On arrival at Lisbon Portela Airport in Portugal, instead of joining the very long line of tired travellers waiting for a taxi, I opt to take the metro.
Possibly not the right decision — as the queue of visitors struggling to operate the ticket machines in an unfamiliar language probably moves just as slowly! Take your pick on a mode of transport, but however you choose to arrive, it won’t take you long to fall under Lisbon’s spell. Exploring the history and vibrant culture of Western Europe’s oldest capital city is a wonderful experience.
Enjoy this Lisbon travel guide.
Lisbon for history lovers
The iconic number 28 tram makes its way through some of Lisbon’s most historic suburbs and is popular with tourists.
Like me, you may prefer to view the tram from afar as it trundles up the hill (a fabulous photo opportunity), while you meander through the cobbled laneways of Alfama — Lisbon’s oldest district — on foot. It’s a living history lesson.
Then make your way to the impressive Castelo de Sao Jorge. The citadel is one of Lisbon’s most historic sites and dates back to the medieval period. From the castle there are expansive views across the city’s sea of terracotta-tiled roofs.
Next, stroll down Rua Augusta through the grand Arco de Luz da Rua Augusta to the waterside Praça do Comercio — once the seat of customs and port activities, and a key part of Lisbon’s economic history since the 16th century.
Take a seat on the steps by the Tagus River and contemplate life as it used to be on this once bustling merchant waterway.
Top ways to relax in Lisbon
Lisbon is a hilly city and the locals have adapted public transport to suit the terrain.
Give your feet a break with a ride up and down on one of the old funiculars — the Ascensor da Gloria and Ascensor da Bica — both built in the late 1800s. The beautifully crafted Elevador de Santa Justa urban elevator is another amazing option. It opened at the turn of the 20th century.
For more relaxing things to do in Lisbon, take a train to Parque das Nações — the site of the 1998 World Expo. It’s home to the Lisbon Oceanarium — one of the largest aquariums in the world. Views from the nearby Vasco da Gama Tower stretch for miles (check opening times prior to your visit). Walk along the promenade, ride the cable car or take a river cruise from the marina.
Cultural things to do in Lisbon
You can’t leave Lisbon without listening to the melancholic strains of Fado.
After getting the backstory on this folk music genre at the Fado Museum, head for the Clube de Fado — one of many restaurants in Alfama where you can enjoy traditional Portuguese fare accompanied by Fado guitarists and singers.
If the magnificent tile work around Lisbon has inspired you, the Museo de Azulejo (tile museum), while a little off the beaten track, is well worth a visit. It traces the history and production of ceramic tiles over five centuries. I walked there, but you could take bus 794 or a taxi.
Great places to eat in Lisbon
Make the most of being on holiday by tucking into the fabulous pastries on offer in Lisbon — the custard tart is only one of many!
Other local specialties include bacalhau — dried and salted codfish. It’s on every menu, and there are many different variations to choose from. I enjoyed the rather rich version that comes in a cheesy sauce, and as a snack — the bacalhau croquettes.
There are many fabulous places to eat, but for the perfect evening out, start with an aperitivo at the charming old kiosk in Praça Luis de Camões. Then walk to the popular vintage tavern A Taberna da Rua das Flores for dinner. It’s located in the street of the same name. It’s best to book a table to save yourself a long wait. The menu changes daily, depending on what’s in season.
A note of warning when it comes to dining out in Portugal. The bread and olives brought to your table are not complimentary. If you don’t want to pay for them, it’s best to refuse them in the first place.
Where to shop in Lisbon
There are tourist souvenir shops everywhere, but if you’re in the market for something a bit different, take a stroll down elegant Rua Garret in the Chiado district.
Here you’ll discover Livraria Bertrand — the world’s oldest bookshop. Founded in 1732, there’s a Guinness World Records certificate on the wall to prove the claim. The beautiful jewellery store Tous is located just a few doors down the street at number 50.
Keep a lookout for beautiful little specialty shops like haberdashery Retrosaria Bijou on the Rua da Conceição — with its vast array of buttons, ribbons and fastenings. You can savour the aforementioned pastel de nata (Portuguese custard tart) at Confeitaria Nacional. It first opened its doors in 1829 and features a stunning mirrored ceiling and wooden staircase.
Five Lisbon tours we love
Looking for an all-round introduction to Lisbon? You can’t go past this full-day guided city tour. See Lisbon Castle and the magnificent city views from Monte Belvedere, enjoy a cruise on the Tagus River, and pay a visit to the Belém Quarter to taste a famous Belém pastry!
Head out with a local guide on foot to explore Lisbon’s vibrant street art scene. You’ll visit the neighborhoods of Bairro Alto, Mouraria and Graça, and see incredible street art hidden in backstreets and laneways.
Working with a Portuguese chef, you’ll help prepare a traditional 3-course menu of fish, meat, and dessert. Learn basic cooking techniques, and tuck into the meal you’ve made with your fellow classmates.
See parts of Lisbon that most tourists miss! This fabulous three-hour tour by tuk tuk will take you to nooks and crannies that can’t be reached by large tour buses. Zip through diverse neighbourhoods and see top attractions along the way, including Lisbon Cathedral, the National Pantheon, and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Belém Tower.
Experience the culinary delights and Fado music of Lisbon on this small-group evening tour. You’ll explore various districts, dine on local cuisine, and enjoy a performance of traditional Fado.
Do you have any tips to add to our Lisbon travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Joanne Karcz published a blog when she walked the Camino de Santiago some years ago and has been writing about her travels ever since. She is also an aspiring travel photographer and takes her camera wherever she goes. Joanne loves discovering new things to see and do in her own Sydney backyard, and blogs regularly about the city’s suburbs. She has travelled through Europe and South America and taken a group of friends on the trip of a lifetime to South Africa, Botswana and Zambia. Her visits to Cuba and India were bucket list items, but she still has a few destinations to tick off!