Lisboa, Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. We went, without a plan but more of a dream. We knew we wanted to explore this unique city that we had heard was a great place to visit. But Lisbon wasn’t known for it’s list of sights and museums we needed to visit. Lisbon was known for being a place to be in. To walk around and soak in the feeling and the culture. To wander the hills and sit at a random café. I have traveled to many of the big “famous” cities in Europe so I was skeptical Lisbon would live up to the challenge. But one day and we were in love with this soft, beach side city that contained all the beauty of Europe and more than it’s fair share of the warmth (in weather and people). Instead of planning, check out the top things to do in Lisbon, and how to take this city nice and slow.
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Our Paris trip was planned and all about seeing as many sites as possible, I was tired by the time we got to Lisbon. I did some research, I had a loose list of things to see and do, but I did not do any planning. We played it by ear, and just did what felt right in the day. Was our itinerary perfect – no! Far from it. Did we enjoy our trip? Absolutely! Did it recharge our batteries? Better than most trips. Instead of providing you with a “perfect” itinerary for Lisbon, I decided I would instead provide you with a list of the things I think you must see and more importantly DO when you are in Lisbon.
Take a Walking Tour
Yes, Lisbon has a lot of hills, and you will get a workout. But the only way to see and experience this city is to walk its streets and experience its character. From the mosaic streets to steep funiculars, to the dizzying views from up high, the only way to really explore this city is to walk (and maybe ride a little) up and down the hills. Explore the little alleys. Go around the corner and see the stunning Miradouros. Walk in the ancient churches that are every block and admire the artwork. Get a bica (espresso) and pastel de nata (egg custard tart) and sit at a café as you watch the people go by. Having similar weather to San Francisco, it is temperate and beautiful pretty much all year-round.
So, get outside, get your vitamin D, and get your steps in. You will get to explore the city as it should be explored. (That being said, if you have mobility issues and/or are worried about the hills, you can flag down a TukTuk or schedule a TukTuk Tour and have them drive you around and take you to the top sites.)
Eat your way through the city
Lisbon is known for its amazing fresh seafood, it’s Bacalhau, and its coffee and pastries. The only warning, I give you is come hungry because portions are huge in Portugal. Most any café will provide you a good meal but there are a few I really enjoyed.
- Flor do Mundo – We were taken here on our food tour, and it had the best Bacalhau and Octopus Salad. Order what is fresh for the day
- O Trevo – This is a restaurant frequented by Anthony Bourdain. It has a pork sandwich with a spicy sauce. You can grab one and a beer, and sit in the plaza outside or in one the tables and people watch as you have a snack
- Marsiqueira Azul – By the Praca do Comercio down by the water, we had some amazing drinks and fresh appetizers. It is a bit pricier because of the location, but the food was amazing. They also have a location at TimeOut Market
- Manteigaria – We did a “scientific” test to find the best Pastel de Nata in the city. It was hard work, but we tired over 10 places and unanimously agreed these are the best. Our food tour guide told us it is because they use butter instead of margarine in the crust. Get some fresh from the oven with powdered sugar and cinnamon.
- A Brasileira – This is one of the oldest cafes in Lisbon. It is where the coffee culture of Portugal was started (since it was importing its beans from Brazil). Get a table outside and order a Bica, then watch all the people streaming by. A great cup of coffee and a great spot to watch.
- The Eating Bear – This place claims to be a tapas place, but do not believe them. The “tapas” are the size of entrees. However, each plate is so amazing, it is going to be hard not to stop yourself. Do the wine pairing, they do an amazing job. But it is not three tastings, it is three full glasses. You will have to walk hills afterwards so make sure you can handle that much wine.
- A Ginjinha or Ginjinha Sem Rival – Make sure to get some Ginjinha, a sour cherry liquor that is the national drink of Portugal. It is served in a shot glass, but it is meant to be sipped. We chose to get it with the cherry in for an extra treat. You can get it served in a chocolate cup at Ginja do Obidos, but I was told that is more a gimmick for the tourists 😔
Visit a Miradouro
It is hard not to, but there are so many Miradors all over the city. The best one, where you can see 80% of the city is Miradouro da Senhora do Monte. But the Miradouro das Portas do Sol has the classic long shot of the red tile roofs. And if you walk all the way to the top of Parque De Eduardo VII, you get a shot of the entire Avenue da Liberdade all the way to the water. Your legs however may feel like Jell-O by the time you get up there. Wear some fun clothes and get some great Instagram worthy shots there. There are always plenty of tourists around if you want to ask someone to take the photo for you.
Visit a Church
As you can expect, Portugal is a deeply religious country. It is the start of one of the routes for the trek to Santiago de Compostela. Make sure to take time to go in at least one of the amazing churches. Church of Sao Domigos has some visible damage from the great earthquake of 1755. Basilica de Nossa Senhora dos Martires has a beautiful pipe organ. The Cathedral is beautiful but watch out it is not actually open on Sunday (learned that one the hard way) except for mass. It is also supposed to be worth the trip to visit the Monastery of Belem. We unfortunately did not get to this time, but it is one I want to make sure to prioritize next time I am in Portugal.
Make Your Way to Belem
Most of where you can walk and visit in Lisbon is the central area. Belem, however, is a neighborhood that is a little further out, but worth the trek. It is takes about 20-30 minutes by tram from the city center, but you are in a cool part of Lisbon that is a mix of old and modern. Here you will see the ancient Tour de Belem, which is the only surviving guard tower from ancient times. Then, just a 10-minute walk away, is the modern looking Padrão dos Descobrimentos. It was built in the 1960s to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s Death. Then walk there to the ancient Monastery of Belem. Right next store is Pasties de Belem, the bake shop that makes the Pastel de Nata from the original recipe. The line is always long, so have a little patience. Expect an amazing Pastel de Nata (second best in our opinion, but still ate 2 or 3 of them. Just to be sure)
Spend a Day by the Sea
Lisbon is a seaside city, so as you expect there are plenty of beaches to visit. We choose to go to Cascais, which was a 40-minute train ride from the center of town. A train left every 20 minutes, and the beach was a short 5-minute walk from the station. We found a hotel that rented chars and an umbrella, had free Wi-Fi, and came right to us to take drink and food orders. The kids loved playing in the (cold) calm water, and we loved relaxing and enjoying the sea vibes. It does get hot so bring plenty of sunscreen and water.
Take a Day Trip
We took a day trip to Sinatra to visit the Fairytale castles in the hills surrounding Lisbon. It was a 30-minute ride by train, and then we took the Hop On Hop Off Bus around to see the colorful Pena Palace and the classic Quinta da Regaleira. It is a short train ride, but it is a world of difference. My mother and stepfather used a tour company to book at day trip to Fatima, a 1.5-hour ride away, to see the church for the Virgin of Fatima who appeared to some school children during World War I. Taking a day trip takes you out of the hustle and bustle of the city of Lisbon and see the beautiful countryside and more of Portugal.
To finish off the list I wanted to share each of the family’s absolute favorite experiences:
- Me: My favorite experience during our time in Lisbon was taste testing the Pastel de Natas. We decided to go all in, trying one from each shop, bakery, or place we found. We discovered that timing matters, as those fresh out of the oven often scored higher in our ranking. But it was fun to see each family’s reaction to the different ones. And all agreeing on the first-place winner was a miracle for us!
- My Husband: My absolute favorite Lisbon experience was eating Pastel de Nata. I had read so much about it before going, and watched so many shows, and none do justice to what is really there. The expectations were so high, and then it bets it by so much more. But specifically, the one I loved was the ones from the Manteigaria, it was just outstanding.
- My Son: That is a hard one, but I chose the beach. I got to have fun in the water with my sister, and we made our own little mud bath hole. I also got to swim and splash water on my sister hehehe.
- My Daughter: I loved eating the Pastel de Natas. They were delicious and we got to try all different ones.
- My Mom: For me, the day trip to Sintra was my favorite. It was amazing, even if it required a lot of walking. Looking at the churches were a close second. It reminded me of home.
- My Stepfather: The last day, when we walked up to the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, and we could see the 25 de Abril bridge. You could see the whole area all the way down. There was a guy playing guitar that added to the ambiance.
This is my list for the things you must do in Lisbon. But I want to hear from you.
What do you think is a must do in Lisbon?
* Starred Photos taken by Atma Photography
Editor: SKS (Son)