Quite a few people have a somewhat dismissive attitude towards Lisboa 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 too many pockets of town that look genuinely uncared for. But walk around and give it time – you will find interesting corners and amazing decorative elements, and eventually, you might even start to like this great city.
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 the 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 the city take a tram ride to the outlying district of Belém to take a look at the UNESCO World Heritage sites. Jerónimos Monastery ♥♥ is all about the incredibly elaborate and impressive Manueline cloisters, with the added bonus of providing a view into the nearby church of Santa Maria De Belém ♥ from the upper level. The 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 WH site is the iconic Tower of Belém, which may sport a very long line to get into and does not offer a separate entrance to Lisbon Card holders. It is best to go there as your first stop in the morning.
Another point of interest in the Belém area is Padrão dos Descobrimentos, the monument to discoverers. I heard at least one recommendation for visiting its exposition.
Somewhat away from the central part of town, Ajuda National Palace ♥ has a number of very impressive rooms, well furnished and decorated, although quite a few appear way too dark since not all chandeliers are turned on in the middle of the day. Plenty of information is provided on the visitor cards in every room, explaining the artifacts and the general use of the rooms. Well worth a visit.
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 relatively off the main tourist routes means that you may have the place entirely to 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, the Church of São Roque ♥♥♥ stands out: its rectangular nave is surrounded by a collection of the most opulent chapels to the point that the marvelous altar sort of gets lost in the rest of the opulence. The ceiling is quite special too. There is a church museum accessible for an extra fee.
The Lisbon Cathedral ♥ offers quite a contrast between its entirely spartan nature in the nave and its gorgeous choir, with organs and painted ceiling.
Practically any other church in town is worth stepping into. The Portuguese seem to never have spared any expenses on decorating their places of worship.
The main waterfront square, Praça do Comércio ♥, is wide and airy and uniformly built up, with a small beach and quay area off it. The Arch of Rua Augusta ♥ is the main feature of 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 near the very top. 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 is worth consideration is Elevador de Santa Justa, which usually sports long lines on the bottom level. If in Barrio Alto, you can find your way to the top platform on foot, and, since the viewpoint access is free, enjoy the view without the ride on the elevator.
We walked to a number of different scenic lookouts around the city but were only truly impressed with the highest one, Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte ♥♥. It could be very windy there, though. An oft-recommended Miradouro de Santa Luzia ♥ has lovely azulejo decorations, but no superior views.
Castelo de São Jorge enjoys mixed recommendations: almost all tour books would list it as a top sight, but we overheard more than one tour guide suggesting to their clients that there was no good reason to pay an entrance fee there for basically just another angle of a lookout when there are so many public viewpoints in town.
Among the most popular tourist activities in Lisbon is a ride on the historic route 28 tram. It goes through some of the more picturesque – and, at times, narrow – streets in Lisbon, offering a sort of overview of the town by means of public transportation. Unfortunately, the trams get exceedingly crowded throughout the day and thus are hard to enjoy. We took a short ride and were underwhelmed. Unless you are lucky to get a window seat I doubt you will find it worth your while beyond the coincidental utility of getting from point A to point B. Your best chances are in the early mornings.
We significantly regret not availing ourselves of a city ride in a tuk-tuk. They are plentiful in the center and can be hired at an hourly rate as private-guide tour vehicles.
Other points of interest worth considering in Lisbon are the National Museum of Azulejo, the National Pantheon, and a host of various smaller museums. None of them 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).
Lisbon is not for weak walkers. The neighborhoods may be mostly flat within their boundaries, 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 a transport app.
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. 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). 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 saving is only marginally worthwhile as none of the sights in Sintra itself are covered by the card, so you may be spending a large portion of your card-covered period in a place where you cannot use the card. In our case, we broke even on the cost of a 72-hour card within a day and a half.
Accommodation-wise, the neighborhoods of Baixa and Chiado are the most central, but the extensive transport options make staying in practically any part of the city center workable for sightseeing.
In the “memorable stays” category, the Studio Art apartment (link) on Rua do Poco dos Negros is in a multi-story building with a doorman, elevators, and a garage. A large studio with all possible amenities and a socked pantry; the kitchen and dinette area is enclosed in glass partition, providing some separation. The terrace is technically private but looks out to many neighbors; you will probably not use it all that much anyway. The location is just a bit off the city center, within 20 minutes of walking; tram 28 stops right in front of the building. The area is at a relatively low elevation; you may enjoy the fact that if you choose to walk home after dinner in Bairro Alto or other central areas, the last leg will be downhill.
As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Lisbon. I personally prefer local vibes in less touristy areas, but sometimes sitting down in an eatery on a crowded square can have its rewards.
Worthy of specific recommendations – all require advance reservations for dinner, in our experience – are: Santelmo (on Rua do Poco dos Negros, technically still within Bairro Alto, but near the foot of the heights), which is not big and very busy, and an incredible dining experience; Agulha No Palheiro (at the edge of Alfama on R. Jardim do Tabaco), which deceptively does not look like a fine dining place at the first glance, starts you off with sharing the petiscos (small plates), with the understanding that roughly 1.5 dishes per person would be seemingly enough without main courses – even though the mains are just as fantastic (reservations essential); Duque Restaurant (on the eponymous sloping street in Chiado, close to Rossio), which serves wonderful choices in pretty tight spaces and great atmosphere; A Nossa Casa (on Rua Atalaia in the heart of Bairro Alto), another “share the petiscos” fantastic eatery.
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 sort of a quest, but the food is good and the experience is nice.
Sintra is an absolute must when spending time in Lisbon. The main road links in Portugal are among the best in Europe, putting places like Coimbra, Évora, and the monastery “triangle” of Alcobaça, Batalha, and Tomar within reach of Lisbon for a day trip. All of them are covered in this article. Other places worth consideration are Cascais or Nazaré on the Western coast, Faro and Algarve in general on the Southern coast, and usually highly-recommended Óbidos.