Nestled atop seven iconic hills and boasting panoramic views from over 17 official viewpoints (or miradouros), Lisbon paints an amphitheatrical picture of true urban beauty. But it’s rolling hills aren’t the only highs and lows that the Portuguese capital has seen. For a city that’s endured a catastrophic earthquake, dictatorship, financial crisis + a struggling economy, Lisbon has been catching it's second wind in recent years as it quickly becomes one of Europe’s hottest tourist destinations.
This gem sat atop my list of places to visit for a long while, but the desire became especially palpable after befriending Paula, a delightfully elegant + quintessentially Portuguese woman, on a boat in Croatia last summer. She spoke of her home with great affection and every detail from the cobbled alleyways to the sparkling sea to the vibrant tile façades romanced me (as did her delicious accent). So when Caitlin, Chelsea and I finally decided to pull the trigger on planning Portugal, naturally, she was my first call.
Thanks to my friend, I had the luxury of being lead through Lisbon by a true, born + raised local. While this city's growing popularity in the tourism world has revealed much that there is to see + do here, Paula's itinerary was brimming with well-kept secrets that haven't yet surfaced to the masses, along with knowledgable tips to survive the city. So settle in (perhaps with a glass of port wine?) and take notes, because this custom-curated itinerary isn't one you'll want to miss.
WHERE TO STAY
If you're wondering where to stay in Lisbon, Paula suggested we stay somewhere downtown. I truly can't say enough wonderful things about Casa Balthazar: the gated compound and small luxury boutique hotel that we got to call home. It was absolutely one of my favorite places I stayed on this particular European tour. The property only has 17 rooms total, which makes for an intimate + secluded oasis in the center of the city's action. Our room had spectacular views over the city (complete with a balcony + jacuzzi), while the interior was chic + contemporary yet luxurious + cozy.
All rooms and suites at Casa Balthazar include: a welcome bottle of wine, Nespresso coffee machine with capsules available, free wifi + cable and breakfast that's included in the price and served in the room.
The common areas are also stunning, whether you prefer the indoor lounge near reception or the sparkling outdoor pool. Another thing that impressed me was staff's impeccable attention to detail and how quickly they addressed all our questions and concerns. I loved retreating to this relaxing haven after running around the city all day, and I truly can't imagine not having stayed here. The value of what you get compared to the price tag seems like bank robbery to me, and I will absolutely stay here again the next time I'm in Lisbon!
WHAT TO DO
If you're wondering what to do in Lisbon, I can assure you that you won't run out of things to do! But there are a few things you you simply must add to your itinerary:
GET LOST IN THE STREETS + ADMIRE THE ARCHITECTURE
While there are so many actual attractions you need to pencil into your itinerary, be sure to leave yourself some time to get lost in the streets. Lisbon has some of the most beautiful architecture I've ever seen, and I loved wandering with no agenda to simply admire all of it. Some of my favorite areas we got lost in were right by our hotel (Casa Balthazar) and near Castelo de São Jorge.
BELÉM AREA FOR MUSEUMS + MONUMENTS
Along the Rio Tejo, the entire Belém area of Lisbon is bursting with things to see + do. Here you'll find lots of monuments and museums like Padrāo dos Descobrimentos, the Popular Art Museum, Cultural Center of Belem, the Maritime Musuem and dozens of others. One of the most visibly iconic is Torre de Belém (or the tower of Belém). This was built as a defense system to guard whoever was passing through Rio Tejo. Built in 1520 to resemble a castle (due to it's Muslim architectural influence), this landmark has become one of the most popular attractions in Lisbon, drawing over 700 thousand visitors a year (and now considered a Unesco World Heritage Site).
Some other sights to see along Rio Tejo? Head back toward downtown to see Praça do Comércio (the arch here has fantastic views of the city), Cais do Sodré (an area known for its night life) and Mercado Da Ribeira (an old market turned massive food hall).
RIDE THE ICONIC TRAM
A popular highlight of a Lisbon trip is a ride on the 28 tram, largely because of its route. This particular car passes through some of the finest districts (Baixa, Graça, Alfama and Estrela). While most visitors take it to climb to Castelo de São Jorge, a better option (or less crowded one, anyway) is to hop on the No. 12 in Praça da Figueira. Regardless of which route you opt to take, it's a fun option to get around the city if you want a break from taxis.
Castelo de São Jorge is exploding with history and offers sweeping views of the city. It was once a royal palace, but today it serves as a permanent exposition that educates on its rich history (admission is only €8,50). It's also home to a variety of unusual animals roaming the grounds, so keep an eye out for peacocks, cats and other fascinating critters. I'd recommend heading up here for sunset (time varies depending on the time of year you visit).
Need more items to fill your itinerary?
DAY TRIPS NEAR LISBON
WHERE (AND WHAT) TO EAT
Before I delve into where to eat or the best restaurants in Lisbon, let's discuss what traditional Portuguese dishes you need to try while visiting. I was quickly immersed in the local cuisine immediately upon my arrival, as Paula invited me in for a home-cooked Portuguese meal. We ate delicious duck rice (followed by many pastéis de nata) and she told me the things I simply must try:
- COD: Because of it's proximity to the sea, codfish (bacalhau in Portuguese) is a way of life here. It's traditionally consumed on Christmas Eve, but that doesn't stop the locals from serving it up any old day. There are hundreds of ways to prepare it + I'd suggest trying as many as you can.
- PASTÉIS DE NATA: These little delicacies (custard tarts) were invented by monks in Lisbon back before the 18th century and can be found all over the city. They will melt in your mouth and are best served with a sprinkle of powdered sugar and cinnamon.
- CARNE DE PORCO ALENTEJANA: A Portuguese spin on surf + turf, this pork dish is cooked with clams + served with potatoes.
- ALCATRA: This is essentially an expensive meat cut (think beef so tender you can eat it without a knife). It is especially popular in the Azores archipelago, but can be found all over Lisbon as well.
- PORTUGUESE WINE: I'll elaborate more on this in my Porto blog (coming soon!) but it's worth discussing here as well. Portugal has been a major wine exporter since the Roman Empire, and there are a few different kinds you should be sure to try: 1. A light + fresh vinho verde (or "green wine). 2. A heavy + meaty red from Duoro Valley and of course (most famously) 3. Port wine, best served with or as dessert.
You simply can't visit Lisbon without consuming as many pastéis de nata (traditional Portuguese custard tarts) as you can. If you hear a bell ring near Praça Luís de Camões, hurry over to Manteigaria because that means a fresh batch just came out of the oven + a line of people will soon form. You'll see these treats all over the city, but the best that I had were from here.
While in the Belém area, we had an amazing lunch on the patio by Rio Tejo at Cafeteria Message, the restaurant at Altis Belém hotel. This is another stunning property that would be a great place to stay if you prefer to be on the waterfront and close to the action, but not right in the center of downtown. Everything from the pool to the spa to the rooms are chic, modern and luxurious. Even if you don't stay here, you should definitely come for a nice meal at the restaurant or a drink at the bar (which boasts beautiful views of the Ponte de Abril 25- the iconic bridge in Lisbon that resembles the Golden Gate). Looking to try a traditional Portuguese dish? Go for the cod!
Paula took Caitlin and I here for dinner on our first night in Lisbon. The room was exploding with energy and seemed to be filled mostly with locals who were trying Joseé Avillez's newest establishment (he also owns several other restaurants in the Chiado area as well- a couple boasting Michelin stars). You can dine in the Taberna for more of a tapas style experience or on the patio for more of a proper sit down meal. We let Paula order for us and simply asked for some traditional Portuguese food. Truth be told, I don't remember all the specific menu items (largely because she ordered and it was all in Portuguese) but I do know that literally everything that touched the table was delicious. Both the cod and picanha especially blew. my. mind.
Large local markets are one of my favorite things to find while traveling (you've likely heard me speak of Borough Market in London, Boqueria in Barcelona or Mercato Centrale in Florence to name a few). This food hall fits right in with the others, offering individual vendors who serve everything from custard tarts to sardines to wine to chocolate. Whatever you're in the mood for, there will be plenty of options to choose from (I'd recommend popping in for lunch and trying a few different things!) If you prefer more of a traditional dining experience, some of the top chefs in Lisbon have restaurants here, and next to the food hall is the market where you can pick out fresh fish, fruits and vegetables if you feel like whipping up something yourself back at your flat.
Looking for more options than I already listed above? Some other spots worth considering include:
ROOFTOP DRINKS WITH VIEWS
TIPS FOR MAKING THE MOST OF THE CITY
- VISIT THE FIRST SUNDAY OF THE MONTH: If you're on a budget, you can get free entry to dozen's of the city's museums + monuments (including Torre de Belém, Museu do Azulejo or Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) if you happen to be in town the first Sunday of the month.
- AVOID TAXI LINES AT THE AIRPORT: I was fortunate enough to have Paula pick me up when I landed, but the line/queue for a taxi was long. To avoid this, take an escalator upstairs to departures where you can easily snag one right away + get to exploring the city sooner.
- TAXIS (AND UBER) ARE RELIABLE + CHEAP: While on the topic of taxis, we didn't even bother with public transportation (which I usually do to save money) because we realized how easy + cheap it was to take a cab/Uber. Cab prices don't fluctuate much (charges start at €3,25 during the day and only go up to €3,90 at night) but just keep an eye out for Uber surge pricing, which can occasionally impact the price enough to make you opt for a cab.
- VISIT IN SPRING TO SEE JACARANDA TREES IN BLOOM: One of my favorite things about the time of year we visited (May) was the beautiful Jacaranda blooming in trees everywhere around us. As if Lisbon weren't already vibrant enough, these purple blooms add even more bursts of color to make the city feel even more magical.
Lisbon was even more wonderful than I could have ever imagined it would be. In hindsight, I wish I had way more time here than I allocated (you truly need at least 4 days to see and do everything you should), but I have no doubt that I'll be back. Not only was the city bursting with beauty + countless things to do, what made it especially meaningful to me was spending time with the people I was with. Paula, Caitlin + Chelsea are all friends I've made in the last year while traveling in Europe, and it was so cool to come together and celebrate our shared passion in a place as lovely as Lisbon. I can't wait for the next set of memories that come from here.
Still more you want to know about planning a trip to Lisbon? Let me know in the comments below! Stay tuned for more about Portugal on the blog in the coming weeks- I still have two more magical destinations to cover!
Thanks for stopping by!