Lisbon Travel Guide
Overlooking the seemingly endless Tagus River and framed by a string of panoramic hills, urban beauty Lisbon also happens to be blessed with year-round sunshine, allowing full appreciation of her contrasting virtues. Cobblestone streets feature canary-coloured trams that putter up and down beside majestic squares that neighbour gritty, graffiti-ed streets. The traditional serenading sounds of authentic Fado performers meanwhile merge with more modern tunes emerging from Bairro Alto, the city’s bohemian party district. A liberal city that embraces its deep-rooted heritage, Lisbon is a diverse city break where you can wine and dine in sophistication on the fancy tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade, or savour a casual street beer in LGBT hub Príncipe Real. And just outside the city limits, an equally eye-catching experience awaits; storybook castles, seaside towns, surf-happy beaches and miles of nature’s splendour. Wondering what to do in Lisbon? Our Lisbon guide will show you that whatever your wants and tastes, this ancient city knows how to please.
The best hotels in Lisbon
The ancient district of Belém is a veritable fairy-tale come to life
Things to do in Lisbon
One of the most beautiful Lisbon points of interest, and a photographer’s paradise, is the ancient district of Belém, a veritable fairy-tale come to life and the perfect answer of what to do in Lisbon on a lazy day. Notable landmarks in Belém include the 16th century Belém Tower, which incorporates both Moorish and Venetian influences to dramatic effect and Jeronimo’s Monastery, with its mesmerizing cloisters and a gargantuan Gothic interior. Don’t forget to sample (and snap a shot of) a signature pastel de nata (custard tart) at the charming, azulejo-tiled Pastéis de Belém bakery, in business since 1837.
Cloudy days are hard to come by in Lisbon so you might not initially consider heading inside for a museum visit. The Gulbenkian, however, is a museum with a twist, making it the smartest choice of places to visit in Lisbon. As well as the standard indoor auditoriums, featuring everything from Degas artwork to ancient Egyptian bits and pieces, the Gulbenkian spills outdoors onto languid landscaped gardens where you and the ducks can feed and be fed while listening to jazz or Verdi under a tree. Across the lawns, you can also find the light and airy Centro de Arte Moderna, which houses a love-in of British and Portuguese artists, from Rego to Hockney.
Other cultural indoor treats this Lisbon guide would be remiss not to mention, including the Museu do Azulejo, or Tile Museum, which showcases five centuries of the stunning decorative ceramic tiles Portugal is famous for. Another contender for the top Lisbon points of interest is the Museu Medeiros e Almeida; a stately private residence turned public gallery which showcases a priceless collection of artwork, furnishings, jewellery and porcelain dating back to the 16th century.
What to see in Lisbon
With all its rustic textures and azure surroundings, Lisbon is the ultimate treat for the eyes. Lisbon points of interest don’t stop at street gazing however and there’s plenty more within the city boundaries to keep yourself active.
On par with the Algarve, at least one of the city’s beautiful beaches should be on your list of places to visit in Lisbon. As luck would have it, there are two sandy coastlines within easy reaching of the city centre – Cascais-Estoril to the west and Costa de Caparica to the south. Beach 19 in the “gay section” of the extensive Costa de Caparica stretch is worthy of a peek, as it is home to a very large gay nude beach. As part of a wider nature reserve, the right to nudity is reserved by law, although it’s very much still legal to keep your kit on!
The so-called city of seven hills, Lisbon is unsurprisingly home to some of the very best viewpoints in the world. Portas do Sol, in particular, affords some spectacular views of the historic Alfama district and the Tejo River, while also being a perfect mid-point on route to São Jorge Castle. Graça is another phenomenal viewpoint, located next to its namesake, the church of Graça, and offering magnificent panoramas of the entire city. Other heady spots include the Elevador de Glória and the Mirador de San Pedro de Ancántara for the best views of the castle and the city centre. The Elevador de Santa Justa, however, is one of the must-see places to visit in Lisbon, not a viewpoint but a form of transport; a 19th Century, 45-meter elevator lifting visitors up the steep hill between the districts of La Baixa and Barrio Alto and providing definitive moving views.
Those who want an excuse to stand in a convertible outside of their hotel and yell “Roadtrip!” at the top of their lungs, may want to consider travelling out to Sintra and Cascais. Two fascinating historic towns just 28 kilometres outside of the city, Sintra and Cascais are holiday destinations in their own right, home to fine dining, great hotels and lively nightlife. While Sintra lies nestled among the cool, pine-covered hills of Serra de Sintra, in near proximity to royal palaces and unique stately buildings, Cascais is a small fishing town that also a has a royal story; namely as a summer retreat for 19th Century Portuguese nobility. Thanks to this, Cascais has uncommonly rich architecture as well as a variety of free museums and well-maintained parks. And, if that wasn’t enough to convince you, its impressive coastal cliffs and intimate sandy coves just might be!
Then comes the Fronteira Palace, one of the best-kept secrets of Lisbon and a bucket-list-worthy destination for royalists everywhere. Located northwest of the city centre in the district of Benfica, the 17th Century palace is said to be one of the most beautiful residences in Lisbon. Come here to get lost in the vast grounds that feature 17th and 18th Century tiling and décor, rare frescoed panels and unique oil paintings.
Where to eat in Lisbon
Lisbon’s seductive seaside location combined with plenty of hilly green spaces means plenty of fresh fish, crisp produce and healthy livestock. And although particular dishes vary between regions, the most popular ingredient in any Portuguese kitchen is bacalau (cod fish), said to be prepared in over 100 different ways! To quench your thirst, tangy white wines from the Alentejo region are favoured along with tawny port wines from the North. Lunch is a big affair; often lasting, at least, two hours a sitting, a custom shared with neighbouring Spain. Indeed, since the 15th century, Portugal has been importing culinary influences from around the world yet, somehow, the cuisine remains traditional and undeniably distinctive.
For serious wine connoisseurs, Sommelier Lisbon offers an excellent wine list, tasty cuisine and a smattering of mod drama; oversized taupe seating mismatched with purple chairs and floor to ceiling walls of wine. A memorable cocktail stop, a must for first timers in the city, is Pavilhão Chinês a wacky former general store featuring the owners inspired oddball collectables from around the world. For flamboyant cocktails with offbeat names like I Wasn’t Here and Foam Party, stop for a spell at Cinco Lounge, a cushy, gold-flavoured venue with a snazzy back-lit bar and super-chill vibe.
The reigning star chef on the scene is the charismatic José Avillez, who runs no less than five restaurants in town including the quaint, wood-panelled Michelin-starred Belcanto and his latest venture, Mini Bar, the first local restaurant to feature bite-sized slider morsels combined with cocktails as the main course. Another quirky experience, tucked away in an old town backstreet, can be had at Clube de Journalistas, an 18th-century villa that has retained its vintage look. Guests dine on inventive cuisine in a variety of environments including a snooker room, an ornately tiled kitchen and an exposed stone-walled “cellar”.
Once considered the largest farmers’ market in town, the cavernous Mercado da Ribeira was converted into a massive food pavilion by Time Out magazine back in 2014. Now, over thirty eateries owned by top chefs and quality food producers, line opposite sides of the building, offering a wide variety of iconic Portuguese eats. Standouts include the ice cream parlour Santini, Casa de Ginja (cherry-infused liquor) and Henrique Sá Pessoa, one of the country’s leading chefs.
In Lisbon, coffee is inevitably savoured with scrumptious pastries, and although the coffeehouse concept has existed here since the turn-of-the-century, this tasty tradition has never wavered. Kaffeehaus resembles the quintessential Viennese coffee shop, complete with leather banquettes, dark wood furnishings and a wall of artsy memorabilia. Located in the trendy Chiado district, Royale Café serves coffee, cakes and light meals to a hipster crowd appreciative of a homey setting with a cosy outdoor terrace. Shabby-chic and spacious, Pois Café features a generous organic brunch menu or lazy lounging surrounded by rotating artwork.
For modern design inspiration, venture to LXFactory
Shopping in Lisbon
Much as environments change between districts in Lisbon, so does the fashion flavour. Slightly out of step in the boho Bairro Alto, Rosa e Teixeira features tailored collections and accessories for every lifestyle situation. The über-hip Principe Real district is home to avant-garde designer Nuno Gama, whose flashy fashions are housed in a store that doubles as a barbershop. Another glam option is checking out the merchandise at Embaixada; a former Arabian Palace turned multi-level department store for artisanal fashions.
Chiado is a great hood for creative inspiration. In a loving wink towards Portugal’s most enduring industry, Cork & Co features home design, accessories and jewellery made entirely of cork. And if you can’t get enough of nostalgia-inducing items, visit Catarina Portas’s retro shops A Vida Portuguesa where you’ll find ornate soaps, toiletries, sardine cans, posters and other trinkets from iconic local brands that were once household names. For modern design inspiration, venture to LXFactory, Lisbon’s premiere concept venue displaying exhibitions of inspired work by top interior designers, artists and communication specialists.
Lisbon nightlife may initially seem like a slow affair, with locals lingering over laid back drinks at any number of meeting points across the city, but this however is just the beginning. Keeping it low-key is the Red Frog Speakeasy, a 1920s-style bar hidden behind theatrical frog-marked double doors, offering amazing cocktails in an intimate setting. Lovers of Inception may also enjoy the additional bookshelf-concealed basement bar – a speakeasy within a speakeasy – with dim lighting, retro tunes and romantic vibes. Another bar offering up early 20th Century nostalgia and fine cocktails is the Art Nouveau Foxtrot which also hosts live jazz, an outdoor patio and ‘art deco’ décor with an English pub vibe! Those wanting more live music and entertainment should head over to the Pensao Amor. Once a rundown boarding house, this bar is constantly in flux. The theme changes daily for its open-minded clientele; offering jazz and DJ sets one day, live plays and burlesque the next.
Push Lisbon for her nightlife secrets and she will grant you bigger and brighter things. If you’re searching for a straightforward party then look no further than Trumps, the best and biggest gay club in Lisbon, located slap bang in the lively gay quarter, Príncipe Real and hosting drag performers and go-go boys. The endgame of most clubbers after most Bairro Alto bars close at 2AM, Trumps has been running all-nighters for 35 years and remains a Lisbon nightlife treasure.
Perhaps not the biggest, but widely regarded as the first, Finalmente is a small but legendary Lisbon gay club where the dancefloor gets packed at around 2 am on weekends for the unmissable and renowned kitsch drag shows. After the acts, expect younger punters to become the objects of attention as they take over the raised dancefloor and the rest of the club gets dark and interesting. Wondering what to do in Lisbon after a heavy weekend? Finalmente has also got you covered, offering a slightly more laid back vibe, open-mic and up-and-coming performance showcases.
LXFactory | Photo: Bastiaan Ellen
Photo: Fabio Scaletta
Photo: Madalena Veloso
LXFactory | Photo: Bastiaan Ellen
Photo: Annie Spratt
Photo: Catarina Cavalho