Portugal is one of the most fascinating countries in the world and Lisbon, its sprawling capital city, is an exciting place to begin your Portugal adventure. Lisbon was the first true “world city”. Once the launch pad for notable voyages of discovery, like Vasco da Gama's epic journey to India, Lisbon’s legendary empire was once spread over all the continents like a more recent Roman Empire. Lisbon will forever be known as the city of explorers and its legendary seven hills offer many breathtaking options for exploration. The city and its earthquake-torn surroundings are a seduction of mosaics, tiled facades and admirable miradouros. It could take longer than a week to peel away the many layers of this great city, but if that’s all the time you have, here’s a guide to help you hit the highlights of Lisbon, Portugal.
Things You'll Need
- Lisbon city map
- Lisbon metro map
- Map of bus and tram network
- Portuguese dictionary
- Written address and directions to your hotel (or other accommodation)
- Money (in euros)
Find accommodations. Lisbon offers a number of ways to get your beauty sleep and because it is still one of the cheapest cities in Europe you might be able to afford something a little more luxurious than you’d normally go for. Hotels and hostels can be found by the hundreds, but you should also look into renting an apartment or if you can afford it or you might opt to stay in a Pousada, which are special accommodations reserved in national monuments like the various castles, monasteries, fortresses and other places of unique historical presence.
Purchase the “7 Colinas” card for your public transportation around the city. This one card gets you on pretty much every public transportation system operating in Lisbon from the trams and metro, to the street elevators and trains. The 7 Colinas is rechargeable and there are several options available for travelers. See more about transportation options for Lisbon and read about the 7 Colinas card at the Carris site.
Explore the old city. Retrace the footsteps of the great explorers in the the Seven Hills of Lisbon, which are packed full of wonderful, historical and entertaining things to see and do. Head to the Alfama district, which is just below Graca, and close your map. Let yourself get lost in this old neighborhood that is littered with tiny alleyways, the colorful garland remnants of a recent fiesta and a number of monuments such as the Campo de Sta. Clara and the Mueseu Militar.
Visit the museums. The Fado Museum is a must-see for music lovers, while Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa or Sé de Lisboa is the place for architecture lovers because of the smorgasbord of styles it offers from its facades. Sé de Lisboa has undergone numerous rebuilds after the earthquakes and now looks like a charity case for the changing architecture, style and design of Lisbon.
Visit the Castelo de Sao Jorge. This might be the most important monument in Lisbon and from here you’ll get some of the best views of the city - 180 degrees of village and sea front - from the front lawn. Lisbon is one of the oldest capitals in Europe and the Castle of Saint George dates back to the 5th century. From the castle you’ll be afforded a perfect view of the longest suspension bridge in Europe, the Ponte Vasco da Gama, which was built by the same architect who designed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Take a ride on a funicular. Due to the steep hillsides in Lisbon, a unique system of funicular railways or “street elevators” (similar to the trolleys in San Francisco) take you above the city center. The Elevador de Santa Justa is the oldest street elevator in Lisbon. It was built in 1902 and a ride on it will take you to the Convento de Carmo. The Bica is also a popular way to see Lisbon’s tiny ancient streets. Catch the Bica in Bairro Alto and enjoy a leisurely ride down the steep, ancient and old cobblestone streets.
Grab a bite to eat. Once back in the city after your long day in Cascais, head up to the Bairro Alto district to experience some of the best seafood Lisbon has to offer. Pop into one of the family owned cafes for a salted codfish dinner and some port wine or enjoy a Caipirhna and stewed caracóis (snails) at one of the local bars while enjoying Fado, which is the traditional music of Portugal.
Visit Belem. Hop on the #15 tram from Comercio Square and head out to the Belem district. Here’s where you can enjoy the Belem Tower, Mosteiro dos Jeronimos and the Padrao dos Descobrimentos, which are some of the most important monuments to encounter while in Lisbon. From Belem, you’ll get a postcard shot of the Ponte Vasco da Gama bridge with the Cristo-Rei, a smaller replica to the famous Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro, in the background.
Have a snack. Take a mini-break from your camera-snapping and busy guide reading to try a Pasteis de Belem at the cafe in the Muesue da Mirihna next door to the Mosterio. Pasteis de Belem is the famous custard tart of Lisbon and a must have while you’re in Portugal.
Visit the Oceanarium. Take the metro to Orient Station and head west to the modern waterfront in Parque de Nacoes, which was built for Expo98. Here’s where you’ll find an interactive waterfront where Portuguese natives share the popular attractions with foreigners. The Oceanarium is arguably the best and the largest aquarium in Southern Europe.
See the city from the air. Make sure to jump in a cable car in front of the Oceanarium(EUR 6) that takes you above the skyline and along the waterfront where you’ll enjoy breathtaking views of the harbor, skyline and Estação do Oriente (Orient Station). Though the Orient Station is merely a transportation hub, it has come to be recognized as a feat in architectural brilliance because of its beautiful iron and glass structure. It’s brilliant any time of day, but is most captivating at night time.
Take pictures of Praca do Comercio. Head down to the old city center and wonder around this bright yellow, sunbaked plaza. The Praca do Comercio was once home to the Royal Ribeira Palace until it was destroyed by the earthquake in 1755 and is now the center for commerce and transit hub for Lisbon’s many transportation options. The plaza is often home to traveling exhibitions and a large weekend market and offers a wonderful view of the Tagus River.
Visit Rossio Square and experience the views of Castelo de Sant Jorge from the ground. Rossio Square is also home to many a Lisbon patisserie, where you can fill up on any of the treats you may have missed over the last five days. Finish up the day with some last minute shopping at the horde of young designer boutiques and shoe stores.