Excellent.Have you noticed that Lisbon is having a moment? If not, where have you been? For the past three years the Portuguese capital has been slowly climbing up all the “best-of” lists. Tourists numbers reached a record 20 million people in 2017 (according to a report from the Portuguese tourism industry) while the country’s resident population is just 10 million. Many visitors to Portugal head straight to Lisbon, charmed by its mosaic pavements, spectacular waterfront location and of course the ubiquitous custard tarts, pasteis de nata. Some of arrive in their hordes via cruise ships, but for weekend visitors hoping to uncover a more authentic experience, there’s still a lot to love here. Read on for some slightly more undiscovered things to do in Lisbon.
While Lisbon might look like it’s on the ocean, the wide swath of sometimes-green, sometimes-grey water that abuts the city is actually the Tagus river estuary (or Tejo in Portuguese), that flows out to the Atlantic some 20 km downstream.
On the far side of the river is Almada, a sleepy town that’s mostly home to commuter apartments. Take the ferry across (it’s part of the city’s transit system), then walk along the (slightly dilapidated) riverfront. Soon you'll come across a couple of restaurants with stellar views of the Lisbon skyline. Our favourite is Ponto Final. Waiters serve up Portuguese classics like polvo a lagareiro (baked octopus with herby garlic potatoes) and crisp glasses of vinho verde while you get an unbeatable view of the city. It’s a win-win.
A former factory complex turned into a stylish, street-art covered shopping and restaurant zone, LX factory is Lisbon at its most hipster. You can get a tattoo, order an artisanal burger, or sip a porto-tonico (white port and tonic) at rooftop bar Rio Maravilha. Hipster credentials aside, LX factory has a welcoming atmosphere, enhanced on weekends when stalls selling organic produce and vintage clothing spring up along the factory’s main street.
For a glimpse into the past – and the spirit – of Lisbon, head to the ruined convent at Largo de Carmo. The church was founded in 1389 and built over the following decade before being severely damaged by the 1755 earthquake that flattened the central Baixa neighbourhood. It was never fully rebuilt, and now the eerie vaults of the central hall reach up against the sky like the ribs of some prehistoric creature.
There’s a small museum on site with ancient artifacts uncovered in the city, along with a pair of gruesome child mummies, but the convent ruins are the main attraction. Step into the shop for a great view over the city.
Like Rome, Lisbon is a city built on seven hills, and each one offers a spectacular view. With over 300 days of sunshine a year, Lisbon is one of the best cities in Europe to catch a golden sunset. Basking in the orange glow at the end of a busy day is a favourite ritual here.
The city is home to many miradouros or viewpoints where you’ll find a corner kiosk selling cold beers and snacks, and folding chairs and tables set out for people coming to enjoy the view. Ask any local and they'll tell you it's one of their favourite things to do in Lisbon.
One of our favourite places to get a beer outdoors is Miradouro Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, behind a church in the neighborhood of Graça. Named for a Portuguese poet and writer who lived nearby, on warm evenings the terrace is filled with lively chatter and music and people gather to watch the sun disappear behind the hills opposite.
One of the best things to do in Lisbon doesn’t involve the city at all; rather the many beaches that can be explored nearby. You’ll need a car to reach some of the wildest and most beautiful (more on that later), but even if you’re dependent on public transport there are still plenty of options.
30 minutes west of the city along the commuter train line are the chic towns of Cascais and Estoril. Praia Tamariz in Estoril is a wide sandy stretch with umbrellas for rent and plenty of beachside cafes. It's a popular swimming spot – though be warned, the Atlantic Ocean is nowhere near as warm as the Med! At Praia de Conceição in Cascais you’ll find paddleboards for rent to take out into the bay.
If you have your own wheels, there are two main options. Either head north west past the town of Sintra or south over the 25 Abril bridge towards Sétubal.
Praia da Adraga, near Sintra, is a picturesque bay surrounded by jutting rocks. Popular with local families, there’s room for everyone and a small cafe-restaurant. The beach is particularly beautiful at sunrise and sunset when the low golden rays light up the sand and cliffs.
Towards Sétubal, Arrabida Natural Park is home to several beaches that wouldn’t look out of place in the Greek Islands. The water is limpid turquoise and the surrounding forest adds to the feeling that you’ve stumbled on a hidden gem. In high season you have to park up and walk down to the beaches. A favourite is Galapinhos – the name means “little Galapagos” in Portuguese.
Inspired by our list of things to do in Lisbon? Try our new tailor-made travel service and enjoy a fully personalised trip planned by a local expert.
Top image: Lisbon Skyline as seen from Almada © INTERPIXELS/Shutterstock