Lisbon is having a moment. After years of economic downturn and neglect, the Portuguese capital is thriving. Start-ups are opening up like mushrooms and young professionals from across Europe and beyond are finding their way to the city. It’s not hard to see why. With beautiful architecture, plenty of sunshine and a wonderful café culture, Lisbon has a whole lot going for it.
Want to get a taste of Lisbon’s appeal? Here are 10 quintessential things to see, do and experience in the pastel-coloured city by the river Tagus.
- Admire the countless azulejos
- Try the best pastel de nata
- Listen to fado in Alfama
- Eat (sea)food till you drop
- Discover a different world in Belém
- Go for coffee and cocktails in Cais do Sodre
- Watch the sunset from a rooftop bar or mirador
- Find your cool at LxFactory
- Immerse yourself in modern architecture
- Take a day trip to magical Sintra
Admire the countless azulejos
The beauty of Lisbon is perhaps not found in grand iconic buildings the likes of which you find in other European capitals. Rather, Lisbon’s charm is in the detail. What makes this city uniquely beautiful are its floors and facades. In true Portuguese style, many of Lisbon’s buildings are covered in ceramic tiles, also called azulejos.
Patterned prettiness can also be found in the city’s pavements. The Portuguese are masters in bricklaying and as in many other cities in the country, Lisbon’s pedestrian areas are paved with small black and white stones, often in the most wonderful patterns. So, look up, down and around you and admire the beauty that Lisbon’s streets have to offer.
Try the best pastel de nata
If there’s one ingredient Portuguese cuisine can’t do without (apart from fish – see below) it’s eggs. Go to any bakery in town – Confeitaria Nacional perhaps being the most iconic one – and you’ll find yourself staring at an array of delicious golden-baked pastries. Many are so yellow that it’s obvious plenty of eggs were used. The most famous pastry of them all is pastel de nata. These crunchy little custard tarts are a true treat. Having a pastel (plural: pastéis) de nata is a local experience when in Lisbon. You’ll find pasteis in any café or bakery. Although the most famous ones are sold at Pastéis de Belem (be prepared to queue), I’d much rather have mine at Manteigeria. This small bakery in central Lisbon makes the best pastéis in town if you’d ask me (and I’ve eaten a fair few). Sprinkle some cinnamon dust on top and enjoy!
Listen to fado in Alfama
Spain has flamenco, Portugal has fado. This form of popular music has been around since the 1800s and is traditionally sung in cafes and bars. Fado (meaning fate) is full of nostalgia and melancholia and often about mourning or longing. If there’s one place in town where best to watch a fado performance, it’s Alfama. This centuries-old working class neighbourhood is the birthplace of fado. Located on a hilltop, surrounding São Jorge castle, Alfama is a destination in its own right. It’s a joy to stroll through the district’s little alleys and admire the panoramic vistas that suddenly pop up between buildings. Although the area has become increasingly gentrified over the last decade, it still has a local, authentic feel to it. Alfama is still home to countless fado bars and restaurants, some more touristy than others. The last time I saw a fado performance in Lisbon has been a quite a while, but there are plenty of good recommendations online. Be prepared to be mesmerised!
Eat (sea)food till you drop
The Portuguese are not known for boasting about their cuisine. Which is surprising, really, it has so much to offer. Portuguese food is simple yet flavourful and authentic. Want to get a taste of what to expect? Then check out my blog post about the 16 dishes and drinks you need to try when in Portugal.
A nation of sailors and fishermen, it may come as no surprise that seafood is a key ingredient in Portuguese food. The country’s national dish, for instance, is bacalhau: salt-dried cod. There are countless ways to prepare and serve it, including grilling, baking and shredding. Almost any authentic local restaurant will have bacalhau on the menu. In Lisbon, a great place to try it is Zapata. This no-nonsense family-run restaurant not only serves bacalhau, but also other tasty Portuguese dishes. When in Alfama, don’t miss out the tiny but brilliant local restaurant A Parreirinha do Paraíso – I loved their bacalhau!
Another favourite is Cervejeria Ramiro, near Praça Intendente. This traditional seafood restaurant is a popular spot amongst locals, although the last time I went there, several tourists were queuing up outside during lunch time, so word of its great food is spreading.
Short on time, but keen to try as many local dishes as possible? Then Time Out Market is a great first introduction to Portuguese cuisine. This gigantic contemporary food court is occupying half of the Mercado do Ribeira, a 19th century market hall. It has become a popular hangout for locals and tourists alike and is especially buzzing on weekend evenings. You can find anything here from bacalhau, seafood and Portuguese croquettes to gourmet burgers, sushi and artisan ice cream. Less crowded and smaller in size is the Mercado de Campo do Ourique, a local market hall just outside the old town with a mouth-watering range of gourmet food stalls. Dive in!
Discover a different world in Belém
Have you explored Lisbon’s city centre and are you keen to venture out? Then hop on a tram or train to Belém. This area, on the western edge of the city close to the Atlantic Ocean, was once the place from which legendary 15th century sailors departed on discovery voyages across the globe. Belém has a very different look and feel compared to old town Lisbon. It’s green, spacious and laidback, yet also the site of some of the city’s most iconic monuments. Most famous are the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Torre de Belém. The first is a stunning 16th century monastery. The second is a 500-year-old fortified tower that used to mark the gateway to Lisbon for sailors. Another reminder of Portugal’s past as a nation of discoverers is the Padrão dos Descubrimentos. This giant Discoveries Monument celebrates the achievements of some of the most prominent Portuguese explorers. Climb to the top of the monument for some great views. From here, the world is (almost literally) at your feet.
Go for coffee and cocktails in Cais do Sodré
Looking for great coffee, wonderful cocktails and cool vibes? Then join Lisbon’s young crowds in and around Cais do Sodré. This waterfront area just west of the famous Praça do Commercio has undergone a true transformation over the past decades. Once the docks closed and the sailors and prostitutes disappeared, the neighbourhood deteriorated. After years of neglect, young people started to make their way to this part of town. Now it’s home to an increasing number of trendy cafes, bars and shops.
A major catalyst for the district’s regeneration was the opening of Time Out Market (see above). These days, the surrounding streets are filled with independent bars and restaurants. Most well-known for its nightlife is Rua Nova do Carvalho (aka Pink Street because of the colour of its pavement). With places such as Pensão Amor (an eclectic bar in a former brothel) and Povo (a contemporary fado bar) it’s a great spot to start or end your night out in Lisbon.
Further west, along the busy Avenida 24 de Julho you’ll find more bars as well as colourful street art. Keep walking and you’ll get to Madragoa, a working-class neighbourhood that is experiencing the spill-over effects of Cais do Sodré’s revival. In its narrow, steep streets cool coffee shops such as Fauna & Flora sit alongside traditional family-run restaurants like O Aregos. Despite its regeneration, the area has remained under the tourist radar (for now) and hence still feels wonderfully low key.
Watch the sunset from a miradouro or rooftop
Taking cues from Rome, Lisbon was built on seven hills. It’s hence not hard to find a spot with wonderful panoramic vistas. Yes, you could of course climb the narrow spiral staircase up to the famous Elevador de Santa Justa, but for a more tranquil experience go and check out one of the city’s many miradouros, or viewpoints.
The Miradouro das Portas do Sol offers some of the most breath-taking vistas of the city, with stunning views of Alfama and the river Tagus. With its grapevine draped terrace, the nearby Miradouro de Santa Luzia is also a gorgeous viewpoint. One of my favourites, perhaps, is the Miradouro de Santa Catarina. This southwest-facing viewing platform has views of the river and the and is the perfect spot to watch the sun set over the city. Fancy a drink? Then head to the next-door Museu da Farmácia, which has one of the most beautiful outdoor terraces in town.
If you’re up for something a tad more unconventional, then you might want to check out PARK. Located on top of a parking garage, this rooftop bar not only offers incredible views, but also great drinks, DJs and vibes. It’s a bit of a tricky spot to find (take the dodgy car park lift to the top level), which makes it all the more surprising that PARK tends to get busy, especially on summer evenings.
For a more exclusive experience, head west to SUD (yes, I admit, that’s somewhat confusing). With a restaurant, bar, riverside terrace and outdoor pool (accessible for €35 a day) this place offers all you could wish for and more. It may not be cheap, but if you want to treat yourself or someone else, you’re at the right address here.
Find your cool at LX Factory
Ever since Lisbon reinvented itself as a start-up hub in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, the city has attracted increasing numbers of young professionals from across Europe and beyond. At the same time, former industrial sites were renovated and turned into co-working offices or creative spaces. A wonderful example of this is LxFactory. Located right underneath the landing of the iconic Ponte 25 Abril bridge, LxFactory was once a big manufacturing complex that was later abandoned. It has since been renovated and reopened as a space with offices, restaurants and independent shops. This is kind of Lisbon’s answer to Brick Lane in East London or Amsterdam Noord.
You could easily spend a whole afternoon at LxFactory. One of the floors in the main factory building is dedicated entirely to ethical art and design as well as culture and diversity. Outside, there’s a weekly Sunday market where vendors sell handmade crafts, fashion and artisan food. And then there are a wide range of workshops, concerts and other events that are organised on the factory grounds. So, there’s never a dull moment to visit this exciting, innovative part of Lisbon.
Immerse yourself in modern architecture
Lisbon might mostly be known for its historic city centre with cobblestone streets and traditional pastel-coloured facades. However, it does modern architecture pretty well, too. One of the most recent additions to Lisbon’s cityscape is the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, aka MAAT. Located on the river banks, between the old town and Belém, MAAT is worth a little detour. And if it wasn’t for its exhibitions then at least for the building itself, which is a brilliant example of contemporary Portuguese architecture. In true Portuguese style, the building is covered in glazed, white tiles. What’s more, the roof of the building is freely accessible and offers some lovely vistas.
For more modern architecture, head to Gare do Oriente. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, this striking interchange train station opened in 1994 and has since become one of the symbols of modern Lisbon. The station forms the gateway to the Parque das Nações, which accommodated the World Expo of 1998 and is now one of Lisbon’s top commercial districts, with modern apartment buildings, offices and shopping malls.
Take a day trip to magical Sintra
Who would have thought that only a 45-minute train ride away from the hustle and bustle of Lisbon, there’s a green fairy-tale-like land full of mountains and castles? It might be hard to imagine, but it’s true! Located 30 kilometres outside of the capital, Sintra feels worlds apart. With its quirky gardens, eccentric villas and palaces scattered across the forested hills, this UNESCO site has a dreamy vibe to it.
Absolute highlight of the area is the Palácio da Pena. This bohemian 19th century palace reminded me a bit of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, just more colourful. Yes, there are hordes of people here, especially in summer, but a day trip to Sintra is a unique experience. In fact, with so much to do and see in the area you might even want to stay here the night.
Lisbon’s best… (IMHO):
- Pastéis de nata: Manteigeria (Bairro Alto)
- Pastries: Confeitaria Nacional (Chiado)
- No-nonsense (sea)food: Cervejeria Ramiro (Martim Moniz), Zapata (Bairro Alto), A Parreirinha do Paraíso (Alfama), O Aregos (Madragoa)
- Terrace: Museu da Farmácia (Bairro Alto)
- Fado: Povo (Cais do Sodré)
- Hostel: The Independente Rooms & Suites (Bairro Alto)
- Quaint hotel: I had a lovely stay at York House Hotel (Madragoa), a former convent with courtyard
- City escape: Sintra
Good to know:
Getting to/from: if you’re flying into Lisbon, arguably the easiest and quickest way to get from the airport to the city centre is by metro. The red line takes you in less than 20 minutes from the airport to central Lisbon, with connections to other metro lines as well as the regional and national train network. A single ride costs €1.50 but is cheaper if you get a reusable Via Viagem travel card.
Getting around: distances between the main sights are relatively small, making Lisbon a very walkable city. That is, if you don’t mind a bit of climbing. The city is built on 7 hills after all. Alternatively, there’s a great public transportation network, consisting of 4 metro lines, overground lines, busses and of course the famous tram. There are also a couple of funiculars. Most can be used with the Via Viagem travel card.
Currency: As an EU and Eurozone member, Portugal uses the Euro
Best time to travel: July and August are the sunniest but also the busiest months. Just before or after that and you’ll likely still ecounter great weather but slightly fewer people.
Water: like in any other European country, tap water is perfectly drinkable