For your first visit you need no less than two full days to enjoy the city’s major sights.
Distances are walkable not in all cases, with many steep inclines in the center. Public transport lends a significant help.
Worthy attractions: Jerónimos Monastery; Ajuda National Palace; Igreja de São Roque; Museum Medeiros e Almeida; Cathedral; Arco da Rua Augusta; Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte.
Left for another visit: Belém Tower [saw from outside only]; National Pantheon [saw from outside only]; Museu Nacional do Azulejo; Elevador de Santa Justa [saw from outside only].
Last visit: April 2019.
Quite a few people have a somewhat dismissive attitude towards Lisbon as a destination. To a degree, that is understandable: the fairly homogeneous architecture of the Portuguese capital is not very exciting and can be even called drab; there are two many pockets of town that look genuinely uncared for. But walk around and give it time, and you will find interesting corners, amazing decorative elements, and eventually you might even start to like this town.
Things to See
The central city neighborhoods all have something to offer, from defined points of interest to shopping to nice restaurants. You will undoubtedly walk through Baixa ♥♥ and Chiado ♥♥, as the more central ones, but make time for atmospheric Alfama ♥♥ (don’t be afraid to try ginja – the local homemade cherry liquor – sold by old ladies on the street intersections) or Bairro Alto ♥♥. The latter, if you are so inclined, is the prime spot for nightlife around Rua Atalaia.
For a less touristy Lisbon, walk to Parco das Flores ♥♥♥ and Parco Principe Real ♥♥. That neighborhood is just gorgeous and rather pleasing to the eye.
Most visitors to Lisbon take a tram ride to the outlying district of Belém to take a look at the only UNESCO World Heritage sites in town. Jerónimos Monastery ♥♥ is all about the incredibly elaborate and impressive Manueline cloisters, with an added bonus of providing a view into the nearby church of Santa Maria De Belém ♥ from the upper level. Entrance to the church is separate, and the only one free of charge in the complex. It should be noted that what appears as the main entrance to the monastery is the ticket line for those who do not have a Lisbon Card; it is also the entrance to the archaeological museum, which may be interesting for some; but it is not the entrance to the part of the monastery that you likely want to see.
The other part of the Belém site is the iconic Tower of Belém ♥, which we only managed to see from the outside. It sported too big of a line by the time we reached it, with no separate entrance for the Lisbon Card holders.
We also only saw from the outside another point of interest in the area: Padrão dos Descobrimentos, the monument to discoverers. I heard at least one recommendation for visiting its exposition, but that did not fit into our plans.
Somewhat away from the central part of town, Ajuda National Palace ♥ has a number of very impressive rooms, well furnished and decorated, although some spaces appear as too dark since not all chandeliers are on in the middle of a day. Plenty of information on the visitor cards in every room, explaining the artifacts and the general use of the rooms. Well worth a visit.
A museum that is located slightly off the main tourist routes, House-Museum Medeiro and Almeida ♥♥♥ is a magnificent collection of furniture and decorative arts, including gorgeous expositions of fans, clocks, porcelain, plus statuary, paintings, and other objects. Its location means that you may have the place entirely for yourself. Every single object on display has information about it on the visitor cards, so you could spend hours here reviewing its 2,000+ strong collection.
Among the places of worship, Church of São Roque ♥♥♥ stands out: its rectangular nave is surrounded by a collection of the most opulent chapels. The altar is also not bad, but it sort of gets lost in the rest of opulence. The ceiling is quite special too. There is a museum accessible for an extra fee that we did not go into.
The Lisbon Cathedral ♥ offers quite a contrast between its entirely spartan nature in the nave and gorgeous choir, with organs and painted ceiling.
The main waterfront square, Praça do Comércio ♥, is wide and airy and uniformly built up. The small beach and quay area off it did not feel like anything special, but they are certainly popular.
The Arch of Rua Augusta ♥ is the main feature on the square and it has a viewpoint at the top that offers good views over the town. Most of the way up is by elevator, with a couple of additional flights of narrow stairs afterwards. The history of the development of the plaza is depicted on one of the landings, for additional educational content.
One other popular elevated viewpoint that we left for a return visit is Elevador de Santa Justa; again, the line was simply too long for our taste.
We walked to a number of different scenic lookouts, but were only truly impressed with the highest one, Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte ♥♥, which offers sweeping views of the city. It could be very windy there, though. An oft-recommended Miradouro de Santa Luzia ♥ has lovely azulejo decorations, but not very exceptional views.
Castelo de São Jorge was not on our itinerary to begin with, and we overheard more than one guide suggesting to their clients that there was no good reason to pay an entrance fee there for basically just another angle of a perspective over the city when there are so many public viewpoints in town.
One of the most popular tourist activities in Lisbon is riding the historic tram on route 28. Unfortunately, the trams get incredibly crowded and thus hard to enjoy. We took a short ride and were underwhelmed. Unless you are lucky to get a window seat – which is nearly impossible – I doubt you will find it worth your while beyond the coincidental task of getting you from point A to point B. Ride in the early morning or skip altogether.
Regretfully, we did not avail ourselves to riding in a tuk-tuk. They are plentiful in the city center and can be hired at hourly rate as private-guide tour vehicles.
Among other points of interest that we could not fit into our itinerary were the National Museum of Azulejo, the National Pantheon, and a host of various other museums. None of them in Lisbon have worldwide fame, but a longer stay in town can surely be diversified by a variety of exhibitions all over town.
A few shopping places near Rossio could be fun stops for many. O Mundo Fantástico da Sardinha Portuguesa ♥ on Praça Dom Pedro IV, despite its tourist-trap-sounding name is quite delightful to peruse. Across the plaza to the side of the National Theater on Largo de São Domingos is the tiny A Ginjinha ♥, delightful in its own way for a quick stop to taste the cherry liquor (although some people might object to the sticky pavement near the entrance). Close by on Praça da Figueira is one of the oldest pastry shops in Portugal, Confeitaria Nacional ♥. Finally, the daily Mercado da Baixa ♥♥♥ on Praça da Figueira is among the best of its kind: souvenirs, accessories, clothing, shoes, food, and drink (not open on Sundays).
Transportation and Logistics
Lisbon is not for weak walkers. The neighborhoods may be mostly flat, but moving between them is an up-and-down exercise; the city is built on many hills – steep streets and staircases are everywhere. You will have to use public transportation – buses and trams – to get to a number of sights (e.g., Ajuda or Belém). As there are many convoluted overlapping routes that public transport takes, it is a very good idea to make use of an app such as Citymapper.
Definitely consider getting Lisboa Card ♥♥♥. It can be obtained for 24-, 48-, 72, and 96-hour periods (activated on first use, not at the moment of purchase). It includes free entry to many of Lisbon’s major sights, discounted access to others, and most importantly unlimited use of public transportation. If you decide to include a day to tour UNESCO-inscribed monasteries to the north of the city in the period of the card validity, they are covered for free as well. You can even save a small amount of money on the cost of a train ticket to Sintra, but that becomes not very useful as none of the sights in Sintra itself are covered by the card. In our case, we broke even on 72-hour cards within a day and a half. In some instances, the card also entitles you to skip the line and go directly to the entrance (worked at Jerónimos Monastery, did not work at Tower of Belém).
Places to Eat
As in any metropolitan city, the options for food are plentiful in Lisbon and well represented on TripAdvisor. By chance – or, more likely, due to prior research – all of our dinner meals in Spring of 2019 were exceptional.
Santelmo ♥♥♥ on Rua do Poco dos Negros (this is technically still Bairro Alto, but near the foot of the heights) – not big, very busy, there was a constant flow of walk-ins being turned away without reservations. Only a couple of appetizers on the menu – garlic shrimps and a traditional meat plate called pica-pau. Then, a lot of entrées; pork cheeks and octopus were both out of this world. Excellent panna cotta for desert. Our damage: €70 for two, including wine. Cash only. Reservations highly recommended.
Agulha No Palheiro ♥♥♥ at the edge of Alfama does not look like a fine dining place at a first glance, with just half a dozen tables. The approach to meals here is sharing the petiscos (small plates), with roughly 1.5 dishes per person seemingly enough. We tried sardines, a mushroom plate, and a chouriço selection; all interesting and tasty. Very pleasant friendly service; the menu is in Portuguese only but the hostess explains everything in perfect English. Our damage: €52 for two including wine. Reservations essential.
Duque Restaurant ♥♥♥ is on the slope of Chiado, close to Rossio. Tight spaces (which seem to work really well), great atmosphere, very nice food, efficient and friendly service. Duck confit and ceviche had the highest marks, and the rest was pretty good too. Our damage: €58 for two including wine. Reservations highly recommended.
A Nossa Casa ♥♥♥ on Rua Atalaia in the heart of Bairro Alto also subscribes to the “share the petiscos” approach. Great vibe, superb team service, very good food. We had octopus, mackerels, and pork cheek tacos. Our damage: €49 for two including wine. Reservations highly recommended.
A very interesting place for lunch is Time Out Market ♥ near Cais do Sodré. There are over two dozen different options in the giant food court. The place does get crowded, and getting a sliver of a table to sit at may be a quest, but the food is good and the experience is nice.
In spring of 2019, we rented an Airbnb apartment on Rua do Poco dos Negros in a multi-story building with a doorman, elevators, and a garage. A large studio with all possible amenities; large closets, large bathroom, many towels, an iron board, etc.; wine, oranges, and a couple of pastries waited for us as a welcoming gift; the pantry was stocked. Kitchen and dinette area is enclosed in glass partition, providing some separation. Terrace is private but has no privacy, looking out to many neighbors; still nice. Location is just a bit off city center, within 20 minutes of walking; tram 28 stops right in front of the building. The area is on relatively low elevation; you may enjoy the fact that if you choose to walk home after a dinner in Bairro Alto or other central areas, the last leg will be downhill.