Lisbon City Guide
Lisbon, the hilly capital of Portugal, with its abundant cafes and beautiful architecture quickly won me over and made me want to come back (which I did!). In this city guide, you will find ideas for fun things to do in Lisbon as well as day trips from Lisbon plus practical tips on getting around and where to stay. I hope you get plenty of information to plan your trip, whether it's a short weekend break or a longer stay.
Where to stay in Lisbon
My recommendation on where to stay in Lisbon depends on the duration of your stay and what it is you want to do. If you are coming for a short city break, then it makes sense to stay somewhere central. I stayed at the Inspira Santa Marta hotel, which is a lovely 4* hotel in a quiet location - read my review here.
If you are planning to spend a lot of time in Belém, it might actually make sense to stay here rather than in central Lisbon to save you going back and forth. Check out Altis Belém Hotel & Spa, which is perfectly positioned for the Tagus river (and the ferry terminal to go across) and all the sights in Belém.
Finally, if you want to spend more time at the beach than in the city, staying at Costa de Caparica is a good option! I was at Inatel Caparica, which is great as a mid-range option. To go a bit more upmarket, try Tryp Lisboa Caparica Mar - check prices for your stay here.
Getting around in Lisbon
I will be honest with you, my first meeting with Lisbon didn't start well - we were completely ripped off by a taxi driver. I read up on Lisbon in advance and knew about the issues with taxis, but even asking for the price before getting in and being assured that the cost would be calculated by a meter didn't stop it from happening. I was watching the meter like a hawk and it was running and showing normal numbers by the time we arrived in central Lisbon (I mean like €12, 13, 14), and then I looked out of the window for a few seconds and the taxi stopped at our hotel, the meter was turned off and the driver wanted €50. It was shocking and very unpleasant and I didn't know what to do but pay the fee.
On the way back to the airport, we asked the hotel reception to call us a reputable taxi and paid a normal amount of money (I think it was in the region of €15), but that first experience has completely put me off just getting into random taxis and, during my next trip to Lisbon, I used pre-booked chauffeurs for the airport transfers and Uber for adhoc trips, where I had no fear of being overcharged. I know Uber's status is shaky at the moment in Lisbon, but as a tourist who wants ease of use and transparent pricing, I sure hope they manage to resolve the issues and stick around!
Public transportation worked well for me - you can get a rechargeable Viva Viagem card for €0.50 and use it to hold tickets for the metro, trams, buses, elevators, ferries and suburban trains in the Lisbon region (e.g. to Sintra, Cascais and Estoril). It's a very affordable way to travel - a return ticket to Sintra cost me €4.50 and a return ticket for the Belem - Trafaria ferry was €2.40 (both prices correct as of August 2018).
So, what is there to see in and around Lisbon? A lot actually! My picks are:
Lisbon Old Town
Lisbon Old Town is a delightful place for a long walk. I kid you not, every other house looks like an art masterpiece and as you wander up and down hills, you will encounter tons of beautiful architecture and stunning tile mosaics on the walls. If you get tired of walking, it's possible to jump on a tram and continue your sightseeing that way. Alternatively, sit down in a cafe, have a pastel de nata (a traditional and very famous Portuguese pastry) and watch the locals come in for a quick espresso at the counter and a chat.
If you want a few anchor points for your walk around the old town, Praca do Comercio in the Baixa area is a large and beautiful square right by the Tagus river. After you have taken in the view of the square, you can spend some time hanging out on the little beach with a view towards the 25 de Abril bridge in the distance. Baixa area is also home to the squares of Rossio and Restauradores.
In the area of Alfama y Castillo, the medieval Moorish Sao Jorge castle is positioned on top of a hill. There is a fee to visit, but even if you don't want to pay for entering the castle, it's worth it to walk up the hill to Miradouro das Portas de Sol - a viewing platform with a stunning panoramic view. The beautiful Lisbon Se Cathedral can also be found in this area.
If you head into Bairro Alto y Chiado, Lisbon's alternative and bohemian neighbourhood, Miradouro de Santa Catarina is a popular spot for sunset views. In this area, you will also find the Bica funicular.
Finally, if you fancy a visit to a botanical garden, pop into Lisbon University Botanical garden (Jardim Botanico de Lisboa) on Rua da Escola Politecnica. You can either visit just the garden (which is what we did) or combine it with a visit to the museum of natural history and science. For the latest prices and opening times, check out their website, which is unfortunately only in Portuguese, but hopefully the names are similar enough to English to be clear. I wouldn't call this botanical garden a must-see on your trip to Lisbon, but if you like nature and parks and the weather is good, it's a nice space to discover and not expensive (€3 when we visited).
Miradouro das Portas de Sol
Parque Eduardo VII
Parque Eduardo VII is outside of the old town at the very end (or beginning?) of Avenida da Liberdade. If you are staying in the old town and don't fancy a long walk, it is best reached by metro (Marques de Pombal or Parque stations on the Blue line). The park is located on a hill, so while by itself it's not exactly overwhelming in beauty, it's definitely worth coming here for the beautiful view of Lisbon and the river.
Apart from the view, the park houses a stunning building called Pavilhao Carlos Lopes, designed in 1922 for an expo in Brasil and rebuilt in Lisbon in 1932. It was dilapidated during my visit, but has apparently been restored since, reopened in 2017 and is used for exhibitions.
There is also a botanical garden inside the park - in a greenhouse called Estufa Fria. You will need to buy a ticket to get in there though. For more information on Estufa Fria, have a look on their website.
If you get hungry, there is a large El Corte Ingles shopping centre by the park with several restaurants on the top floor.
Pavilhao Carlos Lopes
Belém is a neighbourhood of Lisbon that stretches along the Tagus river and deserves at least a day of your holiday as it's jam packed with things to do and places to see. Slightly removed from the central area of Lisbon, Belém is probably best known for being the home to the Jeronimos monastery and the birthplace of the famous pasteis de nata, the Portuguese custard tart.
A multitude of museums is clustered close together in Belém. I am not going to even try to list them all here, but to name a few, here you can find the National Coach Museum, the Planetarium, the Maritime Museum and the Archeological Museum. Other popular sights are the 16th century Belém tower and the significantly more modern Padrao dos Descobrimientos, a monument to maritime explorers with a viewing platform on top that is reached by elevator - I think the view is well worth paying the €5 entrance fee and the queue is normally shorter than for the Belém tower. Check opening times here.
Belém is an area well known by tourists, so if you're coming here in high season prepare for large queues to get into the most famous attractions (monastery, Pasteis de Belém cafe and Belém tower). And when I say large queues, I mean GIGANTIC queues, especially for the monastery entrance - have a look at the photos below to see what I mean. It certainly looked like a good hour of queuing under the merciless sun if not more to get in. I ended up limiting my monastery visit to just looking at it from the outside and replaced a visit to the Pasteis de Belém cafe with another old pastry shop called Confeitaria Nacional Belém, located by the Belém tower - no queue, a fab river view and the pasteis de nata were tasty - #winning! Highly recommended if you, like me, have no patience for queues.
To get away from the crowds, pop into the Tropical Botanical Garden (yes, I know I seem obsessed with botanical gardens as this is the third one I am mentioning in Lisbon). It's right next to the Jeronimos monastery (just to the right if you are facing the monastery entrance) and the entry fee was €2 when I visited in August 2018. Some bits of the garden are a bit dilapidated, but it's still a lovely and tranquil place to recharge, especially after the overwhelming queues for the monastery. There is a wonderfully idyllic cafe in this botanical garden as well, where you can enjoy a drink and a small snack whilst sitting outside.
While you're in Belém, you might also want to jump on the Belém-Trafaria ferry and do a cheap and cheerful round trip to take in the views from the river. Check the schedule of the ferries here.
Relaxing in the cafe
Check out the queue to get in - yes, it is that long!
Sintra is a beautiful town a 40-45-minute train journey from Lisbon's Rossio station. It is still a part of Greater Lisbon and therefore you can travel from Lisbon to Sintra using the Viva Viagem public transportation card. A return ticket to Sintra with Viva Viagem costs €4.50 (August 2018) and you can check out the Lisbon to Sintra train timetable here.
Sintra is a hilly town, the special climate of which drew the wealthy nobility here - the result is a fantastic collection of castles and palaces in different architectural styles accompanied by vast grounds that take ages to explore properly. I am not going to try and list every sight in Sintra, but some of the notable places are Pena Palace, Moorish Castle, Quinta da Regaleira, National Palace and Monserrate Palace. Please note that the palaces are very spread out around the area and to make it easier to reach places, there are two different buses departing from the train station, 434 and 435. Both go to the National Palace, and then the routes split up. 434 will take you up to Pena Palace and Moorish Castle, while 435 goes to Quinta da Regaleira, Seteais Palace and Monserrate Palace. There are people at the train station who can direct you to the buses if you're not sure where to go. The bus timetable can be found here.
Sintra is a very popular day trip destination from Lisbon, but if you are coming for only a day, you will have to prioritise as it will be impossible to cover all the sights that Sintra has to offer. After setting myself a goal of covering three palaces in a day and ending up sweaty and exhausted, I would actually recommend visiting Sintra al least over the course of two days - it is well worth your time! Alternatively, choose two palaces to see - that will give you enough time to set a normal, relatively leisurely pace and to have a relaxed lunch.
Of course, the choice of what to see is up to you - the three that I absolutely wanted to visit were:
Quinta da Regaleira, because of the incredible grounds with lots of small architectural wonders, like the initiation well and the underground grottos - check out the map of the grounds here.
Pena Palace - google Sintra and most of the images will be of Pena Palace, a very colourful building straight out of a fairytale, built by King Ferdinand II in the 19th century. It is extremely popular (from the three that I visited, it was by far the most crowded one and it was impossible to even get a table at the café without queuing). If you want to save money and/or get away from the crowds as quickly as possible, go for the park and terraces ticket - it's half the price of the full ticket and will give you access to some of the outside terraces of the palace (super crowded) as well as the grounds (empty, shady and lovely for long walks), which for me was more than enough.
Moorish Castle - or rather the ruins of this medieval castle, with fantastic views over the surrounding countryside. It's a castle of many steps as you climb up and down the remains of the fortress walls.
Each had a very distinct vibe and I am super happy that I got to see all three! I don't think that I could say that one was better than the others as the things that each offers are so different.
My other big tip to you is to rely on the buses rather than trying to walk everywhere. Whilst the walk from the train station to the town centre is pleasant, trying to climb up towards Pena Palace or the Moorish castle is a walk for the fittest among us, especially if you are going there on a very hot summer day. Even if you enjoy walking, believe me, you will have plenty of ground to cover while visiting the palaces. I am speaking from personal experience here - the reason why I decided to skip the buses is that they run to a schedule and you have to wait together with the other visitors and I read that it can get very crowded, but honesty, it would have been less stressful to wait rather than attempt the climb to Pena Palace on foot.
Finally, you can get tickets to Pena Palace and the Moorish castle from the tourist information centre in Sintra before going up to the palaces - when I got there, it was pretty empty and I didn't have to queue at all. Purchasing both tickets at once also qualifies you for a small discount.
If you want to read all about my visit to Sintra, check out this post.
Costa de Caparica
I've never really thought of Lisbon as a beach destination, but that changed when I signed up for a yoga teacher training course, which was held in Costa de Caparica, within easy reach of Lisbon, which makes it a great option for a day trip. The town itself is nothing to write home about, but it is home to a stunning and seemingly endless sandy beach and breathtaking sunsets. To get to Costa de Caparica, you either have to cross the 25 de Abril bridge by car or take the Belem-Trafaria ferry and then walk. I tried both options, and the Uber ride from Central Lisbon cost somewhere in the region of €20 one way, compared to €1.20 for the ferry.
The benefit of taking the ferry is that great views over Belem, 25 de Abril bridge and the Cristo Rei statue are included for free - in fact, I would recommend going on the ferry to take in the views even if you aren't planning to go to Costa de Caparica! Do bear in mind though that after the ferry arrives in Trafaria, you still have about 30 minutes to walk to get to the beaches and a bit longer if you want to get into the centre of Costa de Caparica. A fun way to make moving around faster would be to rent a bike in Lisbon and take it on the ferry with you - I saw some people doing that. Check the schedule of the ferries here.
If you decide to take the car, be it a rental or a taxi, do bear in mind that in peak season and especially on weekends, Costa de Caparica is a very popular spot among the locals, so traffic can get pretty heavy (and the beach gets jam packed too, so if you can come on a workday, please do, you will find it so much more enjoyable).
There is very little natural shade on the beach, so it is advisable to bring your own parasol. You might also be better off bringing some food with you if you are planning to eat without venturing too far off the beach - the area where the restaurants are concentrated unfortunately has the worst part of the beach, in my opinion.
Please also be mindful of the strong currents in the area. There are signs on the beach marking the dangerous and safe areas for swimming. The water was always rather chilly in the three weeks of my stay there despite the summer heat, but that certainly didn't deter me from going in for a quick dip.
If you like surfing (or perhaps just want to try it out?), you will love Costa de Caparica. There are quite a few surf schools along the beach, offering both classes and just rental of boards and wetsuits.
I hope your trip to Lisbon goes well and that you grow to love this city as much as I do! Just watch out for those dishonest taxi drivers!
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