Let me introduce you to Lisbon, the city of light, the new capital of cool, and also my second home. I get asked about Portugal often since I’m half Portuguese and that’s where my family lives. But this is the first time I’ve translated my text message tips into a blog post. I hope you will find this Lisbon guide useful, whether you’re brand new to the city or have been before. Perhaps it really is your first time, but I’m sure it won’t be your last.
How to Use This Lisbon Guide
One of the most special things you’ll notice about Lisbon is the light. They say that the light reflects off the river, collecting in a sort of topographic bowl from the seven hills that surround the city. There are many poetic as well as scientific articles trying to explain it or prove it, but I say just go see it for yourself.
Since this is a blog post and not a book, consider this Lisbon guide an introduction. Use it mostly for inspiration, since I also want to encourage you to explore the city on your own, by foot, through the alleyways and inside the quirky cafes you may stumble upon. Let your gut and your nose guide you. See what other people are eating and drinking. Where do they go? Follow them!
Although a lot has changed since I left, especially in Lisbon, many things have stayed exactly the same. Calçadas, the smell of grilled sardines and eucalyptus, ice-cold imperiais on the beach… are some of the things that will never change. These are the things that give Portugal its character. The shape of the pavement, azulejos, the smells… These are the things that keep me (and now you) coming back, to matar saudades you didn’t even realise you had.
When To Go
Lisbon is a good idea any time of the year, although July to December is my favourite time to visit. The best time to go really depends on what you prefer. Besides the weather, there are many different annual events, such as the November Web Summit, summer music festivals, football matches, Festas Populares and Sardines Festival, when Lisbon celebrates the matchmaking Saint Anthony and basically turns into one big street party! So as well as checking the weather, have a look at what events will be on before you book.
As one of the oldest cities in Europe, older than Rome, there is much to see. There are many beautiful monuments and museums dedicated to Portugal’s fascinating history as the first European explorers. I recommend spending at least a day or two visiting the sights and museums that interest you. For museums, try getting a head start, and for landmarks, come back in time for sunset to get the best photographs.
The best place to start your historical and cultural tour is Belém. Go early if you want to beat the tourist and cruise ship crowds. Probably the most touristic way to start your day would be with a ceremonial café and pastel de nata at Pastéis de Belém, where the custard tart was invented. For a less hectic experience, you can do the same thing at any kiosk or cafe.
The top sights to visit here are (1) Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, an impressive old monastery and Lisbon’s most popular attraction. (2) Torre de Belém and (3) Padrão dos Descobrimentos both best viewed from the outside, making stunning photographs around the sunrise/sunset hour. (4) Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT) and (5) Centro Cultural de Belém Museum are two museums worth visiting with interesting architecture. Check what exhibitions are on before you go.
When you’re finished sightseeing in Belem, take the train or taxi to (6) Praça do Comércio (the largest square in Europe) and walk through the beautiful (7) Rua Augusta Arch. Continue up Rua Augusta to the (8) Elevador de Santa Justa in Chiado (I would skip riding up the elevator unless this is something you really want to do).
If you manage to see all that in a day, I suggest leaving (9) Castelo de São Jorge and (10) the Museu National do Azulejo (Tile Museum) for the next.
Lisbon’s tourist zone is relatively small—mostly within walking distance—but since the city has several steep hills walking is not for everyone. Trams and taxis make getting around much easier. To help you find your way around, the main neighbourhood names you should know are…
Cais do Sodré: This is also where you can catch the train to Cascais. It used to be a bit of a downtrodden area with a red light district, but today it’s the most trendy place to go out for drinks, along Pink Street (Rua Cor de Rosa). And just around the corner, is where the old Mercado da Ribeira was transformed into the world’s first TimeOut Market.
Bairro Alto and Chiado: If you start at Praça Luís de Camões, Bairro Alto is the area up the hill to the north, while Chiado extends downhill to the east. These are the two most popular areas of Lisbon to stay, shop, eat and drink.
Príncipe Real: At the very top of Bairro Alto, Príncipe Real is another trendy area for restaurants, such as a Cevicheria. It is also where you can find my favourite miradouro (a type of outdoor balcony with city views) called São Pedro de Alcântara.
Alfama: This is the oldest neighbourhood of Lisbon, which most people visit combined with St George’s Castle. Other attractions include the maze-like city streets, restaurants and boutiques, and last but not least, Fado. Fado is an unusual type of Portuguese folk music. If you’re interested in seeing what it’s like, this is the place to find it.
A few other places of interest
LX Factory: a very trendy area for shops and restaurants, from hipster cafes to burgers and all you can eat sushi. It’s also a popular place for bars, gastrobars, cocktail bars, and nightclubs. Often compared to Shoreditch in London.
Sud Lisboa: an impressive, sophisticated new venue with a restaurant and infinity pool overlooking the 25 Abril bridge. Go early around 10 am to make sure you grab a sunbed!
Parque das Nações / Expo: Another general entertainment area for shopping, eating and drinking, and visiting the Aquarium or Lisbon Casino.
Colombo Shopping Centre: Once the largest mall in Europe, complete with an indoor roller-coaster, this place is worth a visit for mall nostalgists. Easily reached by metro.
Food & Drink
One of the things that surprise tourists the most about Portugal is how good the food is. We might be famous for our sardines, but we actually eat everything we find in the sea. The only way to get to know our food is to try it!
A Bit of Everything
TimeOut Market (Mercado da Ribeira): If you want to understand how a downtrodden, neglected corner of the city was transformed into the most popular place to be, you should read about Lisbon’s TimeOut market. The concept is a highly curated marketplace featuring the best food and drink in the city. TimeOut’s own editors hand-pick the selection of market stalls and restaurants featured here, which now attracts millions of tourists each year.
Bairro do Avillez*: Portugal’s most famous chef Jose Avillez—the first Portuguese chef to be honoured with two Michelin stars at his restaurant Belcanto—opened a similar concept here based around the best of Portugal under one roof. Inside the venue, there is a gourmet cheese and charcuterie store (Mercearia) and four restaurants (Taberna, Pateo, Beco, and Cantina Peruana) each offering something different. The first two are Portuguese, Beco is described as ‘gourmet cabaret’ requiring an advance ticket, while Cantina Peruana is (as the name suggests) Peruvian.
Solar dos Presuntos*: For an authentic, high-quality Portuguese dining experience in Lisbon, this is the place. It’s practically an institution. Open since 1974, they serve classic Portuguese dishes, specialising in both meat and fish. Everything is good here, so pick whatever you fancy or ask the waiter for his recommendations.
O Ramiro: O Ramiro and Solar dos Presuntos are the same type of restaurant, the creme de la creme of Portuguese cooking. However, O Ramiro specialise specifically in seafood. The Portuguese come here to feast. A typical order here looks something like this: garlic fried shrimps (Gambas à La Guilho), clams (Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato), crab (Sapateira), grilled tiger prawns (Camarão-tigre grelhado), deep-sea red prawns (Carabineros), goose barnacles (Percebes), oysters (Ostres) and a steak sandwich (Prego) to finish!
100 Maneiras Bistro*: There are two restaurants of the same name, one is the à la carte Bistro, the other is a tasting menu Restaurant. The Restaurant is a bit more serious, while the Bistro is where Serbian Chef Ljubomir Stanisic has a bit more fun. The Bistro was recently awarded the Number 1 prize in Monocle’s 2017 Restaurant Awards. The cuisine is modern and experimental, combining traditional elements from Portuguese, Yugoslavian, French and Italian gastronomy.
Leopold*: The story of this restaurant begins with no stove and just 4 tables. Of course, it is often when we are challenged that we become the most creative, which is certainly the case at Leopold. Recently, the restaurant moved to the boutique hotel Palácio Belmonte (by the São Jorge Castle), increasing the capacity from 10 to 22 diners. Although chef Tiago Feio now has a stove, he continues to impress with his minimalist cooking style and original take on modern Portuguese cuisine.
A Cevicheria: One of the most exciting top Portuguese chefs right now is Kiko Martins. Kiko trained in top kitchens including Heston Blumenthal’s three-Michelin star Fat Duck before taking Lisbon by storm. Today he has three popular restaurants, O Talho, a Cevicheria and most recently, O Asiático. A Cevicheria is inside a small space offering innovative Peruvian ceviche under a giant octopus.
Bica do Sapato*: This restaurant is located next door to Lisbon’s coolest nightclub LUX. Both are managed by the same team and count John Malkovich among its owners. Despite opening around 15 years ago, it continues to be a top trendy restaurant with three different dining spaces: the Cafeteria, Restaurant and Sushi Bar. If you’re looking for a late dinner and plan on heading to the club after (and before the 2 am queues begin) why not come here?
Day Trips Outside of Lisbon
Lisbon is a fantastic city, but a city nonetheless. You’ll have to leave the centre if you want to spend a day on the beach or check out some of the other attractions nearby. If you have time for a day trip or two outside the city, here’s what I recommend…
Go to the beach
Portugal is famous for its beautiful beaches, but you won’t find any in Lisbon. It’s about a 20 minute drive to the nearest beach, either crossing the bridge to Costa da Caparica or travelling west along the coast towards Cascais. My favourite beaches are just past Cascais, Guincho and Crismina, as well as Praia Grande further up north. If you’re going to make it a beach day, always check the beach cams first to make sure the conditions are ok.
Visit the Costa do Sol
The popular summer resort towns of Cascais and Estoril are the last two stops on the train from Cais do Sodre. In Estoril, the main attractions are the Casino and Tamariz beach. From there, you can walk along the seaside promenade to Cascais, popular for its small bay-like beaches, restaurants, pubs and bars. Visit the town centre, the marina, Condes de Castro Guimarães Museum, Marechal Carmona gardens, and the old fort.
Both towns are incredibly picturesque, with a royal and aristocratic legacy still evident in the architecture. If visiting during summertime, look out for the hot dog stand along the coastal road just past Cascais towards Casa da Guia, and don’t come back to Lisbon without having a Santini ice cream!
Palaces and Gardens of Sintra
Before the Royals built their summer houses in Estoril and Cascais, they lived in Palaces and Castles up in the mountains of Sintra. Some of the top places to visit include: the old town centre, Palácio da Pena, Quinta Regaleira, Castle of the Moors, and Monserrate Palace & Gardens. My favourite thing about the Palaces is actually the gardens, which you can easily spend several hours exploring. However, due to the Instagram-effect, these attractions have become incredibly popular. Set off early in the morning to leave enough time and hopefully beat some of the traffic and queues.
Useful Portuguese Phrases
Hello – Olá
How are you – Tudo bem?
Thank you – Obrigada (if you are a woman) Obrigado (man)
You’re welcome – De nada
Good morning – Bom dia
Good evening – Bom noite
Excuse me – Com licença
Do you have any questions about Lisbon?
Ask me in the comments below!