I would bet that a Lisbon City Guide, or Portugal in general, is not on your list of must-visit European destinations. It doesn’t have the romantic allure that thoughts of visits to France or Italy evoke, but that is only because so few of us really know about this magical place where castles still rise above the walled cities below, narrow cobblestone streets lead you toward the sounds of ancient music, and an afternoon can totally be centered around a good espresso and a simple pastry with a secret recipe.
There’s way more to Lisbon than meets the eye, but if you start with this Lisbon City Guide you are guaranteed to come away with the perfect mix of culture, food, and relaxation.
Lisbon City Guide
There are many different areas of Lisbon where you can rest your head at night, but we chose the Alfama district. Known as the oldest part of Lisbon, birthplace to Portugal’s famous Fado music, and a central location to most of the sights, Alfama proved to be the perfect mix between old and new.
We stayed at an Airbnb nearby, but if you are interested in a hotel in the area look no further than Memmo Alfama. Tucked away on one of the many narrow, cobblestoned side streets that make up Lisbon, the Memmo Alfama is the perfect base from which to explore the city.
With a minimal, modern design aesthetic of tans and crisp whites, you can’t help but to relax. If you need any further boost, head to the second floor terrace overlooking the Tagus River and surrounding Lisbon below.
Here, you will find a small swimming pool, lounge chairs and tables for lunch, dinner or cocktails. Catching the sunset with a glass of port or champagne in hand will reinforce your good decision to stay here.
The idea of brunch isn’t really one that has taken root here. We found most restaurants didn’t open until 10am and the offering was much more geared to a quick espresso and pastry (like the ubiquitous pastel de nata-a sweet, egg custard tart with a caramelized top) than a mimosa and eggs benedict.
No bother, though, because after a late night drinking local Portuguese wines (more on that later) and listening to the haunting melancholic sounds of Fado you will probably sleep in.
If you’re a coffee and full breakfast type of person, you might want to gravitate to a Western hotel chain or one of the central plazas that have adapted to tourist requests, but what fun is that?
Take a walk around your neighborhood until you find a café bustling with locals and find a seat. Our favorite spot was Pois Cafe in Alfama, where the eclectic mix of artwork and furniture mirrored the multi-national clientele we shared a communal table with.
Order your coffee of choice (be aware that the Portuguese like their espresso STRONG-it’s too bitter for me so I opt for a cappuccino or latte) and a tosta mista (basically local ham and cheese on toasted bread-add egg if you want).
More the type to grab a venti latte and banana on the go? Good luck to you. The Portuguese frown upon drinking or eating while walking. I’m not sure I ever saw a to-go cup.
If you’re in a hurry, tell them you want to take your coffee there at the counter and they’ll serve it to you where you stand, but you might as well take a seat and enjoy your coffee while you try to give your legs a pep talk for the steep streets you will be climbing all day.
If you live or have spent any time in a major city, you have probably come across TimeOut magazine. Best known for their curated “best of” lists, the editors of TimeOut Lisbon turned their digital opinions into a real-life experience via their TimeOut Market.
Located just off of the Tagus River and in a converted bus terminal, the market reminds one of San Francisco’s Ferry Building or an old-school beer hall.
They have taken the best purveyors of Portuguese products (paper, books, clothing, soaps, etc.), food (seafood, ham, cheese, meats, etc.) and drinks (port, still wines, beer, and spirits) and given them a space to showcase what they do best.
Grab a beer or glass of wine on the way in, do a loop to see which place or places pique your interest, and away you go. A lot of the menus at the local restaurants are the same so being able to try some of the most innovative takes on Portuguese cuisine under one roof was time well spent. You’re close to the sea so now is the time to load up on seafood.
Tip: there are three restaurants facing the river that have terrace seating. Snack your way over there and then order a bottle of wine and soak up the sun while you plot your next move.
Like most big cities, Lisbon has been influenced by the craft cocktail resurgence but it’s not their specialty. You’ll find caipirinhas, mojitos, and the like on offer for happy hour, but I would suggest enjoying the local wine and ports as much as possible.
My favorite white wine was the simple Vinho Verde-crisp, light, and with a touch of effervescence. It is a perfect pairing for all the seafood you will be eating. At under €10 per bottle at most restaurants, it’s a steal.
The reds are just as good and you can easily find a Vin Tinto from the Douro Valley a couple hours north of Lisbon for €12 or less.
For me, cocktail hour is all about location and being on or near the water is just about perfect. If you’re in the central plaza of Lisbon, you might like to people watch over a mojito at one of the many restaurants circling the plaza or take a cue from the mobile cocktail cart (pictured above) and take your cocktail to the steps overlooking the Tagus River and watch the day go by.
Looking for something a little more polished? Try the Decadente Restaurant & Bar in the hip Bairro Alta district. They serve great local cuisine here as well, but if you can grab a seat on one of the communal tables outside you can enjoy your cocktail, live music, and maybe meet some fellow travelers too!
If you’ve been out walking Lisbon all day, chances are your body is pretty tired by the time dinner rolls along. Indulge in a short nap if you’re able to as the Portuguese (like the Spanish) don’t start thinking about dinner until around 9pm.
We went to a few fun dinners, but the most memorable was one we stumbled upon after deciding we didn’t want to venture too far from our flat.
Ao Pe de Sé was located just a short walk away on a slope facing the walls of the Cattderale di Lisbona all the tuk tuks stopped at. As the light lit up the stone walls across the way and the faint sounds of Fado music rose up from the streets below, we knew we had to stop.
Focusing on seafood (much of it raw), we dined on an excellent mixed-fish ceviche, tuna tartar, and salmon carpaccio. It was the best food we had in Lisbon by far.
I consider myself a coffee person, but the Portuguese take this label to a whole other level. First of all, keep in mind that the term coffee refers more generally to a shot of espresso. Despite the culture that has developed around coffee, it isn’t very common to see standalone coffee shops.
Most restaurants, cafés, and bars make espresso. It is not unusual to see the locals popping into a local café throughout the day for a little boost (3-5 per day seems to be the norm).
So, if you are looking for something a little less high octane, make note of how to order what you are looking for. The closest approximation of a latte is either the “meia de leite” (half coffee, half milk, foam on top) or “um galão” (one-quarter coffee, three-quarters milk, foam on top).
If that fails, you can always go with a standard cappuccino. That term seems to be universal.
After you’ve walked the streets of Lisbon, take a ride on the famous Tram 28. This cable car will give you a ride up and down the streets of Lisbon taking you through historic neighborhoods.
The ride lasts about about 45 minutes and has about 30 stops throughout the city where you can jump on. The ticket cost under €5 and you can pay the driver on board, in cash.
Have an additional half-day to explore? Buy a ticket and board a boat to travel west on the Tagus River to visit the town of Bélem.
Not only will you receive a beautiful panoramic view of the city, you will get a wonderful view of the 25 de Abril bridge, a canny resemblance to the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Cristo Rei Statue inspired by the Christ the King statue in Rio de Janeiro.
Bélem is home to many historic sites including the Jerónimos Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Tower of Belém, a military outpost built to protect the Tagus Estuary from pirates and enemy attacks. You can buy tickets to explore each destination more in depth with a tour of each monument.
Whatever you do, don’t leave Bélem without trying the pastel de nata from Pastéis de Bélem. You can’t beat the original.
If you don’t have a CP pass already, then you need to stand in line at the ticket office to buy both the train ticket and the pass. The trains run pretty frequently so you can just show up to the station.
Once you arrive to the train station in Sintra, turn to your right to board the 434 bus which cost €5 per person, paid in cash to the driver. The 434 bus is the public transportation option that stops at three destinations in a circular route.
We skipped the first stop and exited the bus at the Moorish Castle. Little did we know that you needed to purchase a ticket for both the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace, so we waited in long lines at both. I suggest purchasing your tickets online in advance of your visit.
After walking around the Moorish Castle for about 45 minutes, we walked uphill to the Pena Palace instead of boarding the 434 bus. It was definitely an uphill haul but would have taken longer to get back on the bus.
Due to large crowds, we decided not to tour inside the palace but instead enjoyed exterior views and the Sherwood Forest-esque grounds surrounding the palace.
A Vida Portuguesa is a one-stop shop to stock up on locally-made, handcrafted products for your home or personal use. Also keep your eyes open for any local shops selling handcrafted Portuguese tiles, known as azulejos, as this is what the area is known for.
Should you need to pick up anything else while you are here, don’t fret. The central shopping district just a few blocks off of the main plaza is dotted with the likes of H&M, Zara, and Mango. You’ll find whatever you are looking for.