Ah, Lisbon. A city which evinces a simplicity on the surface just as its historical and emotional roots run deep. Experience-rich, engaging and fun — yet a lot to unpack. That's where this Experiential Guide from our recent visit to Lisbon comes in with some usual — and unusual — things to do, eat, and experience.
Lisbon's Mediterranean highlights are colorful. Thoughtful design is at work. Consider the architecture, the trademark Portuguese azulejo tile-work and the street art. Tasteful, playful and eclectic. Lisbon’s visual is a melange, a blend of influences which harken old world east and modern west.
As playful and friendly as Lisbon can be, there feels a certain undercurrent. Fado, the song of fate and its sentiments of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia, come as no surprise in Lisbon. You can feel those tunes echo some on local neighborhood streets. Lisbon is sea-faring and world-aware yet maybe a little world weary. Port-townish and dashed with a bit of wistful, lost colonial grandeur. At the same time, there's an overtone of renaissance as neighborhoods get a face lift, hip restaurants flourish, and international artists and creatives flock to the city.
That’s part of Lisbon’s mystique. There’s nuance, contrast, contradiction. The atmosphere: refined, yet rough at the edges. The art: edgy, yet rooted. The cuisine: emerging and upmarket, at the same time down-home. The demeanor: upbeat and friendly, yet a little downcast. It even plays out in the geography of Lisbon’s seven hills. Trams and funiculars to take you up one and down the other side, winding through one utterly distinctive neighborhood after another.
Simple human interactions abound in Lisbon, like long conversations with shoe repair men and warm encounters with locals in neighborhood cantinas. Lisbon is what San Francisco would aspire to be if it were down-to-earth.
Lisbon, full of character, stands at a moment of redefinition. When you visit, the list of things to do and what to eat runs long. The question: how to sift through it all at pace to surface that depth?
Read on, make your plan. Put on a pair of comfy walking shoes, bring a healthy appetite and get ready to tune your adventurer’s eyes and ears to the detail of the message.
Lisbon, let’s go.
Skip ahead to what interests you most:
1. Take the #28 tram from start to finish
One of the finest experiences in Lisbon: riding a local tram end to end through the city’s narrow streets, up its hills, and around its bends. The most famous of these is the #28 tram whose path winds its way from Prazeres Cemetery (Campo de Ourique) to Martin Moniz through several different neighborhoods, including Alfama and Graça. The ride captures the essence of the city: its contours, colors, and context. Grab a window seat if you can and hang out the window (carefully, especially on those tight turns!) and interact with the humanity coursing the streets of Lisbon. It’s a ton of fun.
Tip: Although you can board the #28 tram anywhere along its route, it’s worth the effort to make your way to the starting point near Prazares (Campo de Ourique) so as to get a seat (here's the schedule). Our experience suggests you take one of the single seats on the right side (facing the front) to maximize your intake of and interaction with Lisbon street life. Note: Although you can purchase tickets on the tram itself (€2.80/person), it’s easier and less expensive if you use prepaid or daily metro card.
2. Get lost in the Alfama neighborhood as you try to find St. George's Castle
We are proof that it’s possible to get lost even while trying to find one of the Lisbon's biggest and best-known landmarks, Castelo de São Jorge. While we never actually made it inside the castle, our wanderings took us through the life-on-display alleys and streets of the Alfama neighborhood, a reward in itself. If ever we encountered a crowd of tourists, it only took a turn or two to find another quiet back street again.
Although we never made it into St. George's Castle, we found several miradouros (lookouts) along the way. The one at Nossa Senhora do Monte Church was our favorite among them. From there, it occurred to us that admiring the castle from afar might perhaps afford the best view of all.
There's also this view from just outside the castle gates where many of us who didn't get inside before closing time climbed up to catch the last light of the day.
Tip: Spot the fado street art stairway (Escandinhas do Porto Carro) on the “short cut” down from St. George's Castle.
3. Take a street art walking tour
We had no idea that Lisbon had such an active, creative and high-quality street art scene. Whether or not you happen to be a hard-core street art fan, join the Lisbon Street Art Tours donation-based walking tour for an excellent street art-based introduction to Lisbon. Along the way, you'll understand better the city’s current socio-economic, cultural and political context.
Vero, our guide, is an anthropologist studying street art in Lisbon. She knew many of the artists, local and international, and could share a bit of the backstory on their pieces including technique, messaging, and the relationship among pieces from the same artist. She introduced us to neighborhoods and streets we might not otherwise have known about, and pointed out details that we certainly would have missed on our own.
Her philosophy about street art applies to life: “If you don’t understand small things, then you won’t appreciate the big things.”
How to do a Lisbon street art tour: You can join a public street art tour (typically offered twice a week) that is donation-based. If these days or times don’t fit into your schedule or you want to try your own hand at creating street art then sign up for one of their workshops or private tours. A portion of their street art tour revenue goes to support public street art projects in Lisbon.
4. Find the original pastel de nata in Belem and learn the backstory of their creation
Prior to our setting off for Lisbon, a friend instructed us to “…eat ALL the Portuguese custard tarts.” The imperative was clear, serious and ALL CAPS. After several, um, firsthand experiences with these unique flaky-crusted, creamy custard-filled treats, we now understand why.
But how did these delicious little tarts get their start in Belem? Turns out we have the local monks and nuns from the 19th century to thank.
It happens that nuns once used egg whites to starch their habits, resulting in an overabundance of remaining egg yolks. In the 1820s and 1830s, when state support and subsidies were pulled from the Catholic church, monasteries, convents and churches were forced to find new revenue streams. In response, a few industrious monks and nuns combined those extra egg yolks with some sugar from Brazil (then, a Portuguese colony) to make custard tarts. The rest is history.
The first bakery in Portugal serving these custard tarts (called pastel de Belem), was Antigua Confeitaria de Belem (Rua de Belem #84 & #92, Belem). Having gotten its start in 1837, it still churns out thousands of these delicious little tarts daily. The line of people out the door all day makes the place easy to spot.
Where else to try custard tarts in central Lisbon? You’ll find pastel de nata in most bakeries throughout Lisbon. Our favorites come from Manteigaria (Rua do Loreto 2, Chiado). Take your pastel with a bica — the local name for a longish espresso-like coffee — and move towards the back. You’ll be able to watch the tart-masters at work through the open-bakery glass. As you watch them stirring custard, patting buttery dough into small metal cups, and adding the filling, you'll appreciate even more the tarts you've likely just inhaled.
5. Savor the codfish confit at O Surf & Turf
We carry a bit of skepticism to fusion cuisine: trendy, trying too hard and chasing too many flavors at once. However, the flavor profile from the blend of of Portuguese, Asian and Peruvian influences at O Surf & Turf at Time Out Market really does work. And consistently so. The restaurant does it by snaring the best from Kiko Martins‘ other Lisbon restaurants O Asiático, O Talho and A Cevicheria.
The winner of this small plate meal: the codfish confit over chestnut puree, topped with chorizo bits, roasted pine nuts and pickled red onions. There was a delightful balance between the savory and just sweet, dashed with just the right punch of tart acidity.
Other recommended dishes at O Surf and Turf? Check out the “cozido” meat croquettes (yes, cumin!) sided with anchovy mayonnaise. Not your average croquette. The roasted octopus, smoked duck and dark tapioca salad made for a delicious dish with a varied texture profile.
The house white wine, Cevicheria, deserves a shout out of its own. This Viognier Marsanne blend features a hint of minerality, sufficient acidity, and it pairs perfectly with much of the short menu, especially the codfish confit.
Tip: Try to get a seat at the bar at the kitchen. Although the kitchen runs a bit chaotic in its apparent lack of organized flow, it’s fun to watch. Staff were very friendly and happy to answer questions about our dishes and anything else they prepared.
6. Catch a performance at a local Fado bar…and crash a birthday party
“Fado…it’s about fate and destiny…” our street art tour guide, Vero said, “…and not being able to change that destiny.”
Fado is a style of singing that got its start in Lisbon in the 1820s. Its mournful melodies and lyrics are meant to represent the “Lisbon soul,” a mood of longing and loss. The best place to experience this is in one of the city's many Fado bars.
Fado bars are usually cozy, informal affairs, featuring a rotation of local singers whose performances unfold via an open mic. Your “entrance fee” is often a drink; you can stay or leave as you choose between sets. Singers rotate in and out every two or three songs, with lights turned on in between sets for a brief pause and an opportunity to top up your drink. We were partial to the female veterans whose voices and expressions seemed to carry an emotion built on a depth of their own life experience.
If you’re lucky, you might find yourself as we did — in the middle of a fado night crossed with a local birthday celebration where flowers, kisses and toasts are exchanged between singers. In this case, the jovial spirit of a birthday seemed to counter the mood and melancholy of fado. This seemed appropriate to Lisbon life in all its turns, highs and lows side by side.
7. Develop a whole new appreciation for sardines at Sea Me
When I think of sardines, I can't help but think of mushy fish drenched in oil that comes out of a can. A restaurant called Sea Me helped me consider this little fish in a whole new light when I tasted its flame-seared fresh sardine nigiri topped with sea salt.
Delicious, and in character with just about everything else we ate and drank there.
Other recommended dishes at Sea Me include: tuna ceviche (a fusion of Portuguese and Peruvian), fish tatare of the day, and sea bass sashimi wrapped with clams and lime (just as beautiful to eat as it was to behold). Big thanks to our friend, Giulia, who turned us on to this restaurant and the sardines.
Tip: Reservations are recommended for Sea Me. Consider the bar seats by the kitchen and fish counter in the back. You'll get a firsthand look at how many of the dishes, appetizers especially, are prepared. There’s also a Sea Me outlet at Time Out Market, offering a more limited menu.
8. Meet the Atlantic Ocean at Belem Tower
Given Portugal's size, it’s remarkable to consider that it was once a world sailing, navigation and colonial force in the 15th and 16th centuries. The pursuit of a new sea route to India initially propelled this quest. After finding that around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa the Portuguese continued by founding other trading bases and colonies along the coasts of Africa, Asia and South America (Brazil). Consider this Portuguese colonial map to get a sense of this dominance.
Six kilometers from the center of Lisbon, Belem is where these navigators and explorers prepared and departed for their journeys about the world. The 16th century Belem Tower, now a UNESCO site, marks for Portugal the beginning of the Atlantic Ocean, where sailors and explorers left Portugal and the Targus River behind for adventures to all corners of the world.
Tip: We chose to admire the tower from afar. However, if you buy a joint ticket for the Belem Tower and nearby Jerónimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) at the tower you'll be able to skip the long ticket line at the monastery. We also took a 90-minute free walking tour by Discover Walks which provided a good historical overview not only of Belem, but also of Portuguese history.
9. Find “Peace Guard”, the Shepard Fairey (Obey) street mural in Graça
Follow the tram line by foot along Rua Angelina Vidal in the Graça neighborhood above Lisbon’s downtown. Then, on the side street of Rua Natalia Correia you’ll encounter the towering image of a young woman soldier in a beret looking back at you, several stories high. Her image is striking, her expression evocative; the red flower in the rifle perhaps harkening to Portugal’s Carnation Revolution of 1974. Today, perhaps a sign of peace in what feels like turbulent times?
There are several other impressive street art installations nearby. The corner park, street scene and passing trams at this location make for one of the most picturesque streetscapes in Lisbon. Find a spot on one of the many park benches and just take it all in for a few minutes.
10. Walk the seven hills of Lisbon
Lisbon is spread out over an area which is marked by seven distinct hills, lending its contours and neighborhoods an almost fluid San Francisco-like feel. It also makes Lisbon a joy to walk, to get lost in, and to discover. By walking, you can experience the unfolding of the different layers of history and culture, particularly as you make your way from the old neighborhoods close to the port north to Lisbon's more outer districts. Along the way, you'll get a sense of of each neighborhood's distinct personality as it spills and winds its way into the next.
Sure, there are touristy areas of town, particularly in pockets of Baixa, Chiado, and Bairro Alto. However, we often found that a turn or two on a side street or getting off the bus or tram at the wrong stop was all it took to regain a local feel. It's interesting to note many neighborhoods that are today flush with upmarket restaurants and souvenir shops (e.g., Alfama by the castle) were once considered undesirable places to live just a decade or two ago. Gentrification is a double-edged sword, and something to keep in mind when visiting this rapidly changing city whose prices rise with its popularity.
11. Explore Portuguese wines and experience self-service wine tasting
If you find that the explanations offered at wine tastings are often long-winded, then the Vini Portugal wine tasting center on Terreiro do Paço is for you. With its self-service wine tasting approach you can go at your own pace, bounce around as you do, sample a wide variety in a short period, and hear nary a word about the wines you've just tasted.
After you buy credit on your wine card, insert it into one of the machines, put your glass down under the tap of the wine you wish to try (with a cost of €0.75-€8/per tasting), press the button, and wait for the 0.1 liter pour.
Disorganization amidst ostensible organization reigns supreme. Since bottles are behind glass and the rear labels inaccessible, the detail of what you’re drinking — varietals, alcohol levels, and food pairings — remain a mystery. Also, the signs above each bottle meant to indicate wine region often don't match the bottle beneath it. Further still, once a bottle is finished (and someone recommends it), it's often replaced with a different wine altogether. So while you may not emerge from your Vini Portugal experience well-informed on Portuguese wine, you'll get a chuckle, socialize and enjoy a few wines along the way.
Tip: Bring your own crackers or light snacks to cleanse your palate between tastings.
12. Race the trams up the steepest hills in Bairro Alto
Some of the steepest hills in the city can be found leading up to Bairro Alto (aptly named, “High Neighborhood”). In the late 19th century funicular railways (essentially very short tramways) were installed to ferry people up and down the city's steepest hills so that they might more easily make their way between neighborhoods.
For example, the funicular on Calçada da Glória transfers you from Avenida da Liberdade in Baixa to Rua de São Pedro de Alcântara in Bairro Alto above. The slope is nearly 18% grade. Our suggestion is to enjoy the trams from the outside as you take a brisk walk up the hill. Take note of street art and graffiti that covers most of the cars and a bit of the walls along the way. You'll work up an appetite for one of the many restaurants strewn about the back streets of Bairro Alto (see #13 below).
13. Sample Portuguese tapas in Bairro Alto
Spanish tapas are famous the world over, but what about Portuguese tapas? The tapas bars and restaurants in Bairro Alto can help answer that query, since many offer a variety of Portuguese tapas at a reasonable price.
Walk down Rua da Barroca, Rua do Diário de Notícias and the streets nearby and you’ll find chalkboards, sandwich boards and menus scrawled with lengthy lists of tapas. Options usually include bacalhau (salted cod) in every possible preparation to croquettes (fried, stuffed bites), smoked meats, and local cheeses. Arrays of seafood salads and small plates, too. Amidst all that choice, there's bound to be a Portuguese tapa or two that suits you.
Order a handful of these small plates for a diversity of flavors, accompanied by a house white or red wine. The beauty is that if you’re still hungry, continue ordering until you’re satiated. No pressure. There’s good reason why the small plate tapas style of dining remains our favorite.
Here are two tapas restaurants in Bairro Alto we enjoyed:
- Taberna da Barroca (Rua da Barroca #92, Bairro Alto): They offer a reasonably priced tapas menu of 6 tapas for €16.90, an ideal volume for the two of us. Recommended tapas include: Bacalhau pastel (fried codfish cake), octopus salad, spicy sardine filets, bacalhau with chickpeas, mushrooms in a cream sauce, and a cheese plate featuring 3-4 local varieties. All of this goes down well with a carafe of their house white wine.
- Tapas Wine Bar 139 (R. do Diário de Notícias 139, Bairro Alto): This place may not look like much from the outside (we ended up here for a late dinner on New Year’s Eve), but we were pleasantly surprised by their tapas. Recommended tapas include: Clams simmered in garlic sauce with white wine and butter, all topped with fresh cilantro. At €5.50 we were expecting a tiny bowl, but instead got a full plate. Some of the best clams we'd tasted and easily the best price. We also enjoyed the bacalhau-stuffed red peppers, and an octopus salad dashed with soy and topped with cilantro.
14. Discover the fadista photo wall in the Mouraria neighborhood
Mouraria is the neighborhood where the fado style of singing is said to have gotten its start in the 1820s. This fact fits when you consider the history and reputation of this neighborhood as one filled with societal outcasts, beginning with the Moors taking refuge after being driven out of the castle by the crusaders in the 12th century. The prevailing narrative features tragedy, unrequited love, and desperation. In other words, all the makings for a good fado song, or song of fate.
Today, Mouraria remains a multicultural and diverse neighborhood, but one undergoing its own transformation and pangs of gentrification. As you walk the neighborhood, be sure to look for the black and white portraits of the area’s famous fadistas along the walls of its alleys and streets. The images are intended to pay tribute to and instill local pride in the neighborhood’s long-time residents and culture. Some of the people depicted are still alive, singing in nearby fado bars.
Tip: If, for some reason, you want a break from Portuguese food, Mouraria is the place to go for ethnic food. Take your pick of Bangladeshi, Chinese, Indian, and many other cuisines.
15. Savor the tender polvo at Tasca da Esquina
The octopus salad we enjoyed there delivered exactly that.
Tender, fresh cuts of octopus are stewed in citrus lime sauce (not quite as strong leche de tigre, of Peruvian ceviche fame) and turned with clippings of mint and cilantro. All this is topped off with fried sweet potato chips in a nod to the dish's Peruvian inspiration. Yes, it's as tasty as it looks.
We also recommend the cockles in garlic-ginger sauce topped with cilantro.
Tip: Located just outside the center of town, this restaurant is in a perfect position for lunch if you plan to catch the #28 tram from its origin near Prazeres Cemetery (see #1 above). The restaurant is small, so either make a reservation or show up at an off-peak hour. Address: Rua Domingos Sequeira 41C, Campo de Ourique. This restaurant also runs a stand at Time Out Market.
16. Walk the Lisbon streets at night
Lisbon by day, Lisbon by night. To understand this place, you must experience both. Our cross-town walk back to our guest house on New Year’s Eve when some of the metro lines were shut turned out to be a opportunity in disguise. We appreciated the move from center to outer, old to new, all in a tinge of nighttime glow. Streets, once bustling, become quiet. Night lights, cast against tiles and cobbles, amplify Lisbon's trademark Mediterranean mystique and architectural melange and lend a romantic feel.
The streets of Bairro Alto, alive during the day, are even more so at night . We also enjoyed our nighttime strolls up through Real Principe, São Bento too. Be sure to keep an eye out for the visual transformation that street art undergoes when lit.
17. Choose your favorite azulejo (tile) facade
Among the many features that make Lisbon's streets so colorful: the azuelos, glazed ceramic tiles that cover the exterior of so many buildings throughout the city. Appreciate them from afar, then get a bit closer to see how repetition, pattern and color play to an apparent seamless design. Finally, zoom in and admire the intricate design and craftsmanship of each tile.
Although azuelos were first introduced to Portugal by way of the Spanish in the 15th century, their design harkens to the Moors who dominated the Iberian peninsula for centuries and their own origins in the Middle East and North Africa. Over time, tile design has changed based on trends and fashion, with azulejos experiencing a sort of resurgence in the 20th century.
Tip: Be sure to keep your eyes open while making your way through Lisbon's metro stations. Many are full of tile-based design and art installations.
18. Discover Portuguese comfort food with grandma’s bacalhau à brás
Bacalhau à brás, quintessential Portuguese comfort food, features shredded salted cod, turned with onions, tiny fried potato sticks, and egg scramble. The combination of flavors is hearty and down-home, and portions are often huge. The dish we shared between the two of us was easily enough for dinner.
Tip: We took our bacalhau à brás at A Primavera do Jeronimo (Traversa da Espera 34, Bairro Alto), just around the corner from Tasco a Chico fado bar. We chose to eat here after poking our head into the restaurant and eyeing a woman in the kitchen who looked like grandma…and looked like she meant business. The restaurant only has a few tables, so consider making a reservation to ensure you have a spot.
19. Find the abandoned buildings covered with street art near Picoas Metro
Abandoned buildings, the playground of street artists. The three abandoned buildings in a row on Avenida Fontes Pereira de Melo near Picoas metro station look like they must have once been aristocratic villas, mansions from a bygone era. The murals wrap the series of buildings and continue to a fourth just across the street. The grit and socioeconomic messaging amidst the old world grandeur of the surrounding neighborhood offers a compelling contrast that is worth a look.
Tip: If you continue walking north on Avenida Fontes Pereira de Melo you'll walk past some great late 19th-century/early 20th-century architecture and eventually run into the picturesque Campo Pequeno bullring (turned concert venue and mall).
20. Sample many of Lisbon’s top restaurants at Time Out Market
Imagine a food hall with outposts of your city’s most popular restaurants…all in one place. That’s essentially Lisbon's Time Out Market at the old Mercado da Ribeira by Cais do Sodre on the river. Yes, it’s trendy. Yes, it may be a bit on the expensive side. But for the diversity of flavors and plates, often amidst open kitchens, it's worth a visit. Possibly two.
Several restaurants on the north end of the market and main hall feature open kitchens with bar seats. Grab one of those if you'd like a front-row view of all the culinary action.
Tip: Head to Time Out Market during off hours since it can feel frantic and overwhelming when it’s full. We actually fled the first time we visited as there were no seats; the frustration and estimated wait times didn’t seem worth it. With patience and perseverance, we returned later to find a kitchen-side seat and enjoyed one of our most memorable meals in Lisbon (see #5).
21. Go local, and order the daily menu at a local cantina
Lisbon's neighborhood cantinas are typically located in more residential areas (e.g., in parts of Saõ Bento, back streets of Graça, and the outer neighborhoods). You can spot a cantina because of the list of 3-8 items handwritten on butcher paper taped to the front window or door, indicating the daily menu and fresh catch. You can usually find a combination of seafood and meat dishes around €5-€8.
In other words, not a fancy ordeal. But, good and hearty traditional Portuguese food, an authentic atmosphere, and genuinely friendly people — all at exceptionally reasonable prices.
At A Maravilha de Sao Bento (Rua Nova da Piedade #87, Sao Bento) we chose the grilled dorado (sea bass) dusted with sea salt, and the jaquinzinhos fritos (fried horse mackerel) served with rice and beans. Both were good, but the quality of the grilled dorado was outstanding.
Even more, the daily menu price of €7/each included not only our ample seafood meals (we didn’t need dinner that night, or quite possibly breakfast the following morning), but also the couvert of bread and olives, 1/2 liter of house wine for two people, two espressos (bica) and a friendly shot of Ginjinha (a sour cherry liquor you must try at least once while you are in Lisbon). The additional 1/2 liter of wine that appeared on our table cost a whopping €1.75. Our total bill: €15.75. More than enjoying a great value meal, we enjoyed the staff, including the zany cooks who sang and yelled about their favorite football clubs from the kitchen window and the bartenders who made us, the only foreigners in the joint, feel as welcome as anyone else.
TL:DR – For the best value meals in Lisbon, head to the local cantinas.
22. Take a selfie at an overlook and have gratitude for where you are: Lisbon
Do you ever have a moment during a trip where you think, “Wow, I’m so fortunate to be here, to be able to experience all this and to take in this beauty?” For me, that moment happened at this overlook as we walked down from (another failed attempt at) the castle.
After snapping the selfie, put down the phone, take a breath (or two) and enjoy the moment.
Some of the more popular neighborhoods to stay in Lisbon include Bairro Alto, Alfama, and Baixa / Chiado. These are fun neighborhoods in and of themselves, and you'll be close to the big sites, restaurants, and action. For a more local-feeling neighborhood we'd recommend looking for accommodation in Principe Real.
We stayed at República Bed & Breakfast just across from Campo Pequeno bullring on Avenida Republica. It was a bit of a walk (30-45 minutes) to get to Bairro Alto or the river. Alternatively, it takes 15-20 minute ride by metro (the Campo Pequeno station is just there). However, we actually enjoyed being a bit outside the center as it allowed us to appreciate Lisbon's neighborhood and historical layers. The B&B itself featured comfortable rooms, a hearty breakfast, and super-friendly staff (Ana, we're thinking of you!), and a reasonable price. Book a room at República | Read reviews.
We visited Lisbon for five days over New Year's, when temperatures reached almost 70 degrees (about 20 degrees Celsius) on several days, and it was sunny, bright and crisp. We realize that this might have been unusually warm. Regardless, we still stand by Lisbon being an excellent place to escape to in the winter months and for a New Year's getaway. Sure, things were perhaps a bit more crowded because of the holiday, but not obnoxiously so. And dining on New Year's Eve was the easiest we've experienced anywhere.
We also recommend visiting Lisbon in the spring or autumn when temperatures are still warm, but not too hot. We know many people who have enjoyed traveling to Lisbon in the summer months (June-August), but have warned us that the heat can be intense, especially so as many of the older buildings do not have air conditioning.