With ample sun, sights, and awesome food, there’s a ton to see and do in Lisbon, Portugal. The real magic of Lisbon comes from exploring its side streets and alleys, but there’s so much to experience all around that a good plan is needed. It’s also a spread out and hilly city, so making the most of it involves some walking and creative use of the public transportation. With a short amount of time or compressed schedule in this glimmering historic city, make sure to make the most of it to see and do the best this city has to offer.
Portugal exceeded my expectations and was certainly one of my favorite destinations I’ve been to thanks to a combination of great food, affordability, and friendly people. Lisbon embodies all of these aspects in droves and belongs first on any visitor’s list for a tour through Portugal. The awesome historic sights and happy vibe that pervade the city certainly help too. Though tourism is rapidly expanding in Portugal as the rest of the world discovers this small European gem, it’s still easy to avoid crowds and feel a sense of discovery that hasn’t been exploited for tourism yet. Everything is affordable and top notch across the country, but visitors to Lisbon can really experience this great mix of qualities in concentrated doses.
Staying in Lisbon can be pricey or difficult with a car, so accommodations just outside the city like in the beach town of Cascais are a great option. A regional train runs along the coast and terminates right in the city at the Cais do Sodre station. From here, the city’s sights are an easy walk nearby, so even for those staying in town it’s a good starting off point.
From the station, follow the river to Lisbon’s largest square, Praca do Commercio. Located right along the water and linking to the main shopping street, this massive plaza is a great place to feel connected to both the city and the water, both important to Portugal’s history and future. This connection to the water led to Portugal’s golden age of discovery and exploration. Homages to this age are present all around the city from statues honoring the famous explorers and their patrons to still operating warehouses.
Just along the side of the square is The Museum of Beer. The museum itself is less interesting than a patron of the brewing arts like myself would expect, but the huge patio on the square and selection of beer from around Portugal and its former colonies is a great place to get acquainted with the city and the former reach of Portugal’s empire. Beers from the islands and tropic domains like Mozambique are fruity and light while beer that had to be stored and preserved for cross-ocean voyages to the New World of Brazil have more bitterness and depth of flavor. There’s no easier and more pleasurable way to tour the Portuguese speaking world than by imbibing their beers.
Starting at the end of the square at Cais das Colunas is the former entryway to Lisbon from the water. No longer an active terminal, it’s a reminder of the former might of the Portuguese navy and shows just how crazy it must have seemed to depart from here seeking the new world. There’s also a small beach area tucked along the water and a nice pathway along the water that makes for a lovely walk in the sun.
Heading up and into the city from the square is the main commercial street, Rua Augusta. Lined with restaurants and shops it slopes up toward the older sections of Lisbon. Named for the Roman emperor of antiquity when Portugal was a distant outpost of Rome at the end of the known world, it starts with a massive triumphal arch over the street celebrating Portugal’s empires.
Following the avenue up from the water, it eventually branches out into another large square with several fountains at Praca da Figueira. Surrounding the square are examples of the more modern architecture in Lisbon, mostly built after an 18th century earthquake destroyed portions of the city. A great diversion along the square is a massive store that sells only canned sardines and has a 1920s circus vibe. It’s not a requirement to love salty fish to visit, but it certainly helps.
A short walk through the town comes to Beer Station, a top notch beer destination for lovers of local craft beer. A small interior supports a nice large outside patio that is best enjoyed in the warm sun. Featuring craft beer from a wide range of Portugal’s microbreweries, it’s a great place to get acquainted with the Portuguese beer scene outside of the two massive breweries, Sagres and Super Bock. Take a break from walking and prepare for the hilly part of Lisbon with some brew from around the country.
Right near the Beer Station, just up the hill in the older section of town is the ruin of the Carmo Convent. This massive convent lost its roof during one of Lisbon’s earthquakes but the walls are still standing. It makes for a unique Game of Thrones like atmosphere with a feel of traveling back in time.
At A Vida Portuguesa, some of Portugal’s best handmade art and beauty items are on display. It’s a perfect spot for unique and memorable souvenirs to bring home and capture the time in Portugal. Whether it’s soap made with local lavender, a handcrafted wooden sardine, or a lace koozy, there’s something unique for everyone.
The surrounding area, known as Baixa Chiado is one of the oldest, but hippest areas in the city. It really comes alive at night when locals descend on the restaurants and bars, but it’s great during the day too. The stretches of outdoor seating in front of the restaurants is great to take another break after climbing the hill while enjoying some coffee for energy or a refreshing beer.
Continuing further up the hill is the scenic park, Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara with views overlooking nearly the whole town. There’s also an outdoor seating area with a kiosk, a mainstay across Portugal to go with the view. Enjoy the landscape overlooking the Cathedral and Castle on the hill which rises above the river and port.
Celebrate the epic walk with a visit to O Prego da Peixara, a haven of unique and delicious sandwiches. I found it hard to get excited about a sandwich until I looked through the menu of sandwiches nestled in locally made bread featuring Portuguese cured meats and traditional cheese. There are also fish burgers and delicious croquets, all of which go great with the superb and decadent truffle fries. The beer selection is even good with a nice range of craft styles in bottles. Make sure to grab a seat in the back where the interior patio makes for a fun atmosphere.
While dinner at Prego can make a nice ending to a great day exploring Lisbon, if there’s enough time, it’s also a nice point to turn back and explore the most historic district of the city around the Cathedral and Castle. From Prego, the Number 28 train, one of the historic trollies runs right to the base of the castle. It’s worth riding anyway to take in a unique aspect of the city, but from this point most of the city can be seen. Disembark at Miradouro de Santa Luzia for more great views over the historic Alfama or Moorish district of the city. The area is worth exploring with more time, especially the winding and meandering alleys down to the water.
Continuing up, it’s impossible to miss Lisbon’s castle, Castelo de Sao Jorge. Protecting the city for centuries, it stand grandly over the town. The large courtyard and ramparts offer great views over the city and exploring the grounds feels like traveling back to the medieval days of Lisbon.
Heading back down toward the town, the Se de Lisboa, Lisbon’s cathedral is a must-visit sight with grand decor inside and a grand exterior. It’s also a good point to head down into the Alfama district to meander around.
Lisbon gets overlooked as a European capital destination for tourists, but there’s so much to see and do. Just getting around the town, even though it isn’t massive, in order to see the main sights can take more than a day, especially when stops at the great restaurants and bars get factored in. Smart use of the public transportation like the regional train and historic trolley can help cram more in, but it’s a city worth devoting a few days to. Beyond the main sights it’s worth wandering around neighborhoods like the historic Alfama and the hip and trendy Baixa Chiado. Make the time to really explore the alleys and neighborhoods of Lisbon and feel like a local.