Only hours into our week in Lisbon and I was hooked. I sometimes struggle in busy cities where the crowds and the noise and the traffic threaten to overwhelm you at every turn, but in Lisbon I found myself falling in love with the place because of its chaos. There’s something to do or see or smell everywhere you turn in Lisbon (the smell of Pasteis de Nata – or Portuguese tarts – is out of this world amazing) and its easy to get lost for hours exploring the streets that twist and turn their way around the city. From the winding old town of Alfama where comfy shoes are a must, to the bustling tourist-filled areas of Chiado and Rossio or the pulsating streets of Bairro Alto, where more than 250 bars, cafes and restaurants are crammed into a few tiny streets, Lisbon is an absolute feast for the senses.
Our stay in Lisbon absolutely flew by. Seven days felt like an instant, disappearing down cobblestoned streets, in pastelarias and up and around Lisbon’s many hills (Lisbon is known as the city of seven hills for a reason).We rented a cosy apartment in Bairro Alto for a week, planning for a lazy few days after the action in Spain (eating all the tapas is tiring work). But the instant we arrived in Lisbon, our instincts were to get exploring and discover the hidden treasures scattered around the city.
We quickly gave up trying to master the map of Lisbon, for despite being rebuilt after a massive earthquake in 1755, the city doesn’t follow modern European rules with wide avenues and logical blocks – instead it prefers tiny tangled alleys where cars and pedestrians (and diners and drinkers) spill onto the street, jostling for space. We wandered through the central areas of the city where big European brands sit side by side with tiny Portuguese bars packed with locals, searching out the many beautiful tiled buildings which add to the city’s sense of vibrancy and chao combined.
Some of our favourites spots in Lisbon
Manteigaria – this tiny pastelarias in Praca Luis de Camoes sold the BEST Portuguese tarts I’ve ever tasted, including the originals that tourists still travel to taste in Belem. Best served with a generous sprinkle of cinnamon and an espresso. I’d know, as this was my daily routine for the week we were in Lisbon!
Alfama – the oldest part of Lisbon, Alfama was the only area to survive the 1755 earthquake relatively unscathed. The area is even more hilly than the rest of the city (if that’s possible) so we while we didn’t love the seemingly endless staircases and uphill climbs, the views from the top were worth it. Jardim Augusto Gil is one of the best spots to enjoy sunset over the city, with a terraced area and one of Lisbon’s signature green kiosks serving drinks and snacks, with buskers adding to the ambiance of the area. Alfama is home to a lot of the city’s street art, one of the most iconic scenes is hidden in the tiny alleyways of Escadinhas de São Cristóvão just off Rua de Madalena which borders the main Rossio / Chiado area. Lisbon’s Fiera de Ladra, or Thieves Market is also held every Saturday in Campo de Santa Clara in Alfama. While we didn’t walk away with any bargains, the markets wind through some great spots in the area, giving you views of beautiful buildings and overlooking the Lisbon city area.
Cais do Sodre – The area around Cais do Sodre train station is another one worth exploring. Previously a bit of a seedy area, Lisbon has been slowly reinvigorating the suburb and its now home to lots of cool cafes and bars. It is also where you will find Pink Street – I read somewhere that they literally just painted a small section of the road pink to attract tourists, and its clearly worked because I fell for the beautiful colour combinations of the pink street, blue buildings and bright yellow bridge that make for a perfect picture (and a good spot to stop for a drink). Cais do Sodre is also where you’ll find the Time Out Market – a fresh food market and fancy food court in one. We had lunch here a few times and it was a great way to sample a range of Portuguese foods all in one place.
Bairro Alto – our home for the week, Bairro Alto was the best place to find a delicious dinner in one of the many restaurants or a few drinks (and some new friends) on the streets. Anything goes in Bairro Alto so it wasn’t unusual to find picnic blankets and cushions laid out in lieu of tables or more people standing outside a bar than inside. Bairro Alto probably wasn’t the best place for a bit of R&R but it was fun to find a different party on each corner when the area came alive after 8pm each night.
Rua Garrett – One of the main streets in Lisbon, Rua Garrett takes you all the way from Praca Luis de Camoes (and Manteigaria) down to Rossio and the main avenues of Lisbon. The pedestrian street is lined with cafes and shops, street hawkers and buskers making it one of the most lively and interesting in the city. If you follow it all the way down and around to Rossio, the city’s only flat area is laid out before you to explore and you can easily visit most of the main monuments including the Convento do Carmo, one of the few structures in the central area to survive the 1755 earthquake, losing its roof but retaining is beautiful archways and walls which still stand.
Nearby, the Elevador do Carmo is a great spot to take in the city, and you can walk around the side of the Convento do Carmo to avoid the 5 euro fee and lengthy queues to get up the top. Back on street level, any of the parallel avenues from Rossio will reach the main square where Portugal’s last king was shot and a facist dictator deposed – its a beautiful space with some fascinating history that’s definitely worth checking out.
With a week in Lisbon, we also wanted to venture further than the city to see what other treasures Portugal had to offer. Here are a couple of cool places you can check out from Lisbon in a day:
Home of the first Portuguese tart, Belem was our first stop outside Lisbon’s city centre. The only question was whether to line up at Pasteis de Belem for our own tarts as soon as we arrived, or later in the day (the answer is both, of course).
For such a small place, Belem has more than enough to keep you occupied for a day, with the Jerónimos Monastery and adjoining church as well as the iconic Torre de Belem and Monument to Discovery overlooking the river. About 15 minutes by tram (15E from Cais do Sodre), Belem is an easy day trip for travellers to Lisbon, making it an obvious day trip for those keen to explore further than the central city area. But maybe too obvious? We were stunned by how many people came to the tiny town by coach, flooding the streets with groups each following their own flag-carrying guide.
The Monastery and church were beautiful, although long lines in the morning put us off until later in the day when many of the tour buses had departed back to Lisbon. The Tower of Belem was a cool spot with lots of food trucks nearby – perfect for a cheap and cheerful snack along the water.
While we could hardly complain (we were ourselves adding to the temporary international population of the town), the sheer mass of tourists in such a small place was a bit off-putting. While it was a beautiful place, the proximity to Lisbon’s centre and resulting popularity has made Belem very tourist-centric.
Portugal’s earthquake of 1755 is a constant memory for the country – at least from a traveller’s perspective – as the Portuguese seem to be almost apologetic of the fact that so few truly old structures survive compared to other European capitals. In Sintra though, the country is redeemed, with the UNESCO world heritage listed town home to the famous Pena National Palace and more picturesque palaces, parks and other iconic sights than you could ever hope to see in a day (or even a week).
A 40 minute train right from Lisbon, Sintra nestles into Portugal’s Sintra Mountains, the beautiful, rolling hills hiding brightly-coloured palaces and lovely lush gardens. Influenced by Portugal’s multicultural history, Sintra’s stunning structures combine moorish and manueline-style architecture with dramatic archways and spires, elaborate tiles and bold colours, for endlessly photogenic sights everywhere you look.
During our day in Sintra, we were overly ambitious and planned to explore both the Quinta da Regaleira and Pena National Palace. A short walk from the town, Quinta da Regaleira is a unique and beautiful palace with a distinct style that features gothic turrets, elaborate balconies and gargoyles watching over the garden. And it gets even better in the garden, hidden tunnels, grottos, waterfalls and wells that you can explore. We quickly lost hours exploring the lush, exotic gardens and had to hurry through the palace itself to get on to our second stop in Sintra.
After Quinta da Regaleira, we journeyed up Serra de Sinatra to reach Pena Palace. Not a short (or straight) trip but the winding bus ride gave us some great views of the areas and a definite appreciation for the driver’s mad turning skills. Pena Palace and its surrounding parklands are HUGE. You could easily spend a full day exploring the gardens and all of its hidden treasures, from greenhouses to ponds and fountains scattered around the palace.
The palace itself it postcard-worthy – and you can tell by the hoards of tourists all trying to capture their own perfect shot of the beautiful palace. Intricate tilework, beautiful colours and interesting architecture have made Pena Palace one of the most iconic sights of Lisbon. Inside you can see how Portugal’s royalty lived, after converting the ancient monastery into their Summer holiday home. Surrounded by lush greenery and with the ocean in view, its a beautiful spot to visit, explore and absorb Portugal’s history.
Lisbon was a pleasant surprise – distinctly different from Spain and other European cities. With so many influences throughout history, the city combines the best of these worlds and makes them its own. Vibrant, chaotic and yet calm in its own sense of order, Lisbon is a must-see, if only for the delicious Portuguese tarts…