Have you been wondering, “is Lisbon worth visiting…?”
Well seriously, just stop, because the answer is YES. Whenever I saw something about Lisbon I would think it sounded like a cool place to go but I never ranked it super high on my must-do list. Then for some reason, I started to see it EVERYWHERE. I swear every second travel blogger I met was moving to Lisbon, and it was on all the lists of the best places to visit in Europe.
While living in Spain for a year I knew I wanted to try and travel to Lisbon. Just before I left I finally had the chance to visit Lisbon and find out for myself why it’s a top European destination! So now I want to help you out with my best tips on Lisbon and things to know before you go for a trip to Portugal!
Why visit Lisbon? Is it worth visiting?
Well, I’ve been told Portugal is great for solo travel, but also that spending a weekend in Lisbon with family or friends is a must. The thing is there’s something in Lisbon for everyone and that’s why it’s become so popular in recent years. Yes, Lisbon is worth visiting, but be prepared for lots of other people to think so too!
I learned a thing or two about what to do in Lisbon, what not to miss, what Lisbon is known for and some awesome stuff about the city and Portugal as a whole while I was there. Instead of the usual what to visit in Lisbon, top things to see, what to do, or where to go, I’ve compiled this list of what you need to know before you go and what makes Lisbon worth adding to your bucket list!
Lisbon is the second oldest capital city in Europe
After Athens, Lisbon is the capital city that has been around for the longest. It was first ruled by the Romans, Germans, and Arabs before 1147 when Portuguese crusaders finally conquered it. However, it’s been an economic, political and cultural center for so long that it never really got officially confirmed as Portugal’s capital city. It’s by default and convention that it’s become so!
Portuguese is the official language
Portugal may be next to Spain but it does have it’s own language, and although you might find that Spanish is a common second language that doesn’t mean people want to speak it all the time, contrary to what some believe. In fact, you’ll find that a lot of people, and especially young people, speak English more than Spanish. So when you’re in Lisbon don’t just assume Spanish is the default second language!
Fado is the traditional style of music
“Fado” means destiny or fate in Portuguese. It’s a traditional form of music that is known for its soulful and often melancholy tone, and it often has a connection to the sea. Instruments like guitars and mandolins form the basis of the art, with one singer performing the poetic lyrics. Fado has been around in the port districts of Lisbon since around the early 19th century.
Alfama is one of those districts, and on a walk through here in the evening Fado music is inescapable. There are many places offering meal and performance deals, but the best are those where you don’t need to pay for an expensive meal to see the show. This area has become much more popular in recent years, but if you’re wondering where to go in Lisbon to see a Fado performance I’d still recommend it. So add fado to your must see in Lisbon list!
Lisbon is one of the best budget cities in Europe
Lisbon provides excellent quality food, great accommodation, and nightlife for a fraction of the cost of some of Europe’s other capital cities. It makes a great European budget holiday destination, especially because beer is as cheap as €2 in many places! You can also enjoy more luxury drinks and meals at a lower cost, making this a place for budget and luxury travellers.
There are a lot of hills in Lisbon
Lisbon is built on seven hills. That means a lot of work for your calf muscles, but also some beautiful views to make up for it! Living in Wellington, New Zealand, for most of my early adult life means I’m no stranger to hills, but Lisbon surprised even me.
In downtown Lisbon along the Avenida da Liberdade it’s all flat, but venture slightly outwards in any direction and you’re met with steeply sloping hills. Luckily the number 28 tram or a tuk-tuk will help with those!
Take a ride on the 28 line tram
Wondering what Lisbon is known for? Lisbon is famous for its number 28 yellow tram and is one major reason why people visit, after seeing iconic photos of it. There are actually a number of trams that run all over the city. It costs about €2.85 per person and services run from around 6 am until 9 pm. You can purchase a ticket from the driver or a machine onboard. The tram goes between Alfama in the east and Praça do Martim Moniz in the west.
The classic 1930s trams are still in use today because the tight curves and steep hills are unsuitable for modern trams. We rode from Alfama all the way to end in Estrela, which actually wasn’t the best idea because it stopped and we had to get off and wait to get on again to go back. I would recommend stopping in the Bairro Alto if you’re heading west!
Lisbon is full of tuk-tuks
Lisbon is also full of tuk-tuks ready to take you up those seven hills! They have only made an appearance in big numbers in the last few years, but tuk-tuks are now a popular way for tourists to navigate the narrow streets and not have to walk up the hills.
These vehicles were originally made in Italy post-WWII as a cheap way to increase transportation, but they caught on much more in crowded cities in Asia and Africa. Now they’re back on the streets of Europe, and although taxi drivers may not be so happy about them, they do seem to suit the geography of Lisbon and look like they’ve been a part of the city for as long as the trams have.
The age of discovery began in Portugal
Dozens of exploratory voyages around the world began from Lisbon, so it feels right that travellers the world over should want to visit here and see where it all began. A monument to the explorers of the world, many of them Portuguese, has been built on the bank of the Tagus river.
It’s a bit out of the city centre but I’d put it on your list of where to go in Lisbon, especially since there are lots of other top sites in Lisbon to see nearby.
The buildings are something else
And by something else I mean painted all sorts of colours or covered in unique tiles. While tiles in art and inside buildings are common the world over, in Lisbon they became part of the architecture of the outside of the buildings themselves. They first became popular in the 1500s, before their popularity waned but was revived again in the 1950s.
On a stroll around Lisbon today it’s impossible the miss the beautifully tiled buildings, and the huge amount of street art that’s all over the city. A must-do in Lisbon is to simply walk around, and look up! (Just be careful of the trams and other people when you do it!)
Codfish cakes are everywhere
Actually, cod is everywhere, in almost every form. I was reminded of Forest Gump when I saw some of the menus in Lisbon; fried cod, grilled cod, salted cod, codfish cakes… you get the idea! Codfish cakes are particularly popular though.
On the main street in central Lisbon, we went to Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau where the traditional codfish cake is stuffed with delicious cheese and served with a side of white port wine. You can watch them making the cakes in the traditional way through a glass window.
And the verdict? I love fish cakes, so I thought they were awesome!
So are custard tarts
If you’re wondering what food not to miss in Lisbon or even Portugal, then this is it. Pasteis de nata are famous the world over for being from Portugal. When I first tried them in Macau, a former Portuguese colony, I wasn’t really sold on them because I’m not a huge fan of custard.
A visit to Portugal meant I needed to give them another go, and I made an about-face on them this time! Some are more like custard and some are more eggy, for lack of a better description. Everyone has their preference so try more than one!
In fact, the bakeries all over Lisbon are amazing
Depending on where you looked you could find some great deals for food in Lisbon, but I did think in some ways it was more expensive to eat out than in areas of Spain. Or maybe I’m just too used to my free Spanish tapas in Almería!
Thankfully, Lisbon has awesome bakeries where you can purchase both savoury and sweet food at a fraction of the restaurant cost, or look out for local, independent restaurants where you can have a daily special that often includes lots of sides like rice, potatos, and beans.
You can get fire cooked chorizo at your table
While we’re on the topic of food, I have to take a moment to mention the delicious sausages they light on fire when they’re at your table. Chorizo is the most common type, but I’ve also seen black pudding type sausages done in this way.
There are have special dishes made just to put cooking alcohol in the bottom and light it on fire once it’s served. Allow the flame to burn out and then dig in!
The Bairro Alto is a great place to go out
The quiet cobblestones streets of Bairro Alto may look deceiving by day, but at nighttime, they come alive. It’s the place to go out for a drink and a dance, with many bars spilling into the streets. It’s somewhat known as the bohemian area of Lisbon.
You’ll also hear fado in the air in the evenings, and there are lots of small bars and venues as well as larger restaurants.
Lisbon has a LOT of sunshine
Around 3000 hours a year to be exact, and it’s the sunniest capital in Europe, seeing even more sun than even Madrid, Rome, and Athens. You don’t really need to worry about when to travel to Lisbon because we visited in winter and it wasn’t as cold as you would think for a city on the Atlantic Ocean.
Although temperatures reach over 30 in the summer, the proximity of the Atlantic means cooler breezes make it more bearable, and I found that in the winter in Lisbon a warmer coat, scarf, and hat were fine. And it was still sunny of course!
Ginginja, a red cherry liqueur, is all over Lisbon and surrounding places like Sintra. Look for a hole in the wall bars and kiosks that sell shots, sometimes in chocolate cups! It’s a smooth liqueur that you should definitely try while you’re visiting Lisbon.
Eat dinner late in Lisbon
Of course, you can eat at any time you like, but the usual time to eat is Lisbon is later, like in many other southern European countries. Bars and restaurants won’t be too busy until 9 or even 10 pm, so plan your day accordingly and be prepared for a later meal if you want to have some more atmosphere and do as the locals do!
The food in Lisbon is a delight, ranging from Michelin star restaurants to local eateries. I loved trying out a range of different places across the city while we were there!
Take a day trip to Sintra
There are lots of great day trips from Lisbon, but Sintra is one of the most well-known and popular. Easily reached by public transport or car, Sintra has plenty to keep you occupied on a day trip. It’ll take you 40 minutes on the train and almost the same to drive to this magical town in the hills, but you’ll feel like you’ve come much further.
Read more: 15 Awesome Day Trips from Lisbon
Throughout the woods in Sintra, there are many mansions and palaces where Lisbon’s elite would come to escape the heat in the summer. The crowning glory above them all is Palacio de Pena, built by a German prince who married into the Portuguese royal family. It’s extensive gardens and colourful architecture make it a must visit place in Sintra. Just don’t go on one of the two days a year it’s closed, Christmas Day and New Years Day, like I did…
The Tower of Belém looks like a fairytale castle on the sea
The Tower of Belém is a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with the nearby Jerónimos Monastery. It was originally built on an outcropping of rocks but as the shoreline next to it has changed over time it is now very close to the riverbank and at low tide, it looks completely connected. Once involved in defending the city against foreign ships, it’s now one of the most popular things to see in Lisbon.
Make sure you venture down to this part of Lisbon to learn more about the history of the city and the role it played in the age of discovery.
Cork products are everywhere
Portugal produces 50% of the worlds cork, so you’ll see it everywhere. I was so confused as to why there are entire stores devoted to cork products until I found this out. Look out for postcards, bags, shoes, basically everything you can think of made with cork! If you ever dreamed of a cork handbag, now’s the time to get it.
There’s a whole shop that just sells tinned fish
Lisbon hasn’t been overtaken by large department stores and is still home to a number of specialty and unique shops. Conserveira de Lisboa is one of these shops that sells only tinned fish. In keeping with tradition, the main cash register is the same one that was used in the 1930s!
There are around 70 varieties of tinned fish in the store at any time, depending on the season. The shop works with a biologist to maintain sustainable fishing practices, so that Portugal’s love affair with tinned fish, and their shop, can continue to prosper.
And there you have it, 21 things about Lisbon that you should know before you visit, to help you with planning your Lisbon itinerary and travel to Portugal. Things to do and see, things to eat and enjoy, and what to expect from Portugal’s capital city! Is it enough for you to want to visit Lisbon?
Essential Lisbon Travel Info
Be prepared for Lisbon to be busy whenever you go. It’s become such a popular location in the last few years and the subject of much discussion when it comes to overtourism and mass tourism. Thanks to a combination of unemployment in Portugal, a rise in tourism in Europe and the comparably lower cost of Portugal compared to other destinations, plus websites like Airbnb giving locals a way to make more money but at the time making it more difficult to find places to live, Lisbon has seen a huge rise in visitor numbers, and not all for the better.
When you’re visiting Lisbon make an effort to shop and eat at local places, search off the beaten tourist track for new experiences, take tours with local organisations working to promote the culture of Lisbon and Portugal as a way to help preserve it.
The best time to visit Lisbon
Lisbon is the most crowded in the summer, from June until August. I love travelling in Europe in the off-season and shoulder seasons, so I would recommend March to May, and September/October. Lisbon will still be warm during this time but should be less busy than the peak summer months. Having said that, I also visited Lisbon at New Year and although it could be chillier in the evening it was sunny throughout the day and still one of the warmer places in Europe at this time!
How long to spend in Lisbon
Although Lisbon is a fairly compact city, there are some great attractions worth visiting just outside the city centre, and some fantastic day trips. I’d recommend at least 3 days in Lisbon to help you cover the basics of what the city has to offer. There’s always more to see and do!
It’s difficult to say how long to spend in Lisbon, but I’d add in at least one day so you can take day trips from the city, or keep those nearby places in mind as somewhere to go after Lisbon.
Read More: 15 Awesome Day Trips from Lisbon
Where to stay in Lisbon
Lisbon has many great neighbourhoods to base yourself in during your stay. The oldest quarter is the Alfama District, with picturesque hilly streets. Baixa and Chiado are the downtown and shopping areas, and Bairro Alto has a vibrant nightlife. Lapa and Madragoa are slightly more upmarket and between the city and Belém, all of which are a little quieter than the rest.
What to pack for Lisbon
- Mobile phone/Camera for photos – I use the Sony A6000 which is a compact mirrorless camera that’s easy to use and takes great photos you can transfer to your mobile right away. Also, take an extra SD Card, Lisbon is gorgeous!
- A plug adaptor – If you’re from outside the EU you’ll need one of these for your electronics. I love how this one has USD ports too!
- A power bank to keep your devices going while you’re out all day – I have several of these ones.
Outfits & Accessories
- Light clothing in summer
- Layers for the evening and a light coat in shoulder and off-season
- A sunhat and sunscreen in summer
- Comfortable walking shoes for the city or these travel sandals for women
- A warmer coat in winter, plus a scarf and hat
A few words of Portuguese
- Hello – Olá (oh-LAH)
- Please – Por favor (poor fah-VOHR)
- Thank you (if you are a male) – Obrigado (oh-bree-GAH-doh)
- Thank you (if you are a female) – Obrigada (oh-bree-GAH-dah)
- Yes – Sim (SING)
- No – Não (NOWNG)
- Goodbye – Adeus (ah-DEH-oosh)
- Do you speak English? – Fala(s) inglês? (FAH-lah(sh) een-GLEHSH?)
- I don’t understand – Não compreendo (now kohn-pree-EHN-doh)
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First published in January 2017.