If Europe has a current “it” city, it’s Lisbon. Accessible and affordable, combining the creative hunger of early 00s Berlin with a Southern European devotion to good living, the Portuguese capital seems to have it all. On your Portugal vacation, Lisbon offers a long and colourful history, beautiful architecture, lively nightlife, great restaurants and cafes, and intimate neighbourhoods that invite you to simply get lost.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a spare day in Lisbon, here are four very different itineraries to help you get the most out of it.
Classic Lisbon Icons
A top day out in Lisbon starts in the Bairro Alto, with breakfast at any of the local cafes. If you can’t wait to tuck into some pastel de nata, pull up a chair at the tiny Manteigaria, or historic Café A Brasileira to demolish a few egg tarts and a coffee. Then weave your way up to the Carmo Convent Ruins and Archaeological Museum. Wander behind the ruined convent to take in the view from the top of the Elevador de Santa Justa. You can ride the elevator if you want, but many locals will discourage spending the money. There are other elevators in the city you can ride for free if you want the experience, but much of the pleasure of Lisbon lies in exploring its streets on foot. That includes tackling those hills.
Choose one of the countless cafes or restaurants in this area for lunch, then pop into Bertrand Books and Music. They have books in English as well as Portuguese, and will stamp any purchases to prove you bought them at the world’s oldest operating bookstore. From here, backtrack to Praca Luis de Camoes, where you can catch Tram 28 to Lisbon Cathedral and the winding, narrow streets of Alfama. Again, Tram 28 is a Lisbon icon many locals will warn you away from. It tends to be packed, mostly because it takes you by many of the popular tourist sights. You have to decide for yourself if the convenience is worth the cramped ride. Although not seen on the ride up, you may enjoy a visit to Sao Jorge Castle which sits on top of the hill and offers panoramic views. It’s a rebuild dating back to the dictator, Salazar.
The Alfama neighbourhood is the real deal, and on your Portugal vacation, is a fantastic place to while away your late afternoon, into the evening. Take in the view from Miradouro de Santa Luzia, pop into one of the countless bars or cafes for a drink and snack, or order up a shot of ginjinha, Portugal’s signature cherry liqueur (and though it might seem touristy, say yes to the dark chocolate cup). After dinner, settle in for an evening of Fado, Portugal’s most traditional musical form. Just skip the “dinner and show” options, which are far from the traditional Fado experience.
Hidden Treasures of Lisbon
While Lisbon is a wonderful city to simply roam and explore at street level, it also contains some top notch art museums devoted to both Portuguese and international art. Start your day at the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian for a morning packed with beautiful artworks, or skip to the Calouste Culbenkian Museum Modern for a more contemporary vision. You’re right by the metro here, so hop the blue line down to Restauradores station, then meander through downtown to Commercial Square, Lisbon’s biggest public plaza and flashpoint of the bloodless 1974 Carnation Revolution that brought democracy to Portugal.
If you’re not an art buff, or just zipped through the museum quickly, head to Rato station instead and take a detour down picturesque Rua da Escola Politecnica, enjoying the local stores, gardens, and perhaps one of the museums along the way. The walk brings you out upon Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara for fantastic views. A steep descent (or tram ride) down Calcada da Gloria drops you at Restauradores, where you can either take the metro to Terreiro do Paco, or keep walking to Commercial Square.
Lunch options abound in the downtown, or you can enjoy a particularly atmospheric – if noisy – lunch at Mercado da Ribeira. Afterwards, choose from one of the nearby museums. There’s the Lisbon Story Centre to hear insights into the city’s complex and fascinating history, the Fado Museum to explore Portugal’s signature traditional music style, or take the bus to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, devoted to its beloved tiles. Alternatively, take the bus or metro up to the redeveloped Parque das Nacoes, which overlooks the Vasco de Gama Bridge, and boasts the Lisbon Oceanarium. This awe-inspiring aquarium is one of the largest in the world, and is a must-visit for families and nature lovers of all ages on a Portugal vacation.
In the evening, return to Bairro Alto to experience the pleasures of the old town after dark.
A Day in Belem
Located a short train or bus ride from Lisbon proper, the parish of Belem contains many of Lisbon’s, and indeed Portugal’s most recognizable icons. If you’re wanting to do “bucket list” Lisbon on your trip to Portugal, you’ll want to spend at least half a day here. Assuming you’re here for the full day, arrive early at the Jerominos Monastery, Belem’s star attraction and an architectural marvel of Portugal. It’s worth the entrance fee to explore the cloister, but if there’s already a long queue when you arrive, pop next door to the National Archeology Museum, buy a combined ticket, then return to the Monastery to skip the queue. Explore the Museum when you’re done, or, if a phalanx of tour buses have already besieged the Monastery, tour the Museum first and give the crowds time to leave.
Time for lunch means time to sample the famous pastel de nata or Portuguese egg tarts of Belem! Of course, you can buy egg tarts all over Portugal, but Pasteis de Belem claims to have invented the recipe and is considered a pilgrimage if you’ve developed a taste for them. Ignore the line of tourists queuing up for takeout. Go inside and join the much shorter queue for a table. Order a mix of sweet and savoury pastries as you would tapas, and leave having enjoyed the full Belem pastry experience.
Spend an hour exploring either the National Coach Museum, or admiring the modern art collection at Berardo Collection Museum. You might not get a chance for both, as you’ll want some time on the waterfront to see the Monument to the Discoveries and Belem Tower. If there’s no queue at the Tower and you bought a combined ticket to the Monastery and Archeology Museum (which includes Tower entry), pop inside for a quick look. Otherwise, it’s probably not worth the effort, even with the combined ticket. There’s honestly not much inside, and the best view is seen for free from the shoreline – a great spot to relax after sightseeing on your Portugal vacation.
All right, so this day isn’t actually spent in Lisbon, but the monuments of Sintra are so spectacular, your Lisbon visit really isn’t complete without seeing at least some of them. Because there’s so much to see however, not to mention a number of worthwhile stops in the surrounding region, you might want to splash out for an organized tour. Sintra itself is an easy day trip by train from Lisbon’s Rossio or Oriente stations, and local bus services designed for tourists offer convenient transportation between the monuments. An organized trip however will ensure you get the most out of your time in the area, and ensure you’re not left waiting for the next service if a bus is full. It might even offer expert commentary, and perhaps help you avoid the large bus groups that visit on budget tours throughout the day. Sintra is Lisbon’s most popular day trip, and if you do manage to avoid crowds between 11am and 4pm, consider yourself extremely lucky. Most of the monuments open around 9:30am.
If you are visiting Sintra on your own, get an early start and make friends with the 434 and 435 bus services from Sintra Train Station. The 434 is a round-trip that costs 5.50 Euro for the day, looping around Sintra town centre, the Moorish Castle, and colourful Pena Palace before returning to the station. The 435 will take you to Sintra town, the Regaleira Palace, Seteais Palace, and Montserrate Palace before turning back, and costs 2.50 Euro. You can also normally hire a tuktuk for 5 Euro one way. Mountainous terrain, a lack of pedestrian paths, and a steady stream of large tour buses generally make walking to the monuments difficult. Of course, you don’t need transport to reach the National Palace of Sintra, handily located right in town.
What else should you see in limited time while on your Portugal vacation? We could fill a whole article with recommendations, but the area’s star attraction – and its most crowded – is undoubtedly Pena Palace. Built upon the ruins of an old monastery by the German King consort Ferdinand II in the mid-19th century, the palace is a wild patchwork of colours and architectural styles that somehow feel cohesive in their shared commitment to eccentricity. In short, Pena is Sintra’s “Disneyland,” and with magnificent views of the surrounding area, it’s well worth both the time and enduring the crowds.
If you only have time for one other monument, make it Regaleira Palace. Anyone with an interest in Masonic history or faith should make this awesome mansion and its surrounding gardens their priority when visiting Sintra on a Portugal vacation. Filled with symbolism and metaphor, with gardens, passageways, and structures used for Masonic rituals, this is Sintra at its most mysterious and evocative. The crowds are often lighter as well, since it’s not on the 434 bus route.