Sooner or later, the restless travel aficionado will have to contemplate a trip to the westernmost European nation. Visuals of dazzling traditional architecture, shiny azulejos, and delicious seafood make it harder and harder to escape Lisbon’s call. And I haven’t even started on the wine yet.
But let’s face it. Likely, you won’t have a full week to explore Lisbon. Rather, we are looking at 2-3 days. Do you still want to get the most out of your precious time breathing Portuguese air – but without the hassle of crossing the top sights off your list? Look no further.
Here’s a curated list of 10 different activities and points of interest that combines typical sights with a few places on the not-so-beaten track. The right mix is key – and I think I found a good recipe. Exploring Lisbon has never been easier.
10 Things to Experience in Lisbon
Hands down, walking through Lisbon at times feels like roaming an outdoor museum. The city of 500,000 boasts a fascinating mix of modern and traditional architecture. In order to understand the city’s distinct make-up, we’ll need to take a (very!) brief glance at Portuguese history. Don’t run away.
Portuguese History in 10 Seconds:
>> In the 16th century, King Manuel led Portugal during a very prosperous era, which resulted in equally posh buildings – the Manueline style. Much of it vanished during a terrible earthquake in 1755. Luckily, then city-planner Marquês de Pombal took on an incremental role in rebuilding the city in a clearly structured and safer way. We’re talking 4 stories max, wider streets, plus facades facing the street. The Pombaline style was born. Oh, and the Moors occupied the city for several centuries from the year 700 onward. So be prepared to spot some Moorish elements in between! <<
Did I forget something? Yes, apologies! Top this incredible mix of styles and influences off with hundreds and thousands of individual sights in themselves. I’m talking about Lisbon’s typical azulejos. You’ll encounter these artsy ceramic tiles literally everywhere you look. Used inside and outside of buildings, they serve ornamental and pragmatic functions. Think of them as an early version of the A/C. Can’t get enough of them? Don’t worry – they even have their own museum.
2. LX Factory
Is this Berlin Kreuzberg? No, we’re still in Lisbon! LX Factory is essentially a former industrial site that has been transformed to a venue for creatives, foodies, and fashionistas. Feel like getting a more permanent souvenir? There’s a tattoo shop. Or does sushi sound more tempting for now? You’ll find it here. LX Factory is located in the Alcântara neighborhood, which provides a good excuse to explore districts beyond the (beautiful!) city center.
Again, this is not an ultimate insider tip. But LX Factory is also not heavily frequented by first-time visitors – which makes for a very pleasant atmosphere. Entrance is free. Plus, it is located just below the impressive ponte 25 de Abril, which links the city with another neighborhood across the rio. More on that later.
3. Tram 28
I know, I know. There might be a line of fellow travelers waiting to board tram 28 at Praça Martim Moniz. But, there’s no way around it. Tram 28 is so popular for a reason. The small yellow cable cars connect many of the most beautiful neighborhoods. The route leads through Graca, Alfama, Baixa, and Estrela and the whole trip takes about one hour – depending on the number of parked vehicles on the tracks. The dispute of tram vs. car makes for additional authentic entertainment.
During the trip across the city, tram 28 navigates sharp curves, steep climbs and heavy drops. Behind each twist and turn you will get to see Lisbon from a different angle: plenty of great city views guaranteed. I’ve made my case. A ride aboard tram 28 is a must-do – and, with a ticket-price of 3 € also the cheapest sightseeing tour around.
4. A Night Out in Bica
The city of Lisbon spreads across 7 hills, with almost each lively neighborhood occupying its own elevation. In terms of nightlife, this means you’ll have various options for entertainment. Yes, Bairro Altois great. But Bica, just a couple streets further south, is where the crowd is at.
When the sun starts to set, hop on the famous ascensor da bica that crawls stoically up and down the steep street. At the top, make Miradouro de Santa Catarina your first stop. I promise you won’t be alone. Grab a drink and mix & mingle with the local crowd. Overlooking the rio tejo, that sundowner in your hand will taste even better. What more can you ask for?
5. Elevador de Santa Justa
If you’re planning on taking only one of the elevadores in Lisbon, make it this one. Only here, you have frontal, unobstructed views of Castelo São Jorge once you reach the top. Plus, you will be rewarded with dazzling views over the red roofed houses of the Baixa. In fact, elevador de Santa Justa links downtown Lisbon to uptown – in a literal sense. The lift was designed and built by a student of Gustave Eiffel back in 1902, and still hasn’t lost its appeal.
6. Mercado da Ribeira
Mercado da Ribeira is the biggest and oldest market hall in Lisbon and is located in yet another lively neighborhood: Cais do Sodré. While one part of the hall is reserved for regular market stalls, the other half hosts a huge food court. I’m not talking shopping mall and fast food. At Mercado da Ribeira, you get to try various Iberican delicacies.
The offers range from sea food, to steaks, sweet pastries and beyond. Get ready for some gourmet cuisine, yet in a very casual setting! When you found your preferred dish, head over to the communal seating area in the middle, hosting up to 700 foodies. The best part: you don’t have to order the same food (pastéis de nata) your fellow traveler (me) is craving (again). Why not celebrate your freedom of choice with a sip of wine? 2.5 € per glass is a bargain.
7. Praça do Comércio
Until the devastating earthquake hit Lisbon in 1755, Praça do Comércio was actually the site of the Terreiro do Paço, the royal palace. Following the natural catastrophe, the king had to move. Ever since, the wide and open square facing the river has become a favorite for locals and visitors alike.
You can’t help but marvel at this pompous main square. See that huge gate in the middle? That’s Arco da Rua Augusta. Head up for a stunning bird’s eye view of – surprise! – Rua Augusta. At its end lies another one of Lisbon’s big squares: Rossio. The official title is Praça de Dom Pedro IV – but honestly, who has time for that?
8. Street Art
Okay, this is not one sight, but actually part of Lisbon’s DNA. The roots of Lisbon’s street art tradition lie in the Carnation Revolution of 1974, a military coup turned peaceful revolution against the then authoritarian dictatorship in Portugal. It started on April 25 – does that name ring a bell? In the following years, the muralistas turned away from solely political themes and gave the city a more colorful touch, one graffiti at a time.
While spraying graffiti is frowned upon or even punishable by law in most cities, Lisbon has come to appreciate the power of this creative process by designating specific areas to the artists. Over the years, this has helped to revitalize vacant buildings and industrial sites. For a rougher take on Lisbon’s street art, head to Alfama and Sé. In a hurry? The Galeria de Arte Urbana has got you covered.
With its rich culture and prime sea-side location, Lisbon is a haven for foodies. And I’m not just talking about the popular pastéis de nata, the sweet essential (!) custard pastries. Throughout the city, an abundance of restaurants and bars caters to all types of culinary hedonists. The Bairro Alto is a prime example. Charming little restaurants line the small alleys – each with strong savory arguments. Deciding on a venue for dinner will be hard. What makes this even harder are the prices. Does 10-15 € for an upscale main sound good?
Sure, a classic bifana sandwich, loaded with grilled pork, is always a good option. But you’re on vacation. Treat yourself. What about seared duck breast with cherry-port wine sauce? I won’t tell the people of Porto that we enjoyed their local delicacy without a proper visit beforehand. Or are we feeling seafood today? A fresh tuna steak grilled to perfection will elevate your seafood cravings to new levels. Please don’t drool. We’re not done yet.
Almada is worth a visit for a variety of reasons. The most important one: You’ll get to pimp your vacation shots with a couple of sights that are known worldwide. Or, are they? For one, there’s the gigantic statue of Cristo Rei that sits on top of a plateau just opposite the city center, across the rio tejo. Inspired by a Portuguese bishop’s trip to South America, the stature has praised Lisbon with open arms ever since.
What also can’t be unseen is the similarity of ponte 25 de abril and that big red bridge on the U.S West Coast. Built by the same company that constructed the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, its European version connects the neighborhoods of Alcântara and Almada. You don’t have to cross the big pond for a taste of San Francisco and Rio – a hop across the rio tejo will do the trick. Ferries depart regularly from Cais do Sodré to Cacilhas. From there, a short ride on bus 101 will drop you right at Cristo Rei’s toes.