With over 300 days of sunshine per year, there’s a reason why Lisbon is so popular among travelers. Top that with breathtaking views from any of the viewpoints up on one of its seven hills, mouth-watering cuisine mixing Mediterranean, Indian, African, and Brazilian influences, impressive culture and architecture, and you’re in the presence of one of the most diverse European capitals.
Often portrayed like a lady in literature and Fado songs, Lisbon lures you in through the windy and narrow streets of Alfama, the city’s oldest quarter, to a split-second later surprise you with hidden pieces of street art. If you’re planning on visiting Lisbon soon, these are the 10 best things to do in Portugal’s capital city.
1) Indulge in the most famous custard tarts in town
It’s not every day that you have the opportunity to try freshly-baked custard tarts that follow a secret recipe from the 19th century. No matter what they tell you, that pasteis de nata are the same thing anywhere in town, don’t take their word for it. “Pasteis de Belem” is the place to go in Lisbon.
Have one with coffee at the counter (sprinkling cinnamon is optional but a must-try) and buy a pack of six to go.
Insider tip: Go earlier than 9 a.m., before the tourist crowds begin to arrive.
(Read more: If you have a sweet tooth here are 20+ Portuguese cakes and pastries to try on while you are in Portugal.)
2) Admire “Manueline” architecture in all its glory in Belém
There is no other monument in Lisbon as spectacular as the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (Hieronymites Monastery). In fact, that’s the very first thing you see the second you reach the center of Belém.
One of the best examples of Portuguese Late-Gothic architecture (or “Manueline”), you’ll easily see why this monastery is one of the most visited monuments in Lisbon. Closer to the river, about a 15-minute walk from the monastery, you can visit another Manueline monument, the Torre de Belem (Belem Tower).
Insider tip: Be the first to visit or buy the tickets online to save some time waiting in line.
3) Find out how the city reinvents itself at the urban, hipster-centric Lx Factory
Since the Great Earthquake of 1755, that destroyed all of the city’s downtown (except Alfama), Lisbon has the tendency to reinvent itself. In recent years, Lisbonners have begun to pay closer attention to the city’s industrial heritage and repurposing it for shops, offices, and co-work spaces.
Lx Factory was one of the first urban projects, under the iron-red bridge of 25 de Abril, housing restaurants, design shops, offices, and a significant collection of street art pieces scattered around exposed-brick buildings.
Insider tip: Visit here the most Instagrammable bookstores in Lisbon, Ler Devagar
4) Scout for gourmet treats and antique treasures in Santos
“Pasteis de Nata” are a great treat but not the best souvenir to take home after your trip and fridge magnets have lost their charm a couple of decades ago. Nothing says more “I thought of you when I was in Lisbon” than a symbolic antique or a gourmet treat that you can only find in Portugal.
Dubbed as Lisbon’s Design District, in Santos you will find anything and everything from old books to design pieces to boutique-sized grocery stores selling local products.
Insider tip: Take time to explore Rua do Poço dos Negros, the street in Lisbon to source original souvenirs from custom tea blend Lisbon Breakfast at Companhia Portugueza do Chá to canned goods at Mercearia do Poço dos Negros.
5) Pick your leafy cobblestoned square in Chiado and relax
Great weather means Lisbon’s squares in Chiado are the best place to be to relax in the afternoon. The black-and-white cobblestones and the shade of the leafy trees are the perfect dreamy setting to watch the time go by.
Insider tip: If you just feel like sitting and relaxing, perhaps with a book, look for a square without a café. It will most likely be quieter.
6) Spot Lisbon’s famous orange roofs from the top
Lisbon is called the city of seven hills since the time of the Ancient Romans so it’s no wonder there are more than 30 paid and free spots to see the city from the top.
There are a bunch of official miradouros (viewpoints) but really any place in Lisbon with the right angle can be the perfect spot.
Insider tip: Climbing hills can be exhausting after a while, use the trams (Lavra, Glória, and Bica) or the elevators at Baixa to save some time (and your legs).
7) Don’t fall for the tapas, choose petiscos instead
There’s a tendency to call the Portuguese petiscos (the Portuguese word for snacks), tapas but they couldn’t be further apart from one another. The local cuisine is so diversified that there is no need to try to compare it with the dishes from the neighboring Spain.
Look for restaurants that clearly state petiscos (or snacks) on the menu and not Portuguese tapas. That’s one way of assessing the place’s authenticity.
Insider tip: Portions are usually generous in Portugal and Lisbon is no exception. You can easily have a full meal just by trying different kinds of petiscos.
8) Ginjinha at Rossio. It’s a classic!
There’s a tiny corner bar in Rossio Square that’s been serving the same kind of ginjinha for centuries and it’s a must-stop for everyone visiting. Drink this sweet cherry liquor in one shot, preferably with a stomach full because the drink is sweet and the alcohol content is high.
Insider tip: Serving ginjinha in chocolate cups is not a Lisbon tradition. You can try it if you’re curious, but don’t miss the opportunity of trying the real thing in Rossio too.
9) Feel the Fado, from the heart
Listening to live Fado music, the urban song of Portugal classified as UNESCO World Heritage, while nibbling on some cheese and olives, paired with the finest house red wine, is one of the most coveted experiences in Lisbon.
Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, let yourself be cradled by the melancholic melody of a music genre that started on the bohemian streets of Mouraria.
Insider tip: Not all restaurants advertising live Fado hire good singers or have good food. Avoid the tourist traps and get local recommendations.
10) Hit the quirky bars at Bairro Alto and Cais do Sodré
The bar scene at Bairro Alto and at Cais do Sodré’s “Pink Street” is always bustling from Thursdays to Saturdays until 2 am. The places are so small, that the streets quickly get packed with beer-holding bar-goers who prefer to stand outside and mingle than to try to make conversation inside a crowded and noisy place.
The bars and restaurants come in all shapes and sizes, each with its distinctive design and quirky backstory, particularly the ones in Cais do Sodré, Lisbon’s version of the red-light district until not long ago.
Insider tip: Although the area is pretty active, locals go out often from Thursday onward. Unless you want to spend time with other tourists rather than with Lisbonners, Thursdays to Saturdays are the best days to hang out.
Sandra is based in Lisbon and is the writer, blogger, and storyteller behind Tripper, a blog on cultural travel (often to offbeat destinations) aiming to inspire independent travelers. Her focus is on the destinations’ cultural diversity, historical richness and the communities that help to build and sustain it. Follow her adventures on Facebook | Pinterest | Instagram | Twitter.
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