People often compare Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, with San Francisco. Both cities are hilly, dotted with colourful houses, known for their seafood, and have a famous cable car. Lisbon even has a bridge that looks like the famous Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. They can’t be compared in size though.
Planning a trip to the San Francisco of Europe? Keep reading to find out more about what to do in Lisbon.
Note that we visited Lisbon in November 2016.
Explore Lisbon on foot
On your own
What we consider one of the most fun things to do when visiting a new city is simply wandering around, exploring the streets and soak up the vibe. Lisbon is the perfect city for that. There are colorful houses everywhere, impressive churches and other sights to photograph, and small streets to get lost in. Our wanderings are not entirely random though. We let ourselves be guided by geocaches that are hidden throughout the city (and the rest of the world). It takes you to some gorgeous places, like the National Pantheon, known as Igreja (Church) de Santa Engrácia in Portuguese, and the beautiful purple courtyard of the Monastery of Sao Vicente de Fora. (More on that later.)
We didn’t have to go far from our guest house to see impressive buildings though. The famous Lisbon Cathedral, or Sé Catedral de Lisboa, was just outside our door. The place to be for a typical Lisbon photo: the iconic yellow cable car (Tram 28E) with the Sé in the background.
Another major tourist attraction in Lisbon is Commerce Square, or Praça do Comércio. Situated on the edge of the Tagus River, it used to be to gateway to Lisbon, as everyone and everything arrived here by boat. Before the entire square was destroyed by an earthquake, it was called the Palace Yard, with the Royal Palace on the western side. Now, the square is surrounded by tourist traps disguised as cosy cafés and unique museums. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful square on a stunning location.
Another area in Lisbon you should explore on your own is Alfama. It’s the oldest district in Lisbon, spreading out southeast of the Sao Jorge Castle. It used to be the upperclass part of town, but after the earthquakes destroyed nearly everything, it’s now a poor part of Lisbon. It’s beautiful though, and feels authentic, with high buildings flanking narrow streets.
Baixa and Chiado, central Lisbon, are the busiest and more touristic parts of the city. Here you can see the change of the National Guard at 11:00 in the northern corner of Largo do Carmo. It’s pretty funny, as they don’t take themselves too seriously. Pay attention and make sure you don’t miss it though, as it’s over in 5 seconds.
Did you know “Largo” means large in Portuguese? It’s used for spots that are larger than a street, but nog large enough to be a square.
With a Free Lisbon Walking Tour
If you love exploring a city on foot, but like some more information on what you’re seeing, you should take a walking tour. We went with the Lisbon Chill-Out Free Tour, one of several walking tours on offer in Lisbon. They pride themselves on their locally born and raised guides that give tip based city tours of Lisbon. There are 2 English tours a day, both starting at the Praça Luís de Camões, one of the many city squares in Lisbon. There’s no need to make a reservation, unless you’re a group of over 4 people. Just show up, wear shoes that you can walk on for 4 hours, and bring water and a snack.
Nuno was our guide for the day, and we loved listening to him passionately tell about his home town. He took us, a group of about 15 people, through the different districts of Lisbon, from Bairro Alto, via Chiado to Alfama. He told us about the history of Lisbon, from the thriving years as a trading hub to the destruction brought by the earthquakes. He also gave tips on where to eat and party, and topped it all off with some fun facts.
We loved that Nuno asked us about our interests before starting the tour, so he could adjust his focus. It gave the walking tour more of a the personal atmosphere. Nuno walked and talked with us for nearly 4 hours, ending the walking tour with a thank you. He mentioned the tour was tip based, but said nothing about the average amount people pay. You’re free to give him as much as you think is honest, even if that’s nothing. We gave him €20, but saw others give him as little as €2. It’s totally up to you. Just be considerate.
View Lisbon from every one of the 7 hills
Lisbon is located amid and atop of 7 hills, providing plenty of stunning viewpoints. And if there’s something you definitely should do in Lisbon, it’s visiting plenty of these for a unique view on this colorful city. We did, and our favourite miradouro (Portuguese for viewpoint) is Miradouro Sao Pedro de Alcantara. It has a little garden with fountains, street musicians and a great view on the Sao Jorge Castle. During sunset, you won’t see the sun, but you will see a shadow fall over the city. Pretty impressive as well!
Across from Miradouro Sao Pedro de Alcantara there’s Miradouro Castelo Sao Jorge. This is the only one of the viewpoints that require an entrance fee. The castle is pretty impressive, but it doesn’t get any more spectacular up close. The view is stunning, but maybe not worth the €8.50 you have to pay to see it. The other miradouros are equally marvellous and free.
If you are willing to pay for a view over Lisbon, we’d recommend climbing up the Monastery of Sao Vicente de Fora. For €5 per person you’ll be rewarded with an amazing 360° panoramic view of Lisbon. If you have a little extra time on your hands here, you can wander through the monastery as well. It’s filled with relics and paintings and beneath it, there’s a cistern, a water reservoir for rain water. Cool, but a little creepy too.
Enjoy the Lisbon sunset
There’s one miradouro in Lisbon that’s supposed to be the perfect sunset viewpoint: Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte. From here, you can see all the major Lisbon landmarks, like the Sao Jorge Castle, the 25 de Abril Bridge, and the statue of Cristo-Rei, ánd the sunset. Bonus: you can take the famous Tram 28E up there, 2 birds with 1 stone! We tried, but had to wait extremely long for Tram 28E and arrived too late to see the setting sun. We did see some beautiful sunset colours before darkness fell.
Another popular spot to watch the sunset is along the Tagus River, near the Commerce Square. People sit on the cobblestones along the water, talking and enjoying the drinks they got from the refreshment carts that are spread along the river. We had an amazing sunset and the moon was stunning!
Most people agree that seafood is the number one thing you should eat when in Lisbon. And what better spot to do so than the restaurant that was tried and tested by Anthony Bourdain himself? Cervejaria Ramiro, a seafood restaurant established in the 1950’s, is said to be the best in town. If you’re visiting in the summer, be prepared to wait in line, a huge line.
I have more of a sweet tooth though, and would say you can’t leave Lisbon without trying Pasteis de Nata. A Pastel de Nata is a small custard tart, made up of a crispy pastry bottom filled with a rich egg custard. I don’t want to set excessively high expectations, but they’re heavenly! You can get them at any bakery in Lisbon, but if you want to taste the original one, you’ll have to head to Belém. (More on that later.)
Are you more of a drinks person? No worries, Lisbon has a typical drink too: ginjinha, a sour cherry liquor. It typically has an alcohol percentage between 16 and 20%, but it doesn’t taste very strong. Nuno, our Lisbon Chill-Out Free Tour guide, took us to Doce Fama, a tiny café in Alfama, to try one. The owner brews his ginjinha himself, which is illegal. (Sht, don’t tell, go taste!) Usually it’s served as a shot, often in an edible chocolate cup. At Doce Fama we got more than a shot for just €1. It tasted very sweet. It got me longing for another sweet treat. Yup, we had our first Pastel de Nata here!
Remember me saying that the Commerce Square is surrounded by tourist traps? That’s what Nuno said, but he immediately added there’s one exception: the Wine Tasting Room. This unique setting allows you to taste different Portuguese wines on your own time. The room is pretty impressive, with thousands of bottles of wine covering the walls.
How does it work, you wonder? Well, there are basically 2 “vending machines” serving a selection of red, white, rosé and port wines. With a card you buy from the lady at the desk, you can tap 5 ml, 10 ml, or 15 ml of the wine of your choice. There’s a €1 deposit for the card and you have to add a minimum of €3 credit per person on it. There’s free water to clean your palette and a toilet to empty your bladder in between the tasting. I’m not sure how much we tasted or spent, but it was a pretty good deal! Too bad there isn’t any information about the wine on the labels, just some general information about the region.
Experience Lisbon like a local
Looking for things to do in Lisbon that the locals might do too? Well, the ultimate Lisbon experience can be found in a Fado bar. Fado is a Portuguese music genre, charactarized by its melancholy. On a beautiful night in Lisbon, we walked into a random bar for a Fado experience: Tasca Do Chico. It’s a tiny bar with live Fado music. The place was packed, and it was hot inside, but we got ourselves a spot at the bar, very close to the singer. The white wine was no good, but the live music was quite something: a fancy old lady sang (we didn’t understand a word, it was Portuguese), and 2 young guys were playing something that looks like a guitar. They played the entire night, but every 20 minutes they took a break. Then was the time to get a drink, leave or enter the bar, or use the restroom. It was quite the show!
If you prefer a slightly more modern take on the Lisbon nightlife, you should head to Time Out Market. It’s a big, but cosy market hall, where locals and tourists come together for a fun night out. Lots of food stalls, a couple of bars and some shops surround a big central space that’s filled with tables and chairs. Except for one spot: the dance floor. Both times we were there, the place was filled with people enjoying dinner and a glass of wine, before taking it to the dance floor. Food options range from typically Portuguese dishes to pizza and sushi, something for everyone. For concerts and workshops, we recommend checking out the calendar on the Time Out Market website.
We’ve had the night life, what about during the day? Well, every Tuesday and Saturday there’s a big flea market near the Monastery of Sao Vicente de Fora. I love markets, so we wandered around for about an hour. There’s lots of antique(s and) garbage, but music, jewellery, collectibles, and handicrafts as well. We left with some nice finds!
If the weather’s not that great (or even when it is), you should try solving an escape room. We found an awesome one, right down the street from our guest house: Lisbon Escape Game. It was one of our favourite things to do in Lisbon! At the time of our visit they had just one escape room: The Spy Room. Now they have a second: The Mistress. It was hands down the coolest escape room we’ve done so far! Definitely worth the €50 we paid for it. For reservations and up-to-date prices, we refer to their website.
Wondering what the hell an escape room is? Check out our post about trying to solve an escape room in George Town, Malaysia.
When you’re wandering through Lisbon, you’ll pass lots of typical souvenir shops selling magnets, keychains, cards, and tiles. However, if you’re looking for a more authentic souvenir, head to one of the A Vida Portuguesa shops. They only sell old, genuine Portuguese products that stood the test of time. The products are all created and manufactured in Portugal, handed down through generations, and retained their original packaging. You can find anything here: from soap to cookies, from alcohol to toys, even baking tools and plaids. Even if you don’t plan to buy anything, this shop is worth a visit!
A tasty (half) day trip from Lisbon: Belém
Like I mentioned before, to taste the original Pasteis de Nata, the Pasteis de Belém, you should head to Belém. It’s only a 30 minute tram ride (Tram 15E) away from Commerce Square and definitely a must do in Lisbon. We got off at Altignio, a couple of stops before everyone else, to do some geocaching.
We walked along the water to the Padrao dos Descobrimentos, meaning Discoveries Monument. It’s an impressive monument, right along the Tagus River. It was originally erected as part of the Portuguese World Exhibition in 1940, demolished, and rebuilt in 1960. It honors the Infante, who discovered the sea routes and started the Portuguese overseas expansion from that very spot. Apparently it has a viewpoint, auditorium and exhibition hall now, but these weren’t accessible due to the renovation works.
Next stop was Pasteis de Belém for lunch. It’s a very popular spot, both with tourists and locals, so there will be a queue outside the entrance. That one’s for takeout only though, so feel free to pass them by to go sit at one of the hundreds of tables inside or on the terrace. It’s really huge inside, with rooms and rooms of tables. We had a toastie and a sandwich, but hands down the best part of our lunch were the Pasteis de Belém (€1.05 each) as they’re called here.
Our tummies were filled and we continued our tour through Belém to the Jeronimos Monastery, or Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. The construction of this impressive building started over 500 years ago and took 100 years to complete. There were a lot of tourist busses spewing visitors and tons of vendors selling selfie sticks. I don’t know a lot about this monastery, but I do know the monks held the original recipe of the Pasteis de Belém. They missed the French pastries, tried to recreate them and came up with Pasteis de Belém. When the monastery was in need of money, they sold these and eventually sold the recipe to a nearby sugar refinery that became the Pasteis de Belém shop.
We didn’t enter the Jeronimos Monastery, but instead continued along the cultural centre, a graffiti and garbage artwork, before turning into some small streets to head back to the water. Searching for some more geocaches on the way, we passed the Combatant's Monument, or Monumento aos Combatentes do Ultramar. It’s a beautiful war memorial, dedicated to soldiers of the Portuguese army who died during the Overseas War.
About 3 hours after we arrived in Belém, we ended our visit at the Belém Tower, or Torre de Belém. This impressive fortified tower was built over 500 years ago, as part of the Tagus estuary defence system, and is now a Portuguese icon. For a small fee (€6 per person), you can climb the Belém Tower. We didn’t. It was pretty cosy on the small square surrounding the tower, with street musicians and some stalls selling drinks and snacks. Don’t worry, you can buy a selfie stick here too.
A beautiful day trip from Lisbon: Sintra
Another, more lengthy must-do day trip from Lisbon is Sintra. Only a 45 minute train ride away from Lisbon, Sintra is UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Landscape, filled with panoramas and palaces. They have a famous local pastry as well: Travesseiros de Sintra, puff pastries filled with egg and almond cream. Soooo good!
We loved our visit to Lisbon. We loved the colorful houses, the gorgeous views, and the delicious Pasteis de Nata. It’s a really charming city and chances are we’ll be back some day. Even if just to try the new escape room by Lisbon Escape Game. There are a bunch of fun things to do in Lisbon, but we really loved that escape room, can you tell? There’s another must-do day trip we missed as well: Cascais. Have you been?
Lisbon – Good to know
To end our post about what to do in Lisbon, we’ve summed up a couple of things you should know when you visit this charming city:
- Traffic in Lisbon is pretty messy, so try to stay out of it.
- Instead, use public transport. We had a reusable Viva Viagem Card (€0.50) which can be charged with different kinds of tickets and is valid on the metro, tram, train, and bus.
- Don’t take the old yellow Tram 28E when you’re in a hurry and be prepared to be shaken (not stirred).
- Lisbon is hilly, you’ll be walking uphill a lot.
- Watch out for the slippery small white cobblestones.
- All but 2 fountains in Lisbon are drinking water. It’s clearly signposted which aren’t.
- All museums are closed on Mondays.
Our trip to Lisbon in short
Time? 5 days
Cost? €963.98, including everything: plane tickets, transportation, accommodation, food and drinks, activities and an expensive birthday dinner for Birthe
Highlights? Pasteis de Nata, Miradouro Sao Pedro de Alcantara, Lisbon Escape Game, Sintra
Good to know? Lisbon is hilly, you’ll be walking uphill a lot
Have you been to Lisbon yet, or is it still on your bucket list? What did you do in Lisbon? Did we miss some beautiful sights or awesome activities? We’d love to read about your experience in the comments!
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