What to do in Lisbon – one of the most vibrant cities in Europe

What to do in Lisbon – one of the most vibrant cities in Europe

I’ve been to hundreds of cities and Lisbon is my favourite. Everywhere you look there are colourful tiles, the weather is (usually) hot and sunny, there’s delicious food, and so many things to do you’ll be spoilt for choice. There’s also lots of walking up and down hills so take good shoes!

Below is a list of things to do on a short break to Lisbon. This isn’t a list of everything but it’s a list of things not to be miss.

 

Hop on the iconic trams

 

All those colourful pictures you see on Instagram of trams #lisbon are usually taken at one of Lisbon’s three funiculars – Elevador do Lavra, Elevador da Gloria and Elevador da Bica. 

The main purpose of the trams is to help locals and tourists up the super steep, long cobbled inclines. But you’ll find almost everyone here wants a photo hanging out of the tram, so be patient. It’s not uncommon to see the drivers shouting at people for blocking the way. Luckily the trams are slow moving so won’t hit you if try to take a snap.

Iconic trams at Elevado da Gloria in Lisbon
Iconic trams at Elevado da Gloria

You can buy a ticket on-board the tram for €3. If you’re using public transport at least three times a day I suggest getting a €6.40 24hr public transport ticket (includes bus, metro and tram) from a metro station. They work out more economical and include the Santa Justa Lift.

The other “thing to do” is ride tram 28 a.k.a the tourist tram, because it visits all the tourist sites. This line features the clean vintage yellow trams. The route starts at Martim Moniz or Campo Ourique and if you don’t get on at the starting points you probably won’t get a seat so be prepared to stand – it’s a bendy ride. Hold on tight.

Tram 28 – tourist tram in Lisbon
Tram 28 – tourist tram

It goes without saying that this tram is a pickpocket’s dream so stay aware of who’s around you.

Personally I don’t see the hype in this tram as Lisbon is lovely to stroll around. If you’re fit, the tram isn’t necessary as you can walk most places and take the metro long distances.

 

Go tile hunting

 

The first thing you’ll notice in Lisbon are the beautiful tiles adorning the buildings. Everywhere you look is colourful and unique. You won’t be able to stop taking photos (or maybe that’s just me).

Beautiful tiles of Lisbon
Beautiful tiles of Lisbon

 

Indulge in delicious food and wine

 

Lisbon is a seafood lovers dream. It’s known for its freshly caught grilled fish (cod, sardines, shrimp) and octopus. Best part – it’s not expensive. Sure there are fancy high-end fish restaurants in Lisbon, but walking around Baixa or Bairro Alto you’ll find plenty of places with grilled cod and potatoes for under €10 like below. 

Grilled octopus and cod at Cesteiro restaurant. Lisbon is famous for its seafood.
Grilled octopus and cod at Cesteiro restaurant

If you don’t like fish then there’s always chicken. Peri Peri chicken is Portuguese. We went to Restauradores which gave generous portions – who doesn’t love peri peri!

Peri Peri chicken and Portuguese wine
Peri Peri chicken and Portuguese wine

 

Visit the famous Praca do Comercio

 

Lisbon’s answer to Paris’ Arc de Triomphe is the Rua Augusta Arch. It draws you into the huge waterfront plaza in front of it, buzzing with bars and restaurants. It’s a great place to start your Lisbon trip. 

From the water you can see 25 de Abril Bridge – very similar to the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. Our local guide called this spot the “perfect place to view the sunrise after a night of partying in Lisbon”. 

Rua Augusta Arch of Lisbon
Rua Augusta Arch
Not the Golden Gate Bridge but Lisbon's 25 de Abril Bridge
Not the Golden Gate Bridge but Lisbon’s 25 de Abril Bridge

 

Try the local Ginjinha

 

Ginjinha or “Ginja” is a sweet cherry liqueur from Lisbon. There are several shops selling Ginjinha dotted around town but we chose to visit the original store – Ginjinha Sem Rival, located at the bottom of Rua das Portas de Santo Antão. It’s been open since 1890 and at €1.50 a shot, the Ginja is a must try. Since it’s only 18%, you’re not going to get drunk on a shot so maybe have a few 😉 

At Ginjinha Sem Rival. Open in Lisbon since 1890
At Ginjinha Sem Rival. Open in Lisbon since 1890

 

Discover the trendy and authentic Mouraria

 

Mouraria, an area of Lisbon once know as the “slum”, is now a hip area full of colourful street art. There are plenty of cafes to grab a bite and traditional features on the buildings to photograph. It’s worth the time to explore the maze-like narrow cobbled streets that many people associate with Lisbon.

Washing lines are out, flower baskets hang from the windows and elderly ladies chat away, giving this area a very lived-in feel. Due to how up-and-coming this area is, many residents are opting to let their apartments through Airbnb which is hiking up prices and forcing the locals out. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next 5 years if this isn’t stopped. 

Locals relaxing outside traditional houses in Mouraria
Locals relaxing outside traditional houses in Mouraria

Another highlight of Mouraria is that Fado music is said to originate from here. The walls in the picture below are dedicated to Fado and painted by local artists. 

Streets of Mouraria Lisbon
Streets of Mouraria
Murals at Escadinhas de São Cristovão dedicated to Fado
Murals at Escadinhas de São Cristovão dedicated to Fado

There are many tourist bars in Lisbon offering “tradition Fado music”. I can’t recommend any as I’m not into Fado and the price of food at these places is too expensive for me. It’s easily €50 per person for an average meal (no wine) and Fado show. If you go, always check the price on the menu before you order.

Continuing up from Mouraria you reach the castle (Castelo de S. Jorge). It’s €10 to enter and provides views over the city of the terracotta rooftops. I met some tourists who went to the castle for sunset and highly recommended it. However, if you don’t want to spend €10 there are plenty of free places to view the city, such as, Miradouro das Portas do Sol. 

 

Ride the 1902 Santa Justa Lift

 

On the topic of viewpoints – it doesn’t get much better than from Santa Justa Lift. But be prepared to queue as riding this lift is top of every tourist’s list.

Santa Justa sticks out above the Baixa area with its Neo-Gothic design, a stark contrast to the colourful tiled buildings next to it. In the past it had a practical reason to operate – the steep hills between Baixa and Largo do Carmo were unbearable to climb in the summer heat, so Santa Justa Lift provided an efficient way to connect the two areas.

Now it’s mainly tourists that ride it. If you don’t want to queue and just pass between the areas, you can take the stairs or cut through the metro station next to the lift and go up the escalators.

A return ride on the lift costs €5.15 and includes the price of the viewing platform. Otherwise you can use the €6.40 24 hr-public transport ticket for the lift and pay €1.50 entrance to the viewing platform.

Santa Justa Lift
Santa Justa Lift

 

Marvel at Carmo Archaeological Museum

 

When I heard there was a “church with no roof” in Lisbon, I knew I had to check it out.

The Carmo Archaeological Museum is found in the ruins of the old Church of Santa Maria do Carmo, built in 1389. In the earthquake of 1755 the church was almost totally destroyed. Efforts were made to reconstruct it but were halted in 1834 (with the dissolution of the monasteries in Portugal) and in 1864 the Carmo Archaeological Museum was established. 

As you’d imagine, visiting here is very weather depended. While the exhibitions are inside, the main appeal of visiting is to walk around and immerse yourself in the ruins. The exhibitions are small but interesting – we saw some mummified (I’m guessing by the size) children, Sarcophagus, mosaic tiles and old pots. For €4 entrance, add it to your Lisbon itinerary. 

FYI – It’s closed on Sundays.

The ruins of Church of Santa Maria do Carmo
The ruins of Church of Santa Maria do Carmo “Church with no roof”
Mummified children on display at Carmo Archaeological Museum
Mummified children on display at Carmo Archaeological Museum
Photographing Carmo Archaeological Museum Lisbon
Photographing Carmo Archaeological Museum

 

Walk down Pink Street

 

Rua Nova do Carvalho a.k.a Pink Street used to be the red light district run by gangsters. You’d commonly see prostitutes, petty crime and drunken sailors falling over in the street. But now that’s a thing of the past and the street has been painted pink to show its brighter future.

It’s located in Cais do Sodré and is a great photo opportunity on the way to Time Out Market in the same area. At night all the bars and clubs stay open until the earlier hours and it’s heaving with people.

Rua Nova do Carvalho now know as the Pink Street
Rua Nova do Carvalho now know as Pink Street

 

Go to Time Out Market

 

This market is a great spot to sample all the different kinds of foods Lisbon has to offer. Packed with seafood stalls and of course bakeries selling Lisbon’s famous custard tarts.

We settled into the bar in the middle of the market and tried different cocktails and Portuguese wines. Sure it’s expensive but there’s a great atmosphere to the place. Perfect for people watching.

Time Out Market Lisbon
Time Out Market Lisboa
Octopus hot dog anyone?
Octopus hot dog anyone?

 

Climb up Belém Tower

 

Belém’s a lively area – hipster frozen yogurt vans, cafés and buskers playing. The tower also lives up to expectation and is a steal at €6 entrance. The steps up the tower can be a little frustrating because there’s a one-way flow system so people don’t clash on the narrow spiral stairs, which many tourists don’t seem to understand.   

Tip – you see that huge line behind me in the picture below? You can skip it if you buy your ticket from the booth in the park opposite and walk right in and not queue.

Belém tower (you can skip this queue!)
Belém tower (you can skip this queue!)
€6 to go up the Belem tower
€6 to go up the Belém tower

 

Eat Pastries of Belém

 

Belém is also known for is its pastries (similar to custard tarts). Pastries of Belém opened in 1837 and still uses the same recipe today as it did then. This is possibly the most famous pastry shop in the world. 

Pastries of Belém is a short walk from Belém Tower, past the Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument and Jeronimos monastery. You’ll recognise it by the long line outside (don’t worry, it moves fast). If you want to skip the line, you can go inside and find a table, once seated you’re served right away. 

Line outside Pastries of Belem
Line outside Pastries of Belém

The pastries are nice and sweet, you might want to eat them with a small spoon as the inside is very gooey and breaks when you bite into them. I’m not sure they warrant the hype but the experience of visiting the bakery and low prices, make it worth the wait in line.

Inside Pastries of Belém
Inside Pastries of Belém

 

Walk around Jeronimos monastery

 

If you’re visiting Belém Tower, make sure to include enough time to see the Jerónimos Monastery (sometimes called Hieronymites Monastery). This huge building is stunning, both inside and out. The chapel is free to enter but it’s €10 to visit the cloisters. There are two storeys and a small display room with the history of the monastery and Lisbon. In 1983 the monastery and Belém Tower became UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Jeronimos monastery
Jeronimos monastery

 

Be a hipster at FX Factory

 

Want to get off the beaten track? From Belém take the number 15 tram (or from the Baixa area in the other direction) to the FX Factory. An old industrial area crammed with bars, restaurants, art studios and quirky (expensive) shops. It has a full on hipster vibe and it’s fun to get a drink and relax while discovering a different part of Lisbon. My favourite find is Ler Devagar bookstore/event space/cafe, one of the most unique places I’ve been to.

FX Factory area
FX Factory area

Ler Devagar - bookstore/gallery/events space/coffee shop
Ler Devagar – bookstore/gallery/events space/coffee shop

 

Buy a book in the oldest bookshop in the world

 

If you’re a fan of bookstores, you’ll want to visit Livraria Bertrand, the world’s oldest continuously operating bookstore. There’s a lot of history to this shop since its launch in 1732 which you can read about on Wikipedia.

It was a place for Portuguese literary figures to meet and discuss their work and politics. The most well-known being Alexandre Herculano, who introduced Romanticism to Portugal.

Bertrand is now the largest bookstore chain in Portugal. It is Livraria Bertrand which is the oldest, so make sure you go to this one – R. Garrett 73-75, 1200-203 Lisboa, Portugal – and not another in the same chain. 

Livraria Bertrand – the oldest bookstore in the world
Livraria Bertrand – the oldest bookstore in the world

 

Take a day trip to Sintra

 

Often done in a day trip from Lisbon is Sintra. There are tours running to here but it’s just as easy to reach yourself by train (40 mins).

I highly recommend NOT driving here. There’s hardly any parking and the roads in Sintra are one-way and narrow.

Sintra train station
Sintra train station

Once at Sintra train station all the sites are reachable on the tourist buses. For €15 you can buy a hop-on hop-off bus ticket which even takes you to Cabo da Roca, the most western point in Europe. The highlights of Sintra are: Pena Palace, Moors Castle, the historic town centre and Quinta da Regaleira, which are all connected by the 434 bus.

Another thing to remember about Sintra is many of the sites are outside. Pena Palace gardens and Moors Castle are outdoor attractions and high up on hills so open to the weather. I recommend not going in the rain (like I did). The views from Pena Palace are a highlight and a reason to visit, if it rains you’ll only see mist (see pics below). To enter the Palace we queued for over an hour. It’s extremely busy and there’s a one way system you have to follow which doesn’t allow you to go back and see things if you miss them. Also, you can’t take photos inside!

Pena Palace
Pena Palace
Views? What views?
Views? What views?

The historic centre of Sintra is very quaint. Luckily we found a cosy restaurant called Romaria de Baco to shelter from the rain. They served tapas and an excellent pork dish.

Historic centre of Sintra
Historic centre of Sintra

 

Stand at the westernmost point

 

40 mins from Sintra on the 403 bus is Cabo da Roca, the most western point on mainland Europe. 

There’s a lighthouse and great spots for photos, but that’s it, there’s not much to do here. However, it feels pretty cool to be at the most western point of Europe and if you’ve made the effort to go to Sintra you might as well take a couple of hours to visit here. 

Cabo da Roca – the westernmost point of Europe mainland
Cabo da Roca – the westernmost point of mainland Europe

 

I hope you found these suggestions helpful and if you have any questions please comment below.

Follow me on Instagram @frans_photos to see more photos of where I’ve been.

 

 

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