What to Do in Lisbon: A Quick Guide
Have you got a penchant for splendid shopping avenues, romantic restaurants nestled in quaint alleys and day trips from the city? Here's what to do in Lisbon
With its Roman ruins, medieval towers and ecclesiastical treasures, Lisbon is one of Europe’s oldest cities… and your knees will feel just as ancient after trekking up and down the crumbling alleys of its hilly historic centre. The coastal city (everyone is super proud that it’s Europe’s westernmost capital) is swimming in scrumptious seafood, with traditional eateries carved into the bumpy topography. Its trams and trains make it a great base for exploring scenic Sintra, while, closer to home, the cable car provides marvellous views of the sprawling, undulating city and the Tagus River.
So, what to do in Lisbon? You’ll likely have a flawless trip with the following tips, as long as you don’t get involved in an argument between Benfica and Sporting Lisbon football fans. They call it the fiercest rivalry in Portugal for good reason.
Admire the Architecture
Gothic, baroque and postmodern: Lisbon may sound like a grumpy teenager, but its diverse architecture is like a window into the city’s past. Traces of the Romans are alive and well in the form of the Roman Theater’s surviving columns. Climb the hills of the historic centre to look down at the jumble of red gabled roofs that characterise the city. Lisbon also has an eye on the future, with the curved maritime design of the Oriente Station and the curved roof of the Pavilion of Portugal among the standouts. All about those curves. Keeping up with the curvaceous concept is the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, which looks like a futuristic spaceship that came down to earth to teach us about Lisbon’s architecture. Now, that’s postmodern.
Get your cork on
Hey, do you like cork? Well, Lisbon is bathing in the rubbery (is it rubber?) stuff. No longer satisfied with using it for plugging wine bottles, specialty boutiques skirting the corridors of the Chiado and Bairro Alto districts have fashioned luxury handbags, jackets, shoes and more out of the rubber phellem layer of bark tissue material. Fancy a cork mug? Or what about a cork rucksack or even a sculpture or musical instrument? Portugal produces around half of the substance worldwide, so if you want a souvenir to remember your trip, just make sure to put a cork in it.
Know the biggies
Simply admiring the architecture and getting your cork on isn’t enough to convince your future self that you actually explored the city during your stay. It’s time to hit up the big attractions. The 16th-century Belém Tower is the one on all the postcards. It’s known for its gothic Manueline design and its role as the departure point for Portuguese explorers. The Jerónimos Monastery is just a 15-minute walk away, right by the tram stop in the Santa Maria de Belém zone. Hanging over the historic centre is the hilltop Castelo de S. Jorge, while the Praça do Comércio makes for a triumphant main square.
Forget the centuries-old argument of football vs soccer. Here, the futebol (charmingly pronounced fu-chee-bow in the Brazilian dialect) debate rages over Benfica, Sporting Lisbon, and how quickly wearing each club’s colours will get you hanged, drawn and quartered by opposing fans (or at least, preclude you from frequenting particular bars and restaurants). That said, you’ll find several official stores for both clubs in the city centre, and there’s nothing quite like attending the local derby at (in no particular order) Sporting’s Estádio José Alvalade or Benfica’s Estádio da Luz. The rivalry dates back to 1907, so it’s worth catching.
The historic centre, or the Bairro Alto (as the Portuguese insist on calling it) is both figuratively and literally breath-taking. Luckily, some vintage funiculars are still active, chugging up narrow alleys flanked by colourful façades and allowing you to laugh at your one stubborn family member who insisted on walking up the side steps. Once at the top, you’ll find all manner of bohemian cafés and fine dining options. Soak up the culture with some live fado music.
The kids will only put up with the hilly alleys of the historic centre for so long. And let’s face it, your legs are gone. Win parent points and pretend you’re doing the little gremlins a favour, by visiting the modern and spacious Parque das Naçoes district. The Oceanário de Lisboa is an aquarium sheltering fearsome sharks, some of which are a match for the kids. Next-door lies the hands-on Pavilhão do Conhecimento science museum. If that’s not enough to keep them happy, just take the adjacent cable car up into the sky and threaten to throw them off take in the awe-inspiring vistas of the Tagus River and the Vasco da Gama Bridge.
Planning what to do in Lisbon can vary with the seasons, but the food is exceptional all year round. So you may as well get accustomed with the local delicacies. Try the bacalhau à bras, a codfish and scrambled egg meal (what?). Polish it off with some pastéis de nata, which is like custard in pastry. Look, they’re good, you’re just going to have to trust us.
Sintra and the Beach
Escape the city centre with a day trip to Sintra, one of the best places to see near Lisbon. Just outside the city, this fairytale setting is fit for Disney royalty with its hilly forests, colourful edifices and majestic castles. You’ll enjoy picturesque views from the 19th-century Pena National Palace, while the Sintra National Palace has remarkable tile work and a Maneuline design. Continue southwest for glorious sandy beaches, including Praia do Guincho and the Praia de Carcavelos.