Located on a broad tidal river near the Atlantic coast of Portugal, Lisbon is continental Europe’s westernmost capital. Despite Portugal’s modest size, Lisbon was once among the most economically important and politically powerful cities in the world – thanks to the vast seafaring empire commanded by the Portuguese crown in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Alas, Lisbon is no longer the center of the universe. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a vibrant, cosmopolitan city worth a weekend (or more) of your time.
Home to three million people, the Lisbon area is a cultural powerhouse, boasting dozens of excellent museums, countless historical sites, beautiful cityscapes, its own genre of music (fado), and an excellent yet unpretentious culinary scene.
Lisbon resembles San Francisco thanks to its steep hills, vintage trolleys and trams, bayside location, and maritime-influenced climate. The city even has a Golden Gate Bridge lookalike – the rust-red, twin-towered Ponte 25 de Abril. And, back in 1755, the city was severely damaged by its own history-altering earthquake (San Francisco’s happened in 1906).
However, the San Francisco analogy fails in one important regard: cost. Not accounting for transatlantic airfare, which can obviously be pricey, Lisbon is much cheaper that San Francisco to visit.
Due to declines in the euro’s value and the Portuguese economy’s continued struggles, Lisbon is more affordable than many major U.S. cities such as New York, Boston, and Miami. It’s also more cost-effective than European hubs such as London, Paris, and Amsterdam.
It’s possible to find comfortable, centrally located hotel accommodations for well under 100 euros (approximately $105 as of early 2017) per night. Sit-down restaurant meals (with wine) can be had for less than 10 euros per person. That’s particularly notable when you consider that seafood – which can be very expensive elsewhere – plays a central role in many of Lisbon’s culinary specialties.
Discounts, Deals, Tours, and Resources
These discounts, deals, and tourist-friendly resources can simplify the planning process, guide you to worthwhile attractions, and save you money.
If you plan to do serious sightseeing while you’re in Lisbon, the Lisboa Card is a must-have. In fact, the first thing my wife and I did when we arrived at the airport was find a Lisboa Card vendor (at the tourism office near the airport Metro stop) to purchase a three-day pass.
Lisboa Card is an all-city (actually, all-region) pass that confers free or reduced-price admission to dozens of Lisbon-area museums and attractions, including super-popular stops such as Torre de Belem and Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. It also entitles you to unlimited public transit use in and around Lisbon, plus suburban rail fares to popular day-trip destinations such as Sintra and Cascais.
However, Lisboa Card doesn’t always guarantee line-skipping privileges, so you may still have to wait at free or reduced-cost attractions. (You can skip the line if you buy tickets in advance at an Ask Me Lisboa outpost.)
In addition to reduced or free entry, Lisboa Card includes a slew of discounts with tour companies, retail outlets, and restaurants. So with some planning and the right itinerary, you can substantially reduce the cost of dining and souvenir purchases. Expect to pay 18.50 euros per adult for a one-day (24-hour) pass, 31.50 euros for a two-day pass, or 39 euros for a three-day pass.
Lisbon Walker‘s infrequent but immensely valuable walking tours offer a deep dive into the history of Lisbon. No reservations are needed for this English-language tour, and Lisboa Card holders receive a 33% discount. Consider it as an alternative to a self-guided jaunt through Lisbon’s sometimes confusing old neighborhoods.
Tuk Guide Portugal
Lisbon’s ubiquitous narrow-bodied motorized carts are known as tuk-tuks. Tuk Guide Portugal is among the better-reputed tuk-tuk guide agencies. Look for their carts at major attractions and gathering places in central Lisbon. Hop on for an English-language tour from a bona fide expert – plus rapid, door-to-door transportation up Lisbon’s steep hills. Just make sure you work out the price in advance, and be sure to mention your Lisboa Card, as it’s good for a 25% discount.
Cityrama/City Sightseeing/Gray Line
You can’t go very long in Lisbon without catching a glimpse of a distinctive red Cityrama (City Sightseeing/Gray Line) double-decker bus. Never mind the confusing names – these hop-on, hop-off coach buses are clean, comfortable, and fast.
The company operates two distinct lines within Lisbon: Belem, which heads west from the city center, and Oriente, which heads northeast out of town. Each line has nearly 20 stops, most of which correspond to specific museums or historic attractions. All rides are led by expert guides who deliver insightful content on the history and culture passing by.
An all-day pass costs 20 euros, which is good for both lines. Lisboa Card users receive a 25% discount.
Cooltour Lisbon is a more intimate alternative to Cityrama/City Sightseeing/Gray Line. Its minivan or walking tours are limited to eight people, allowing for (almost) personalized attention from the hip expert guides. Lisbon-area tours are grouped by theme or location: “Fado,” “Sintra,” “Into the Wine,” and “Evora.”
If you want to learn a lot about a specific slice of Portuguese life, consider Cooltour Lisbon. Though rather expensive (roughly 50 to 90 euros, depending on the tour), the value of the information is real. Lisboa Card holders get a 15% discount.
Ask Me Lisboa
Before you arrive in Lisbon, check out Ask Me Lisboa‘s English-language website for local tips and tricks. When you arrive, stop by a kiosk (at the airport, major train stations, and other points around town) to grab literature and chat with the friendly staffers.
Always look into other discount opportunities such as the Lisboa Eat & Shop Card – a 72-hour discount pass that knocks at least 10% off the bill at more than 30 restaurants. The card also provides discounts at about 100 vendors. (Pro tip: It may be possible to prepay for certain attractions and museums – a clutch move that’s sure to pay off on busy days, as prepaid visitors can skip the line at most points of interest.)
Historic Attractions in Old Lisbon
People have lived in what is now Lisbon for at least 2,000 years. Much of the existing building stock is from the 18th and 19th centuries, while the oldest remnant structures date back nearly 1,000 years.
Any walk through Lisbon is a walk through history, but these attractions are among the most valuable and illuminating of Lisbon’s historic treasures.
1. Mosteiro dos Jeronimos
- Adult admission: Free with Lisboa Card; regularly 10 euros (or 12 euros with combined admission to Museu Nacional de Arqueologia or Torre de Belem)
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 5:30pm or 6:30pm, depending on the season
Built in the 1500s, this impressive monastery sidelines the supposed Catholic virtue of modesty. The adjoining cathedral, whose columns evoke towering trees and whose shrines are entire worlds unto themselves, is even more impressive. The cathedral is free for everyone, but crowds aren’t a huge problem simply because the space is so large. The monastery is free for Lisboa Card holders, and its smaller capacity makes for sometimes long lines. Arrive early to avoid the crush.
2. Castelo de Sao Jorge
- Adult admission: 7.50 euros
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 9pm
Castelo de Sao Jorge is hard to miss. Perched on a prominent hillside in the Alfama district, with steep drop-offs on three sides, it’s one of Lisbon’s most visible structures. It’s also among the oldest surviving – at least, parts of it are. Visigothic settlements sprung up on the grounds as early as the 5th or 6th century A.D. When the Moors conquered Portugal in 1147, they immediately saw the strategic value of the hilltop, and set to work building a massive fortification. Following the Christian reconquest, successive kings and queens expanded and reinforced the compound.
Following the 1755 earthquake, the castle found new life as a military garrison. Today, it’s an open-air museum with a slew of historic artifacts from the surrounding area, some dating to well before the castle’s construction.
3. Vintage Trams (Electricos)
- Adult admission: Free with Lisboa Card; regularly 3.50 euros
- Hours: Variable (roughly mid-morning through late evening)
San Francisco has its historic cable cars, while Lisbon has vintage trams that climb equally steep terrain. The quintessential route is the Number 28, which heads through the Graca, Alfama, and Chiado neighborhoods, hitting many of Lisbon’s top historic sights along the way. The Number 15 is a little more practical – it heads out past Belem and serves most of the cultural monuments (including the Torre and Mosteiro dos Jeronimos) along the way.
4. The Se
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 7pm
Also known as Lisbon Cathedral, the Se claims to be Lisbon’s oldest building. The Moors used the site as a mosque prior to the Christian reconquest, and there’s some evidence that Romans and Visigoths worshiped or lived on the grounds. Once Portugal was reunited, the country’s first king decreed the construction of a massive cathedral worthy of Portugal’s global ambitions.
The architecture is simple by the standards of later periods, but nonetheless impressive – and, thanks to the Se’s prominent hilltop position, hard not to notice. If you’ve never been in an ancient cathedral, this is your chance. Best of all, it’s free.
5. Torre de Belem
- Adult admission: Free with Lisboa Card; regularly 6 euros (or 12 euros with combined admission to Museu Nacional de Arqueologia or Torre de Belem)
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 5:30pm or 6:30pm (depending on the season)
Compared with the Mosteiro and cathedral, the squat stone Torre de Belem is positively utilitarian. It once played a critical part in Lisbon’s defensive arsenal, and many of the antique cannons that menaced enemy ships remain on display.
If you want to get to the top, where you can take in the lower river, Ponte 25 de Abril, and glimpse the Atlantic Ocean, you need to wait in two lines: one at the entrance to the tower itself, and one to enter the observation area. Arrive early to beat the crowds, or purchase your ticket in advance as part of a combo pack at one of the other major Belem attractions.
6. Arco da Rua Augusta
- Adult admission: Free with Lisboa Card; regularly 2.50 euros
- Hours: Daily – hours vary by season, but generally 9am to 7pm or later
The ornate Arco da Rua Augusta offers excellent views of central Lisbon, including the Baixa neighborhood, Praca do Comercio and Terreiro Paco, the Se, Castelo de Sao Jorge, and the Tagus River. Inside, statues depict famous figures from Portuguese history, including Vasco da Gama and the Marquis of Pombal. There’s also an exhibit on the arch’s century-long construction process, which was itself a feat. If you don’t want to ascend, no worries – the view of the arch is impressive enough.
7. Basilica da Estrela
- Adult admission: Free to enter the sanctuary; 1.50 euros to view the nativity scene and 4 euros to access the roof
- Hours: Daily, 7:30am to 7:45pm (Sunday worship may affect hours)
A relative newcomer by Lisbon standards, Basilica da Estrela was completed in 1790 after years of painstaking construction. Start your visit by admiring the meticulously crafted twin belfry towers from the outside, then head into the free sanctuary, look up, and marvel at the vast cupola. The nativity scene, sequestered in an admission-only room, is guaranteed to be the most intricate you’ll ever see.
Don’t forget to pay your respects at the tomb of Dona Maria I, the long-lived queen who commissioned the cathedral. For breathtaking views of the surrounding city, pay 4 euros and head up to the roof.
8. Ponte 25 de Abril
- Adult admission: Free to walk across
- Hours: 24/7
Much newer than the other historic attractions on this list, Ponte 25 de Abril is worth a mention (and a look, whether from afar, from beneath, or while on a train heading across) precisely because it evokes another famous San Francisco landmark: the Golden Gate Bridge. Ponte 25 de Abril is a bit wider and squatter than the Golden Gate span, but its color and suspension towers are eerily similar. For amazing views of the Tagus River, zip across on the Fertagus train.
9. Elevador de Santa Justa
- Adult admission: Free with Lisboa Card; regularly 5 euros to ride the elevator, or 1.50 euros to access the upper viewpoint from above
- Hours: Daily, 7am to 10pm or 11pm, depending on the season
Built by an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel, the man behind Paris’s Eiffel Tower, Elevador de Santa Justa is an elegant metal tower with panoramic views of central Lisbon’s monuments, including the Castelo de Sao Jorge. At the end of the long metal walkway high above a tony shopping street, there’s an unrelated bar and restaurant with excellent city views. You can exit down the stairs at the other end – no need to ride the elevator twice.
Museums and Cultural Institutions
Lisbon’s history is certainly on display at its museums and cultural institutions. But that’s not the only thing you can learn about in this cosmopolitan city. Whether you’re into art, music, science, or maritime history, there’s something here for you. Many of these sights are free or reduced-price with the Lisboa Card.
10. Lisboa Story Centre
- Adult admission: Free with Lisboa Card; regularly 7 euros
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 8pm
Open since late 2012, Lisboa Story Centre is one of the capital’s newest attractions. It’s basically an overgrown history museum, conveniently located on the Praca do Comercio. Interactive, kid-friendly exhibits recount the city’s signature events in interactive fashion.
If you want a fun crash course in Lisbon’s history, from medieval times, through the devastating earthquake of 1755, to the political upheaval of the recent past, it’s all here.
11. Museu de Arte, Arquitetura, e Tecnologia (MAAT)
- Adult admission: Free with Lisboa Card; regularly 5 euros
- Hours: Wednesday through Monday, 12 noon to 8pm
Lisbon’s newest major museum is a groundbreaking blend of art, architecture, and technology. International art is a major focus here, and a provocative speaker series is sure to satiate your thirst for debate, should your schedule align. Given the somewhat odd hours, this is a fun pre-dinner activity.
12. Museu Nacional de Arqueologia/Convento do Carmo
- Adult admission: 20% discount with Lisboa Card; regularly 5 euros
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10am to 6pm or 7pm, depending on the season
Also known as Museu Arqueologico do Carmo, this popular facility showcases the ruins of a church destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. The most popular items in its arsenal include tombs, busts, and plaques belonging to or commemorating various Portuguese notables, including King Alfonso Henriques. Its collection isn’t limited to Portuguese history, however – it also features Egyptian artifacts, North American native ceramics, and various Roman art and tools.
13. Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (MNAA)
- Adult admission: Free with Lisboa Card; regularly 6 euros
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 6pm
Operational since the 1880s, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga occupies a handsome, imposing structure in the heart of Lisbon’s bustling Belem district. Its collection includes Portuguese cultural artifacts, sculpture, paintings, textiles, furniture, and other media from medieval times through the 19th century.
There is no better place to see the history of Western art through Portuguese eyes. Visit after you see Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, right next door.
14. Museu de Marinha
- Adult admission: 33% discount with Lisboa Card; regularly 6 euros
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10am to 6:30pm; Sunday, 10am to 8:30pm
Portugal’s historic naval power is on full display at Museu da Marinha, which has lifelike models of ships from the Age of Discovery (14th century onwards), the 18th and 19th centuries, and more modern times. It also includes some interesting odds and ends, such as the hydroplane that completed the first successful South Atlantic crossing in 1922.
15. Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporanea do Chiado (MNAC)
- Adult admission: Free with Lisboa Card (regular admission price not listed)
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 6pm
The MNAC showcases the best of Portuguese art from about 1850 to the present. It also welcomes temporary exhibitions from active and recently deceased international artists.
16. Museu de Lisboa – Palacio Pimenta
- Adult admission: Free with Lisboa Card (regular admission price not listed)
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 6pm (closed between 1pm and 2pm all days)
Housed in an 18th century summer retreat, Museu de Lisboa (website in Portuguese only) is an homage to the history of Lisbon and Portugal, from the prehistory to the present. The prehistoric archaeological curiosities are definitely worth pondering, as is the intricate scale model of the city of Lisbon prior to the 1755 earthquake. In the true Portuguese tradition, Palacio Pimenta is closed for lunch between 1pm and 2pm, so plan accordingly.
17. Museu Nacional da Musica
- Adult admission: Free with Lisboa Card (regular admission price not listed)
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10am to 6pm
If you’re musically inclined or at all interested in music history, you can’t miss Museu Nacional da Musica. This underrated facility takes a deep dive into the history and science of musical instruments, from 16th century harpsichords to 20th century guitars.
18. Museu Colecao Berardo
- Adult admission: Free for all; some exhibits may require supplemental admission purchase (those are free with Lisboa Card)
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 7pm
Museu Colecao Berardo is a wildly popular, technology-driven contemporary art museum with permanent and rotating exhibitions from Portugal and around the world. All told, it covers upwards of 70 artistic schools from the 20th century alone. Since this is one of a relative handful of Lisbon attractions open on Mondays, expect crowds if you go then (and try to arrive before noon).
19. Museu do Fado
- Adult admission: 30% discount with Lisboa Card; regularly 5 euros
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 6pm
If the enchanting sounds wafting from the cafes of the Alfama don’t satiate your appetite for Lisbon’s signature musical style, Museu do Fado just might. The permanent exhibition is a multisensory look at the history and evolution of fado, from the early days of vaudeville to recent radio programs. Don’t miss the temporary exhibits, and check ahead to see if any performances are scheduled in the auditorium.
- Adult admission: Free to enter; tasting may require fee
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11am to 7pm
Viniportugal (Wines of Portugal) is dedicated to the history and craft of Portuguese wine. It’s not an entirely disinterested party – according to its website, it’s a production of the “Interprofessional Association of the Portuguese Wine Industry and the entity managing the brand Wines of Portugal,” and its aim is “to promote the image of Portugal as a wine-producing country par excellence by valuing the brand Wines of Portugal.” Still, it’s the best place in Lisbon to learn about Portugal’s wine regions and sample choice vintages.
21. Oceanario de Lisboa
- Adult admission: 15% discount with Lisboa Card; regularly 14 euros for permanent exhibitions, and 17 euros for permanent and temporary exhibitions
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 7pm or 8pm, depending on the season
Conveniently located near Oriente station, Lisbon’s main intercity train station, Oceanario de Lisboa was one of the spiffy main attractions of Expo ’98. It’s a truly impressive aquarium featuring more than 500 species, 8,000 individual animals, 25 theme tanks, and five habitats showcasing the world’s diverse ocean habitats. If you have kids in tow, this is a nice break from sightseeing and history tourism.
Parks, Squares, and Natural Areas
Central Lisbon is a densely built jumble with limited green space. Fortunately for crowd-weary travelers, it’s easy to find open and occasionally quiet spots close to (and in some cases, on the grounds of) the city’s most popular attractions.
Unless otherwise noted, the pracas (plazas) and viewpoints listed here are open 24/7, though commonsense safety precautions are advisable in the early morning. Parks and gardens tend to be gated, with strict open and close times.
22. Praca do Comercio
Lisbon’s largest plaza is, in fact, the largest plaza in any Western European capital. It contains the Arco Monumental da Rua Augusta, among other landmarks, but most of its square footage is simply comprised of large, smooth stone pavers. That makes for amazing views of the stately structures surrounding it, not to mention the broad Tagus River (which at this point is more of a bay) beyond. The cafes and shops lining the plaza charge a premium for their location, but cheaper alternatives are available a block or two down any side street.
23. Praca da Figueira
This isn’t Lisbon’s largest plaza, but it’s among the grandest. Lined with cafes and shops, and dotted with statues and water features, Praca de Figueira is a great place to people-watch and get your bearings. It’s strategically located between the Alfama, Baixa, and Chiado districts, so you’ll probably encounter it anyway if you plan to do any sightseeing on foot. Lisbon’s trams crisscross here too.
24. Parque Florestal de Monsanto
Parque Florestal de Monsanto is a sprawling, heavily forested park that has absolutely nothing to do with the global agribusiness giant. Instead, it’s probably the best place to take a wilderness hike in urban Lisbon, as several routes offer excellent views of the city and Tagus River. If you’re looking to save a few bucks, skip lunch or dinner at a restaurant and bring your own food to one of the park’s picnic areas.
25. Miradouro da Senhora do Monte
Located in the Graca district, near the Alfama, this high point on Rua Senhora do Monte offers excellent views of Lisbon’s core neighborhoods, Ponte 25 de Abril, the Tagus River, and the hills beyond. It’s a great spot for a few moments of quiet reflection – and not a bad destination for your early-morning jog.
26. Miradouro da Graca
Located on the grounds of the Graca Church, a late-13th century structure worth a visit in its own right, this viewpoint boasts excellent views of Castelo de Sao Jorge and Lisbon’s Baixa district. There’s plenty of seating and shade, and the river breeze is persistent, so this is an ideal place to sip coffee on a warm day.
27. Jardim Botanico Tropical
- Adult admission: 2 euros
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm, 6pm, 7pm, or 8pm, depending on the season
Part of the Museu Nacional de Historia Natural e da Ciencia, Jardim Botanico Tropical (website in Portuguese only) contains more than 600 distinct plant species, most of which thrive in tropical and subtropical climates warmer than Portugal’s. If you’re interested in botany, this place is definitely worth a visit, especially in light of the reasonable admission fee.
28. Praca da Alegria/Avenida da Liberdade
Praca da Alegria is a modestly sized park located just off Avenida da Liberdade, near the Avenida Metro stop. Its stately trees, winding paths, broad lawns, and ample seating make for a calming oasis in the midst of a bustling urban neighborhoods.
If you’re looking for an even more affordable alternative to a glass of wine at a sidewalk cafe down on the Avenida, pack your own and make it a picnic here. Also of note: The underappreciated neighborhood behind the square has some of Lisbon’s highest-value authentic Portuguese dining options, including the excellent As Velhas.
29. Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara
This hilltop viewpoint offers stunning views of much of historic Lisbon, including Praca do Comercio, the Se, and Castelo de Sao Jorge. Getting here is a workout in and of itself, so don’t feel bad about skipping your morning jog beforehand (or setting it as the destination for your workout). And don’t forget your camera – you’ll regret it if you do.
Neighborhoods and Local Attractions
Many of Lisbon’s most popular museums and historic attractions can be found in these neighborhoods, so you’ll probably find your way to them sooner or later. Each has its own unique local flavor. If you have the time, spend an hour or so wandering each.
30. The Alfama
The Alfama is Lisbon’s quintessential old neighborhood. Even by local standards, the chaotic jumble of streets, alleys, and staircases is frighteningly confusing. Many public rights-of-way don’t appear on Google Maps, so it’s best to have a sense of where you’re going – or be able to speak enough Portuguese to ask locals for directions – before you enter. Unless you’re staying on a hilltop already, the best approach is to keep going up, as the street plan gets more open (and views more exciting) the higher you go.
The Alfama is a great place to grab lunch or dinner, thanks to dozens (probably hundreds) of super-cheap cafes and taverns. It’s also your best bet for live fado music.
Baixa roughly translates to “low place.” That’s an apt description of this fashionable central neighborhood, whose grid-like streets and ornate architecture largely postdate the 1755 earthquake.
Though Old Lisbon doesn’t really have a proper downtown, Baixa is as close as it gets – there’s a lot of buttoned-up commercial activity here, along with higher-end restaurants, war monuments, and pricey boutiques. If you don’t mind other people in your shots, photo opportunities abound in this ever-crowded district.
32. Bairro Alto
Bairro Alto is a hip, mostly upscale neighborhood that’s popular with younger travelers. Even if you don’t stay in the area, it’s definitely worth checking out the wine bars and clubs here after dinner. During the day, views of Baixa and the Alfama abound. For an unusual, lively dining experience that goes beyond the typical Portuguese cafe fare, check out the Esplanada at Lost In, a vegetarian-friendly restaurant frequently featuring live jazz music.
Belem is the farthest-flung of the neighborhoods on this list. It’s five or six kilometers from Praca do Comercio, and is easily accessible on the modern (though often very crowded) 15 streetcar.
Though parts of Belem resemble central Lisbon, with narrow alleys, weathered 18th century buildings, and small businesses galore, much of it is given over to large-footprint attractions and monuments, such as Mosteiro dos Jeronimos and Torre de Belem. There’s also a massive cultural center here, plus lots of open space along the riverfront.
Given the distances involved, you should be prepared to walk a lot here. Thankfully, Belem is pretty flat.
One of central Lisbon’s oldest and most fashionable neighborhoods, Chiado is a steep, engaging district with many high-end international fashion stores and plenty of independent boutiques. Its intimate alleys and side streets also harbor unexpected treasures, including staircases that seem to disappear into ancient retaining walls and pocket parks where elderly locals play chess.
For a unique dining experience, check out Cervejaria Trindade, a repurposed monastery that houses one of Lisbon’s few true brewpubs.
Day Trips and Excursions
These places are all within easy out-and-back reach of central Lisbon by train. Leave in the morning, spend a few hours wandering around, and comfortably return by dinnertime.
Sintra is the most popular tourist day trip from Lisbon. It’s not hard to see why: Less than an hour away by commuter rail, Sintra feels like a world apart – a fairy-tale village loomed over by lush, jagged hills and punctuated with splendid artifacts from the past thousand years of human history. Though the village itself is pretty touristy, its winding alleys and steep staircases will capture your heart, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to buy a postcard at one of the many locally owned shops crowding the main square.
Once you’ve explored the pint-sized town center, check out some or all of these attractions:
- Palacio Nacional de Sintra: Palacio Nacional de Sintra is immediately identifiable at a distance by its two towering, conical projections (curiously, they’re oversized kitchen vents). The interior of the vast (though surprisingly cozy) structure is essentially frozen in time, with furnishings, art, and even clothing from its 18th century heyday. Admission is about 8 euros, but there’s a 5% discount for advance online purchases, as well as a 10% discount for Lisboa Card users.
- O Castelo dos Mouros: Perched on a high crag overlooking Sintra, O Castelo dos Mouros is a partially ruined Moorish castle that proved invaluable to the defense of Moor-held Sintra and Lisbon – that is, until it was overrun by Christian forces and recommissioned as property of the Portuguese crown. Spend 30 minutes wandering the ramparts and taking in the panoramic view, then check out the small but very interesting museum at the western base of the fort. Admission is about 6 euros, with the same 5% online discount. The castle is accessible by bus (Scotturb 434, which costs 5 euros) from Sintra, or you can walk up the steep but beautiful pedestrian footpath through Vila Sassetti and burn a few extra calories.
- Parque Nacional da Pena/Palacio Nacional da Pena: Peeking through the thick forest on a hilltop not far from Castelo dos Mouros, Palacio Nacional da Pena is a multicolored 19th century masterwork that blends the distinctive Moorish and Manueline architectural styles to create something all its own. What this place lacks in longevity, it makes up in originality. If you’re not a fan of whimsical palaces, the surrounding park trails will keep you occupied for hours. Admission is about 11 euros, with a 5% online discount and a 10% Lisboa Card discount. The palace and park are accessible by bus (Scotturb 434, which costs 5 euros) from Sintra or on the same free trail through Vila Sassetti.
- Convento dos Capuchos: Built in the mid-16th century, diminutive Convento dos Capuchos housed successive generations of Franciscan monks for nearly three centuries until its abandonment in the 1830s. At once secluded and spartan, the convent has been ridiculed as a “hobbit house” and cursed for its inaccessibility – it’s more than four miles from the center of Sintra. If you don’t want to pay 35 euros or more for a round-trip taxi fare, strap on your hiking boots and make a day of it (in good weather, the quiet, woodsy walk is magical). Admission is about 5 euros, with a 5% online ticket purchase discount.
Evora is a small, extremely well-preserved city in Portugal’s Alentejo region, about an hour east of Lisbon by train. Much of the fully walled town was built during or just after the 14th century, when invading armies were still very much a threat. However, the area was settled long before then – one of the top sights is a ruined Roman bathhouse, and pre-Roman archaeological sites dot the surrounding countryside.
Don’t miss the surprisingly large cathedral and the broad town square, where suspected heretics were routinely tortured by religious authorities during the brutal Inquisition. After dark, check out Evora’s surprisingly varied restaurant and club scene, which thrives thanks to a large student population.
Located less than 10 miles northwest of central Lisbon, Queluz was an important royal outpost during the second half of the 18th century. The main attraction here is the National Palace and Gardens of Queluz, home to Dona Maria I and King Pedro III. Words can’t do the ornate gardens justice, and the palace is just a few ticks below France’s Versailles (the gold standard for 18th century European royal residences) on the grandiosity scale.
If you’re a romantic at heart, you have to see Queluz. Joint admission to the palace and gardens is about 8 euros, but you get a 5% discount when you buy in advance online, as well as a 15% discount with your Lisboa Card.
Located about an hour west of Lisbon by commuter train, near the mouth of the Tagus River, Cascais is Lisbon’s beach. Thanks to its torturous coastal projections, the relatively compact Cascais area actually has miles of free beaches within walking or biking distance of the town center, though the prime sunning spots go quickly on warm weekends. Swimming is definitely on the table for hardy visitors, weather permitting.
On dry land, sidewalk cafes, art galleries, and souvenir shops abound. Many day visitors head back to Lisbon when the sun goes down, but those who stay are rewarded with the best nightlife in the capital region outside Lisbon proper.
International travel poses unique challenges and headaches. As you begin planning your trip to Lisbon, keep these logistical considerations in mind.
When to Visit
Lisbon’s climate is reminiscent of coastal California. Summers are hot and dry, while winters are cool and wet. However, the rainy season – roughly October through April – is much rainier, and summers are not bone dry. Average highs range from the mid- to upper 80s in July and August to the upper 50s in December and January. Thanks to the mild influence of the Atlantic Ocean and Tagus River, morning lows rarely drop below 40 degrees, hard freezes are exceedingly rare, and frozen precipitation is virtually unheard of.
Weather-wise, fall and spring are the best times to visit Lisbon, as temperatures are pleasant (usually in the 70s during the day) and rainfall is moderate. However, microclimates abound in the Lisbon area and farther-flung parts of Portugal. For example, the hills around Sintra are much wetter than Lisbon itself, due to the proximity of the ocean and the effects of altitude. Farther inland, across the Tagus River, summer days tend to be hotter and drier. In the coastal region to the south, the weather tends to be sunnier and drier year-round.
When my wife and I visited in October, we experienced the microclimate effect firsthand – our trip to Sintra was a total washout, but when we returned to Lisbon, we could find no evidence that it had rained at all.
Crowds tend to be more manageable in fall and spring, at least outside the popular spring break window (late February through March). Despite the heat, summer is the unquestioned high season. Avoid it unless you have no other choice.
Just don’t expect your fall or spring visit to be a breeze either. Portugal’s tourism economy has boomed as the country gains a reputation as an accessible, affordable European destination, so it’s wise to expect and plan for crowds and lines no matter when you visit.
What to Bring
Your Lisbon packing list may vary somewhat by season. Here’s a general list of useful items to bring:
- Sturdy Shoes With Good Traction: Your Lisbon trip is likely to involve a lot of walking on a variety of dicey surfaces, including uneven cobblestones, slick paving stones with little natural grip, steep inclines, and rough dirt trails. Make sure you bring shoes that can handle whatever the region throws at you, especially if you visit during the rainy season or head to outlying areas such as Sintra and Queluz. Running shoes with excellent traction are the bare minimum. Hiking boots are strongly recommended, and basically essential if you hike outside the city limits.
- Weather-Appropriate Clothing: During the summer, you’ll want to wear breathable cotton t-shirts, dresses, and pants. (Despite the climate, shorts aren’t really fashionable in Portugal. If you don’t want to out yourself as a tourist, stick to jeans or cloth trousers.) In winter, bring a light to moderate jacket, sweater or cardigan, and sturdier pants or leggings. During the shoulder seasons, a lighter jacket or sweater is probably enough for evenings and mornings.
- An All-Purpose Backpack or Shoulder Bag: Bring a shoulder bag or backpack to hold your sightseeing essentials: camera, snacks, extra clothing layers, wallet or money clip, phone, and so on. Make sure it closes securely and can be easily maneuvered to outwit pickpockets.
- Rain and Sun Protection: During the summer, Lisbon’s strong sun can cause painful problems for sensitive individuals. If you’re prone to burning, bring a hat and high-SPF sunscreen. During the rainy season, a waterproof jacket or poncho and umbrella are essential. Waterproof boots are recommended as well, especially if you plan to hike on unpaved trails. Try to purchase these items before you arrive in Portugal, as it can be expensive and inconvenient to find places that carry them in-country.
- Hydration Gear: Bring a refillable water source, even in winter, as it’s easy to put in several walking miles per day in the normal course of sightseeing in and around Lisbon. If you’re planning a more serious excursion, a body-mounted option such as a Camelbak might work better. In a pinch, you can buy water in bulk at gift shops or grocery stores – one-liter bottles cost as little as 1 euro.
Where to Stay
Accommodation-wise, Lisbon has it all: everything from five-star destination hotels to budget-friendly hostels and vacation rentals. Expect to pay more during the summer, winter holidays, and spring break periods, and less during the shoulder seasons.
If you plan to spend lots of time sightseeing and exploring in central Lisbon, look for places on or near Lisbon’s four Metro lines, which provide rapid nonstop or one-transfer access to the heart of the city. If you’re only in town for a night or two, or if you plan to do lots of day-tripping to other parts of Portugal, look for accommodations near the airport or Estacao do Oriente, the main jumping-off point for regional, national, and international train travel. And if you want to live as the locals do in a “real” neighborhood, look for rentals or hostels in farther-flung districts such as Palma de Baixa, Bairro Dona Leonor, and Pontinha, which all have easy Metro access and fewer tourists.
- Hostels: Hostelworld is the best place to find affordable, safe hostel options in and around central Lisbon. Expect to pay anywhere from under $10 for dorm-style accommodations to more than $50 per night for private, hotel-like rooms. Many options have free WiFi, TVs, game rooms, laundry facilities, organized excursions, and other amenities.
- Hotels: Most international hotel brands have three-, four-, and five-star outposts in Lisbon. If you’re up for a splurge, you can easily spend upwards of $300 or $400 per night. However, there are plenty of boutique hotels that charge well below $100 per night. It’s easy to find hotels on Kayak or Expedia, but consider buying a travel guide such as Lonely Planet Portugal for the inside scoop on lesser-known properties. My wife and I used Lonely Planet to evaluate our hotel options and plan other aspects of our Portugal trip, and we probably wouldn’t have found our affordable boutique hotel (with all-you-can-eat breakfast and convenient Metro access) otherwise.
- Vacation Rentals: Vacation rentals abound in Lisbon. Central-city dwellings tend to be cozy and sometimes outdated, but you can’t beat them for authenticity. Suburban apartments tend to be roomier and more modern. Though pricing varies widely, you should be able to find rates below those of hotels with little trouble. Start your search with Airbnb or VRBO.
Getting There and Getting Around
Lisbon is a modern city with a very good, if often congested, transportation system. Here’s what you need to know about arriving and getting around.
Arriving in Lisbon
Whether Lisbon is the first stop on a larger European tour or you’re confining your entire vacation to Portugal, you’ll probably arrive via Lisbon Portela International Airport. Just a handful of major East Coast cities, including New York, Boston, and Miami, serve Lisbon directly. However, most airports located in sizable U.S. cities have one-stop service through those hubs. Lisbon is not the absolute cheapest European city to fly into, but it’s possible to find solid deals – my wife and I paid about $800 apiece for one-stop, round-trip tickets.
Lisbon’s airport is pretty close to the city center and Estacao do Oriente, both of which are accessible on the Metro’s Red Line. A one-way ticket costs 1.40 euros, includes unlimited transfers, and remains valid for an hour after purchase. Taxis from the airport to central Lisbon and close-in neighborhoods typically cost 10 to 25 euros, depending on traffic and where exactly you’re going.
If you’re arriving in Lisbon from elsewhere in Portugal or Europe, you’ll probably come through Estacao do Oriente or Estacao Santa Apolonia. (Many inbound journeys hit both stations, so you may have the option to choose whichever is closer to your accommodations.) Both stations have Metro service for the same 1.40 euro fare. Central Lisbon is walkable from Santa Apolonia, or you can take the Metro. From Oriente, taxis into the central district cost 10 to 20 euros.
Public Transportation in Lisbon
Lisbon’s aging (though fast and reliable) public rapid transit system is operated by Metro Lisboa. The network is built around four rail lines: Red, Blue, Green, and Yellow. The latter three all originate in suburban neighborhoods and converge on the city center. The former originates at the airport, loops through an outlying district to Estacao do Oriente, and then heads diagonally across the urban core to connect with the other three lines. Metro Lisboa also operates dozens of urban and suburban bus lines.
Metro Lisboa isn’t Lisbon’s only transit authority. Carris operates buses, trams (the vintage 28 and modern 15), and hill-climbing funiculars throughout the city. Transtejo operates five ferries to various points on the far side of the Tagus River. Comboios Portugal (CP), Portugal’s national rail authority, operates four suburban rail lines terminating in key satellite cities: Sintra, Cascais, Azambuja, and Sado.
If you expect to hit a lot of sights in and around Lisbon, your best bet is to purchase a Lisboa Card, which entitles you to unlimited Metro Lisboa, Carris, and suburban CP use for the card’s duration (up to three consecutive days). If you plan to stick to central Lisbon and close-in neighborhoods such as Belem, buy one-day Carris-Metro passes for 6 euros. If you plan to check out Sintra, Cascais, or both, buy a Travelling All Lisboa card for 10 euros and enjoy unlimited Metro, Carris, and suburban CP access for 24 consecutive hours. Keep in mind that transit service is spotty to nonexistent in the early morning hours, roughly between 1am and 6am.
Other Transportation Options
Walking and public transit suffice in most places, most of the time. However, in the early morning and in non-core neighborhoods, ridesharing may be the fastest and most cost-effective option.
Uber is really the only reliable ridesharing option in Lisbon. Its cost is comparable to its U.S. service, though denominated in euros.
Travel Outside Lisbon
CP is the best way to get to popular suburban and satellite destinations such as Sintra, Cascais, and Evora. On the four suburban lines, the most cost-effective option is to buy an unlimited day pass, such as the Lisboa Card or Travelling All Lisboa. For regional and national service, individual fares are best. If you’re staying in Portugal for more than two weeks and plan to travel extensively during that time, consider a monthly pass, though be mindful that there are lots of options and costs vary substantially depending on the travel area.
CP’s second class fares are pretty affordable. For example, a round-trip journey from Lisbon to Porto, which takes less than four hours, costs less than 10 euros per person when purchased at least two weeks in advance. On the Alfa Pendular high-speed train, which takes less than four hours, the same journey costs less than 20 euros per person when purchased well in advance.
One word of caution: In my limited experience, onboard WiFi is limited at best, so bring something to do offline. Otherwise, you’re apt to become bored.
Planning Visits to Major Attractions
The incessant crowding at Lisbon’s most popular attractions is a blessing and a curse. It’s great that so many people come from all over the world to see these irreplaceable treasures, but unfortunate that those same people sometimes have to wait for hours to see what they’ve come all that way for.
Though trying to avoid crowds altogether is a fool’s errand, you can increase your trip’s efficiency by avoiding peak visitation times. If possible, spend weekends away from the most popular attractions, and possibly away from Lisbon altogether. Many attractions are closed on Mondays, setting the stage for Tuesday zoos. Conversely, avoid Sintra on Mondays, as the town is fully open then and packed with tourists fleeing Lisbon’s off day.
Language, Budgeting, and Exchange Rates
Not confident in your Portuguese language skills? Confused by all those tacky euro coins? Here’s what you need to know about communicating, budgeting, and other necessities in Lisbon.
Portugal’s national language is, of course, Portuguese. Most locals who work in the tourist industry have at least a basic grasp of English, and can haltingly communicate their way through customer service interactions. However, they clearly appreciate it when you try to communicate in Portuguese first, even if only to greet them and ask if it’s okay to continue in English.
My wife miraculously retained some Portuguese from a long-ago trip to Brazil, and though the locals we encountered chuckled at (and were occasionally baffled by) her pronunciation, they were more forthcoming than with the English-only tourists around us. If you lack prior Portuguese language experience, spend some time with an online Portuguese translator to familiarize yourself with common words and phrases. You’ll quickly notice similarities with other Romance languages, such as Spanish and French.
Budgeting, Exchange Rates, and Cash
Portugal is part of the Eurozone, the vast European region that uses the euro. Due to perennial economic distress, it’s one of the least developed and most affordable of its peers. Coupled with the euro’s long-running weakness, which has persisted since the early 2010s and shows few signs of abating anytime soon, Portugal is therefore a financially friendly destination for dollar-waving U.S. tourists.
Before you purchase hotel accommodations, train tickets, and other big-ticket items, check the U.S. dollar-euro exchange rate (X-Rates has a good calculator here) to nail down your actual cost. Just prior to departing, check the rate again, and start thinking about how much you can afford to spend (in both dollar and euro terms) on attractions, food, drink, souvenirs, and diversions.
Most Portuguese vendors accept chip-and-PIN credit cards. However, minimum charge amounts aren’t uncommon, and it’s usually not possible to add tips to cafe and restaurant credit card transactions. You should therefore carry some some cash with you at all times. (If you’re staying in a hotel or hostel room with a safe deposit box or secure locker, use it to safely store a stash of cash.)
Wait to withdraw cash until you arrive in Portugal and find a major bank ATM. Many American banks allow customers to use their ATM cards at foreign ATMs, and though you may incur a 1% to 2% surcharge on top of the regular ATM fee, that’s still far less than the 7% to 10% you’ll reliably lose to airport currency exchange vendors.
Many credit cards charge foreign transaction fees of 1% to 3% of the total transaction amount, though many travel rewards credit cards and cash back credit cards waive them. If you don’t already have a fee-free credit card, consider applying for one before you leave. Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Barclaycard Arrival® Plus World Elite Mastercard® are both excellent choices for frequent international travelers.
Food and Drink
Even if you’re not a foodie, planning for affordable and satisfying sustenance is important. Many proper hotels include all-you-can-eat breakfasts in their nightly rates. With some effort, you can probably load up enough each morning to power through mid-afternoon without stopping for lunch. Then, tide yourself over with a teatime snack (the national pastry, pastel de nata, is rich and calorie-dense, making for a perfect meal replacement for those with no dietary restrictions) and have a full dinner on the early side of the evening. In Portugal, that means 7:30 or 8pm.
Alternatively, standard issue cafeterias are cheap and ubiquitous in touristy Lisbon neighborhoods – expect to pay 5 or 6 euros for a basic sandwich or gyro, sleeve of fries, and a beer or soft drink.
Lisbon has lots of sit-down restaurants that look fancy, but really aren’t. With the exception of a single splurge, which wasn’t really that pricey by American fine dining standards, we spent less than 15 euros per person each night – including wine and appetizers – and ate very well. Don’t be afraid of hole-in-the-wall places in the Alfama and other central districts, where competition is intense and independent restaurants are keen to get bodies in seats. Do remember to leave a cash tip of 5% to 10% if service warrants.
Be warned that Portuguese cuisine is heavy on seafood and livestock, so it’s not exactly vegetarian-friendly. On the bright side, Portuguese fishing and farming is small-scale and family-oriented – in other words, probably more ethical than the American equivalent.
If you’re a fan of wine, you’re in luck: Portugal is awash in cheap, high-quality fermented grape juice. The best vintages come from the Douro region of northern Portugal. The Algarve, just east of Lisbon, earns its keep too. The climate is conducive to dry flavors, and reds far outnumber whites, but you can probably find something that fits your palate. If it doesn’t work out, your wallet won’t be much lighter for the wear: you can find 750 milliliter bottles for as little as 1 euro in the grocery store, and well-balanced reds go for as little as 3 or 4 euros.
Lisbon is Portugal’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. If you’re traveling to Portugal from North America by air, you’ll almost certainly arrive through Lisbon’s international airport. And if you can only spare a day or two in Portugal before hopping the train to Spain or flying elsewhere in Europe, you should definitely focus on exploring Lisbon and its immediate surroundings.
That said, Lisbon definitely isn’t the only Portuguese city or region worth exploring.
To the south lies the Algarve, a sun-splashed coastal region reminiscent of Southern California, but with more historic architecture, fewer crowds, and a way lower cost of living. To the north lies Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city. Nestled in a picturesque river valley with towering bridges and impossibly steep neighborhoods, it’s the world capital (and namesake) of the port wine industry, and a natural jumping-off point for self-guided exploration of Portugal’s mountainous, frozen-in-time northern regions.
Porto and the Algarve are both just two to three hours from Lisbon by train, as are many other Portuguese cities and towns of note. If you can spare the time and make a little extra room in your budget, there’s no excuse to not see more of this fascinating and underappreciated country.
Have you visited Lisbon? What are your favorite attractions and activities?