset and the bar returns to a more acceptable level of busy.
SAMPLE SOME VERDE WINE
Vinho verde is a famous Portuguese style of wine which is produced in the far North of the country. The wine is produced from less ripe green grapes, hence the name, and is more acidic than other white wines. It is usually produced 3 – 6 months after the grapes have been harvested. Most bars, restaurants and wineries will offer Verde at an affordable price so it is worthwhile trying. There are several types as you can get red, white, rosé, and sparkling.
OTHER MUST-DO LISBON ATTRACTIONS
With only a long weekend in Lisbon (and one of those days was spent in Sintra), it would’ve been impossible to see and do everything. There are plenty of other notable attractions to consider spending time at in Lisbon. Of course, I can’t endorse whether these are worthwhile or not, but they are worth considering. Some attractions I heard good things about were:
- Castelo de S. Jorge
- Santa Justa Lift
- Visit Cascais
- National Pantheon
- Belém Palace
- Lisbon Cathedral
- National Tile Museum
WHERE TO STAY
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Lisbon’s surge in popularity has also seen the city begin bursting with high-quality accommodation options for travellers of any budget. When researching accommodation for my upcoming stay in Lisbon, I was overwhelmed by how many high-rated places there were. For hostels at least, it has the highest average rating I’ve seen in a city. Safe to say, you will be able to find somewhere to meet your needs.
The best locations to consider staying in are Alfama and Bairro Alto (beautiful but you’ll have an uphill walk home), or near Restauradores and Rossio (where I stayed and loved – very central). Lisbon is a very walkable city and having a central base means more time for exploring its vibrant suburbs and a place to rest when the hills get too much.
As I mentioned, you are spoilt for choice with hostels in Lisbon. There are a plethora of near-perfectly rated hostels on offer. I chose to stay at Goodmorning Hostel at Restauradores and had an absolute blast (you can see the full review here). It had great facilities, many guest perks, great day trips to join, and the friendliest people, so I highly recommend it for you guys!
Staying in a hostel is a great idea in Lisbon as a lot of the city’s charm is best shared with others. Hostels like Goodmorning are social and well-designed for meeting other like-minded travellers with whom you can explore Lisbon’s nightlife, go for meals, and wander the streets.
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Expectedly, there are a lot of AirBNBs on offer in Lisbon. Although these can be high quality and often cheaper than hotels, it’s important to consider the impact of over-tourism when you book. This is particularly applicable if you are booking an AirBNB in central areas such as Alfama where locals are being displaced by temporary holiday accommodation.
There is an abundance of hotels in Lisbon and there are more being built every day. The hotels on offer range from budget to luxury, and fit a range of budgets. I haven’t stayed in any hotels in Lisbon, so I can’t recommend any specific ones in this Lisbon Travel Guide. However, you can find a full list of hotels on offer in the city by clicking the button below.
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GETTING TO/FROM AIRPORT
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Lisbon’s international airport is not too far from the city, just 7km, and there are several options to get you from the terminal to the city centre.
I chose to get the Aerobus to and from the city. Leaving from outside the arrivals hall, a return ticket cost €6.00 and dropped me to a stop right outside the hostel. There are two routes offered with several stops throughout the city of Lisbon. The journey took around 30minutes and the bus was never overly crowded.
On the way to the city, the service was quick and I didn’t have to wait for a bus. However, on the way back, I was waiting for almost 50 minutes for a bus to turn up (despite the advertised maximum 20 minutes wait between buses). So be aware, as this seems to be not isolated experience, and allow extra time.
UBER OR TAXI
Uber and other ride-share companies operate in Lisbon and are a reasonably affordable and efficient way to get to the airport. A one way journey with Uber cost €12 when I checked, but as always, it is subject to change. If you have more than one person, this could be the best option. Taxis are common in Lisbon and pretty cheap, it would cost between €10-€15 for a taxi to the airport.
The public transport route to the airport is the cheapest option but can take some time and changes. A ticket costs €1.40 on the metro. The airport is on the red/pink line which connects to the business district (Saldanha or São Sebastão) where it is necessary to switch trains to the blue line direction Santa Apolónia line and get off at Restauradores/Rossio. The journey takes around 45 – 50 minutes in total.
Been to Lisbon or have questions? Leave a comment below – I’d love to hear from you [icon color=”#e8b235″ icon=”icon-heart2″ size=”24px”]
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