Lisbon – I love this city.
I lived in Portugal for a year and a half in 2007-2008 so I get asked for Lisbon travel tips from friends and family quite often. Over time, I developed a standard email that I would send people and that worked pretty well but this blog and corresponding podcast episode are the evolution of those emails.
Most of the things to do in Lisbon are located in the oldest part of the city/downtown. Ideally, your hotel would be near the metro stops “Baixa-Chiado”, “Rossio”, or “Restauradores” so you can walk to everything but if you find a good deal elsewhere that’s fine as long as it is close to a metro stop because the subway can get you anywhere easily and cheaply.
Castelo de Sao Jorge – This is a very old castle from the 11th century so it’s not as visually appealing as other more modern castles throughout Europe, but the view from on top of the hill overlooking Lisbon is a huge plus.
Plus, this castle kind of looks like a real life MC Esher painting:
Alfama – This neighborhood is one of the oldest and most interesting. Tiny, meandering streets. The castle is located in this neighborhood so you can knock these two out at the same time.
Tram 28 – The Alfama is a very steep and hilly neighborhood so taking Tram 28 up is the best way to go. These trams are called “Electricos” or sometimes “Americanos” since they were imported from San Francisco in the early 1900s. Tram 28 is the most famous/popular line with tourists because of its route through downtown and the Alfama. It’s a lot of fun to ride it from start to finish but pick pockets are known to frequent this car so be mindful of that.
Tram 28 will bring you pretty close to the castle but you’ll still need to walk uphill a few blocks. You’ll probably also see some tut-tuts which can be hired to take you to the castle and surrounding lookout points.
Downtown – A great walk/exploration is to exit the subway at Rossio and walk from “Praca Dom Pedro IV” over to the adjacent “Praca da Figueira” to check that square out (there is a good pastry shop/cafe on the southwest corner of the square), then go south on Rua Augusta (usually full of street performers) all the way to the ocean and Praca do Comercio. Then work your way back North to the Baixa-Chiado metro stop, then west on Rua Garrett, you’ll pass one of the most famous cafes in Portugal “Cafe A Brasileira” (great to sit outside and people watch) and then keep going west to “Praca de Camoes“. This means you’ll go through the “Chiado” area and Praca do Camoes is at the bottom of “Bairo Alto” where there are tons of bars open all night, the square at night is always packed with kids.
Convento do Carmo – Old Convent destroyed in the 1755 earthquake with a small museum inside. Pretty cool to visit but I don’t think it’s worth going out of your way. But if you’re in the Carmo/Rossio area, it’s worth checking out.
Bad weather back ups – If you can’t be outside because the weather is bad then you can take the metro to Oriente station and check out the area and mall there and Casino Lisboa. The mall is just like any other shopping mall and the Casino is nothing compared to the stuff in Vegas but it’s a good place to get out of the rain. Across from the Casino is the Oceanario (Aquarium), which is also a good attraction to get out of the rain and see some penguins.
Some other cool spots:
Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Museum of Tile) is one of the best spots to explore the medium of art that Portugal is most known for: painted tiles.
PS – A free spot to check out some impressive azulejos in Lisbon is to take the metro to the Parque exit. Walk west towards the large city Park and you’ll see a large building in the park, on the backside there are some very cool azulejo scenes. And then you can relax and check out one of the largest parks in the city.
Museu da Cerveja (Beer Museum) – I’ve never been here but will definitely check it out on my next visit.
Sport – Lisbon is home to 2 of Portugal’s 3 biggest football clubs: Sporting Portugal and Benfica. Tickets for regular season games are rarely sold out and can be purchased at the door. The teams play in 2 different stadiums, in two different parts of the city but as usual, they are both easily accessible by the subway system.
A great 1/2 day trip from Lisbon. You can catch the train at “Cais Do Sodre” station.
Jeronimos – I’m not big into churches but this monastery is national treasure and Vasco de Gama’s tomb is located in the entrance.
Pasteis de Belem – You can get custard tarts called “pasteis de nata” in any cafe but no one does it like this place. They literally sell tens of thousands every day, only 3 people know the recipe and they are never allowed to be in the same place at the same time. These are so good with the little powdered sugar and cinnamon packets they give you. I would often take 1/2 a day off just to go buy a dozen of these. And even now, having been vegan for the past 8 years, I’ll still cheat and have one of these whenever I’m back in Portugal.
Torre de Belem – Old fort in the middle of the river.
Padrão dos Descobrimentos – A monument along the Tagus river celebrating the Portuguese Age of Discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Museu da Marinha (Maritime Museum) – Not quite as good as maritime museums in England, etc. but it’s worth a visit if you’ve got time to kill when you’re in Belem.
Museu Nacional dos Coches (Coach/Carriage Museum) – I’ve never been here but do plan on going one day. It has very good reviews on Trip Advisor.
Centro Cultural de Belem (Cultural Center of Belem) – Home to a bunch of different art and culture exhibits as well as the Bernardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. The Cultural Center has a great roof top cafe too.
PS – if you explore a bit around the back of the building you’ll find an awesome piece of art made of trash by Portuguese artist Bordalo II:
Oeiras, Estoril, Cascais – If you want to go to the beach but don’t have the time to head south to the Algarve any of these spots are worth checking out. The water will probably be too cold to swim though.
Just outside of Lisbon, this little town can take up a full day because there is so much to see. Sintra is an amazing place located in a tropical micro climate with three beautiful palaces to see. If I remember correctly, I used to catch the train at “Entrecampos” station but last year I caught it at Rossio station which is downtown. When you get to Sintra, walk to the tourist office so they can give you a map and explain how the buses work because you’ll definitely want to hop on and off them because many of the sights are way up hill.
Palacio National da Pena– This is where the royal family used to live. Probably the coolest palace/castle in the whole country.
Castle Of the Moors – Badass medieval castle at the very top of Sintra, looking down over everything. I would probably put this as the #1 or #2 best thing to do in Sintra. It pairs well with the Pena Palace because I think they are both on the same road.
Palacio National de Sintra– Another royal palace. There is an amazing room with the 72 coats of arms of all the noble families of Portugal painted on the ceiling – my surname, Almeida, is the red and yellow shield with 6 yellow dots. There’s one empty spot because the Tavora family’s crest was scrubbed off the ceiling after they conspired against a king.
Monserrate – A lovely walk through the countryside from the town. You’re allowed to go into the palace/mansion but the real attraction are the grounds. The guy who owned it was really into plants and he imported trees from all over the world so the landscaping is just unreal.
Quinta da Regaleira – Another mansion with amazing grounds full of cool plants. Quinta da Regaleira is a lot bigger and cooler than Monserrate, a lot closer to town, and a lot more popular/busier as a result. Again, the gardens are the real attraction here. There are towers that remind you of Rapunzel and creepy underground staircases and tunnels.
A few traditional dishes:
Caldo Verde (Cabbage Soup) – Potatoes, Cabbage, Onions, Garlic, and often Chouriço (chorizo). It’s the most popular soup in Portugal and a fixture in every restaurant and cafe.
Sopa de legumes (vegetable soup) – Also very good and every cafe/restaurant will have that as well.
Bacalhau – The national dish of Portugal. It’s what my family eats on Christmas and other important holidays. There are over 1,000 ways to make it but my favorite is Bacalhau a Bras which you should be able to get in most traditional restaurants. Another popular way is “Bacalhau Espiritual” which is similar to a Bras but with more cream and also adds shredded carrots. My mom’s favorite way and the way she usually makes it is Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá.
Bitoque – Thin steak in a special garlic broth/sauce with a sunny side egg on top and served with french fries. If Bacalhau is the national dish then this is probably #2. I used to eat this weekly. Every restaurant and even small cafes should be able to serve this meal but one of the best Bitoques is at the chain of restaurants,”Portugalia“. There are a few in Lisbon and throughout Portugal.
Canja – Portuguese Chicken Soup. Every place makes it a little differently but it’s always good, cheap, and makes for a great hangover cure. This usually has gluten because most cooks use small pasta in the soup like Orzo but sometimes it is made with rice instead. And sometimes if you’re a preferred customer you get an egg or the premium bits of chicken like liver, heart, and everyone’s favorite: the feet (gross).
Grilled Chicken with Piri-Piri hot sauce is a staple (“Frango Piri Piri” or “Frango Picante”).
Shrimp (Camarão) – always plentiful. Again, grilled with Piri-Piri sauce is the jam. Don’t expect them to be de-veined, beheaded, amputated, or shelled:
Pork and Clams (Porco com Ameijoas a Alentejana) – A strange combo but it works, kinda like chicken and waffles. The best place to get this meal in Lisbon is at Casa do Alentejo which is a tourist attraction in itself. They will probably have most, if not all, of the dishes above as well.
Espresso – The best part about Lisbon is just chilling in a street side cafe, people watching, and relaxing. You’ll often hear Espresso ordered as “Uma Bica” (Oo-Ma Bee-Ka) as well.
Aletria – A desert similar to rice pudding but made of thin pasta like vermicelli or angel hair. I always preferred it to rice pudding because its texture is firmer and less soupy.