Portugal’s capital has beckoned me for years. Called by the sea, the hills, the food, and the sounds of the language, it has been at or near the top of my travel wish list for as long as I’ve had one. Now, after spending a month living and exploring Lisbon, I am able to share my experiences and lessons with all of you. No, you don’t need that long to be able to have an incredible visit to this vibrant city. You have this guide to help you with the planning process!
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Lisbon is a European capital, and as such is easy to reach via plane, both nonstop from east coast US airline hubs and on TAP, Portugal’s flag carrier. TAP is known for also allowing stopovers in Lisbon on your way to another European destination, and this might be a preferred way to see the city – a few days on the way to somewhere else. (It is worthy of a trip on its own, but most people don’t have the luxury to travel constantly as I do.)
You’ll arrive at Lisbon Portela Airport, and from there, take the metro red line, connecting to whichever other line reaches your destination. (See more on the metro below.)
If you arrive by train, the odds are you’ll arrive at Lisbon’s Oriente Station. From there, you’ll also take the metro red line to get into the city.
Who wouldn’t want to visit a city this beautiful?
Lisbon has the easiest metro system for a European capital. There are four lines, each known by its color on the map. Each intersects each other at a single point. And, with the exception of a few stations you’ll not need to worry about, all are in a single fare zone, and include transfers within the system (although not to buses or trams).
The city also has an efficient bus system, a complex tram system (the trams cost more than buses or metro – more below), and a suburban rail system, as well as ferries going across the Tagus – pronounced tay-zhoo – River. All of these with the possible exception of ferries take the same Via Viagem Card.
Here’s how the card works. Buy one from a machine at any station – likely the airport in your case – for €.50 and then load it, either with a single fare or via cash or card with a set amount. If you load at least €3 at a time, fares on the metro are a bit cheaper, going from €1.50 down to €1.34. Then, simply tap it against a reader before entering a metro station or train station, or on a bus or tram, and again at the station exit, and the fare will be deducted. The suburban rail is the best deal in town, as it is €1.90 each way to reach Cascais or Sintra, both nearly an hour away and incredibly popular day trips from the city. (Note, you will not get unused money back like in London, so try to calculate your expenses as closely as you can, and add small amounts at a time, in increments of at least €3 for the discount.)
In the center of town, walking is most efficient, though be careful, as the sidewalks are incredibly slippery. The old city is pretty compact, and while there are hills, those can be conquered either via elevator or on a tram if needed.
Many tourists enjoy the old streetcars.
Where to Stay
Lisbon is not a city with a ton of American brand hotels. There are a few, most of which are not in the Baixa – the old city, pronounced by-shaw – where you might want to be. There are numerous small hotels, and plenty of Airbnb options, though.
If you insist on an American hotel, the Intercontinental is in the more modern section of the city, along with a Holiday Inn Express and a Marriot Autograph Collection property, about a 45 minute walk or short metro ride from the Baixa. There is a Hyatt property – Pousada de Lisboa – in the Baixa as well.
While most of Lisbon is safe, I would avoid staying in the Alfama, the hilly district just east of the Baixa, as night can be a bit sketchy. Do explore it in the daytime, though!
The Alfama is beautiful, but don’t stay here.
What to Do
Let’s start with the musts, even if you only have a couple of days in Lisbon. You must take a trip to Belém, the riverfront district about a 20 minute tram or train ride from the center of town. It is home to the Jeronimos Monastery, National Coach Museum, Belém Tower, Maritime Museum, and the mighty Pasteis de Belém. All of these are worthy sights (or tastes in the case of the last).
You must take a day trip to Sintra, at the end of one of the suburban rail lines. There, see the amazing Pena Palace, and other palaces as well if time permits.
You must walk around the Baixa, through some of the squares, and up the Alfama to Sao Jorge Castle for sunset.
You must have at least a few pasteis de nata, and cod (bacalhao) in some form.
Now, with more time, visit Cascais, a lovely beach town on the Atlantic. See a fado performance. Check out the resistance museum and learn of Salazar’s dictatorship. Visit the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon’s top art museum. Learn more about Portuguese tiles at the Azulejo Museum. The city doesn’t lack for fun things to do, even if you just want to sit by the river with a glass of port!
Make sure to visit Belém.
What to Eat
Food in Lisbon is good. It is also cheap. It is worthy of its own guide, and in fact I wrote one! Here is a guide to food in the city.
Pasteis de nata are one of the must-eats in Lisbon.
Other Useful Information
Few things in Lisbon are truly old. In 1755, a powerful earthquake basically leveled the city, and only a couple buildings from before that remain.
Weather-wise, Lisbon is similar to California. Seasons are fairly mild, although if it rains, the city sidewalks are super slippery. Wear comfortable shoes with grip all the time if possible.
If you have more than a week in Portugal, consider taking a side trip, either to the Algarve and its magnificent beaches in the south, or north to Porto. Portugal is less diverse than many European countries, but even so, Lisbon doesn’t represent the whole place.
If walking around in the evening, especially in the Alfama, do not be shocked if someone offers you hashish or, in the occasional circumstance, cocaine. Just say no and keep walking. Oddly, you get used to it.
A day trip to Sintra’s Pena Palace should be on your itinerary.
Lisbon didn’t disappoint me, and it will surely not disappoint you. It is a charming city, small compared to others in Europe and easy to navigate, with kind people and a pretty language. It may not be at the top of your list, but I hope this guide helped to put it there moving forward!
Note: if you enjoyed this guide, please visit all of our other Ultimate Guides here!
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