A Guide To Planning Your Perfect Trip To Lisbon

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Charming cobblestone streets, a rich history, and restaurants around every corner. A riverside location, hills rising to spectacular viewpoints, and two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Whether you are visiting for a day or a little longer, here is what you need to know when planning your trip to Lisbon.

Why Visit Lisbon?

The Portuguese capital is a picturesque city on the estuary of the River Tagus. Built on seven hills, it is a maze of narrow streets, balconies and sweeping vistas. And each neighbourhood has its own distinct character.

The city of Lisbon has a long history, stretching right back to the Phoenicians. The Romans were here, as were the Moors. And the Great Earthquake of 1755 led to some serious rebuilding in a very grand style. All of this makes the city a pleasure to walk around, with varied architecture, ornate churches, and a few surprises to discover.

Buildings on one side of a large plaza. There is a triumphal archway decorated with columns and statues.
The magnificent Arco da Rua Augusta in the Praça do Comércio

You will also find friendly people, classic Portuguese food, and traditional fado music (a sort of mournful folk song often associated with seamen or poorer people). Whether this is your first trip to Lisbon or a return visit, one thing is guaranteed – you will want to come back!

What To See And Do In Lisbon

There is far more to see and do in Lisbon than you could pack into a few days, but if you have enough time it is worth spending your first day just walking around the old streets, admiring the views and soaking up the atmosphere and the local culture.

Narrow street with steps leading downwards. The pavement is tiled and there are old houses on either side.
A typical street of the old town

These are just some of the highlights and main tourist attractions.

Baixa/ Chiado

Many tourists base themselves in the Baixa/ Chiado area, at the heart of Lisbon. Start your exploration at the Praça do Comércio, the large plaza beside the Tagus River. The square is surrounded by grand 18th century buildings and the magnificent Arco da Rua Augusta, a triumphal arch built to celebrate the city’s reconstruction after the earthquake.

From here you can walk along the Rua Augusta, bustling with shops and restaurants, towards Rossio Square, with its central fountain and unusual tiled pavement. Must-see places in this area include the remains of the Convento do Carmo (now an archaeological museum) and several churches. You will also pass the famous Elevador de Santa Justa, a lift that will save you climbing up to the higher levels of town (although if the queues are long it may be quicker to walk…).

Outdoor elevator built in an ornate design. There are tall buildings on either side.
The famous Santa Justa lift

Alfama

Adjoining Baixa is the beautiful, and very hilly, Alfama district, the old town of Lisbon. This area dates back to Moorish times and it largely escaped the effects of the 1755 earthquake. Here you will find the Sé de Lisboa (cathedral) and the Panteão Nacional with its tiled façade and tombs of notable Portuguese persons.

Alfama is one of the best areas for discovering what remains of Roman Lisbon. You can also follow a waymarked trail around the remnants of the old city walls. But the number one sight here is the Castelo de São Jorge (see below).

Medieval wall built of bricks and stone. Beside it is a flight of steps leading up to a narrow street.
Remains of the old city walls

Castelo De São Jorge

Right at the top of the hill, and visible from many places around the city, is the impressive São Jorge Castle. Although the Romans had a fortification here, most of what you see today is Moorish. It was a large moated structure, much of which is still standing. Visitors can walk around the ruins, climb the ramparts, and explore a museum area and a couple of small archaeological sites.

Outside the castle is the Igreja do Castelo de São Jorge (Castle Church) where you can climb up the tower for spectacular views.

Outside of a castle, with a stone bridge crossing a moat filled with grass and flowers.
The São Jorge Castle

Notes for visiting the Castle:

  • This is a very popular tourist attraction and there will be queues for tickets (although the queue does move quite quickly). At peak times you may wish to book your ticket in advance.
  • The archaeological site at the far side of the castle (with remains going back to the Iron Age) can only be entered on a tour. The cost of the tour is included in your entrance ticket but English language tours run infrequently – check when you go in.
  • Your ticket also includes the Camera Obscura (although unfortunately this was closed when I visited).

Belém

A tram ride from the centre takes you to the historic district of Belém. Here you can visit two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Jerónimos Monastery and the Torre de Belém. You can walk along the waterfront and explore the Botanic Gardens. And sample the local pastéis de Belém.

Read more about How to Spend a Day in Belém.

What Else To See And Do In Lisbon

If you have more time in the city there are churches and museums to explore. And boat trips along the river. Further along the river (in the opposite direction from Belém) is the Parque das Nações. This is a redeveloped area full of green spaces, restaurants, a museum and an Oceanarium.

Still central, but higher up the hill, is the Bairro Alto district. This is a more bohemian area of the city: visit for restaurants, fado music, street art and breathtaking viewpoints.

You could also take a day trip to Sintra, an easy train ride from Rossio Station. Here you will find several UNESCO sites, including the Palácio Nacional and the medieval Castelo dos Mouros. However, there is more to see here than you could comfortably fit into a day: to maximise your time in Sintra you might choose to take an organised tour from Lisbon.

Two pictures showing the inside rooms of a palace. The first has a door with carved surround looking into a tiled room. The second shows a corner of a room with blue and white tiles depicting a rural scene. Above the tiles are painted panels.
The impressive interior of the Palácio Nacional in Sintra

Eating And Drinking In Lisbon

Being so close to the sea, Portuguese cuisine is heavily fish based. Look out in particular for bacalhau (dried, salted cod) and sardines. A particular local speciality is bacalhau à brás, made with dried cod and lots of eggs. The most traditional desserts tend to be cakes and pastries, and the classic offering is pastéis de nata, a sort of custard tart with rich, buttery pastry.

Vegetarians and vegans may find their choices limited, but there will normally be one non-meat dish on a menu. You will usually also find a cheese platter with a selection of local cheeses. Alternatively, Lisbon has a few Indian or Chinese restaurants offering a different choice of food.

Local drinks include the delicious vinho verde (“green wine”), so named because it is drunk when it is very young. Look out too for Amarguinha, an almond liqueur normally drunk with a few drops of lemon. Of course, the most renowned local product is port wine. Enthusiasts can enjoy a tasting at the famous Taylor’s Port Wine Shop.

Table with a bottle of almond liqueur, two glasses and a fresh lemon.
My hotel greeted us with almond liqueur and lemon…

Planning Your Trip To Lisbon

  • Lisbon Airport is 10 km from the city centre. Metro trains run to the centre, but note that some destinations may not be close to a metro station.
  • For those who are able to cope with steep hills and uneven paving stones walking is often the easiest way to get around.
  • Metro trains and trams are available for longer distances (but note that the trams are very crowded at all times). You can access the metro with a contactless bank card but you could also buy a Navegante card which can be topped up and used on both the metro and the trams.
  • A Hop-On-Hop-Off bus connects many of the major sites.
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  • For those with mobility issues tuk-tuks are very popular. You can even book a private tour of the city by tuk-tuk.
  • A money-saving tip for your trip to Lisbon is to purchase a Lisboa Card, which gives unlimited access to public transport, entry to a number of museums, and discounts at several shops and attractions.
  • I stayed at the São Vicente Alfama Hotel in the Alfama district, which was very nice and close to several good restaurants. But, if you do stay there, you may wish to take a taxi to and from the airport (the nearest metro station involves a steep uphill walk along cobbled roads, and don’t even think of going on a crowded tram if you are carrying luggage…). The Eurostars Hotel on Rua Cais de Santarém looks like an excellent alternative: it is on the waterfront so access is easier, and it has the bonus of some Roman remains in the foyer (I plan to stay here if I return to Lisbon…). For other accommodation suggestions have a look at booking.com.
  • If you can choose when to travel, it is best to avoid the peak season of June to August, when the city is hot and the crowds are greatest. The shoulder seasons of spring and autumn are less busy but still pleasantly warm.

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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