I first visited Portugal in 2017. It was my last stop in Europe during my nearly yearlong round-the-world backpacking trip, so the memories were bittersweet. On the one hand, I had four months of unimaginable adventure waiting for me in South America, the next continent on my itinerary. But on the other, I was already concluding the first portion of a trip of a lifetime—and leaving behind a continent I had fallen deeply in love with.
Needless to say, the couple of days I spent in Lisbon back then are now a blur. That tends to happen when tons of emotions are thrown in the mix. When I found out I’d be spending the holidays in Lisbon this year, I was excited to experience this city once again. This time, I’d remember all the top things to do in Lisbon and share them all with you. I’d be fully present, cherishing every sunset, every blue-tiled building, and every last bite of bacalhau.
Why visit Lisbon?
The city sightseeing. Lisbon has a unique European charm, with tiny alleyways and cobblestoned streets cutting through rows of colorful buildings dressed in Portuguese azulejos, the glazed ceramic tiles unique to the country. There’s an endless amount of city sightseeing to be done, with certain parts making you feel like you’ve traveled back in time.
The weather. It’s a sunny city. Summers are hot and winters are mild. Even in December, temperatures rarely drop below 50 degrees, and rainy days are few and far between.
The views. Lisbon is known as the city of seven hills. The city was built in layers among them, which makes for several beautiful viewpoints sprinkled throughout the city called miradouros. Each give you a different perspective over Lisbon’s uniformly orange rooftops, with the Tagus River always in sight.
It’s affordable. Portugal is one of the most affordable countries I’ve visited in Europe. Even with the euro overpowering the U.S. dollar, most things like food, alcohol and gifts are still much cheaper than what I pay in the U.S.
The seafood. There are few places in the world where I’ve eaten as well as I have in Portugal. The list includes New York and Montreal, and Lisbon is up there with them. Portugal’s location on the edge of Europe means it has access to an abundant supply of fresh seafood from the Atlantic Ocean. I pivot to a 100 percent fish-based diet when I visit, and it’s a diet I could truly live on if I called Lisbon home. If you’re not a big fan of fish and seafood, there are plenty of other dishes like chicken doused in spicy piri piri sauce, garlicky pork sandwiches, and the famed pasteis de nata for dessert.
The nearby beaches. Portugal is home to some of the most stunning beaches in the world, and a number of them can be found a quick drive from Lisbon. Praia do Guincho, Cabo da Roca and Praia da Ursa are my personal favorites.
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Best time to visit Lisbon
There’s really no bad time to visit Lisbon. Some experts suggest visiting during the shoulder months between March and May, when there are less tourists and the temperature hovers between the 50s to 70s. Even in December when I visited, the temperature rarely dropped below 50 degrees. Summer brings optimal beach weather but tons of tourists. Expect long lines and crowded streets.
How many days should you spend there?
You can probably see all of Lisbon in about three days—but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t allot more time to visit. Because there are so many intriguing attractions nearby, such as the charming coastal town of Cascais, beaches like Guincho and Ursa, and the castles of Sintra, I’d suggest to save a few days for day trips outside the city. Five days would be ideal; a week even better.
Basic tips for visiting Lisbon
The spoken language in Lisbon is Portuguese, and it’s a different dialect than Brazilian Portuguese. Most restaurants and attractions have menus/signs written in English, too. Here are additional helpful tips for visiting Lisbon:
- 1 USD currently equals about 0.90 Euros
- Most places accept credit cards
- Public transportation is easy to use, though taxis, tuk-tuks and Ubers are also readily available
- It’s a hilly city! Keep that in mind when packing shoes
- Tram No. 28 is the most popular with tourists as it passes several popular attractions, however it can be very crowded
- Miradouros means “viewpoints.” Follow these signs for the best views of the city
- There are often elevators that take you from one bottom layer of the city to the top one—seriously, the city is built in layers! These elevators often look like the entrance of a building or mall, but they’re useful transportation methods to hop between neighborhoods.
- Buy travel insurance! My go-to is Yonder, an agency that helps me find the best travel insurance that meets my trip’s needs
Top things to do in Lisbon
Below are my recommendations for the top things to do in Lisbon—especially if it’s your first time visiting. Read on to also see my recommendations if you only have one day in Lisbon.
Ride the No. 28 tram
The iconically yellow No. 28 tram is the most popular with tourists as it passes through several neighborhoods, giving you a chance to witness local life happening around you. Be warned: The tram was so packed when I visited that we didn’t make it on!
Wander through Alfama
Alfama is the oldest district in Lisbon, a charming maze of narrow and steep cobblestoned streets to get wonderfully lost in. Stop by the Miradouro das Portas do Sol to watch the sunset over the Tagus River.
Take in the views from Lisbon’s miradouros
Lisbon’s miradouros (viewpoints) are sprinkled throughout the city. The aforementioned Miradouro das Portas do Sol is one of the best, as is the one on top of the Santa Justa Elevator, which I address later in this post. Others include the Miradouro da Graça and Miradouro da Senhora do Monte. They’re all spectacular.
Visit St. George’s Castle
The Game of Thrones-esque castle towers over Lisbon and can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. The castle served as a royal palace for several generations of Lisbon’s conquerors, and today, you can walk along its walls and climb its towers for more views over the city. The gardens make for a beautiful sunset spot; there’s a tiny shack that sells wine on site.
Ascensor da Bica
Hop on the Ascensor da Bica for a picturesque funicular ride up one of Lisbon’s steepest hills via Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo. The entrance is located at Rua de São Paulo, 234, tucked into a yellow arch with a sign reading Ascensor da Bica in big green letters. You can buy tickets on the spot.
Praça do Comércio
The Praça do Comércio can’t be missed. The big plaza is lined with iconic yellow buildings, located right on the Tagus River, with a giant arc marking the entrance to the touristy Rua Augusta, where you’ll find plenty of shops and (probably overpriced) restaurants.
Visit the Torre de Belém
One of the more famous landmarks in Portugal, the Torre de Belém is a postcard Lisbon monument. The Gothic-looking structure was built in the 1500s to defend the city. It was closed when I visited, though I still caught a beautiful sunset from the riverside square adjacent to it. You can get there by taking tram line 15, or bus lines 27, 28, 29, 43, 49, 51 and 112 from the city.
Wander through the Jeronimos Monastery
Less than a mile away from Belem Tower you’ll find Jeronimos Monastery, a gorgeous former monastery featuring some of the most impressive architecture in Portugal. Inside, a maze of intricate white arches make for stunning photos. You can get there using line 15 on the tram; bus lines 727, 28, 729, 714 and 751; or Cascáis train line to Belem. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to make it inside, so if you go, please let me know how it is!
Eat pastéis de Belém where they were originally created
The longstanding bakery named after the famous pastry, Pastéis de Belém, sits next to the monastery and pumps out the gold standard for the Portuguese tarts. Here, they’re made from a secret recipe that was derived by monks at the monastery centuries ago—only a few people in the world know the recipe.
Things to skip in Lisbon
Elevador de Santa Justa
This elevator is one of the top tourist attractions in Lisbon, but the lines are long and move ridiculously slow. We spent over an hour waiting to ride the elevator (there are two, each carrying 18 passengers and running every ten minutes—they claim!) only to find out we could’ve accessed the viewpoint from Bairro Alto without it. To do this, put this restaurant in your Google Maps: “Bellalisa Elevador – Restaurante Panorâmico em Lisboa.” Walk through the archway, and you’ll see the metal platform that takes you to a terrace. While the view from the terrace is nice, you’ll want to walk up the spiral staircase to get the real view. Here you’ll have to pay a couple of Euros to someone sitting next to the stairs—but no need to wait in that crazy line downstairs.
One day in Lisbon
If you have just one day in Lisbon, I would make sure to hit the following attractions:
- Head to Time Out Market for breakfast
- Hop on the nearby Ascensor da Bica to get a feel for the hilly city
- Stop by Manteigaria or Confeitaria Nacional for pastéis de nata
- Catch a ride on tram No. 28 to see the city’s different neighborhoods
- Grab lunch at a local tasca (traditional restaurant) like A Merendinha do Arco Bandeira
- Check out Praça do Comércio
- Wander through the old district of Alfama to get transported back in time
- Stop by the Miradouro das Portas do Sol
- Head to St George’s Castle just in time for sunset
Best places to stay in Lisbon
Both times I visited Lisbon I stayed outside the city; once in a family member’s apartment in the town of Cascais and this time in an Airbnb that hugged the coast of Cascais. I often use TripSavvy as a resource when planning trips, and this blog post nicely summarizes the best regions to stay in the city. I truly loved the charming Alfama district, and that’s most likely where I’ll stay next.
Where to eat in Lisbon
There are so many incredible restaurant options in Lisbon, but here are a few of my favorites from this trip:
- Head to Pastéis de Belém for the best Portuguese pastries
- Time Out Market holds all of the best local food under one roof, from traditional dishes like bacalhau (cod fish) to food from other parts of the world like pad Thai
- A Merendinha do Arco Bandeira delivers a very local lunch experience, dishing out fresh fish and homey meals that feel like your grandmother made them
- Cervejaria Trindade—located inside an ornately decorated 13th century convent—is the oldest beer hall in Lisbon serving traditional Portuguese cuisine
- Tascantiga was my all-time favorite restaurant, but it’s located in Sintra. It’s a local-feeling, tapas-style affair, the kind of place where the bread is served in a bag of cloth. Every single dish we ordered—sausage, grilled octopus, garlic shrimp, fig-infused cheese, french fries—was absolutely incredible
Best Lisbon day trips
Lisbon is a city surrounded by charming towns like Sintra and Cascais that make for great day trips. These are the top two Lisbon day trips I’d recommend—I personally believe both are a must on any visit to Lisbon.
Day trip to Sintra
Sintra is a fantastic Lisbon day trip to take. The hilly Sintra region is home to popular attractions like the fairytale Palácio da Pena, Castelo dos Mouros and Quinta da Regaleira. These palaces are all worth a visit, though you may not have enough time to hit all three in one day. They get very crowded, especially Pena Palace, even in December when I visited. The town itself is lovely to wander around—by foot, as its historic center, the most charming part, is not very car-friendly. Make sure to eat at my favorite restaurant, Tascantiga. To get to Sintra from Lisbon, you can take the train. I wouldn’t recommend driving as parking is scarce, and you can’t get to any of the palaces by car.
Day trip to Cascais
Cascais is another wonderful Lisbon day trip option. Cascais is a traditional Portuguese coastal town with beautiful homes, delicious restaurants and a charming downtown area. Other than exploring the city’s downtown area and walking along its beach, there are many other attractions nearby like Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe; the stunning but hard to get to Praia da Ursa right next door; and Praia do Guincho, an expansive sandy stretch of paradisiacal beach. You can get to Cascais by train from Lisbon, though you’ll have to take a bus (403) to Cabo da Roca. Or you can drive and explore the entire region, including further beaches like the rocky (and gorgeous) Praia da Adraga.
Have you been to Lisbon? Did I miss one of the top things to do in the city? Let me know in the comments!
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I’m suppose to visit Portugal at the end of June and your post was so helpful! With everything that’s going on I’m not sure I’ll still be going, but I am suppose to go for two weeks. If I do still go I’m definitely gonna check out so more of your content. Thanks for all the useful information and stay safe out there!
Jenessa / smilesmileaway
Carla Vianna says
Oh girl, I know the feeling! I have two trips coming up that I probably won’t be able to go on 🙁 I hope you can still make it to Portugal, though! It’s an incredible country! 💛
Helder Goncalves says
Have a taste at ginjinha in largo São Domingos next to rossio plaza. It’s a hole in the wall ask for “com elas” meaning with ginjas —a sour cherry.
Travel one hour Norte to São Martinho do Porto and have fresh bass off the fisherman in the restaurant at the beach—don’t go in the summer—too crowded.