Things to Do in Lisbon, the City of Discoveries
The capital of Portugal, Lisbon is distinguished from other European capitals through a unique combination of history, traditions, modern city life and a large variety of cultural influences.
Located on the Tagus River (Tejo in Portuguese), this city of naval discoveries is lucky to be sun kisses in the vast majority of the time and has so much to offer to its visitors.
A city break would be enough to visit most of the famous sites, but there is so much to discover in the area that you can be sure you will want to come back again.
Below are some of our recommendations and advice for Things to Do In Lisbon, but we would love to hear more from you as comments and suggestions, as each traveler can see it with a different focus.
How to get there
It is very easy to reach Lisbon. There are many flight options and the airport is located very close to the city. There is a good metro connection from the airport with most of the city districts and even taxis are not expensive. For the metro we recommend to buy a re-loadable card and a journey is 1.30 euros.
Where to stay
Lisbon offers many accommodation options, from big hotel chains to boutique hotels or apartments. What we advise is to choose one that is very near a metro station, because most of the streets are on hills and distances can be bigger than how they seem on the map. After a long day of sightseeing you might not like the idea of walking 10-15 more minutes uphill, for example.
Top 10 recommendations to discover Lisbon:
Visit Castelo de Sao Jorge and the obscure chamber
We suggest you to start your tour with visiting Castelo de Sao Jorge, also known as Alfama castle due to its location in the old Alfama district. The castle is on the UNESCO heritage list and offers the perfect opportunity to discover the rich history of the city. You can see here traces of sites dating back to the Iron Age, ancient times or Moorish inspired medieval walls. There are also many observation points from the castle walls or from the lovely park surrounding the castle, with panoramic views over the city.
What we also suggest not to be missed is the obscure chamber in one of the castle’s towers. The room is an ingenious system of mirrors that project a real 360 ° live image of Lisbon districts. You will also hear very interesting information about each district you see, which will help you discover better the city.
Also, near the entrance to the castle, on a narrow street, there are the ruins of an ancient roman amphitheater that you might like to visit on your way to the castle.
Stroll around the streets of Alfama district
The Alfama district is the oldest part of Lisbon and it had survived the great earthquake of 1755, which destroyed most of the city. All the old buildings seem to tell a story and you can easily spend here a full day just strolling on the narrow streets. There are plenty of impressive churches, charming cafes and restaurants, as well as plazas where people gather to take pictures with the iconic no. 28 tram line.
Explore the Baixa – Chiado district and Praça do Comércio
The Baixa – Chiado districts are the heart of the city and delight the visitors with impressive architecture, cultural attractions, promenade areas, shops, cafes and restaurants.
Right by the river, Praça do Comércio is an imposing square that shows the importance of Lisbon’s trade over the centuries and hosts a majestic statue of Dom José I, King of Portugal and the Algarves, also known as “The Reformer”. Another impressive architectural element of the square is the triumphal Arco da Rua Augusta, the arch that connects the square with the famous pedestrian street Rua Augusta. You can go up to the top of the arch for a lovely view of the city, riverside and the castle.
Close by you can also see the Santa Justa elevator, which was an ingenious construction for its time that connected the lower streets of Baixa with the upper Carmo square.
Take the Bica funicular to Barrio Alto
Not too far from the Santa Justa elevator, there is another ingenious system for its time: the Bica funicular (Ascensor da Bica). Inaugurated in 1892, the funicular takes its passengers from Rua de São Paulo, not far from the Ribeira market(Mercado da Ribeira) to the Barrio Alto streets. The journey is very short (245m / 804ft), but quite interesting because it feels like going back in time and also like being watched by paparazzi, as there are many people taking pictures of the funicular everywhere along the short route. The entrance to the funicular is through an old building and the journey costs 3.5 euros.
Admire the city skyline from the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara
Going up on the Barrio Alto narrow streets, you can get to the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara, which offer picture perfect views of the city skyline and Castelo de Sao Jorge. The place is also great for a break, as you can stay in one of the cafes and relax with a drink, pastry and a great view.
Enjoy a traditional dinner in Barrio Alto with live Fado music
Barrio Alto is famous as well for the traditional restaurants with live Fado music. Most of the restaurants have an optional coperto service containing selection of breads, olives and aperitifs, which you can choose not to have if you are not interested. If you like fish or sea food try the local specialties, such as Bacalhau a Bras, an interesting dish with cod fish, grated potatoes and scrambled eggs. Everything is very fresh and tasty. Local wines are also very good and some restaurants also offer small bottles of 375ml, in case you don’t want to order the 750ml one. And to complete the experience, enjoy the live Fado music, an emotional Portuguese melodic genre, performed by a female singer, accompanied by a classic guitar.
Visit the Belem District and Tower
Another famous area of Lisbon is Belem. Located by the Tagus River (Tejo) and further from the centre, the Belem district can be reached by tram, but we strongly recommend taking an Uber or a taxi, because they are cheap and comfortable, while the public transport is packed with people.
There are plenty of things to visit in this area, starting with the Jeronimos Monastery, one of the oldest sites of the city dating back to 1495, continuing with the iconic medieval tower of Belem and ending with modern attractions such as museums, parks and the very interesting Monument of Discoveries.
The Belem tower is the most famous, but also the most time consuming when visiting Lisbon, as it is very narrow and can only be visited by a limited number of persons in the same time. If you want to visit it we recommend to get tickets online or as a package from the monastery. The queue to visit the tower gives priority to visitors that already have tickets. The view from the tower is very nice, but you can have similar views by going to the top of the Monument of Discoveries. However, we recommend to at least visit the tower from the outside, as it is very beautiful.
Get the best river view from top of the Monument of Discoveries
This recent landmark of Lisbon, known in Portuguese as Padrao dos Descobrimentos, has been inaugurated in 1969 to celebrate the great naval discoveries in the history of Portugal, an age known as the Portuguese Age of Discovery. The monument, shaped as a ship veil, shows all the important discoverers, as well as the great people behind them, and has a strategic location by the river, as if they would set sail again.
We recommend to go up to the top and enjoy an amazing panorama of the city and the river, with views to the Belem Tower, the Sanctuary of Christ the King monument (inspired by the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio De Janeiro,) up to the recent Vasco da Gama bridge(similar to the San Francisco bridge). The entrance costs 6 euros and going up is fast and easy, thanks to the large elevator inside.
Taste the traditional Portuguese desert Pastel de nata
When mentioning Belem we have to also mention the traditional Portuguese desert called Pastel de nata. This is a smooth and sweet custard tart, which has a long tradition started in the Jeronimos Monastery before the 18th century. But this pastry is not only served in Belem now, it can be found in most of the city.
Discover Lisbon’s modern side
Lisbon also has a bright new side where you will see how the old structures have been replaced by modern infrastructure. In Belem for example you can find modern museums, including the Berardo Museum of Modern Art, but also new residential complexes, office spaces, corporate centers, etc. If you go to the Oriente area you can take a ride on the Lisbon gondola, go shopping in the Vasco da Gama shopping centre, visit the Lisbon Oceanarium or the recent Vasco da Gama bridge, which is now the longest bridge in Europe.
Lisbon is a very surprising city. For us it was a city of discoveries, not only because it is home of major maritime ones of the golden era, but mostly because in the present everywhere there is something to be discovered. And the more time you spend around the richer the collection of discoveries will be.
And if you have some extra time during your visit, don’t miss also the amazing places close to Lisbon, such as Sintra, Cascais and Estoril. And if you are here for a longer summer holiday you might even consider driving to the Algarve coast, to explore the amazing beaches and landscape. They are so nice that they deserve their own article.