Best Things To Do in Lisbon
Lisbon is probably best known for its colonialist history, ornate architecture and tradition of Fado music. But some of its best features are in the everyday – spectacular hilltop vistas in Alfama or at St. George's Castle, pleasant year-round weather and friendly locals. To enjoy these, bring some comfortable footwear and a pocket map of the public transit system, or just hop on Tram 28 to see it all. Plan on spending a half-day to a full day exploring the waterfront neighborhood of Belém, or maybe plan a daytrip to the palace-heavy Sintra, located 20 miles northwest of Lisbon.
Updated December 6, 2019
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San Francisco has its cable cars, London has its red double-decker buses and Lisbon has its trams. Tram 28, which extends from Martim Moniz to Campo Ourique, in particular takes riders on a tourist-friendly route. Not only does it pass through some of the city's most notable neighborhoods including Graça, Baixa and Bairro Alto, but it also travels by popular attractions, such as St. George's Castle and Alfama. Along with a scenic route, the cars themselves are also considered to be part of the experience. Many of Lisbon's trams, including some used on the Tram 28 route, are the same that were used in World War II, so don't expect air conditioning, or a smooth trip up and around the area's hills. But don't worry, recent travelers said it's all part of the tram's charm.
Some visitors recommend taking the tram up the steep Alfama hill and then walking back down to explore the neighborhood. Due to the tram's popularity, the tram cars tend to get crowded quickly, so make sure to arrive early or later in the day to avoid long lines. Also, because of the tram's popularity with tourists, it's a target for pickpockets. Remember to keep an eye on your belongings, especially cameras.
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The waterfront Belém is a historic neighborhood that houses some of Lisbon's most important monuments, museums and one very popular Portuguese tart place, the Pasteis de Belém. Here you'll find the Jerónimos Monastery, the Belém Tower, the Discoveries Monument, the Belém Palace (the official residence of Portugal's president), the Coleção Berardo Museum as well as a number of scenic gardens. As the Discoveries Monument beautifully illustrates, Belém is important in that it was a popular departure point during the Age of Discoveries. Some notable adventurers that have embarked from Belém include Vasco da Gama, who was the first person to sail directly from Europe to India, and Ferdinand Magellan, who was aboard the first ship that successfully circumnavigated the world. In addition, Christopher Columbus also made a stop here on his way back to Spain from the Americas.
Recent travelers enjoyed all that Belem has to offer, especially the stunning Belem Tower and the Discoveries Monument. Most visitors, however, expressed disappointment with the amount of tourists that are seemingly always at the sites. Because of this, some travelers instead recommended simply grabbing a pastel de nata (Portuguese egg tart pastry) at Pasteis de Belem, taking a nice long stroll along the Tagus riverfront and admiring the waterfront attractions outside instead of waiting in long lines to go inside. Keep in mind: If you've come to Belem to see its top attractions, including Belem Tower and the Jerónimos Monastery, these monuments are not open on Mondays.
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Some tourists choose to take Tram 28 through the Alfama neighborhood because it's so hilly, but whether you choose to burn some calories or contend with the tram crowds, a visit to the picturesque Alfama is a must. With a history that dates back to the Moors, Alfama is characterized by narrow, cobblestone streets that wind past dozens of quaint shops, cozy little restaurants and traditional Fado clubs, all of which are housed within historic yet well-preserved architecture. Popular city attractions like St. George's Castle, Sé Cathedral and Feira de Ladra are also located in Alfama.
Travelers come in droves to bear witness to the neighborhood's famed charm (and some street art), and say this is the best place to get to know Lisbon. Visitors also say this isn't an attraction to breeze through, but rather take your time with and get lost in. Ditch the map and let yourself wander the colorful streets, grab a drink alfresco in an alleyway, or seek out one of the neighborhood's many vantage points, including the popular Miradouro de Santa Luzia, or the Miradouro Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen.
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For some sweeping views of Lisbon – particularly St. George's Castle, Rossio Square and the Baixa neighborhood – you might want to take a ride on the Elevador de Santa Justa. Designed by Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard (a former student of Gustave Eiffel – creator of the Eiffel tower), this neo-Gothic elevator is more than a century old and used to be powered by steam. The structure is more than just a means to meet a vista's end, but rather a convenient shortcut for commuters looking to get to Bairro Alto without having to work up the sweat climbing the hill. While the exterior is almost entirely wrought iron, inside visitors will find two old-fashioned cabins that take riders up to the nearly 150-foot-tall vantage point.
Although visitors were more than pleased with the views, some visitors found the attraction to be a rip-off, especially since are so many free viewpoints throughout Lisbon thanks to the city's many hills. Travelers also complained of the long lines throughout the day and suggested going either very early in the day or very late at night, but even that isn't a guarantee. Plus, because the elevator's capacity is limited, lines move slow.
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Located about 20 miles northwest of central Lisbon, Sintra's praises have been sung in literature by the likes of British poet Lord Byron and Portuguese poet Luis Vaz de Camões; Byron described it as a "glorious Eden." A veritable heaven on earth, the small city's rolling hills are clad with vibrant vegetation and fairy tale-like villas separated by cobblestone streets. The star of the show is the colorful Palácio Nacional de Pena, which was built to be a romantic getaway for Queen Maria II and her husband. There's also the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, whose azulejo-adorned interiors make up for its bland exteriors, the Monserrate Palace, the Castle of the Moors, and the Quinta da Regaleira. What's more, the entire city is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Travelers thoroughly enjoyed hopping back and forth between what many visitors described as beautiful palaces, villas and castles that Sintra had to offer, but recommended stamina and sturdy pair of shoes, as the area is very hilly.
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One of the most notable aspects of Lisbon's alluring architecture is its vibrant ceramic tiles. You might find these Portuguese tiles, or azulejos, adorned on buildings during a walk about town (especially in Alfama), in gift shops (or at the Feira da Ladra), or within the walls of other top city attractions, including some of the palaces or villas that dot Sintra.
If you don't feel like spending time seeking out tiles on the streets, a visit to the National Tile Museum is the perfect alternative. The museum is filled to the brim with tiles of all colors and sizes, some of which date back to the 15th century. Some are simple, with individual tiles decorated with flowers or sailboats, while others are pieced together to create grand murals chronicling people or stories steeped with history. Not only that, but there is information spread throughout detailing how azulejos are made.
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Castelo de São Jorge, or St. George's Castle, is perched atop Lisbon's highest hill in Alfama, offering both excellent history and views of the city. The castle served as a fortification for the Romans, Visigoths and the Moors, who turned it into a royal palace before it was eventually taken by Portugal's first king, Afonso Henriques. The attraction has kept much of the building's relics intact, including canons, which are spread throughout, underground chambers and 18 towers, one of which houses a camera obscura. There is also a restaurant on-site, gardens where wildlife frequently make appearances and an archaeological museum.
Visitors gushed about the incredible views of the city and the sea. But although most were impressed with its quality preservation, many found the attraction to be lacking, as there isn't much to do on-site. They also advised future visitors to wear comfortable shoes, as you'll have to walk up a hill to reach the castle.
- #8View all Photos#8 in LisbonSightseeing, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPENDSightseeing, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND
What looks to be an idyllic mini castle seamlessly floating on the Tagus riverfront was originally a fort that served to protect Lisbon's port in the 16th century. It served as a departure point for explorers looking to travel the world during the Age of Discoveries. Today, the Manueline structure serves as a monument to that heyday and was named a UNESCO World Heritage site along with the nearby Monastery of Jeronimos. Visitors can go inside and explore the interiors, whose rooms once served as royals quarters, a prison and a chapel, to name a few.
Padrão dos Descobrimentos, or the Monument to the Discoveries, is just a short walk away, and equally stunning. The waterfront structure was built in the 1960s in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator's death. Although he wasn't an explorer himself, he significantly supported a handful of important explorations during his time. The sail-shaped statue is lined with notable Portuguese figures throughout history, including other navigators, artists and King Manuel. Inside, visitors can watch a multimedia presentation of Portugal's history as well as climb to the top of the monument for greater views of the river.
- #9View all PhotosfreeCascais#9 in LisbonBeaches, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPEND
The seaside town of Cascais (kush-kaish) is a 45-minute train ride west of Lisbon's Cais do Sodré station (the green line). Once a fishing village, Cascais became a popular respite for the rich and royal in the 1900s. Today, Europeans of all kinds flock to this beachy city for some low-cost fun in the sun. And since it's peppered with luxurious resorts and hotels, a weekend here may be an ideal end to your Lisbon vacation.
But don't be put off by its diminutive size – there is plenty to do here. Take a stroll around the colorful, cobblestone-lined old town, visit one of the area's many forts that helped prevent pirate attacks, or lay back on one of the area's many beaches.
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Less than 50 years old, the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum hangs a world-renowned collection of art. The late Calouste Gulbenkian, a former oil tycoon and distinguished art collector, amassed 6,000 works of art in his lifetime, donating it all to Portugal upon his death. The diverse selection on display includes art of all kinds from all over the world, including Egyptian statues, European paintings from masters Rubens and Rembrandt, and Chinese porcelain, to name a few.
Recent travelers enjoyed perusing the museum, with many saying the long trip away from the city center was worth it. Visitors not only appreciated the museum's diversity of art, but some were delightfully dumbfounded it all came from one person. Others were pleased with the size of the museum, saying it was large enough to fill a few hours of the day, but still manageable. The architecture and gardens received equally favorable reviews.
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The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, also known as the Monastery of St. Jerome or the Jerónimos Monastery, is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in Lisbon's Belém district. Exemplifying Portugal's Manueline style – a highly ornate style of architecture named after the king of the time (Manuel I) – the monastery was built during the Age of Discoveries to honor explorer Vasco da Gama, as he and his crew spent their last night in Portugal at the site before embarking on their famous journey to India in 1498. During the 17th century, the structure served as a monastery for monks, whose job was to comfort sailors and pray for the king. It eventually became a school and orphanage until 1940.
Today, visitors can explore the grounds at their own pace while admiring the detail present in the intricately carved pillars, cloisters and vaulted ceilings. Tourists can also stop by the Chapel of St. Jerome and the tombs, which contain notable Portuguese people in history including a handful of royals and Vasco da Gama himself. Travelers found the attraction's unique architecture to be stunning, and recommended a visit for that reason alone. However, some travelers complained of long lines, so plan to get here early to beat the crowds.
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The Oceanário de Lisboa is not just an aquarium, but considering its size, a world in and of itself. The Oceanarium, as it's also often referred to, is Portugal's largest indoor aquarium, holding more than one million gallons of seawater supporting the lives of 8,000 sea creatures. Four permanent exhibits represent different habitats that hold the likes of various types of birds, fish, amphibians and mammals. Here, visitors will find the likes of sea stars and coral to penguins, puffins and sea otters and everything in between. Along with a peek into life under the sea, the Oceanarium also offers a variety of activities, from guided tours to a sleepover with sharks and even a Fado show.
Visitors were blown away by how impressive the aquarium was and suggested stopping by if you need a break from the city's many historic sites. Several reviewrs in particular loved the large, central tank, and said the attraction could easily be enjoyed by all ages, and not just children. Travelers advised setting aside at least half a day to see the attraction and warned of large crowds.
- #13View all PhotosfreeFeira da Ladra#13 in LisbonShopping, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPENDShopping, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND
If you're searching for a unique souvenir to take back home, you might want to try your luck at the Feira da Ladra flea market. Located in the Alfama district and spread out across Campo de Santa Clara, the contents of Feira da Ladra can be trash or treasure, depending on what kind of traveler you ask, or what kind of week it is. Either way, you're likely to find some souvenirs, antiques, azulejos (Portuguese tiles), art and a number of second-hand/vintage goods.
But the Feira da Ladra isn't your run-of-the-mill flea market. The market is rumored to have been around since the 12th century, with some of the vendors known for selling stolen goods, hence the name ladera, which translates to thief. Fact or fiction, you've probably never been to a flea market with ocean views. The market is open from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and can be reached by hopping on Tram 28. The market is free to visit. After you've perused the wares, you'll find the National Pantheon and the Museu de Artes Decorativas (Museum of Decorative Arts) within walking distance.
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