Travel to Lisbon and you’ll find mainland Europe’s westernmost capital is a fascinating and inspiring place to spend a few days. This is thanks to its wonderful waterfront location, balmy climate and quirky range of attractions that combine a place-that-time-forgot feel with a modern vibrancy that few European cities can match.
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Lisbon retains one foot firmly in the early 1900s. Its hills and cobbled alleys are still served by ancient trams and funiculars that rattle along streets where old-fashioned shops and cafés far outnumber the multinationals. But money and development has allowed the other foot to stride into the twenty-first century. The city now has a range of excellent modern museums, a new rail and metro lines and Europe’s longest bridge, Ponte Vasco da Gama, while the historic bairros (districts) and riverfront have been given makeovers.
Immigrants from Brazil and Portugal’s former colonies in Africa add an exotic appeal to the city’s culture. Visit Lisbon and you’ll find that it’s home to some of Europe’s hottest Latin American and African bands and clubs, sitting cheek by jowl with the city’s traditional fado bars and restaurants.
Discover its history, the top places to visit, where to eat and more with our Lisbon travel guide.
Where to go in Lisbon
When you visit Lisbon you’ll find the historic centre relatively compact and easy to explore in just a day or two. The oldest part of the city, the warren of streets that make up the Alfama, sits below the spectacularly sited Moorish Castelo de São Jorge. Its ruined walls face another hill, the Bairro Alto or upper town, famed for its bars, restaurants and vibrant nightlife.
The valley between these hills makes up the Baixa, or lower town. This neat grid of grand eighteenth-century buildings was erected on the rubble of the earthquake which flattened much of the city in 1755. It’s a planned commercial district rebuilt around the historic squares of Praça do Comércio, on the riverfront, and the broad Rossio, or Praça Dom Pedro IV, the city’s main square since medieval times.
From here, the palm-lined Avenida da Liberdade is the main artery inland, rising to the green slopes of the city’s central Parque Eduardo VII.
Attractions outside the historic centre
There are several key attractions beyond the centre. The fantastic art collection of the Museu Gulbenkian is just north of the park – a must see when you visit Lisbon – and the Museu de Arte Antiga is west of the centre. Belém, 6km to the west, is the suburb from which Portugal’s great navigators set sail: the sublime Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is one of several monasteries built here to celebrate their achievements. While in Belém you must also set aside plenty of time for the modern art of the Berardo Collection.
Finally, 5km to the east lies the Parque das Nações. This is the futuristic site of Lisbon’s Expo 98, whose main attraction is one of Europe’s largest oceanariums.
The Alfama and Castelo
On a visit to Lisbon you’ll no doubt discover the steep narrow cobbled streets and alleys that wind through Lisbon’s oldest and most charming neighbourhood. Old houses seem to hold each other up and the bustle of street life gives the area a distinctly villagey feel.
The Alfama is home to some of Lisbon’s most historic attractions, such as the Sé (Lisbon’s cathedral), and the Castelo de São Jorge. There are also a couple of fascinating museums: the Museu do Fado outlines the history of fado, while the Museu Nacional do Azulejo traces the history of tile-making. There’s also a twice-weekly flea market, the Feira da Lara to potter around.
Sao Jorge Castle, Lisobn © ESB Professional/Shutterstock
The quiet narrow streets of the Bairro Alto (meaning upper town) belie the area’s jumping nightlife credentials, where trendy bars, restaurants and nightclubs rub shoulders with traditional fado houses.
The Bairro Alto is home to the lovely Jardin Botânico, home to thousands of exotic plants. Other attractions include a couple of churches: the Igreja de São Roque and the ruins of the Convento do Carmo (with the splendid Museu Arqueológico do Carmo inside). You'll also find one of Lisbon’s prettiest squares – the Praça do Príncipe Real.
Broad avenues, grand buildings, handsome squares, buskers and shoppers, alluring cafés and interesting shops make up the Baixa, or lower town, built after the 1755 earthquake destroyed most of the area. Attractions include Rossio, the city’s main square and the pedestrianised Rua das Portas de Santo Antão, with its restaurants and theatres. Take the Elevador de Santa Justa, a lift which hoiks you up to the Bairro Alto.
Avenida da Liberdade
The grand, palm-lined Avenida da Liberdade is a 3km-long avenue climbing from the upper fringes of the Baixa to Lisbon’s main park, Parque Eduardo VII. Laid out in the late nineteenth century and modelled on the Champs-Élysées, the broad avenue and its little kiosks form the focal point of various events during the year. On the western side of the avenue it’s a short walk to the historic Praça das Amoreiras, the finishing point of the massive Aqueduto das Águas.
Cais do Sodré and Bica
Down on the waterfront, Cais do Sodré is a colourful, but slightly down-at-heel area which has become hip thanks to some good restaurants, clubs and bars. Many of the area’s waterfront warehouses have been converted into upmarket cafés and restaurants and a stroll along its atmospheric riverfront is very enjoyable. The area is home to the Mercado da Ribeira, Lisbon’s main and most historic fruit, fish and vegetable market and vibrant food hall. Cais do Sodré is also the main departure point for ferries over the Tejo and the station is the terminus for the rail line out to Cascais.
Take the Elevador da Bica, one of the city’s most atmospheric funicular railways, up towards the Bairro Alto. Explore the steep side-streets of the Bica neighbourhood, a warren of tightly-knit houses and fine local restaurants.
High above the river, the Miradouro de Santa Catarina has spectacular views over the city and river. There’s a drinks kiosk, some tables and chairs – and new-age types strumming guitars.
On the west side of the Baixa, Chiado was Lisbon’s original upmarket shopping area. After a fire destroyed many of its stores, the original belle époque atmosphere was superbly re-created under the direction of eminent Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira.
Chiado remains a smart shopping district, famed for its cafés, especially along Rua Garrett. Of these, A Brasileira, Rua Garrett 120, is the most famous, once frequented by Lisbon’s literary set and now usually mobbed by tourists.
Bairro Alto, Lisbon © Magdalena Paluchowska/Shutterstock
Parque Eduardo VII is the city’s main park. Situated on a steep slope to the north of the centre, its views and tropical greenhouses make for a pleasant escape from the bustle of the city. Northwest, the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian is Portugal’s premier cultural centre. It combines one of Europe’s richest art collections at the Museu Gulbenkian with Portuguese contemporary art at the Centro de Arte Moderna. Beyond are further attractions at the Jardim Zoológico, the city’s zoo – a great option if you visit Lisbon with kids.
5km to the east lies the Parque das Nações, the futuristic site of Lisbon’s Expo 98, whose main draw is one of Europe’s largest oceanariums. There are plenty of other attractions, from water gardens to a cable car, as well as bars, shops and restaurants, many overlooking Olivais docks and the 17km-long Vasco da Gama bridge. The park is also home to a couple of venues that host major international bands and sporting events: Meo Arena (aka Pavilhão Atlântico or Atlantic Pavilion), Portugal’s largest indoor arena and the elegant Pavilhão de Portugal (Portugal Pavilion).
West of the Bairro Alto sits the leafy district of Estrela, best known for its gardens and enormous basílica. To the south are the sumptuous mansions and grand embassy buildings of Lapa, Lisbon’s diplomatic quarter. It’s also home to the superb Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Portugal’s national gallery. Down below, on the riverfront, the regenerated district of Santos is known as “the design district”, with chic shops and bars.
Further west is Alcântara, loomed over by the enormous Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge. Although industrial in feel, the area is well known for its nightlife, mainly thanks to its dockside warehouse conversions that shelter cafés, restaurants and clubs. It’s also home to two good museums (Museu do Oriente and the Museu do Centro Científico e Cultural de Macau) tracing Portugal’s trading links with the Orient.
The riverside suburb of Bélem west of Lisbon, has several attractions. These include the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Mosteiro dos Jéronimos (Jéronimos monastery), housing Casco da Gama’s tomb, and the wonderful Berardo Collection of modern art in the Centro Cultural de Belém.
What to do in Lisbon
Whether you have just a day, a weekend – or longer, filling the time won’t be a problem in this beguiling capital. Here are our top tips on what to see and do when you travel to Lisbon. You can wander atmospheric neighbourhoods with historic architecture, visit museums and galleries, and trundle up and down Lisbon’s winding hills in vintage trams. Bookend sightseeing sessions with refuelling stops in wonderful cafés and restaurants. And when the sun goes down over the Rio Tejo – well, there’s a vibrant nightlife just gearing up.
Getting lost is half the fun when you wander the winding, narrow streets and alleys of the Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest and most atmospheric quarter. Plan your visit to coincide with the Feira da Ladra (“thieves market”). This is a lively and colourful flea-market that takes over the area around the square of Campo de Santa Clara on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
- Castelo de São Jorge (Castelo)
Despite its bloody past, the castle makes a tranquil haven from the busy city, with its pretty gardens, strutting peacocks and dazzling rooftop views.
- Bairro Alto
Lisbon’s Bairro Alto, or “upper town” is the place for a lively night out, with its huge selection of vibrant bars, clubs and restaurants.
- Museu Gulbenkian (north Lisbon)
Lalique’s fantastic Art Nouveau jewellery, Flemish masters and Impressionist paintings are all included in this awe-inspiring collection of priceless art and antiquities.
- Museu Nacional do Azulejo (Alfama and Castelo)
This is one of the most appealing of Lisbon’s small museums – tracing the development of tile-making from Moorish days to the present via its huge collection of azulejos. Set around a church cloisters, the museum holds Portugal’s longest azulejo – a 36m tiled panorama of pre-earthquake Lisbon from around 1738.
With the city set across seven hills, there is no shortage of viewpoints, or miradouros from which to take in awe-inspiring views. Listen to the sounds of guitar strumming from New Age hippies at the Miradouro de Santa Catarina, while enjoying spectacular views over the city and river. Or head to the Miradouro da Graça for sunset and a sundowner.
- Fado Museum (Alfama and Castelo)
This is an excellent introduction to Fado, traditional folk music of Portugal, and worth seeing before you visit a fado house.
- Ride on a vintage tram
Trams roll along the oldest and steepest streets, and are worth taking for the sheer fun of it. The most famous route is #28; the most interesting stretch is from São Vicente to the Estrela gardens via the Alfama and the Baixa.
- Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Belém)
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the magnificent Manueline monastery symbolizes the golden age of the Portuguese discoveries and houses the tomb of Vasco da Gama.
- Pastéis de Belém (Belém)
On your visit to Lisbon don’t miss a melt-in-the-mouth, tasty, flaky, warm custard tart (pastel de nata). These are best eaten in the tiled surroundings of Belém’s most traditional café.
Aerial view of Pedro IV Square also known as Rossio Square, Baixa, Lisbon, Portugal © tetiana_u/Shutterstock
Where to stay in Lisbon
You’ll find no shortage of accommodation options when looking at where to stay in Lisbon. The city has seen an explosion in recent years of new places opening, from historic buildings and palaces to some excellent independent hostels. There are real bargains to be had in the off-season, though between June and September, prices are at their highest and you should reserve in advance. Many of Lisbon’s top hotels are lined up along and around the Avenida da Liberdade, while the Baixa and the Chiado also have a fair selection of more upmarket places which could not be more central. The most atmospheric part of town is around the Alfama and the castle, while the Bairro Alto is ideal for nightlife, but can be noisy after dark.
Self-catering in Lisbon
There are several fine options for self-catering accommodation in Lisbon. As well as airbnb, good first points of call are fadoflats, with places mostly in Chiado and Alfama; Castleinnlisbon, which has apartments right by the castle; or travellershouse, a hostel which also has four attractive apartments near Elevador da Lavra. The upmarket Martinhal Chiado is an apartment block in the Chiado district geared towards families.
The best places to stay in Lisbon
We highlight some of the best places to stay in Lisbon, from the plush to the eco, to the wallet-friendly.
Top 5 places to stay in Lisbon
- Best views: Memmo Alfama Alfama
Sleek boutique hotel, hidden behind the facade of a former house, paint factory and bakery. Parts of the ground floor contain the old brick ovens, though the real appeal is the bar and outdoor terraces at the back. There is also a small plunge pool, offering sumptuous views over the Alfama and boats plying the Tagus. Rooms are compact and lack much storage space, but have all mod cons; most boast fine views.
- Boutique: Chiado Baixa and Chiado
Stylish hotel designed by Álvaro Siza Vieira – the architect responsible for the Chiado redevelopment – with Eastern-inspired interior decor. The best rooms have terraces with stunning castle vistas, a view you get from the bar terrace, too. Rooms are not huge but are plush and contemporary.
- Budget: Travellers House Rua Augusta
Right on Lisbon’s main pedestrianized street, this award-winning independent hostel has a wonderful high-ceilinged communal lounge, filled with comfy bean bags, and a DVD room. Simple dorms but very comfy doubles.
- Retro chic: Heritage Avenida Avenida da Liberdade and around
In a superb mansion, this hotel blends traditional and contemporary style. Though the dining area/bar is small (and the gym/plunge pool even smaller), the spruce rooms more than compensate. They include tiled bathrooms, retro taps and great cityscapes from those on the top floor.
- Eco-friendly: Inspira Santa Marta Avenida da Liberdade and around
The facade of a traditional townhouse hides a modern boutique hotel. It boasts impressive green credentials, including low-energy lighting and recycled or local products. Feng shui-designed rooms are compact but comfy with glass-wall showers and – unusually for Lisbon – coffee-making facilities and free minibars. There are also spa facilities, a games room, stylish restaurant and bar.
Where to eat in Lisbon
Lisbon has some of the best-value cafés and restaurants of any European city, serving large portions of good Portuguese food at sensible prices. A set menu (ementa turística) at lunch or dinner will get you a three-course meal for around €15. You can eat for even less than this by sticking to the ample main dishes and choosing the daily specials. Seafood is widely available. In fact, there’s an entire central street, Rua das Portas de Santo Antão that specializes in it.
The best restaurants in Lisbon
There are hundreds of restaurants in central Lisbon, many serving no-nonsense local food, inexpensive foreign dishes from the former colonies or modern international fare. Note that on Saturday nights you should reserve a table for the more popular places, such as those in the Bairro Alto and Alfama.
Restaurants in the Baixa are good for lunch as most have inexpensive set menus aimed at local workers. Chiado is the upmarket shopping district with some good places to eat on its fringes.
To try more upmarket international food when you visit Lisbon, try the docas at Alcântara with its range of fashionable restaurants, most facing the river. Or venture along the riverfront Passeio das Tágides out at Parque das Nações. It has a long line of moderately priced bars and restaurants specializing in international cuisine.
Lisbon tram Elevador da Bica © Alvaro German Vilela/Shutterstock
Top 5 restaurants in Lisbon
- Best views: Chapitô à Mesa Alfama and Castelo
Multipurpose venue incorporating a theatre, circus school, restaurant and jazz bar. The restaurant is in an upstairs dining room, reached via a spiral staircase. It serves a range of imaginative mains, such as mushroom risotto or black pork with ginger, from around €16. The outdoor esplanade commands terrific views over Alfama.
- Budget: Beira Gare Baixa
Lisbon’s version of a fast-food diner is this stand-up or sit-down café-restaurant serving very good-value snacks and full meals. Constantly busy, which is recommendation enough.
- Modern Portuguese: Cantinho do Avillez Chiado and Cais do Sodré
In a classy space, with tram #28 rattling by its door, this laidback canteen is the place to sample cuisine from Lisbon’s top chef, José Avillez, but at affordable prices. Delectable main courses include the likes of scallops with sweet potatoes, and Alentejan black pork with coriander.
- Quirky: Mini Bar Chiado and Cais do Sodré
There’s certainly a theatrical element to the cuisine in this wacky restaurant-bar inside the Art Deco Teatro de São Luis. Various themed tasting menus feature innovative tapas-style dishes including Algarve prawns, tuna and mackerel ceviche, or beef croquettes. Some of top chef José Avillez’s creations are decidedly Blumenthaleseque, including amazing edible cocktails and “exploding” olives.
- Traditional: Varina da Madragoa São Bento, Lapa and Santos
Once the haunt of Nobel Prize for Literature winner José Saramago, this lovely, traditional restaurant with grape-embellished azulejos on the walls has a superb menu featuring Portuguese dishes such as bacalhau, trout and steaks; mains from €10.
The best cafés in Lisbon
Lisbon’s cafés are its pride and joy, ranging from atmospheric turn-of-the-twentieth-century artists’ haunts to Art Deco wonders.
Top 5 cafés in Lisbon
- Pois Café Alfama
With its big comfy sofas and laidback ambience, walking into this Austrian-run café feels like eating in someone’s large front room. A friendly, young crowd, light meals and home-made snacks, including a great Apfelstrudel.
- A Brasileira Chiado
Opened in 1905 and marked by a bronze of Fernando Pessoa outside, this is the most famous of Rua Garrett’s old-style coffee houses – its outside tables are usually packed. Livens up at night with a more youthful clientele swigging beer outside until 2am, though the attractive interior is its real appeal.
- Tease Bairro Alto
Specializing in amazing cupcakes and chocolate goodies, this hip, tiled café with jazzy sounds also teases your tastebuds with juices, smoothies and inexpensive light lunches such as quiche and salad.
- Versailles north Lisbon
One of Lisbon’s most traditional cafés, full of bustling waiters circling the starched tablecloths. It’s busiest at around 4pm, when Lisbon’s best-dressed elderly dames gather for a chat beneath the chandeliers.
- Pastéis de Belém Belém
No visit to Belém is complete without a coffee and hot pastel de nata (custard-cream tart) liberally sprinkled with canela (cinnamon) in this cavernous, tiled pastry shop and café, which has been serving them up since 1837.
Pastel de Nata in the Pasteis de Belem cafe in Lisbon in Portugal © altan can/Shutterstock
Bars and nightlife in Lisbon
Lisbon’s nightlife is legendary, though don’t expect to see any action much before midnight. There are some great bars where you can get a drink at any time of the day, but clubs may not open much before 11pm.
Bairro Alto has an intriguing blend of student bars, designer clubs, fado houses and restaurants. The Cais do Sodré district is currently the “in” place, while neighbouring Santos also has a trendy reputation. Bars and clubs in Alcântara and the docks tend to attract a slightly older, wealthier crowd than those in the centre. Our Lisbon travel guide highlights five of the best bars – for awesome views, top tipples, and the greatest atmosphere.
Top 5 bars in Lisbon
- Best views: Portas do Sol The Alfama
With its entrance hidden below street level, this hip spot is an obligatory venue for anyone into sunsets. It’s a chic indoor space and the giant terrace holds grandstand views over the Alfama. Pricey drinks, including coffee and cocktails, but worth it.
- Best cocktails: Cinco Lounge Bairro Alto
Run by an affable Brit, this New York-style bar has become legendary for its hundred-plus cocktails: choose from the classics to totally wacky concoctions. A great place to chill out.
- Best wines: Chafariz do Vinho Enoteca Bairro Alto
Tucked into steps downhill from Praça do Príncipe Real, this extraordinary wine bar is set in the bowels of a nineteenth-century bathhouse. It now serves upmarket wines and other drinks, along with petiscos (snacks).
- Classic Lisbon: Portas Largas Bairro Alto
Atmospheric, black-and-white-tiled adega with cheapish drinks, background music from fado to pop. It has a varied, partly gay crowd, which spills out onto the street on warm evenings. Occasional live music, too.
- Quirky: Pavilhão Chinês Bairro Alto
Once a nineteenth-century tea- and coffee-merchant’s shop, this is now a bar set in a series of comfortable rooms. Most are completely lined with mirrored cabinets containing some four thousand artefacts from around the world, including a cabinet of model trams. There is a long list of exotic cocktails.
Places to visit near Lisbon: coastline and beaches
A visit to Lisbon must surely allow for some beach time, and it’s just a short hop to some fantastic Atlantic beaches. For large, wild stretches of sand, head north to Guincho, or cross the Tejo by ferry to reach the Costa da Caparica, a 30km stretch of to the south of the capital. Further south still, there are good, clean beaches at Sesimbra and in the Parque Natural da Arrábida, a superb unspoilt craggy reserve.
Easiest to reach, however, are the town beaches of Estoril and the former fishing village of Cascais. These are both easily accessible by train and make pleasant alternatives to staying in Lisbon. Estoril is a lively resort, consisting of a fine beach, the palm-lined Parque do Estoril, surrounded by bars and restaurants and the enormous casino. The Feira Internacional Artesanato – handicrafts and folk music festival – is held here in July.
The train line that hugs this dramatic coast is worth the trip alone. Much of the coast is backed by a seafront promenade, along which you can walk or cycle.
Parque Natural da Arrábida
Just 7km southwest of Setúbal, the craggy, scrub- and wood-covered slopes of the Serra da Arrábida rise to around 500m above a dramatic coastline dotted with cove beaches. It’s stunningly beautiful, though surprisingly little known to tourists. Home to wildcats, badgers, polecats, buzzards and Bonelli’s eagles, the region has had protected status since 1976 and makes up the Parque Natural da Arrábida.
Summer sea coastal landscape of Nature Park Arrabida in Setubal, Portugal © Landscape Nature Photo/Shutterstock
Places to visit near Lisbon: inland
When you visit Lisbon, head inland for further great attractions, such as the elegant Palácio de Queluz, one of Portugal’s most sumptuous palaces. The beautiful town of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the hills above Lisbon, simply must be on your itinerary.
South of the Rio Tejo
The most enjoyable way to approach the southern bank of the Rio Tejo is to take the ferry from Lisbon’s Cais do Sodré to the little port of Cacilhas. The blustery ride grants wonderful views of the city, as well as of the Ponte 25 de Abril. But it’s the line of seafood restaurants along the riverfront that attracts most Lisboetas to make the crossing.
Lisbon’s events calendar
Our Lisbon travel guide gives you the lowdown on annual events in the capital.
Carnival (February/March) Brazilian-style carnival parades and costumes, mainly at Parque das Nações.
Lisbon half-marathon (March) The half-marathon traces a route across Ponte Vasco da Gama, finishing in Parque das Nações.
Peixe em Lisboa (March/April) Fish festival held in Pátio da Galé, with masterclasses by top chefs.
Rock in Rio (May) A five-day biannual mega rock festival held in even years, in Parque Bela Vista to the north of the centre.
Sintra Music Festival (June/July) Performances by international orchestras, musicians and dance groups in parks, gardens and palaces in and around Sintra.
Santos Populares (June) Street-partying to celebrate the saints’ days – António (June 13), João (June 24) and Pedro (June 29). Celebrations for each begin on the evening before the actual day. Santo António is Lisbon’s main event.
Arraial Pride (June) Gay Pride event, in various venues.
Handicrafts Fair (June/July) A state-run handicrafts fair, with live folk music, is held in Estoril on the Avenida de Portugal, near the Casino. A similar event occurs during the same period at FIL, at the Parque das Nações.
Super Bock Super Rock (July) Rock festival featuring local and international bands in various venues.
Jazz em Augusto (August) Jazz festival at the Gulbenkian’s open-air amphitheatre, with a similar event in Cascais.
São Martinho (November 11) Saint’s day celebrated by the traditional tasting of the year’s wine which is drunk with hot chestnuts, in memory of St Martinho, who shared his cape with a poor man.
Natal/Christmas (December) The build-up to Christmas begins in early December with Europe’s tallest Christmas tree filling the centre of Praça da Comércio. Distinctive hooped bolo-rei (dried-fruit “king cake”) appear in shops and pastelarias.
New Year’s Eve There are usually fireworks in Praça do Comércio, at Cascais and the Parque das Nações.
Top image: Lisbon's historic quarter © ESB Professional/Shutterstock
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