Living in New Jersey meant that I had a decent number of Portuguese friends. They raced their bikes on Route 21, played billiards, and they’d go to Newark’s Portuguese area to eat delicious shrimp in garlic sauce. Still, my understanding of Portugal did not come to where it needed to be until I started working in the wine industry. It was then that I learned about the country, its people, and its gorgeous wines. This year, instead of going to France for the whole Summer, Antonio and I decided to spend a little time in Portugal. I am thrilled that we came and I am already planning my return. In case you’re not familiar with Lisboa (Lisbon), it is the capital of Portugal and sits on the Atlantic Ocean, which was a great advantage to the city in its beginnings. Today, I’ll give you a view into Portugal’s capital and a list of things to do in Lisbon, my favorite city.
Things to Do in Lisbon
Lisbon is a hilly city. Like Rome and Istanbul, it is defined by seven hills. While the temperature has been mild this June (around 75-80 Fahrenheit), you will work up a sweat as you walk up and down the hills. It is much cooler at the top of the hills where there are great lookouts known as Miradouros, these are great spots to meet some locals and enjoy an ice cold Imperial (that’s a 20 cl measure of beer, no matter what brand).
The first time we visited, we were there in June, which is known for the Festas de Lisboa. The feasts celebrate the patron saint, Santo António (Saint Anthony). The entire month has a schedule of concerts, artist exhibits, theater and much more. To our chagrin, we missed the feast of the 12th. We were told this is the best party with people grilling sardines on the street, drinking beer, and dancing throughout the city. That being said, you can pick any day of the week and walk through the Mouraria neighborhood and find a mom and pop restaurant selling these and many other tasty bites.
There’s no need to worry if you don’t speak Portuguese, mostly everyone speaks perfect English. Still, it can’t hurt to take a crash course on Memrise or to download an app called WordUp Portuguese (make sure to pick up the Iberian – not Brazilian version). The app will cost you $2.99 but it has every basic phrase you need to know. Now that you have the basics, here’s what we experienced, loved and learned about Lisboa.
THINGS TO DO IN LISBON
The kiosks are the heart of Lisboa and thankfully for us, they have been recently revived from what seemed like extinction. They are fantastic spots to stop at while you explore the city, to meet locals after work, or just lovely places to grab a book and people watch. These are seriously wonderful and the best part is that they can be found everywhere throughout the city. Food and drink is usually pretty cheap at the kiosks with a beer costing anywhere between €0.80 and €1.50.
Go to Graça Church
Not too far from Castelo Sao Jorge, on the hill that marks the Graça neighborhood is Graça Church and convent. The original church was pretty much destroyed during the big earthquake in 1755. The current structure was built in 1721 in the Baroque style. The tile work is outstanding and the individual azulejos (tiles) date from the 16th & 17th Century. Don’t miss out on the Senhor dos Passos. It is the figure of Christ with his crown of thorns in royal porphyry purple carrying the cross. He resides in the transept and is kept company by the figure of (who I assume to be) the Virgin Mary. I was told he is taken out yearly for the Lent procession. Definitely spend a good amount of time in this church. Once you’re done being wowed by the amazing tile work in the church, step outside for a gorgeous view of the city at the Miradouro da Graça. From there, you can take some amazing panoramas that include the castle and Lisbon. There are also tables there and kiosks where you can buy a little pick-me-up. Take Tram 28 to reach the hill if you’re not up to the walk.
Panteão Nacional 4€ – free Sundays to 2pm
This church, also known as Church of Santa Engrácia, sits on the site of an older church that was taken down when it was robbed in 1630. The church bears resemblance to Peruzzi’s St. Peter’s plans (which were based on Bramante’s Greek Cross plan – which was never executed). The church was finished in 1966. Santa Engrácia is now a pantheon, a monument to the gods because it serves as the resting place of many prominent people including presidents, writer Almeida Garrett, and the famed Fadoista, Amalia Rodrigues. When we went, there was a sculpture exhibit and fado playing in the background. Outside of the gorgeous architecture (domed ceilings, inlaid marble), I loved the rooftop terrace. It boasts a gorgeous view of the Tejo river and the Feira da Ladra. I loved this spot. I only wish they’d open an outdoor bar there, maybe a few nights a week with some classical music just like they do in the building’s interior.
Panteão Nacional is located at: Campo de Santa Clara 1100-471 Lisboa, Portugal
Hours: Open daily (except Mondays) 10am-5pm (6pm from May to September).
Castelo de Sao Jorge €8.50
It took me until almost the end of my trip to make it to Castelo Sao Jorge. I would have been a fool to miss it. This site is not a “castle” the way you may think. It is not Versailles and I never expected it to be. This is a monument to the history of Lisbon and Portugal. It is awe inspiring and complete workout. I warn that this is not the best site for everyone. One needs to be in good physical condition, be kind of a history geek (not necessary – but it helps), and kids may not work well with this site. Since it is a little perilous in some spots. That being said, the Castle of St. George in Lisbon has the most spectacular views in the city and is not to be missed. Click here for a more in depth look at the Castelo.
Castelo Sao Jorge is located at R. de Santa Cruz do Castelo, 1100-129 Lisboa, Portugal
Hours: Daily from 9am-9pm
Igreja and Museu Sao Roque Principe Real/Bairro Alto €2.50
What may be the most unassuming exterior leads to one of the most ostentatious church I’ve seen (and I’ve seen lots of churches). One really gets the scope of the power and wealth Portugal had. Adjacent to the church is a lovely little museum with some choice pieces. It’s not the biggest church or museum, so you’ll be able to do a lighter art day. From here you are a short walk away to Bairro alto, Principe Real, The Port Museum, and The Miradouro de Sao Pedro De Alcantara.
Igreja and Museu Sao Roque is located at Largo Trindade Coelho
Hours: Monday Closed, Tue-Wed 10AM–6PM, Thursday 2–9PM, Fri-Sun 10AM–6PM
Get Lost & Check Out Amazing Graffiti (free if you do it on your own or you can take a tour)
You can do this anywhere in the city, but the Mouraria has some amazing (and I mean amazing) street art. Yes, you will see the shitty, crappy graffiti that I hate as well, but most of the street art in the city is simply jaw dropping. The Cronos Project is responsible for quite a large number of these pieces. The project was created between artists and the city of Portugal to liven up many of the city’s abandoned buildings. There are even graffiti tours, but I say, get lost and make it a day of discovery. It will feel even more special as you find these jewels yourself.
This park has it all: amazing sculpture, a HUGE greenhouse (deserves a day to itself), peacocks, food, and a great view of the city. Bring comfortable shoes and sunscreen and prepare to spend a good amount of time here. A big tip is to venture away from the center of the park. This is where you will find all those jewels that make the park so very special. The park is free, entry to other spots in the park have a nominal fee.
Listen to Fado
Apologies for the crappy video quality. Fado is to Portugal what the blues are to the US. It’s origins are murky, but it is said to have started with the songs of sad and lonely sailors. Fado became the music of Lisbon in the early 20th century and thrived during the dictatorship of Salazar. Fadistas sang their sorrows in the Alfama and Mouraria neighborhoods. Your typical Fado trio is a singer, a classic guitar (called a viola), and a Portuguese Guitar. The most renowned Fadoistas of the time were Alfredo Marceneiro, Amalia Rodrigues, Maria Teresa de Noronha and Armandinho and Jaime Santos. If you’re interested, there’s a great documentary on Amalia. The songs of fado are filled with saudade, a longing for dreams that will never come true. The music is beautiful in its tragedy. There are plenty of places to catch a Fado show, but if you walk around the Alfama, you’re likely to catch a free show put on by a local bar owner for free or local spots like some noted below:
Arcaz Velho: Calcada do Forte, 56 – We ended up going here because Bela did not have live music on our first Fado night (I ended up missing Bela due to my early departure. I was told this is the best place for Fado – so if you get a chance to – check it out). The place is divided into a bar and a restaurant. If you choose to sit at the restaurant, you can pay 25€ per person. This includes an entire meal with wine AND the Fado show. The meal was fantastic. It included the couvert (bread & olives), caldo verde, mushroom salad, green salad, Bacalhau à Brás (Cod & potatoes), chorizo, potatoes, AND dessert. The service was incredible, the wine quite nice, and we listened to two amazing Fado singers. I would highly recommend Arcaz Velho for Fado and for a lovely meal.
A Tasquina: Largo Contador Mor, 5/6/7 – Ran across this place on our walk home from the Feira da Ladra in the Alfama to our apartment near the Castelo. The butterscotch sounds of fado drew us in for a nice cold Super Bock. Can’t say anything about the food, but the Fado that played was gorgeous. Two singers took turns and our beers were merely 1€. Something tells me we’ll be going back before we leave Lisboa.
Listen to Music: Besides Fado, Lisboa is filled with music. The video above is music from a free live show on the street. There’s Optimus Alive with bands like Faith No More, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam. There’s also Out Jazz which goes on from May to September in various locations throughout the city. If you’re a music lover, Lisboa is for you.
Party in Bairro Alto: Right off the Chiado metro station and up the hill is Bairro Alto. This 16th Century neighborhood has been the place for artists, poets for quite a long time. It’s a maze of bars, restaurants, and revelers. We stumbled upon it at night and saw bachelorette parties, people dressed as bull fighters and bulls, hot messes, and lots of porqueria sellers (tchotkes like neon sun glasses, single roses, etc). There’s also some great live music there (free). Go and have a blast. This is a party like no other. If you want to really check out the neighborhood, go during the day. It is much quieter…and outside of its party-hardy reputation, there is some lovely architecture here as well.
Martini Terraza Party: Avenida da Liberdade 36 – Each Wednesday at 8pm, about two blocks from the Hard Rock Cafe, you will see a huge line. Get on it. It’s a party thrown by Bacardi & Martini & Rossi on a gorgeous rooftop. There are free drinks, free food, a gorgeous view, beautiful Portuguese people and an unparalleled view of the city. Just when you start feeling a little buzzed, ladies with trays of pregos (beef steak sandwiches) come out. Dress to impress and have a blast.
LISBON TRAVEL TIPS
1. Footwear: Wear comfortable shoes. The streets are made of mosaics and stones. This means that high heels can get caught on the crevices, and that your back will take a hit. Opt for flats or wedge heels, or comfortable (but not ugly) walking shoes. Also, make sure the soles have grip, the stones can be slippery.
2. Clothing: Wear breathable fabrics like cotton, and silk. The weather is mild, but it does get hot when you walk. Bring a sweater as there are big dips in temperature at night.
3. Water: Hydration is key, so make sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day.
4. Sunscreen: But this I recommend anywhere you go.
5. Couvert: Food in Lisbon is quite inexpensive when compared to NYC. There is one caveat, the couvert. In the US we are used to things like bread and olives being complimentary. In Lisbon, when a server brings you things like bread, cheese, or olives that you did not order, you are expected to pay for them. This is a couvert and can cost anywhere from 1-15€ depending on where you are. If you don’t want a surprise on your bill, simply ask “quanto e isso?” to find out the cost.
6. WordUp Portuguese App: One of the best language apps out there. It has all the basic phrases, and you can click to hear the pronunciation. Best $2.99 I’ve spent.
7. Don’t Stay in Bairro Alto: Party in Bairro Alto, drink in Bairro Alto, dine in Bairro Alto, but don’t stay there. It’s a great neighborhood, but if you need to get any sleep at all, this is not the right neighborhood for it. Bars are open until 2am and partiers are quite rowdy.
8. Phone & Internet: First thing I used do when I travel to any country is pick up a SIM card. It allowed me to connect with Antonio & with whatever else I need to. It’s also invaluable to have internet connection (so that I can navigate the city without a tourist guide). Luckily, T-Mobile has an awesome international plan now, so my US phone works in Portugal. If you don’t have an international plan, in Lisboa you have a few options. One of them is Vodafone. There are two locations downtown. I went to the one at Praça D. Pedro IV, nº 4 e 5. It’s right off the Rossio metro station and EVERYONE there speaks English. Just beware. If you get internet and phone, your phone credits are used towards internet. So ask them to pay the extra $20 for phone. $20 bucks got me through a whole 14 days of Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and Instagram. There is also LycaMobile, but I did not test them out. LycaMobile sims are sold at the Lisbon Tourism Bureau at the Praca do Comercio. These cards can be used in other countries in Europe, but you will pay roaming charges – so keep that in mind.
9. Chipped Visa/Mastercard: Before you head to Lisboa, ask your credit card company to send you a chipped card. It will make your life much easier. Also…make sure to bring a Visa/Mastercard. Businesses in Lisbon usually don’t take American Express, so if this is your primary card, make sure to bring an alternative.
10. Tipping: You don’t have to tip in Lisbon, but I say – why not. The food is so inexpensive here, that we dropped a few Euros with every meal.
GETTING TO LISBON
Planes: This was our preferred mode of transportation since we came in from NYC. We had a delay (what else is new), the food on our United flight was crummy – but we finally reached our destination. Since Lisbon is Portugal’s capital, it is blessed with the largest international airport in the country; Aeroporto da Portela (LIS). The airport is lovely. It is clean, new, and easy to navigate.
Once you arrive, you have various ways to get into the city proper:
—Subway (Metro): A subway ride to downtown (Baixa-Chiado) stop will cost you just 1.40€.
—Uber: You all know I love Uber. Unfortunately, Portuguese cabbies do not. When you get to the airport, just make sure you’re not in direct view of the taxis when you order your Uber. I find that the drivers are much nicer and the fares cheaper when you use Uber than when you take a regular cab.
—Rental Cars: There are plenty to choose from: Avis, Europcar, Enterprise, Guerin, Hertz, Budget, and Goldcar. —Taxis: Be careful with the taxi drivers, some (not all) are known to scam tired tourists. Make sure they do not take the bridge to the city center. Our taxi ride took about 10 minutes (to the Castelo neighborhood) and cost less than 12€.
WHERE TO STAY IN LISBON
We found a sweet apartment via Airbnb. It’s a two bedroom, one bath with an incredible view. It cost us $80USD per night and so far, it has been great. Nuno has been a spectacular host, so if you go, don’t hesitate to stay with him. He met us at the airport, booked our taxi, showed us around the apartment, and gave us tons of tips for the city. At the apartment, he had a bottle of Portuguese wine, pasteis de Natas, and delicious queijo amanteigado. If you like his apartment and end up booking – I would not be upset if you used my affiliate link, it gets me a $25 travel credit 😉
Luis’ apartment is not in a touristy area of Lisbon. If you stay here, you will be among Alfacinhos. The area is more quiet, so it may seem as if there are less things to do, but you’re a quick walk to Principe Real, Estrela, and Campo de Ourique. This is a brand new apartment, so everything works. You’ll be super comfortable. The apartment had a large deck where you can have wine every night as well.
This apartment is all about location. It’s a few minutes walk to all the hot spots in Principe Real. It was clean, comfortable, and had a deck that gave us a view of the Parliament. The plus to the apartment was that it had a washing machine and an elevator.
NEED MORE TIPS?
If you need more specific suggestions on things to do in Lisbon, where to stay, etc…just leave a note in the comments and I’ll get back to you.
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