On arrival at Lisbon Portela Airport in Portugal, I opted to take the metro instead of joining the very long line of tired travellers waiting for a taxi.
Possibly not the right decision — as the queue of visitors struggling to operate the ticket machines in an unfamiliar language probably moved just as slowly! But however lengthy the arrival process is, it won’t take you long to fall under Lisbon’s spell. Exploring the history and culture of the Portuguese capital (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 neighbourhoods and is popular with tourists.
However, 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 the city’s most historic sites and dates back to the medieval period. From the castle, you’ll enjoy expansive views across a sea of terracotta-tiled roofs.
Next, stroll down Rua Augusta through the grand Arco de Luz da Rua Augusta to the riverside Praça do Comercio — Lisbon’s impressive main square and what was once the gateway to the city for merchants and travellers arriving by water. The grand architecture was largely constructed in the 18th century. Take a break and sit on the steps by the Tagus River to contemplate life as it used to be on this bustling waterway.
If you’ve been hobbled by Lisbon’s cobbled streets, a tuk tuk tour is a fun way to explore further, and you’ll benefit from the knowledge of a local guide. Zip through diverse neighbourhoods and see top attractions along the way, including Sé de Lisboa (Lisbon Cathedral), the Panteão Nacional (National Pantheon), and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Torre de Belém (Belém Tower).
Top cultural experiences 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.
The magnificent tile work on display across Lisbon may inspire you to find out more about its history. While a little off the beaten track, the Museo de Azulejo (tile museum) is well worth a visit. I walked there, but you could take a bus or taxi.
Tiles aren’t the only decoration to adorn Lisbon’s walls. The city also has a vibrant street art scene. Book a guided tour and explore the neighbourhoods of Bairro Alto, Mouraria and Graça. The backstreets and laneways yield colourful murals that you would never find on your own.
Great places to eat in Lisbon
Make the most of being on holiday by tucking into the fabulous pastries on offer in Lisbon (the famous pastéis de nata custard tart is only one of many!).
The other local specialty you must try is 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. For a tasty snack, you can’t beat the bacalhau croquettes.
There are endless places to eat in Lisbon, but I recommend starting your evening with an aperitivo at the charming old kiosk in Praça Luis de Camões. The vintage tavern A Taberna da Rua das Flores is a two-minute walk from there and is popular for dinner. 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 eating 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
Even if you only window-shop, 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 certificate on the wall from Guinness World Records to prove the claim. The jewellery store Tous is located just a few doors down the street. It’s renowned as one of Lisbon’s most beautiful stores.
Keep a lookout for gorgeous little specialty shops like haberdashery Retrosaria Bijou — with its vast array of buttons, ribbons and fastenings. Should your energy levels flag, indulge in a sweet pastry from Confeitaria Nacional. It first opened its doors in 1829 and features a stunning mirrored ceiling and wooden staircase.
Ways to relax in Lisbon
Lisbon is a hilly city and the locals have adapted public transport to suit the terrain.
Give your feet another break with a ride on one of the old funiculars — the Ascensor da Gloria and Ascensor da Bica — both built in the late 1800s. The beautifully crafted turn-of-the-20th-century Elevador de Santa Justa urban elevator is also a must-see.
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 Oceanário de Lisboa (Lisbon Oceanarium) — one of the largest aquariums in the world. Views from the nearby Torre Vasco da Gama (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.
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 is a Sydney-based writer and blogger. She 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 has travelled through Europe, South America and Southern Africa. She loves discovering new things to see and do in her own Sydney backyard, and blogs regularly about the city’s suburbs.