Whistlestop Lisbon – What I saw and what I missed in Lisbon Portugal
The capital city of Portugal, Lisbon arguably should be the first stop for anyone visiting the country. Rich in architecture, food, music and the arts, Lisbon is a vibrant place with great nightlife and plenty to see during the day. It’s historically important with two UNESCO sites – and is one of the oldest cities in the world, predating other European capitals such as London, Paris and Rome by centuries. Somehow, despite ticking all my personal boxes, it’s a place where I really haven’t spent enough time yet.
Table of Contents
First Impressions of Lisbon:
Despite a long term love affair with Portugal, my relationship with Lisbon has been brief, if sweet. Arriving on my 30th birthday, a chance encounter with Tequila Slammers for the first time meant I really have no recollection of the city at all. And I haven’t been back since.
When the itinerary for the celebratory TAP wine tour of the Alentejo arrived I was thrilled to find that I had half a day of downtime to wander around and explore. But, it was all done at short notice and I had little time to plan what to do in Lisbon. That said, I like slow travel – that opportunity to just walk and observe to start – rather than a tick box list of sights to rush through. And, walking around is exactly what I did. I came back realising how much there was to see and how little I’d actually managed. For that reason, I’ve asked some of my favourite travel bloggers to give me their own first-hand recommendations. Now I know that next time I’ll be better prepared!
I started exploring by walking down the main street, Avenida da Liberdade which bisects Lisbon, window shopping as I went and ended up at Praça do Comércio the large square which leads down to the Tagus river. The square is still commonly known as Terreiro do Paço because it was the location of the Paços da Ribeira (the main palace of the Kings of Portugal) until it was destroyed by the great 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Despite the lack of palace, it’s still a stunning space and a great place to get a feel for Lisbon life. And the sun was shining!
From there I turned right to walk along the banks of the Tagus. I was tempted by the river cruises, but not entirely sure they’d make the best use of my limited time. Instead I just wandered along, people watching and sipping on a fresh lemonade.
Eventually, I found my way to the Timeout Market which is opposite the railway station. It’s a collection of Portuguese food shops and bars. A great place if you are looking for an introduction to Portuguese cuisine – and a little bit fatal if you are trying to avoid overindulging in Pastéis de Nata. I DID refrain, but only on the basis that I’d already spotted where I wanted to eat dinner that evening.
Walking back, I saw some of the places that my fellow writers have explored in more depth. The Bairro Alto is a part of the City where I’d happily return. Steep cobbled streets lead to hidden squares, stunning churches and fabulous views across the city.
I spotted the Bica Funicular though I had no idea what it was at the time and marvelled at the views from the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara. It’s a bohemian and lively area with quirky shops and bars – not unlike the gothic district of Barcelona.
And I stopped in the Praça de São Paulo to admire the beautiful Church.
What did I miss though? Well, quite a lot! Perhaps the most obvious omission was not having time to visit the castle – though I did spot it from a distance. And there’s a lot more to discover too.
Castelo de S. Jorge:
Laura from What’s Hot?
The Castelo de S Jorge is a fortress built during the Moorish period and dates back to the 11th century. Unlike many European castles, this one was never meant to house a noble family, it was intended to house the military. Only in the case of a siege was it intended to open its doors to the elite of Lisbon. As such, there aren’t gilded rooms and chambers to explore inside the original castle, but you can wander around inside the magnificent walls and learn about Lisbon’s Moorish, Christian and military history.
The remains you see today were rediscovered in the late 1930s and are made up of the original Moorish castle and the ruins of the former royal palace. In addition, you can visit the permanent exhibition which introduces you to the various cultures and lifestyles which contributed to Lisbon today, focussing on the Moorish period. There’s also a camera obscura, which provides 360 detailed views of the city in real time as well as a stunning viewpoint from your place up atop a hill.
The castle is open 7 days a week and each day they run free guided tours in English, which last around 1.5 hours. This will guide you through the history of Lisbon from the 7th century to today! As such, the castle should be top of your list of things to do in Lisbon if you’re interested in history.
Anisa from Two Traveling Texans
Jeronimos Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Belem Tower located in the Lisbon’s Belem neighbourhood. The monastery is one of the best examples of Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline style. With its many intricate details, it is not surprising it took nearly 100 years to be completed. The Monastery opened in 1601 and was the home of the monks of the Order of St Jerome until the order was dissolved in 1833. Then, the monastery became a school and orphanage until about 1940.
Before going inside, take some time to admire the gardens. Then, go inside to see the Cloisters. Be sure to peek into the confessionals and go upstairs for a better view.
After you have had time to appreciate the Cloisters, visit the Church of Santa Maria de Belém which is connected to Jeronimos Monastery. On the ground floor level, you can find the ornate tombs of some important Portuguese figures from history including King Manual I, Vasco da Gama (an explorer), and Luís de Camões (poet).
The Monastery is popular so I suggest you buy a combined ticket for the Belém Tower and Jeronimos Monastery to skip the line at one attraction.
Tower of Belém
Verislav from Global Castaway
Just like Paris has its Eiffel Tower and London has Big Ben, Lisbon is home to its own trademark symbol – The Tower of Belém. Located on the northern bank of the Tagus River in the civil parish of Santa Maria de Belém, the tower is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 and a favourite place for both locals and tourists.
Built between 1514 and 1520, the Belém Tower used to guard the entrance to Lisbon’s harbour, and it was used as a starting point for many of the voyages during the Age of Discovery in Portugal.
If you want to visit the Belém Tower, the best time to do it is at sunset. Get yourself a pack of Pasteis de Belém, and enjoy nature’s best spectacle in the park surrounding the tower.
The easiest way to get to the tower is via 15E tram from Praça da Figueira to Algés (ticket costs €2.90). A single entrance to the tower would set you back €6, but it’s free every Sunday till 2 PM.
Tip: If you want to go inside the tower but you don’t want to wait the long line, get a combo ticket (€12) from the nearby Archeological Museum. You’re going to save yourself an hour-long wait under the merciless Portuguese sun.
Check out Global Castaway’s Lisbon guide for more tips & tricks.
Azulejos in the Bairro Alto:
Sylvia from Wapiti Travel
Lisbon is a charming city. Its warren of small cobblestone streets and the squeaking iconic yellow trams draw more tourists to the capital city every year. A visit to Lisbon may indeed feel like a flashback into time. The city has done such a good job in preserving its cultural heritage that you don’t need a plan to see impressive historical buildings, monuments and yes, even elevators. They’re just literally all around you.
Something you may not spot at first is the Azulejos, traditional painted tin-glazed ceramic tilework. The tiles can be seen all over Lisbon both in the interior and exterior of churches and palaces and even some ordinary houses that used to belong to well-off families.
The tiles were originally used to keep the temperature cool in the houses. Over the years one began to spend more time on the decorations. These days the tiles are solely used for their ornamental art. Restaurants, bars, railway stations and even subway stations are decorated with Azulejos.
The Bairro Alto district houses many decorated houses and you should certainly head to the famous house at Campo de Santa Clara 124. The modern variant of the classic blue tiles can be found in the subway stations of Parque can Campo Pequeno. Once you start noticing them you will be amazed by how many there are!
The LX Factory:
Allison from Eternal Arrival
If you’re travelling to Lisbon, you shouldn’t skip a visit to LX Factory. This former fabric production factory was once a major player in Lisbon’s economy in the 19th century, but since fell into disuse and abandonment. It was revived in 2008, and LX Factory is now a sprawling 23,000-square-meter complex full of funky art galleries, cool bookstores, street art, innovative restaurants, and hip coffee shops. While there are several places worth exploring at LX Factory, here is what I think the can’t-miss spots are in this large complex that is one of the best Lisbon hidden gems.
Browse for a new book to take home at Ler Devagar, one of the most beautiful bookstores in Portugal. Get your caffeine fix at Slow Coffee House for speciality coffee in a hip environment. Catch the sunset at the fourth-floor restaurant, Rio Maravilha, for Brazilian cocktails with a great view over Lisbon. Finally, for dinner, hit up 1300 Taberna for innovative Portuguese cuisine done perfectly in a trendy setting.
The Carmo Convent:
Bec and Mark from Wyld Family Travel
One thing you will notice on a trip to Lisbon is the ruins of Carmo Convent which dominate the skyline from Rossio square. We know so many people who visit Lisbon and never go up to see what is there. If you don’t visit Carmo Convent you are missing a beautiful and unique piece of Lisbon’s history.
Carmo Convent was damaged in the earthquake of 1755 where much of Lisbon was burnt to the ground afterwards. You can see the effect the fire had on the convent with some of the walls still blackened. It was decided that instead of tearing down the Cathedral it would be preserved as a reminder of that day.
As you stand in the centre and marvel at the giant arches, the naive and the carvings on the walls you can not help but wonder how amazing it would have been back in its time. You feel so small and open to the elements which is a strange feeling to have in a church as the sounds from the streets pour in.
At the convent is also a museum. Located at the back of the cathedral where the altar would have been you will find a small but very interesting museum. There are many artefacts there including two South American mummies and some shrunken heads that were well preserved and on display behind glass. There are many Portuguese artefacts with coins, sculptures and books as well as the tomb of King Ferdinand I. If you are lucky the museum may be holding a visiting exhibition when you are there so a visit is a must!
Cristo Rei Viewpoint:
Maria and Rui from Two Find a Way
The fact that Lisbon is the city of the seven hills also makes it the city of viewpoints. There are plenty of beautiful belvederes spread around the city, and never-ending locations to see the sun set (or rise, if you’re up to it) over the city.
What many people don’t know is that to get one of the most beautiful views of the city, you actually need to get out of Lisbon for a bit. But don’t worry, it’s not too far! You just need to cross the Tagus river to get to Almada, where you’ll find the iconic Cristo Rei statue. The monument doubles as a stunning Belvedere. From here you can see almost all of Lisbon, from Belém to Baixa, the downtown neighbourhood. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful viewpoints in Portugal, and one you can’t miss when you’re in Lisbon.
The statue itself dates back to the 1950s and serves as a viewing platform, from where you can admire both sides of the river. To get to the top you need to pay 5€, but if your budget is tight, you can marvel at the view from the free Belvedere below.
There’s more to do in Almada, and the Cacilhas area is especially famous for its old charm and delicious seafood restaurants.
James from Portugalist
Fado is a unique genre of Portuguese music that’s typical to both Lisbon and Coimbra – although the Lisbon style tends to be more popular than the Coimbra style – and seeing a fado show is an absolute “must do” when you come to Lisbon.
It’s hard to compare fado to any other genre of music. The lyrics are similar to the blues, and usually focus on sad and melancholy themes that encompass the Portuguese idea of saudade, but the performance of fado is more like listening to an opera singer than a blues singer.
There are fado houses throughout Lisbon, especially in Lisbon’s Alfama neighbourhood but also in the Bairro Alto and other parts of the city, and it can be difficult to know which fado house to go to. Thankfully, the houses’ reputation for food makes that easier: fado houses that offer dinner and a show are generally known to have terrible food and are usually just tourist traps. Instead of going to one of these shows, look out for fado houses – like A Tasca do Chico in Alfama – that allow you to watch a performance and order drinks rather than an entire meal.
Pastéis de Belém
Clemens from Travellers Archive
No trip to Lisbon without trying the delicious and very popular Portuguese tarts called Pastéis de Nata. Although you can actually get them at almost every street corner, it tastes best in a very specific confectionery. The best and most popular Pastéis de Nata is probably the one you get in the Confeitaria Pastéis de Belém in the Lisbon district of the same name, Belém, just outside the city centre. And, the drive on the always overcrowded Tram 15 E from Praça do Comércio to Belém is definitely worth it. The Confeitaria Pastéis de Belém is listed in every guidebook. Each day dozens of people wait inside and outside the building to grab one of 400 indoor seats and taste the divine custard tarts.
Our recommendation: If you want to enjoy the sun and the sea, you should queue up at the separate pick-up queue and buy the delicious pies to take away. And by the way, the best thing is that at Pastéis de Belém you can even see how the treats are made – by hand of course!
Where to eat and drink in Lisbon:
Michelle from Greedy Gourmet
Lisbon has my highest recommendation for gourmet getaways. Here are five of the top picks for travellers going to Lisbon.
- Café Nicola is one of Lisbon’s best-known cafes, with a history going back to 1929. Enjoy one of the many house specialities such as Bife à Nicola in the beautiful art deco dining room.
- Restorante Ponto Final is located in a rundown looking part of Lisbon’s harbour and best accessed via a short ferry ride. Enjoy traditional Portuguese food on the terrace while taking in the breath-taking view of downtown Lisbon and the river Tagus.
- Go to Pastelaria Versailles in the city centre and marvel at the selection of patisserie. The café itself is worth noticing for its belle époque interior.
- Being so close to the Atlantic Ocean, Lisbon is the city to enjoy good fish and seafood. Sea Me is a modern, urban looking place with the highest quality seafood you can imagine. Lobsters, fresh tuna, and oysters, they have it all. A reservation is highly recommended for this popular seafood hot spot!
- Taberna da Rua das Flores is a very down to earth local tavern serving up excellent local wine and delicious pestiscos. The Portuguese answer to tapas. Go in the afternoon and endure the waiting time if you have to, as the small bar gets very crowded at night.
- Let’s not forget the drinks! For the best local drinks, visit the authentic Ginjinha Sem Rival bar, where you’ll have the opportunity to taste ginjinha (the drink of choice in Lisbon).
For more inspiration on what to see and do in Lisbon, have a look at my travel guide here. https://www.greedygourmet.com/travel-writing/portugal/a-weekend-in-lisbon/
It’s quite obvious to me that I need to go back. Apart from all the wonderful things to see and do, I already know the food is fabulous but now I have MORE places to visit.
How about a plate of traditional Bacalao at Ribadouro – a seafood restaurant on the Avenida da Liberdade close to where I was staying. I’m impressed by how Lisbon seems to have preserved their Portuguese heritage without becoming in the least bit stuffy or boring. It’s a city that should please everyone – with plenty of culture, heritage and excellent food but with a lively nightlife and great vibe too.
If you are looking for more help planning what to do in Lisbon, why not check this fabulous 3 day Lisbon Itinerary
Lisbon Fact Box:
I flew to Lisbon with TAP Air Portugal. TAP Air Portugal flies direct from London City Airport, Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon up to 12 times a day, prices start at £83 return including all taxes and surcharges.
For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0345 601 0932
I stayed at Hotel Lisboa, a charming and well-managed modern hotel just off the Avenida da Liberdade
For more information about Lisbon, please contact the Tourist Office
For more about visiting Portugal, please contact Visit Portugal
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