Lisbon City Guide: The Highlights

lisbon city guide

Go for a thrilling, sightseeing ride

Not for the faint of heart! Hold onto your seat and ride as the locals do on one of Lisbon’s famed yellow tram cars. The #28 circuitous route passes through many of Lisbon’s finest districts, including Baixa, Graça, Alfama, and Estrela as well as makes the steep climb uphill towards Castelo de São Jorge. Get off here to wander through the old Moorish castle and admire the expansive views over the historic Alfama district. You can take the tram back down or walk back down leisurely through the picturesque maze of narrow streets and alleyways of Alfama. Also the option for a heart-pounding urban hike – walk up and then take the tram down!

The tram can get quite crowded so be prepared to have to stand and hold on tight! The undulating route up and down Lisbon’s steep hills usually means one or two people may tumble down the aisle if they aren’t paying attention when the brakes are applied. Try to nab a seat if you can by riding at non-peak hours. Tickets can be purchased on board and cost €2.85 or ride free with a Lisboa Card (see details at bottom!)

Food, fun, and fado in one tour

Take the cheekily named Eat Dinner With Us Or Starve tour (€45 per person) with the even more cheekily named We Hate Tourism Tours. Hands down Dan and I’s favorite food tour we have been on during our travels! After meeting your guide at Praça Luiz Camões you’ll take a short scenic drive through the streets of Bairro Alto on your way to dine at a restaurant frequented and favored by locals. No menus with pictures here!

After dinner, the scenic drive through Lisbon continues en route to pick up dessert at Pasteis de Belém. Enjoy a famous pastel de Belém egg custard hot and fresh from the oven in front of the impressive and iconic Torre de Belém, a 16th century fortress finished during the reign of King Manuel I to defend the entrance to Lisbon’s harbor.

Finish off the night with your new friends amongst the narrow, cobblestoned streets of Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood, Alfama; a name that reflects the area’s Arabic influence, to listen to authentic fado music at Mesa de Frades Restaurante, a tiny candlelit restaurant that used to be a chapel and is still covered with stunning azulejos (tiles).

Fado is a traditional Portuguese music genre that can be traced back to the early 1800s, characterized by a melancholy sound of mournful tunes and lyrics usually lamenting lost love and sung in dozens of clubs and restaurants in Lisbon’s older neighborhoods. There is only one rule when listening to fado. Silence. The performers have the complete attention of the room and no one is allowed into or out of the club during songs. Be discreet (no flash!) if you want to take pictures or better yet just close your eyes and be present in the moment.

Follow in the footsteps of the great explorers

Portugal played a pioneering role during Europe’s golden age of discovery and exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) celebrates Portugal’s maritime expeditions and the man who led them, Henry the Navigator. For a nominal fee you can climb up to a rooftop terrace for views of the Tagus River, the 16th century Jerónimos Monastery, and the landmark 25 de Abril suspension bridge, a doppelgänger for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The west coast of Europe is uncannily similar in features to the west coast of the United States!

Across the way, Jerónimos Monastery is easily reached via an underground passageway from the Discoveries monument. The monastery is another prominent example of the Portuguese Manueline style of architecture found in Lisbon, and along with the Torre de Belém, both were classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1983. The ornate style of the architecture is quite breathtaking and the tomb of the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama, credited as the first European to reach India by sea, can be found at the monastery in the Church of Santa Maria. Tickets are €10 (or free with your Lisboa Card).

Also, if you didn’t get enough of those delicious custard egg tarts from the food tour, lucky for you the Pasteis de Belém is just a short walk away from the monastery!

Just a short walk away, now’s your chance to see inside the Torre de Belém. Admire the tower’s exquisite interior and exterior Manueline architecture and the numerous Tajus River views from the tower’s various terraces as you climb up to the top. Tickets cost €6 (free with your Lisboa card) or can be purchased as a double deal with entrance to Jerónimos Monastery as well for a discounted price of €12.

Grab a libation

Being the city of seven hills, Lisbon boasts many killer scenic miradouros or viewpoints such as the one on Pedro de Alcantara, dotted with park benches and gardens. From this vantage point one can see down below to the wide street of Avenida da Liberdade to the north and Castelo Sao Jorge to the east.

Grab a seat at one of the outdoor kiosk cafes in the area and order a ginjinha, a popular sweet Portuguese liqueur made with infused sour cherries known as ginja berries and served in a shot glass.

Another option for drinks with a view is Tivoli Lisboa Hotel’s relaxed rooftop Skybar. Cocktails are a bit on the pricey side but the views are splendid!

Hit the beach or the slots (or both!)

Head toward the Cais do Sodre train station near Lisbon’s waterfront for the 40 minute rail journey west out toward the Atlantic Ocean and the seaside resort of Cascais. Running along the Tagus River past the famous Estoril Casino (the train does make a stop here if you feel so inclined to roll some dice!) the train drops you off amongst white washed cobblestoned alleys lined with restaurants, ice cream shops and various sundry stores.

Sidle up to one of the waterside cafes looking out at the boats in the harbor as they bob along with the waves over a glass of wine or a galão, a Portuguese latte, before setting off on a walk along the coves around the Fort of Nossa Senhora da Luz or catch some rays out on the inviting stretch of beach just a few steps away from the Cascais train station.

Trains run frequently during the day with departures every 20 minutes. Rail tickets can be purchased at the station for €4.30 for an adult round trip. Your Lisboa card lets you ride for free.

Get cultured at a museum

Lisbon is home to tons of museums! Check out GoLisbon for an extensive list. Your Lisboa Card gets you free or reduced admission to most museums and some are even free on Sunday mornings (just be prepared for crowds!). A perfect way to spend a rainy day in Lisbon!

Ascend to a viewpoint

One thing Lisbon isn’t short on is uphill treks. To save your quads from crying out in agony as you make your way from the lower streets of Baixa up to Bairro Alto, take the Elevador Santa Justa, one of the elevators and funiculars that dot the city to ferry passengers up the steep hills of Lisbon. Built by Gustave Eiffel’s apprentice, Raul Mésnier, the structure bears quite a resemblance to the iconic tower of Paris. Enjoy sweeping views of the city as you are whisked up to the top. Be prepared to have a bit of a wait at peak times. Return trip tickets are €5 (or free with a Lisboa Card).

As you exit the viewing platform at the top of the elevator, you’ll walk past Bella Lisa Elevador restaurant. If its mealtime or you just want to admire the city views while lingering over a drink, I highly recommend this place!

Nearby is Ingreja do Carmo, the ruins of a 14th century Gothic church that was destroyed in the devastating 1755 earthquake that leveled much of Lisbon. Now the skeletal remains of what was at the time the largest church in Lisbon are the pillars and arches of the roofless nave. Entrance costs €3.50 (reduced admission with Lisboa Card) but hours vary so double check before you head over there or you will be disappointed to find it closed like we did!

Feel like a kid again at Sintra Natural Park

Sintra is what I can best describe as a wooded magical fairytale land. Located 25 kilometers to the west of Lisbon in the pine covered hills of Serra de Sintra, Sintra is home to three royal palaces, among other grand buildings, estates, and scenic vistas as well as the westernmost point of continental Europe, Cabo da Roca.

Hop aboard the 45 minute train at Lisbon’s Rossio Station for a day trip to Sintra. Trains run frequently throughout the day and a round trip adult ticket costs €4.30 or is free with a Lisboa Card. Sintra train station is located about 1km east (and downhill!) of the historic centre so opt for the #434 tourist bus that saves the steep 45 minute climb up hill to the main sites if you’re short on time or stamina.

Connecting the train station to the historic center, National Palace, Pena Palace and the Moors castle, the #434 bus runs a one direction circuitous route operating on a “hoho” (hop-on, hop-off) basis. A single loop ticket costs €5 and is purchased from the driver. Depending on how far afield you want to venture, you can walk to other sites outside of the tourist bus route such as my personal favorite, the UNESCO World Heritage site Quinta Da Regaleira, an extravagant estate with a Gothic mansion, exquisite gardens, hidden underground tunnels, and an inverted tower (an adult ticket costs €6).

Tourist bus services in Sintra vary during the year so be prepared for limited operating hours in the shoulder and off-seasons. Entrance tickets to the various palaces can be bundle purchased in advance along with a 5% discount for purchasing online at this websiteWe Hate Tourism Tours also runs day trip tours to Sintra.

Get a bird’s eye-view

Lisbon’s Parque das Nações, or Nations Park, played host to the 1998 World Exposition and now boasts a ton to explore in the area: restaurants, shops, a cable car, casino, exhibition halls, the Pavilion of Knowledge interactive science/technology museum, and Europe’s largest indoor aquarium, the Oceanário de Lisboa. Voted by TripAdvisor in 2015 as the world’s best aquarium you can see over 25,000 fish, seabirds, and mammals.

Take the 8 minute cable car ride across the park from the Vasco da Gama tower at the northern edge to the Oceanarium at the southern edge to get a birds eye view of the park, the estuary, and the Vasco da Gama Bridge. A single ride costs €3.95 and a return ticket is €5.90. There are also plenty of bike rental kiosks in the area as well.

Lisboa Card

Depending on how much time you plan to spend in Lisbon and how much you want to see or do, the Lisboa Card can be a real money saver with free or reduced admission to more than 80 of Lisbon’s main attractions as well as getting to ride the city’s metro, buses, and trams for free (check out full list of offerings here). Cards are available for either 24 Hours (€18.50), 48 Hours (€31.50), or 72 Hours (€39.00) duration and the timer starts from the first place you use it at. Lisboa cards can be pre-purchased online here or picked up at the airport, Lisboa Welcome Center at Praça do Comércio, or Foz Palace.

*All admission fees, etc current as of March 2016