Lisbon is an absolute dream to explore and honestly I can not compare it to any other European capital. You could stay for weeks and it would still not be enough time to discover all its hidden secrets. As a start, here’s my ideas on 10 things you can’t miss on your first trip to Lisbon.
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Getting around Lisbon is relatively easy. You can walk almost every where in the city center. Lisbon does have a lot of hills, so it might be tiring for some travelers. That is where the wonderful tram system comes in. The loop of tram 28 will take you through the narrow hilly streets of Alfama right to some of the best views of the city. Lisbon has a great metro and bus system too and most of the transport (and some sights) can be accessed with the Lisboa Card. You can also do the hop-on-hop-off bus tours if that’s your fancy.
Lose yourself in the Alfama district
With its narrow, winding cobblestoned roads, perched on a hill with spectacular views of the city, a wander in this neighbourhood is a must. Pick up some souvenirs from the traditional craft shops that line the street or watch a performance of fado in an authentic fado house. The maze of paths will eventually lead you to Castle Sao Jorge or you’ll find yourself at the bottom of the hill facing the Romanesque Sé Cathedral that still stands the test of time.
Top tip: Go early before the heat of the day becomes too intimidating and plan your transportation (see tram 28 below) beforehand if you’re not keen to hike the incline or hire a tuk tuk. Otherwise hike from Santa Apolina station to the top.
Seek breath-taking views of the city
Castello Sao George is Alfama’s castle and you can walk the walls to take in spectacular views of the city, the Tagus river and even the ocean. The miradouro are lookout/viewpoints and the best places to catch the sunset with an ice-cream or drink in hand. Miradouro de Santa Catherina is in the backstreets of the Bairro Alto. Miradouro de Santa Luzia you can find if you follow the tram route from the Baixa to Alfama. Miradouro das Portas do Sol is on the 28 tram route. If you’re looking for a less crowded viewpoint Miradouro da Graça would be the one to visit. The popular Miradoura de Sao Pedro de Alcantara has the best view of Rossio square. The highest of them all, Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte, is a popular spot for lovers and not very crowed.
Top tip: There’s some steep climbs to some of the viewpoints. Hire a tuk tuk if you don’t have the energy. I found some of the great Portuguese cafes and shops in the Graça district after visiting Miradouro da Graça.
Ride a vintage tram
You’ll end up on a tram one way or another in Lisbon, it’s a easy way to get around. The vintage trams, especially nr. 28, runs a perfect sightseeing loop through the Alfama district and centre of town. Catch it from Martim Moniz square and jump off when you’re on top of the mountain to take in the views.
Top tip: The vintage trams are popular with tourists and they are beyond cramped. Be vigilant for pick-pockets and if you tend to get anxious in small spaces with many, many, human bodies its best to avoid. Martim Moniz is the starting point of the route so the lines are long. I found it better to wait in line and climb into an empty tram that trying to get into an over-full tram later on the route.
Get lost in the streets of the Baixa and Bairro Alto
I loved walking around the Baixa. You’ll find elaborate tiled squares with statues of various important historical figures around every corner. The theatre district of Chiado has a certain charm to it and I found it fascinating to explore, shop and discover the true character of Lisbon. The Bairro Alto sits higher that the Baixa and really comes alive at night with bars and cafes spilling onto the street.
Top tip: I found taking the metro to Baixa Chiado (blue and green line) station to drop me in the centre of the action. Otherwise take the metro (green line) to Rossio station. Visit restaurant Bonjardim for excellent Piri Piri chicken.
Views from Elevador de Santa Justa
The Santa Justa lift is an extraoridinary structure built in 1902 to link the lowest and highest (Bairro Alto) parts of the city centre. It was built by an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel (Eiffel tower) with decorative iron work that will take your breath away. It provides a great view of the city and Rossio square.
Top tip: If you use the Lisboa Card during your stay in Lisbon it includes a free ride on the Santa Justa elevator. The line is always long but moves quite quickly. The 24 hour Viva Viagem card also includes a free ride to the top.
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Explore the roofless church Convento do Carmo
Once a gothic church and convent, the Carmo ruins was one of my favourite places in Lisbon. For some reason I did not see any images of it when I did my trip research and I was beyond surprised when we came across it during our exploration of the Baixa. The church was devastated by the famous earthquake of 1755 and never rebuilt, leaving behind only its spine.
Top tip: Go late afternoon when the crowds are less, and the light is perfect to take gazillions of gorgeous photos. Stop by one of the many cafes nearby for a drink afterwards (Café A Brasiliera is not far away).
Praça do Comercio
This beautiful square faces the waterfront and was part of the royal palace that was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. The statue of King José I stands proudly in front of a magnificent arch which is a great portal to start exploring the Baixa and Rua Augusta, the main shopping street. I really love the atmosphere the square creates even if it overflows with tourists during the day. It’s also a great spot to sit next to the water and take in the sunset.
Top tip: Go early for the best pictures when not so many people are around. If you’ve heard about Lisbon’s pink street, a street filled with bars and clubs, it’s a short walk away from the Comercio Square in the direction of Cais do Sodre train station.
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Eat your heart out at Mercado de Ribeira
We ate here almost every single day. We passed the market on our way back to our accommodation so we really had *no choice* you see? Yes, it’s filled with tourists but it’s a space that showcases some of the best of Lisboan cuisine. There are even some Michelin starred restaurants that has stalls at the market and you can have a gourmet meal with a drink and dessert for less than 12euro.
Top tip: Don’t get flustered by the crowd. There’s always a space to squeeze in and a great way to make new friends. Check out the lunch specials.
A morning spent in the neighbourhood of Belem, a 20-minute tram ride from Lisbon’s centre is a must. The area boasts with some of the most impressive landmarks in Lisbon. Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (monastery Jeronimos) was a landmark suggested by one of the locals I met as a ‘must see’ and I agree, the architecture is stunning. Just across the road and after a battle with the queues grab your fill of the infamous custard tart Pasteis de Belem (which is not the same as pasteis de nata). Then walk off all the sugar and caffeine on your way to the Discoveries Monument and Torre de Belem. Read my full guide on what to see and do in Belem here.
Top tip: If you want to avoid queues at Pasteis de Belem, turn up early morning on a Monday when the monastery is closed and there are less tourists around. Tourist busses to the Discoveries Monument starts pouring in after 10h.
Take a trip to the beaches of Cascais
The greater Lisbon has many great beach spots, but my favourite was an escape from the busy city to lounge around on Cascais beach and eat loads of ice cream and seafood.
Top tip: There is a direct train from Cais do Sodre, if you stay near the station its easy access.
These are just a few things I enjoyed on my trip to Lisbon. If you are staying longer be sure to check out the shopping options, local cuisine, galleries, museums (Gulbenkian; Tile museum!) and maybe even squeeze in a day trip to the popular Sintra. If you are interested in the modern side of Lisbon, check out the grand Lisbon Oriente station (red line) with its lovely tile work and the Park of Nations.
Where I stayed: Lisbon Check-In Guest House
What do you enjoy most about the stunning Portuguese capital?
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Guess what! This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.
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