With its stunning setting, sunny climate and an alluring mixture of old world charms and hip nightlife, it is no surprise that Lisbonhas moved into the top league of city break destinations. Lisbon has always been one of the most affordable of Europe’s capitals, but its rise in popularity has also seen a hike in prices. Follow these tips for free things to do in Lisbon, however, and you can squeeze even more from this exciting city.
It’s not often that you can get up close to original works by the likes of Picasso, Dalí, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko, but wealthy Madeiran Joe Berardo’s art collection at the Colecção Berardo allows you to do just that. The modern gallery in the suburb of Belém includes some of the biggest names in contemporary art, and it is completely free (except for some temporary exhibits).
The small but fascinating Núcleo Arqueológico museum lies hidden under a modern bank at Rua dos Correeiros 9 in the heart of Lisbon’s Baixa district. You need to book for the twice-weekly guided visits, then it’s a free delve into the past, revealing Roman fish-preserving tanks, ancient burial sites and rickety wooden pillars that keep central Lisbon from sinking.
Rua Augusta is the main pedestrianised shopping street that links the central Rossio square with the riverfront Praça do Comércio. Find a perch and it’s a fine place to watch the world go by, and to add to the entertainment you’ll encounter a succession of buskers, street performers, artists and musicians.
Lisboetas still do much of their shopping at the markets that can be found in many of the city’s outlying districts, and these are great places to sample local produce, not to mention local characters. The most central food market is the Mercado da Ribeira near the riverfront Cais do Sodré, though best of all is the Tuesday and Saturday morning Feira da Ladra, a rambling, ramshackle flea market selling everything from broken alarm clocks to antiques from Portugal’s former colonies.
The city’s top attractions can be pricy, but most also have one morning a week when it’s free to enter. On the first Sunday of each month, you can catch the big sights for nothing, including the Museu Nacional do Azulejo tile museum, the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Belém, the Torre de Belém and the unmissable art collection of the Museu Gulbenkian.
Lisbon has a vibrant festival calendar with stacks of free concerts and events throughout the summer. The biggest and best bash is for the city’s adopted patron saint, Santo António (June 12-13), with parades and parties in most districts. The best of these is in the narrow streets of the Alfama, when the whole area becomes a giant open-air party filled with food stalls and dancing locals.
The Tagus waterfront has opened up in recent years, and you can now walk all the way from the central Praça do Comércio to the historic suburb of Belém where Portugal’s great navigators departed on their adventures. The best stretch is the pedestrianised path from the lively Doca de Santo Amaro below the Ponte 25 de Abril, to the Torre de Belém, about a 30-minute walk.
Do as the city’s elderly do and find a perch at one of Lisbon’s many miradouros (viewpoints). Lisbon straddles a series of hills and most of them have at least one viewpoint area, often with a kiosk café. The best of these are the Miradouro de Santa Luzia, with dazzling views over the Alfama; the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, overlooking the Baixa; and the Miradouro de Santa Catarina, the favoured spot for Lisbon’s guitar-strumming bohemians.
Some of Portugal’s best beaches are a short ride from the capital. Easiest to get to are the sands at glitzy Estoril and buzzy Cascais, both accessible on a fantastic train line that hugs the Tagus estuary all the way to the Atlantic. Many locals prefer the breakers that pound Caparica, a high-rise resort popular with surfers.
The beach resort of Cascais offers free bike hire daily from 8am. You’ll need to show ID, then you can explore the former fishing village or head up the coast to the excellent sandy beach at Guincho to the north.
You can explore more of Lisbon with our pocket guide and see the rest of the country with the Rough Guide to Portugal. Find hostels in Lisbon here, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.