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Our Travel Guide to Lisbon
The best things we did, our favorite food and drinks, and what to know before you go to the Lisbon area
The internet has made it easier than ever to find information about a new place before you visit. You can explore a city on an interactive map, take a vicarious tour of landmarks through strangers’ pictures and videos, and find the best places to eat according to both local foodies and aggregated tourist rankings. The problem is, sorting through and synthesizing advice from so many different sources can be overwhelming. It would be a lot more convenient if you could find essential travel tips and curated recommendations for wherever you’re going all in one place!
My wife Lizzie and I recently returned from an amazing two-week honeymoon in Portugal. Partly because we wanted to have well-organized advice on hand for anyone who followed in our traveling footsteps, and partly to help ourselves remember all the amazing things we did, we decided to write a travel guide for each facet of our trip. Starting here with the greater Lisbon area, followed by Porto and the Açores.
We are neither travel agents nor experts in Portuguese culture, and make no claims to be the authoritative source on anything herein. But, if I do say so myself, we’re pretty darn good at planning vacations. So consider this the equivalent of what we would tell you if you called us to say you were going to Lisbon, but in rough essay form. We hope future travelers find this helpful, and almost as importantly, that people who like reading about new places will get some vicarious joy from scrolling through it.
Note: Instead of repeatedly linking to my essay Ten Things I (Re)Learned in Portugal every time I allude to an idea I wrote about there, I’m going to mention it once and say that it helps contextualize many of the thoughts and recommendations below. Please give it a read!
Basics and Logistics
In many ways, Lisbon is similar to other cosmopolitan European cities: ancient history, grand architecture, and vibrant culture packed into winding narrow streets. Yet Lisbon is relatively small by the standards of other nearby capitals. The city itself has only about 500,000 people; while the metropolitan area is significantly larger at close to 3 million people, the combination of its proper and greater populations roughly resembles that of Baltimore. As such, while it is surely a hustling and bustling city, it is quieter and easier to wrap your head around than London or Rome or Brussels. It’s also significantly cheaper.
We stayed six nights in Lisbon out of our 14-day trip, split into two sessions: the first four days when we arrived, then the last two before we flew home. We certainly weren’t bored over the cumulative almost-week we spent there, and we could easily have filled more days with additional museums, extra time exploring the city, or just spreading out our activities at a more-leisurely pace. But knowing that the opportunity cost of each night in Lisbon was time we could have spent somewhere else in Portugal, in retrospect we would have shortened the Lisbon leg in favor of staying more than two days in Porto, seeing another island in the Açores, or spending more than a couple hours in nearby Sintra or Cascais.
Traveling to and from Lisbon
We had no issues flying internationally in or out of Humberto Delgado Airport, but do build in some extra time. When we arrived, between the bus to the terminal and a very long customs line, it took about an hour and a half to get from the tarmac to the airport exit (even without checked bags). Passport-control for flight home also took longer than I had ever experienced before traveling back to the U.S.
Once you’re in Portugal, getting to and from Lisbon was a breeze. Traveling by train was very easy, both the regional rail for the nearby cities of Sintra and Cascais and the longer ride to Porto. Intra-national air travel was relatively painless too, at least based on our flight from Terceira to Lisbon.
Getting around Lisbon
When I say that you can get around Lisbon on foot, it’s coming from someone who traversed the city primarily on foot. Truly walking the walk, as it were. Having said that, walking around Lisbon can be a hike. Literally — we wore hiking boots for most of our excursions across the city. The big hills are no joke, and the cobblestones only add to the challenge. Even someone in good athletic shape might find themselves stopping for breathers and working up a sweat on their way to their destination. The good news is that Portugal’s more-collectivist approach towards public infrastructure means there are free escalators and elevators around the city. The bad news is…well, imagine how steep a city’s hills must be if people build public escalators and elevators into them.
When a distance was too far to walk, we usually took the train. We found both the subway and the commuter rail to be easy and convenient.
Cars are very much second-class citizens in the winding streets of central Lisbon. It seemed easy to get a cab if you wanted one, but the only times we did were the early mornings when we were dragging our luggage to the train to Porto or the airport to fly home. (For those who prefer ride-share apps, they are available in Lisbon, but I would strongly suggest that taxis are the more-ethical choice. I believe this is the case in the U.S. as well, but it is especially so in a country where the new business model has provoked strong national outrage.)
Where we stayed
For the first leg of our Lisbon trip, we stayed at the Blue Liberdade in Baixa. It’s not a budget hotel by any stretch, but the rate we got was both reasonable and a good deal for the hotel’s quality. The rooms were nice, the staff were super friendly, and the location was terrific (hence our aforementioned ability to walk most places).
For our second stint in Lisbon, we stayed at the Fontecruz Lisboa on the posh Avenida da Liberdade. This was one of the swankiest hotels either of us had ever been to, and it was legitimately a really nice place to stay, but it’s also way out of our normal price range. We cashed in some Marriott points for a great deal (it seems like the points-per-dollar/euro rate is generally better in Europe than in the U.S.) and I’m glad we did, but I can’t imagine ever staying there for what it normally costs in real money. It was only about a half-kilometer north of Blue Liberdade, so the location was still good, though relatively speaking that meant it was an extra half-kilometer in the wrong direction of where we spent most of our time.
We would very happily stay in Baixa again, though ideally maybe a little further south, at least on the other side of Praça do Rossio. Otherwise, nearby Barrio Alto, Chiado, and Alfama were also great neighborhoods and still close to the heart of the city.
If you’re reading this post, you probably speak English, which means you will have no trouble communicating with the locals. At least where were in Lisbon (admittedly tourist-catering), every single waiter, shopkeeper, and receptionist we talked to spoke English. In fact, given the ubiquity of English fluency, the people we interacted with usually seemed relieved to realize we were Americans, at least for linguistic reasons. The only people we came across in Lisbon who didn’t speak any English were tourists from other countries — and even then, an international traveler was more likely to speak English than Portuguese. Normally we at least attempt to speak the native language when we go somewhere new, but given the quality of our Portuguese, speaking English off the bat was honestly easier for everyone involved.
Do and See
Walking around Lisbon is an adventure in and of itself: the architecture is gorgeous, the history is everywhere, and the people-watching is tremendous. But it probably helps to have some places in mind to go. With that in mind, here is an inexhaustive list of our favorite landmarks and activities:
Castelo de São Jorge
Depending on how you count, the hilltop fortress complex is at least in the neighborhood of 1,000 years old — for sure it existed in something like its present form before the Portuguese reconquest in the 12th century. There’s a beautiful park filled with vibrantly colored wild peacocks. There’s a museum that traces the history of the compound’s myriad occupants and their connections to the broader world. There’s an active archeological dig site where three distinct eras of ruins are being excavated. And then there’s the castle: majestic, historic, and the premier vantage point from which to look out at the city.
We went to Castelo de São Jorge on our first night in Lisbon and it was a great way to orient ourselves to the city and its history. Note that it was a very steep climb up the tall hill — and that’s before you start wandering around the castle walls and do things like accidentally go down a 149-step stairway to nowhere and have to climb back up.
Torre de Belém
One of the most-recognizable structures in the country, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and frequently described as the “gateway” to Lisbon, Belém Tower is a must-visit for any tourist in Lisbon. As with many of the city’s major attractions, you can climb a narrow stairway to the top for a cool view, but we were more awestruck looking up from the entrance bridge and walking around the open-air bastion.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
The other 16th-century UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Belém neighborhood, the giant church is a masterful work of art and architecture, including the ornate tombs of Vasco da Gama and Luís de Camões. The attached monastery is also open to the public and features dramatic colonnades and historic religious art.
Quinta da Regaleira
Just an easy train ride away from Lisbon is Sintra, the longtime resort town of Lisbon’s rich and powerful. Sintra has to be near the top of the list for most castles per square mile in the world, but our tour guide assured us that we had picked the right one by going to Quinta da Regaleira. Built in the early 20th century, the basic story is that an eccentric rich guy gave an innovative architect an unlimited budget to build a garden estate with naturalistic features, designated spaces for his favorite hobbies, and a series of tunnels that may or not have been used for Freemason rituals. This is one place that I wish we had read up on beforehand — it would have been extra cool if we had been familiar with the religious symbolism (and its rumored ritual significance) ahead of time.
Not sure how to get around the western suburbs? May we recommend…
FlaminGO Jeep Safari
We generally shy from preplanned tours when we travel. We prefer to build our own itinerary, go at our own pace, and try to find our own hidden gems. However, there seemed to be a consensus that Sintra was a good place to have a guide, especially if you wanted to travel around and see the coasts. After a bit of digging, we settled on FlaminGO, for whom the journey to each landmark is as important as the destination.
I’m loath to spoil too many of the surprises, but our day started with a guided tour of Quinta da Regaleira, took us to the westernmost edge of continental Europe, and ended in the beach town of Cascais — all the while cruising in an open-air Jeep that took us off-road up and down the verdant coastal cliffs. I can’t tell you what it’s like to explore the area on your own or with a different tour group, but it’s hard to imagine a better way to experience it than this, or better guides than Caetano and Guilherme.
Eat and Drink
There are a lot of foods that Lisbon is known for. Fresh seafood is a staple. Ironically, the most-prominent fish is an import: bacalhau (salted cod), for which there are allegedly hundreds of different local preparations. There’s caldo verde, a savory soup with greens and potatoes. You’ll find plenty of sausages and cured meats, which pair exquisitely with Açorean cheese and marinated olives. The signature sandwich is the bifana, made with garlicky pork cutlets and usually some sort of mustard or hot sauce, and seemingly every restaurant offers a sirloin steak (lombo) pounded thin and topped with an egg.
While the beer scene is growing and cocktail bars abound, when you think of drinks in Portugal you probably think of wine — for good reason! Portuguese vinho is terrific and generally quite cheap, whether at a restaurant or a bottle shop. Make sure you try a shot of ginjinha (cherry liqueur) too. And remember, no matter what time it is, every meal ends with an espresso.
Come hungry and plan your trip around going to…
The first thing you notice about Palácio Chiado is that the vibes are truly unique. You stare up at the vaulted ceilings, admire the frescoes on the walls, and walk slack-jawed up the regal stairs towards a huge stained-glass window. But there are also modern touches like neon lights, mirrored tables, and a cool jazz soundtrack. Did I mention there’s a gold winged lion hovering over the dining room? If the food were mediocre, it would still be a worthwhile experience.
But it’s not! The steak was one of the best I’ve ever had, the wild bass was really good, and the cocktails were inventive. To say nothing of the amazing plates we shared as an appetizer (smoked ham sliced so thinly that it was literally translucent) and dessert (hazelnut mousse cake in a chocolate coating so thick that we had to flip it upside-down to break through it). [Website]
Pastéis de Belém
A couple hundred years ago, the monks at Mosteiro dos Jerónimos invented pastéis de nata, a sweet custard tart made with eggs and cinnamon. When the monastery closed in 1837, the monks sold the recipe to a confectioner down the street. Pastéis de Belém has been faithfully following — and carefully guarding — the secret recipe ever since. One bite and you’ll understand why this recipe has withstood the centuries. They’re easily portable (I guess they’ve had a while to design proper packaging) but make sure to try one while they’re warm.
For as much as we effused about the pastéis, the sit-down restaurant attached to the bakery is a people-shuttling operation disguised as a café, designed primarily to keep the long line outside moving as quickly as possible. Stop by the bakery side for sure, but have lunch elsewhere. [Website]
As Bifanas do Afonso
The bifana is Lisbon’s signature sandwich, and as with any city famous for a sandwich, there are fervent disagreements about who makes the best. We split garlicky pork sandwiches from three of the most-famous purveyors in the city over the course of our time there — half a bifana is a perfect-sized snack — and this was our favorite by far.
As Bifanas do Afonso’s simple eponymous offering is tender, juicy, and most of all flavorful. Did I mention it’s only a couple euros? The extreme informality is part of the experience — they have no tables, so you lean on the counter or sit on the cobblestones with your pork and a Super Bock. You can order a bifana elsewhere and you might not get the hype, or you can come here and understand what makes it such a special sandwich.
If you can get there, you'll be glad you made time for…
When we stumbled into Velha Gaiteira on our first night in Portugal, we thought we’d walked into someone’s living room. In a way we had, as the welcoming co-owner João served us what felt like a home-cooked meal. After an appetizer of meats, cheeses, and the best black olives I’ve ever eaten, we each had a bowl of caldo verde soup, a huge entrée, and a slice of deliciously dense chocolate cake.
The food is good and the hospitality is wonderful, but you especially can’t beat the price. The prix fixe menu featured a three-course meal (everything above save the charcuterie) plus a glass of wine and an after-dinner espresso for…11€. Even by Lisbon standards it’s a terrific deal for an indulgent experience. [Website]
It was our last night in Lisbon and there were two things we were looking for. First was a non-touristy restaurant where we didn’t need a reservation on a Friday night. Second was a performance of fado, the traditional melancholy music that every tourist in Portugal makes a point to hear. At Bohemia Lx we found both. The food was good, especially our appetizers of loaded tomato soup and scrambled eggs with sweet sausage. We had an amazing flight of wines: ports aged for 10, 20, 30, and 40 years! And the tableside concert of beautifully mournful vocals and guitars was quite a finale for our trip. [Instagram]
Tucked away in a tiny cliffside village you’ll find one of the best lunches we had on our whole trip. Here was another prix fixe menu, as arranged by our guides on the FlaminGO tour. Your 20€ gets you a delicious tomato soup, green bean tempura (called peixinhos da horta because they look like pieces of colorful fish), a huge entrée (I loved the veal stew, as someone who doesn’t usually eat veal), a glass of wine, a shot of ginjinha, a cup of coffee, and your choice of homemade dessert.
Ca.fé Coffee House
The train to Sintra drops you right on the doorstep of this cute café. They make a damn good cup of espresso and some delicious breakfast pastries. The flaxseed and salmon puff was good, but the roll stuffed with ham and cheese was great. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a better breakfast pastry. It was so good that we got another one to go, ostensibly as a snack for later, then scarfed it down immediately as we walked to meet our tour group.
Red Frog Speakeasy
Tucked into a secret corner of an already-underground bar is a cozy speakeasy with some of the wildest cocktails I've ever encountered — if the drink made with chocolate and popcorn is too conventional, try the almost-frozen cocktail that you pour at your own speed and tastes completely different as it thaws. Be sure to make a reservation ahead of time! [Website]
Hike up a secluded alley off a touristy street to find something resembling the Platonic ideal of a neighborhood beer bar. It’s quiet but energetic, lively but not too crowded, eccentric yet cozy. And the beer list is phenomenal. With over a dozen local and European brews on tap and hundreds more in the fridge, you’re bound to find something delicious that you can’t get in the U.S. [Untappd]
Don’t go too far out of your way, but we can vouch for these places if you’re specifically looking for…
When you stroll down the commercial district and see the enlarged picture menus outside of restaurants, you’ll notice a whole lot of spaghetti. It seems like more of barkers out front are hawking Italian food rather than Portuguese — you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in Rome, not Lisbon! If you’re in the mood for mozzarella but want to go somewhere that doesn’t feel like a tourist trap, we recommend La Villa for saucy pasta in a lively park, or Bella Ciao for a homey trattoria where the customers from Italy a table over were vocal about affirming its authenticity.
There’s no shortage of great gelato shops in Lisbon. I can’t tell you whether the two we tried were for sure the best ones, but we would very happily return to either Mú or Gelato Therapy if we ever walked by on a summer day.
Cocktails with a view
As far as hyperbole goes, this one is pretty niche, but here goes: Lumi makes the best espresso martini I’ve ever had. It was so rich, so smooth, and so coffee-y that I asked if they could make it with decaf so I could have a second one without it keeping me up all night. (They kindly obliged.) The food and the view from the rooftop are both pretty good too.
Brunch isn't really a thing in Portugal the way it is in the States, but it's gained popularity due to tourist demand. Dear Breakfast's version of it is almost as delicious as it is Instagram-worthy. We enjoyed the ham and cheese croissants, the salted pancakes, and the sausage platter.
In a country known for great wine, beer is largely still synonymous with the ubiquitous macro Super Bock. But Outro Lado isn’t the only place in the city where you can find higher-quality brews. Delirium Café has a strong selection, though it’s but a shadow of its original Belgian namesake; Queen Ale has some good local beer on tap; and while calling the Museu da Cerveja a true museum is generous, the brief tour of beermaking memorabilia was fun and ends with your choice of one of the dozens of Portuguese bottles in their cooler.
You can see exactly where all these places are — as well as everywhere else we went that isn’t highlighted here — on our heavily annotated Google Map!
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