Lisbon is rapidly becoming one of the most visited cities in Europe, if not the world. Which brings with it many positives and negatives.
Tourists will always divide opinion: they bring in much needed money and jobs, enabling entrepreneurs and business people to do what they do best. But it also brings crowds of people, litter, pollution and crime.
So there’s things you can do to avoid being seen as a “f*****g tourist” whilst embracing all that Lisbon has to offer, and seeing things through the eyes of a local.
Here’s my top tips and tricks for what to see and do in Lisbon; and what not to do
Do – Take a tram
Don’t – Take the number 28
The number 28 tram is always mentioned as a great way to see the city: and that’s true, it is. Or at least it can be on the rare occasion that you’re able to find a seat by the window. The tram is now so popular that the queues for it are monstrous, the odds of seeing anything slim and the chances of getting pick-pocketed high. So, what are the alternatives?
First option: walk. Lisbon, despite the hills and steep streets, is a very walkable city. For starters it’s not that big: the centre of the city can be crossed in less than an hour, according to Google Maps.
Second option: take public transport for a specific destination. If you arrived by plane, you will likely have used the Metro system to get into the centre, and it covers a good span of the city with its four coloured lines.
There are also many tram lines, such as the 15E & 18E which both go from Lisbon to Belem (although again, the walk by the river is far more enjoyable than the tram, if you have the time / energy) and the 25E takes you to the wonderful and unexplored neighbourhood of Campo Ourique in the north west of the city.
There are extensive bus networks that can take you all the way north to the aquarium, or across the river to visit Almada, and there are regular water taxis from Cais do Sodré terminal. So, in conclusion, anything but the 28!
Do – Eat out
Don’t – Wait ’til you’re hungry to decide where
As in any world city, the options for eating out in Lisbon are unreal.
If you’re in the mood for Sushi, Mexican cuisine, Indonesian street food or burgers, there are some great places. But, unless you do your research, you’ll pay for it. Below are a few recommendations to get you going if you’re not in the mood for Portuguese food.
However, a lot of people also fall into the trap of heading down to the streets near the Santa Justa elevator, in-between Rua dos Fanqueiros and Rua Áurea, in search of “local” cuisine. You know the type, the ones with the windows full of fading, laminated lobster pictures and fellas outside offering you a seat. Yeah, don’t go there.
The trick is to head into a small neighbourhood, of which there are many, and follow the locals between 11:45 and 12:30, or after 7pm. Where they go is where you should too. We’re talking soup of the day for €1.30, a main for €7 and, if you try to engage, at least a little, with the (guaranteed) lively conversation, you’ll find free shots of alcohol creeping into your coffee and a bill that’s often rounded down to an even €10 p/person…!
However, there’s also higher quality options and unique experiences that only Lisbon can provide. For that, head across the river from Cais do Sodré, turn right when you get off the boat in Cacilhas, and head to one of the restaurants surrounding the adorable little beach at the foot of the panoramic elevator of Boca do Vento. My suggestion would be Ponto Final but they’re all great for fresh fish and crisp wine. When you’re sat by the water, looking out on the bridge and Lisbon’s landscape, what more do you need?!
Burgers – A Cultura do Hambúrguer – Tiny place that’s always busy. For good reason.
Sushi – Avenida SushiCafé – A little out of the way, but super popular with locals
Brunch – Dear Breakfast – A small chain of two or three places serving epic combinations
Cafe – Le Petit Prince Cafe Culture – Tiny place with superb coffee, croissants and conversation
Churrasqueira da Paz
Do – Have a drink or two
Don’t – Go on a bar crawl
Drinking is embedded in Latin culture and it’s certainly important in everyday life in Lisbon.
Depending on why you’re visiting the Portuguese capital, there’s a good chance you’ll be visiting Chiado, a small and, some would say, seedy neighbourhood of dark, narrow streets, neon lights and cheap bars. And if you’re staying at a hostel and embracing a pub crawl, you won’t be able to avoid the area.
I would suggest staying away, but there are a couple of gems. Tasca do Chico is one of the best places in town, and therefore all of Portugal, to see Fado. It oozes character, with walls smothered in photos of visitors and performers, a suffocatingly low roof and, when the required hush descends on the crowd before the performance begins, you could literally hear a pin drop: the performers are also consistently excellent.
The other gem is at the opposite side of the spectrum, as alluded to by its name: The Madmen and Dreamers’ Association (Associação Loucos e Sonhadores). Excellent Caipirinhas are less than a fiver, tables are filled with students playing board games and cards, the soundtrack is Latin jazz and the air is filled with lively conversation and cigarette smoke. Whilst that last part might not be for everyone, small beers are only one euro, so why not grab a drink and head back onto the street?
Aside from Chiado, most neighbourhoods are excellent places to grab a drink. Time Out Market, for example, is a little pricey and touristy but offers excellent quality, especially wines and spirits, and Campo de Ourique has it’s very own indoor market that is also worth checking, especially around lunchtime.
But if it’s wine you’re after – well, you are in Portugal after all – then a great stop on your way to one of my recommended viewpoints north of the castle is Graça do Vinho, an ultra cute wine bar with a great selection of bites as well.
Failing all of that, head to the top of Rua da Bica from around 10pm and, making sure to avoid pickpockets and drug dealers, grab a cheap beer or Caipirinha at one of the tiny bars lining the cable car route and enjoy the bustling atmosphere.
Do – Embrace the culture attractions
Lisbon is not as famous as the likes of New York, London, Madrid & Paris in terms of museums and art galleries, but it doesn’t mean there’s not great options. And some of them cannot be found anywhere else.
First up is MAAT – the Museum of Art, Architecture & Technology – which is worth visiting just for the building outside, and the great views from the roof. But it also houses modern art exhibitions by very well known artists, plus local work covering most genres.
If you’re a fan of art, it’s also worth checking the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, an epic collection of ancient Portuguese art in a beautiful 17th century palace in an area surrounded by great cafes, restaurants, bars and the wonderful views of the Jardim 9 de Abril.
If you prefer modern art, be sure to check out Calouste Gulbenkian Museum Modern Collection, a superb collection of 20th century art from all over the world housed in the ultra-modernist buildings within 7.5 hectares of beautiful park.
If art isn’t your thing, the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, a museum dedicated to the beautiful tiles adorning many Portuguese buildings, is very popular, as is the huge National Museum of Natural History and Science and the equally large Oceanário de Lisboa, an aquarium visited by more than 1 million people every year: it’s one of the most visited cultural attractions in Europe!
And if all of that still isn’t enough, the Castelo de S. Jorge is as popular as ever, offering great views of the city and an interesting insight into the rich and varied cultures that have been a part of Portuguese society over the centuries. But, it’s incredibly busy and there are better offerings in terms of things to see and do, so bear that in mind.
Do – Hang out and watch a sunset
There’s no excuse for not doing this. Free, easy and as popular with locals as anyone else, Lisbon is arguably one of the best places in the world for providing viewpoints over it’s city. In fact, if you want to know where to go, read my blog post.
And anyway, who needs to be told to go and watch a sunset?!
Do – Take photos
Don’t – Be invasive
This is an important one, not just for Lisbon but whenever you’re travelling and exploring.
We all like to take photographs, me more than most; as you walk around Lisbon you’ll find a lot of people going about their daily life in the most photogenic of settings, and you’ll desperately want to grab a photo. But there are caveats.
In certain parts of Lisbon, especially Alfama and Bairro Alto, you will see a lot of tiny houses and apartments that look derelict and abandoned, but they are in fact still lived in; rent control and long periods of inaction and poor funding have lead to thousands of people living in very questionable conditions, but paying very little rent. It’s a vicious circle.
You must bear this in mind when trying to take a photo of someone hanging washing from a tiny window of a crumbling building. And you will often find people shouting at you not to take one, especially in the aforementioned areas, so please be considerate.
At the same time, Lisbon is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, if not the world. So snap away, just do so with a thought for what, and who, you’re capturing.
Do – Cross the river
Don’t – Take a taxi
With so much going on in Lisbon, it’s easy to forget that there’s so much on offer on the other side of the river Tagus
Whether it’s paying a visit to Santuário Nacional de Cristo Rei – the epic Christ the Redeemer-esque statue – for wonderful views back towards Lisbon, a visit to Ponto Final for the unique dining experience on the shores of the river or a visit to one of the many wonderful beaches that line the western coast around the busy town of Caparica, you won’t be disappointed. But why not make the journey part of the experience?
Taxis, especially Uber and similar services, are still surprisingly cheap in Lisbon, and Portugal, so I’d certainly recommend using them for airport journeys when you’re carrying lots of luggage and whatnot. But public transport is excellent in Lisbon, and if you’re visiting Cacilhas, Almada or anywhere across the bay, head to Cais do Sodré terminal and hop on one of the boats for a short and cheap journey across the Tagus. And on the way back, why not hop on a bus and enjoy the journey across the bridge for views of Lisbon as it basks in the light of the setting sun.
So, as you’ve read, and I hope you’ll get to experience, Lisbon has loads to offer and a lot to do. And the best way to see it? Just get out and do it.
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