Our plane has started to descend. Below us, a river meanders through the landscape. In the haze ahead of us, the first features of the city appear. Strangely familiar, we have seen these features before, on different continents though: First, there is a bridge, crossing the now lake-like river, just like the Causeway across Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. Here it’s called Ponte Vasco Da Gama.
Ahead of it, still on our left, a red suspension bridge. Ponte 25 de Abril was built by the same company as its bigger sister in San Francisco. And next to it, a giant statue of Christ blesses the city from its cliff top, its arms stretched out just like Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Cristo Rei took its inspiration from none other than its more famous sibling. And the river? It’s called the Tagus (or Rio Tejo). As we touch down, with a thick German accent, our captain announces: Welcome to Lisbon.
The familiarities don’t stop here. Looking out the window as our public bus slowly makes its way from the airport to the city centre, we travel down wide avenues, pass important looking office buildings, and monumental squares with gigantic statues and fountains. Just like Buenos Aires…
As we travel through the different neighbourhoods, the architecture changes. Buildings appear less grand. The streets become narrower and steeper, often mere laneways covered in cobblestones. Colourfully tiled façades are now everywhere. We already like this city.
1. Explore Lisbon’s neighbourhoods by public transport and on foot
Do you want to drive around Lisbon? Think again. We wouldn’t even recommend driving to Sintra. If you plan to drive around Portugal, and Lisbon is your starting point, pick up your car once you’re ready to leave the area. Lisbon has an excellent and very affordable public transport system, consisting of buses, suburban and subway trains, trams… even funiculars that save you having to climb steep street.
Get a Viva Viagem card and load some money onto it. Then pick your mode of transport and tap the card on the card reader as you enter the metro/train station, bus, tram, etc (it’s called Zapping here). Each journey is significantly discounted, and you only pay once even if you change buses, for example, as long as the change happens within the hour. You can even use the Viva Viagem card and Zapping on the historic trams, the Santa Justa Lift (Elevador de Santa Justa) and the trains to Cascais and Sintra.
You can buy the card (EUR0.50) and top it up at any metro/train station and at designated sales points (just use the free Wi-Fi provided on most buses, and the Carris website appears with a sales points search option to find one near you). The minimum top-up is EUR3.00. You won’t be able to get a refund, so don’t put more on the card than you need. The card itself is valid for a year.
If you would like a more local perspective on Portugal’s capital city, we recommend starting your stay with a free guided walking tour. The tours leave daily from Luís de Camões Square (Praça Luís de Camões). Just turn up at 1000h or 1500h/1630h (winter/summer). The tours take about three hours and show you a less touristy side of the Bairro Alto, Chiado, Baixa, Alfama and Graça neighbourhoods. BTW, these tours are theoretically free, but if you enjoyed them, please give your guide a generous tip.
2. Travel back in time and learn about the early history of the city
Lisbon has been around for several millennia. That’s right. You won’t see it as you wonder the city centre today, as almost all the buildings were built after 1755. Why? On 1 November 1755, the city was all but destroyed by a massive earthquake, which was followed by a tsunami and fires that lasted weeks. A new city was built on top of the rubble with the grid-like streetscape you can still see today.
Hidden underneath the grand 18th-century buildings are the ruins not only of a Medieval city, a Moorish city and a Roman city but also remnants of a much older civilisation… 2,500 years old in fact. To dive into Lisbon’s early history, book yourself into one of the free tours that are held hourly (in English) by the Fundação Millennium BCP in Baixa. The tours (about 40 minutes) take you through the archaeological excavations underneath the Millenium BCP building. Fascinating.
3. Learn about Portugal’s Golden Age
Speaking of history… Did you know that the Portuguese were once a dominant maritime power? We have all heard of names like Magellan (Fernão de Magalhães – the Strait at the bottom of South America he was the first to sail still bears his name) or Vasco da Gama who discovered the sea route to India around the Cape of Good Hope. The Portuguese discoveries of the 15th/16th centuries not only brought huge riches to the tiny Kingdom of Portugal, thanks to colonization and slavery but also significantly advanced maritime technology and cartography.
Lisbon’s neighbourhood of Belém, in particular, is intricately linked to the discoveries:
- Those who’s ship was about to leave for distant unknown lands stayed at the Jerónimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) to be blessed for their journey and to pray for a safe return.
- The Belém Tower (Torre de Belém) was the last feature the seafarers saw when they left (and the first when they returned home).
Quite fittingly, the 56 meters high Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos) was placed on the shores of the Rio Tejo not far from the Belém Tower. You can learn all about Portugal’s maritime history at the Maritime Museum (Museu de Marinha), located next to the Jerónimos Monastery. The museum also holds the original of another discovery: the first plane that crossed the South Atlantic in 1922 (the monument can also be found near the Belém Tower).
4. Enjoy the views from the various look-out points dotted around the city
If you haven’t noticed it by now: Lisbon is built on and around several hills. While that means exploring the city entails climbing some steep streets, it also means you’ll find beautiful views everywhere. Every neighbourhood seems to have its look-out point (miradouro), and you don’t have to pay entry fees to enjoy the views. Here are just a few examples we have visited:
- Alfama: Miradouro de Santa Luzia and neighbouring Miradouro das Portas do Sol
- Graça: Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte
- Bairro Alto: Miradouro de Santa Catarina.
The 18th-century aqueduct in Campolide, Aqueduto das Águas Livres, which survived the 1755 earthquake unscathed, is not a look-out point as such (and it is not free). However, for a small entry fee (EUR3.00 at the time of writing), you are able to walk along the top of the aqueduct towards Monsanto Park (unfortunately, you can’t enter the park from the aqueduct) and enjoy great views over the Alcântara Valley all the way to the 25 April Bridge and the Cristo Rei statue across the river.
BTW, the look-out points are also great for a romantic picnic at sunset, though you’ll share your spot with gazillion locals and tourists. If you prefer your sunset being seated at a private table with a glass of sangria and some tapas (or proper dinner) try: Chapitô à Mesa in Alfama or Noobai in Bairro Alto.
Which brings us to our number 5…
5. Taste traditional Portuguese cuisine
Our tips usually evolve some walking or hiking, and here in Portugal, you’ll need those to avoid piling on the pounds, because the food here is delicious. Seafood is fresh (apart from Mondays apparently as the fishermen take Sundays off), and every town seems to have its traditional pastries.
So, venture off the tourist trail into the quiet side lanes and choose a restaurant full of locals (just avoid those with big groups as you may wait forever to be served). The menu may be scribbled on a piece of paper, or there is no menu at all. No worries. Just ask the waiter/waitress for the plate of the day (O Prato do Dia). Usually a choice between a fish and a meat dish, the portions will fill you up and will not burn a hole into your wallet.
We had yummy fish dishes at Sossego (EUR6.50) and O Navegador (EUR8.50 – prices go up the closer you are to the tourist trail), both in Belém.
BTW, waiters always place bread, butter, olives and the like on your table when you sit down. Unless they are part of the plate of the day, you have to pay for those if you eat them. If you gesture them that you don’t want to have them they’ll take them away. You also won’t be charged if you just leave them on the table untouched.
If you’re after a snack, try Bolinhos de Bacalhau, croquettes made with codfish.
As for pastries… Taste Pastéis de Nata (better known as Portuguese Tarts) where they originate from: at Pastéis de Belém. Come early (it opens at 0800h) as this place is packed with tourists for most of the day. Admittedly, it is super touristy, but the tarts really are the best we’ve had so far (and we’ve had at least one a day in different locations).
- Travesseiros (small pillow-shaped pastries), for example at Casa Piriquita or
- Queijadas (little cheese pastries), for example at Casa do Preto which bakes them onsite.
And if you happen to visit Sintra on the 2nd or 4th Sunday of the month make sure you check out the Feira de São Pedro de Sintra. It’s open until 1700h, so you can still pop by after a day of exploring the castles. Try chorizo bread fresh out of the oven or one of the yummy cheeses and hams for sale at the various stalls.
6. Visit Sintra
Speaking of Sintra… Yes, it is full of tourists but if you come in Spring or Autumn it’s not quite as busy as in the height of Summer. There is so much to see and do around here, it’s worth staying a few nights.
Not sure which sight/s to choose? That’s a hard one because they are all unique. We only visited three but liked all of them for different reasons:
- Pena Palace (Parque e Palácio Nacional da Pena) for its crazy mix of colours and styles, its gorgeous park and its amazing views.
- the Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros) for its history (it was built in the 10th Century and has recently undergone significant restoration), the beauty of the structure (we felt a bit like climbing the Great Wall of China) and its beautiful views.
- Quinta da Regaleira for its fairy tale character. It is packed with labyrinthic grottoes, fountains, towers and turrets, even a greenhouse and a chapel, and of course, the Palace of the Carvalho Monteiro family itself.
Want to visit Pena and wonder whether it’s worth paying an extra EUR6.50 to visit the palace in addition to the park? We recommend to skip the palace, especially when the lines are long and if you’ve seen (or will see) other castles around Europe.
Take your time exploring the gorgeous park instead and don’t forget to hike up to Cruz Alta, the highest point in the Sintra Mountains, for 360-degree views.
While you can’t enter the palace with the park only ticket, you can still access the terraces and courtyards of the castle (just not the rooms inside), even peek through the windows if you like. We do recommend though a visit to the Chapel (with its beautiful stained-glass window – check the chapel depicted in the bottom left panel up close) and the Walk of the Walls.
If you plan to visit several of Sintra’s sights you can buy your tickets all at once (and at a discount: 5% for 2, 6% for 3, etc). Tickets are valid for several months, so you don’t have to visit them all on the same day.
If you only have time for a day trip we recommend to start at Pena, then head over to the Moorish Castle, and after lunch in the historic town centre, check out one other sight: Quinta da Regaleira, Monserrate or the National Palace of Sintra.
If you stay a few nights:
- Day 1: Explore the park around Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle. Hike up instead of taking the overpriced and jam-packed 434 tourist bus. If you start early you’re still there before the day trippers from Lisbon arrive. The castles open at 1000h.
- Day 2: Explore Quinta da Regaleira, Monserrate or the National Palace of Sintra.
- In the afternoon of Day 2 or on day 3, take the 403 bus from Sintra’s train station to Cabo da Roca, the western-most point of the European mainland, and on to Cascais. After exploring Cascais, take bus 417 back to Sintra. Alternatively, you can take the train directly from Cascais back to Lisbon. The routes and time tables for the buses and trains can be found on the Moovit app.
7. A more affordable bridge experience
Unlike its bigger sister in San Francisco, the 25 April Bridge cannot be crossed by pedestrians (or cyclists) unless you are running the Lisbon Half-Marathon, which starts on the south banks of the Rio Tejo and takes runners across the bridge.
The second best thing, especially if you have a knack for engineering and architecture, and you’re not scared of heights, is the Pilar 7 bridge experience. It tells you all about the history of the 25 April Bridge, takes you 26 floors up to the bridge’s road level for spectacular views, and thanks to VR (virtual reality goggles), you can even join a maintenance crew on their inspection tour around the bridge. At EUR7.50, this bridge experience is significantly more affordable than the one in Sydney.
8. Enjoy Lisbon’s gigantic green lung
Did you know that Lisbon has one of the largest parks in Europe? You will notice Monsanto Park (Parque Florestal de Monsanto), the giant green circle in the middle of the urban sprawl when you fly in.
The park is great for walking, running or mountain biking. Bring a picnic, and check out the abandoned Panoramic restaurant (Panorâmico de Monsanto) for amazing views over the city.
9. Appreciate Lisbon’s street art
It’s not only worth to stop and admire Lisbon’s tiled façades. There is also great graffiti street art everywhere… you just need to keep your eyes open. We stumbled upon some great artworks.
Lisbon is one of those places where you could easily live for a month or more and just immerse yourself, maybe take some language lessons, and just explore. If you love photography, there are so many things to capture: widows in their black clothes keeping watch from windows or chatting to neighbours, colourful azulejo façades, old abandoned houses with collapsed roofs, stunning sunrises and sunsets.