Lisbon is the capital of Portugal and one of the most captivating cities that I have ever visited. Sitting along the shores of the Tagus River, Lisbon is divided into several districts, each with its own individual appeal.
For those seeking to travel to a cost-effective European city with an amazing climate, friendly people and with a rich gastronomy, Lisbon should be on your next itinerary.
Exploring the Hills of Alfama
Considered one of Lisbon’s main attractions, Castelo de São Jorge overlooks the hilly district of Alfama. The area was spared from the city’s 1775 earthquake maintaining its winding, narrow historical streets.
The castle was the main residence of Portugal’s monarchs for centuries and visitors can walk inside its fortification while enjoying breathtaking views of Lisbon.
The best part of Alfama to us was not São Jorge’s Castle, but rather arriving to it: There are several shops, restaurants and historical buildings as you go up its hilly streets. We visited Sé de Lisboa, the city’s main cathedral and Igreja de Santo António de Lisboa, best known for St. Anthony’s crypt.
The highlight of the district is the Miraduro de Santa Luzia, one of several viewpoints throughout Lisbon, offering panoramic views of Alfama as well as the Tagus River.
The Iconic, Busy Streets of the Lower Neighborhood
Featuring grid-style streets that connect to lively, open squares, Baixa is the business district of Lisbon.
One of Lisbon’s most important squares, Praça de D. Pedro IV, is located in Baixa and it is also a great starting spot for exploring the city. Nicknamed Rossio, because of the railway station located nearby, the plaza is surrounded by a busy commerce and several historical buildings.
Streets, Avenues and sights… stop by these spots as you explore Rossio Square:
Estação do Rossio: You don’t have to enter this railway station to enjoy it; just take a quick walk in front it to marvel its stunning Manueline façade.
Take a quick glimpse inside Igreja de São Domingos and a stroll along Rua das Portas de Santo Antão. The restaurants that line this busy street can be quite touristy and their dishes are most likely not the best ones you will find in the city. Enjoy a peaceful stroll and the numerous waiters trying to lure you into their restaurants.
Avenida da Liberdade: If you relish boutique shopping, especially high end, head to this mile long avenue.
- Rua Augusta and Praça do Comércio: Leading away from Rossio square, Rua Augusta is a major commercial and pedestrian street in Lisbon. After you cross its iconic arch stone, you will reach the vast Praça do Comércio, facing the Tagus River.
Tip: If going out at night is your thing, Lisbon is a great place to do so. In mid-September, we went out nearly every night. Almost every evening, a cool breeze moved into town and the street’s yellow lights shimmered off the cobble stones that pave Rua Augusta.
What to See in Lisbon’s Historical District: Belém
Located 15 minutes from central Lisbon, Belém is a hot spot for tourists due to its role during Portugal’s golden age of discovery and maritime exploration.
If you are interest in history, Belém still retains many of its historical monuments and grand plazas that once made this area a refuge for the elite who wanted to escape the poverty within Lisbon.
Tip: When heading to Belém, wake up early to beat the crowds that arrive on big tour buses. Tram 15 is an option if you want to use public transportation or you can catch a 15 minute cab ride - we found cabs to be a cheap and an easy way to navigate throughout Lisbon; most of our drivers were welcoming and willing to talk about the history of their city.
Best known for its stunning celebration of Manueline architecture, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is the highlight of the district and the final resting place of explorer Vasco da Gama.
If you are in luck, you will be able to see the mounted National Guard during one of its ceremonial parades in front of the immense building.
Tip: The Museu Nacional dos Coches or Coach Museum, was one of our favorites in town and it is a must go for those looking forward to see an impressive collection of royal carriages!
One cannot go to Belém and forget to walk along its extensive boardwalk that follows the Tagus River. You can reach it by taking an underground passageway located nearby the Jeronimos Monastery.
Along the walkway, you can visit the district’s famous Discoveries Monument, celebrating the age of exploration and also see Belém Tower, a fortress that once served as a starting point to many Portuguese voyages.
Chiado and Bairro Alto: Connected, Yet Distinct
Known as a lively commercial district, Chiado borders Bairro Alto or high neighborhood, recognized for its nightlife, numerous bars and its several Fado houses (traditional Portuguese music establishments).
Both districts can be easily reached from Baixa and the touristy way to do so is by taking the Elevador de Santa Justa. This elevator fits a large number of riders, taking them to the top of the hilly Chiado while offering stunning views of Lisbon and Castelo de São Jorge.
For curiosity sake, we took the elevator just once, but later discovered two different ways to reach Chiado and one of them involves ice-cream:
To reach Chiado from Baixa just take Rua do Carmo and walk until you reach Rua Garrett. Rua do Carmo houses the delicious Santini Ice-cream shop, serving a plethora of flavors!
- The most direct way to reach Chiado is by going through a covered mall that is connected to Rua Garrett. You can easily go back and forth between both districts by utilizing the mall’s escalators.
Chiado’s main sight is Museu Arqueológico do Carmo, located next to Santa Justa’s elevator exit. The museum is the remnant gothic ruins of a medieval convent destroyed in the city’s 1775 earthquake.
Tip: If you enjoy churches, do not miss Igreja de São Roque. The church is best known for its baroque chapels; especially its fourth one to the left, reportedly the world's most expensive.
Nearby the church is my favorite viewpoint in the city: Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara. It offers stunning views of the city, a well-kept garden as well as ample sitting area.
The best thing we found to do in Chiado was exploring its busy streets: Walk along Rua Garrett, a commercial street that connects to Bairro Alto and enjoy the always eventful, Praça Luís de Camões.
Also Consider These Additional Spots:
These sights were not originally in our itinerary, but became some of our most memorable in Lisbon:
- Museu Nacional do Azulejo: Once you enter the tile museum, you will soon discover that it was originally a former convent. Still housing a magnificent golden Baroque chapel, the museum displays a vast collection of tile designs and tells the history of tile making in Portugal.
Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora: Besides a visit to its impressive cloisters and the tombs of several Portuguese kings, visitors can go to the top of the immense monastery and enjoy a 360 degree view of Lisbon.
- Parque das Nações: This revitalized and modern area of Lisbon almost made me feel I was visiting Miami. Besides the Lisbon Aquarium, visitors can explore the contemporary neighborhood and head inside the busy Vasco da Gama Mall.
KEEP IN MIND
The Wrap-Up: I must admit that my original intention for this trip was to take my Brazilian parents to a city they have always wanted to visit. However, my trip to Lisbon as well as to the rest of Portugal has become one of the best European trips I have ever taken! If you are thinking of visiting Lisbon, try to stay at least three days. If you can, add another day and head to nearby Sintra to visit its palaces and stunning landscape.
The Hotel: Lisbon Short Stay is a comfortable, modern hotel located in the heart of Lisbon. When we travel, we prefer to stay in B&Bs since they offer more amenities for a lesser price. However, in central Lisbon, we found many hotels to be reasonably priced compared to other European Capitals.
The Bakeries in Central Lisbon: Try the famous Confeitaria National and Pastelaria Suiça. At Pastelaria Suiça we had one of Portugal’s traditional Pasteis (small custard treats) and in Confeitaria National, we tried some of their uniquely decorated sweets.
The Bakery in Belém: Go to Antiga Confeitaria de Belém! This is the best place in Lisbon to eat the delicious Pastel de Belém. While in Lisbon, locals kept suggesting that we try the iconic treat at Confeitaria de Belém because they are considered the best in the country – just keep in mind that the place can get really busy!
The Restaurants: Try to find restaurants off–the-beaten-path, away from Lisbon’s main tourist drags. A good street we found is Cruzes da Sé which is lined with little restaurants. Cruzes Credo Restaurant has a comfortable atmosphere, great tapas plates and a good beer selection. An alley around the corner called Travessa do Almargem, has a few great options as well. Almargem is a simple and delicious local restaurant - its steak on stone and coffee steak were yummy and they also offer a good fish menu.
The Sweet Shop: As Marias Com Chocolate was a great find! We accidentally ran into it while exploring Alfama, but it can be easily found tucked into a revitalized warehouse next to the city’s Pantheon. They sell everything from traditional chocolate balls, carrot cakes, cookies, assorted chocolate and hot chocolate.
The Famous Coffee Shop: Café A Brasileira is located in Chiado. One of the oldest cafés in Lisbon, it is considered to be the first to sell the “bica”, a small cup of strong coffee. “Bica” is the way you order coffee in Lisbon. Just say “Uma bica, se faz favor!” and you will get a small traditional cup of joe.
Lisboa Card: The card gives discounts on museums, attractions and covers the cost of public transportation during its validation period. We did not use the card any other time besides the day we visited the district of Belém - it allowed us to visit most monuments for free and skip right into the entrance. You can purchase it online before arriving in Lisbon and pick it up in one of the city’s Tourism Offices.
- Want to see the full trip and plan your next? Check out our Portugal Two Week Itinerary!