I didn’t really know what to expect with Lisbon. I’d seen the pictures of beautiful streets and rooftop bars but still wasn’t sure of the overall vibe of the city. It’s become a very popular destination recently with almost everyone I know going, or planning to go. This is sometimes something I can get a bit put off by, as I get worried that it will be a bit too touristy.
Ok yes, there are parts of it that are touristy but as long as you steer clear of eating right in the centre and in general, steer clear of the obvious tourist traps, it still (to me) felt very homely and real.
My main comment about Lisbon is that it really is full of surprises. There’s a lot of different districts and neighbourhoods, so you can make of it what you will. We wanted a relaxing break; eating, drinking and wandering around, and that’s exactly what we got.
There are definitely cool clubs and raging bars but it wasn’t what we were looking for. In general, get ready to put your walking shoes on and give your thighs a workout (mine were sore from the hills for days after) and then from there, take it easy. Don’t worry about getting lost because there’s so many beautiful buildings there, you’ll always end up where you were meant to.
Even though we definitely did take it easy in the few days we were there, we still made the most of our time. Whether you have one or seven days, I would definitely recommend fitting some of the below into your itinerary:
Take in Some Views
The Santa Justa Lift downtown has a viewing platform at the top, where you can get some really good views of the centre of Lisbon. It’s also just something a bit different, getting in a 19th century elevator. It costs 5 euros, or you can use your metro pass.
As well as the lift, Lisbon has many incredible viewpoints that you’ll find simply from walking up and down the hills. At the top of a some hills, there are bars which will allow you to take drinks outside – all you have to do is pay a deposit on a plastic cup and you are then allowed to use it outside. Or of course, if you prefer you can just bring your own drinks and sit outside.
Delve into the local food scene
The food in Lisbon was something that took me by surprise for a few reasons; both good and bad. For one, I might have been too easily lead by Nandos (yes I know it started in South Africa ok), but I always thought that Portugal was huge on chicken. I may have been looking in the wrong places but I found they were much more into pork and fish, neither of which I’m a big fan of.
Nonetheless, we still found some incredible food – mostly in small holes in the wall, with only a few seats; these places tend to be a bit cheaper although it may feel like you’re taking a risk as it doesn’t look as ‘fancy’. My top tip is to look out for locals eating there at lunchtime – they’ll know where’s good. In fairness though, as usual, the best places we ate at were recommended to us, although some we stumbled upon ourselves.
The Atira-te ao Rio for example, is an incredible restaurant that my boyfriend found – located next to some abandoned warehouses on the other side of the river (there are plenty of boats over there), it’s an incredible experience. It’s a very popular spot but if you get there early enough and put your name down, you should be able to get a table, even without a prior reservation. We sat right on the harbour outcrop and had an amazing view of the bridge, plus a crazy amount of fish in the water next to us. Plus, it’s an interesting area that’s a lot different to the other side of the river and worth a wander.
Another great place was the Alfama Cellar, which was directly below where we stayed; it was recommended to us by our host and really was incredible. It was a bit pricier than some of the other smaller places but really worth it. Everything was cooked to perfection and the waiters couldn’t have been nicer.
As well as restaurants, the other thing I loved were the coffee places. There’s nothing like that moment when you finally get to sit down after hours of walking up and down hills. My personal favourite place was (ironically) the Copenhagen Coffee Lab although I did have one issue with it – birds. If you’re going to go, definitely pick a seat inside otherwise you’ll be swarmed by seagulls (which I didn’t find particularly relaxing).
Aside from that, the coffee is great and they have some really interesting (although definitely not Portugese) snacks/treats on offer.
The other thing, of course, that you can’t miss when in Lisbon are the Portugese tarts. There are a few places there which are famous for them – Manteigaria and Pastéis de Belém but generally, they’re all pretty good. It’s definitely worthwhile trying some of the more well known ones but in general, I would say a good aim is to just eat as many as you can while you’re there. There’s nothing quite like a warm, melty custard tart to start and end your day.
Stop by the Time Out Market
Ok, this is more food but the Time Out Market is somewhere I can’t not mention. It’s a big market with food, drinks, local souvenirs/gifts and of course, pastel de natas. We got there at about 11am, not long after it had opened and it was super quiet. We took a punt and got a burger from ‘Ground Burger’, while there was no queue and thank god we did. While we were eating a huge queue formed and I can’t deny how glad I was not to be in it. It seemed the same for most other places so if you can handle eating early, I would definitely recommend it.
Pretend You’re In Jurassic Park, at Estufa Fria
The covered botanical gardens in Parque Eduardo VII is one of my favourite memories of the trip. We walked through the park and barely saw another soul, then stumbled upon the gardens and also barely saw anyone. It felt a bit like we were walking into an undiscovered part of the city (even though it’s incredibly well known).
We went on a Sunday, so it was free but otherwise it’s still only €3.10 which is well worth it. To be completely honest, I don’t know a lot about plants and flowers so I can’t comment on that but the experience of the visit was an enchanting, welcome break from the comparatively busy streets of Lisbon.
Take A Day Trip To Sintra
Sintra is a town unlike any other I have visited and I personally think it’s definitely worth the trip. There are different ways of getting there ie renting a car, going on a coach trip or taking the train.
We decided to take the train and then use the bus to get around – there is a bus that takes on a circular route that goes to all the different attractions (if you do only want to go around the loop, get the 434 bus and pay for a hop on hop off ticket; they will likely try to get you to buy a day pass but make sure you check what you need first). We went to two castles; Pena and Castelo dos Mouros.
You could walk around the area but it’s very hilly and would take up a lot of your day (in general its all quite hilly so I definitely recommend a comfortable pair of shoes)! We walked between the two castles, only using the bus to get to and from the station/castles.
It was super busy when we were there and it was out of season (though still warm), so be ready for crowds and queues. You’ll need to buy tickets for the castles, though I believe this can be done online in advance if you’re prepared enough (which we weren’t).
Pena is a crazy, colourful castle which is a bit of an influencers dream in terms of backdrops. In fact, you almost can’t take a step without nearly walking into one as their hair whips into you in the wind.
Castelo Dos Mouros is more relaxed but still super cool. It’s up quite a lot of hills but really, really worth it. You can walk up and down the ruins and will get an amazing view from there.
Indulge in your inner (or outer) hipster, at the LX Factory
As my boyfriend lives in East London, I always feel very much at home in a warehouse setting. Yes, everything is always overpriced and some people are so overly cool, you may not know what to say to them, but in general it’s a fun place to visit and something a bit different.
The LX Factory is quite well known now and so frequented by a real mix of people. We saw young families out, as well as, older couples (though of course the places they chose to go in varied a bit).
The area itself holds multiple cafes and restaurants, as well as, bars and a heck of a lot of gift shops. We were on a budget so mostly just walked around rather than sitting down anywhere but it was still enjoyable to window shop and take in what was going on.
I think it could be a great place to grab a book and chill out in a cafe, if you have any downtime. But also, fun to get a few beers and stay until the sun goes down.
Buy Some Tiles
The city itself is covered in beautiful patterned tiles, so why not take some influence from it and take some home with you. I don’t mean in the gift shops, I mean a proper tile shop – we went to Cortico and Netos but there are a lot of other options.
In Cortico and Netos, they generally supply to builders etc but are also happy to sell a few tiles – they have boxes full of them in the middle of the store, which you are welcome to look through and they’re much cheaper than if you bought the same style in the gift shops (most of which have ‘Lisbon’ tackily painted onto them).
We got a bit carried away and bought 4 tiles, with the idea of making a splashback in our flat but of course, you can just buy one or two and use them as coasters, or to put plant pots onto etc.
Where We Stayed
We stayed in the Alfama district, which is the old part of the city. Personally I found it really easy to get wherever we needed to from there and it was also very pretty. The nearby restaurants were charming and there were lots of bars nearby to keep us occupied.
We booked an apartment on booking.com called ‘Alfama’s Nest‘. It was small but perfectly formed with everything we needed. The host was lovely and I really would highly recommend staying there, especially for the price. My only comment would be that there are quite a few steep stairs (this didn’t bother us but it would definitely be a struggle if you had small children etc).
How We Got Around
We flew from London but once there, mostly walked – yes it’s a hilly city but it’s not too hard to get about. Plus, you get the best experience that way, as you’ll never know what you might find!
As well as walking, we tended to get ubers – a friend mentioned to me before visiting how cheap they were and they weren’t lying. We got a few ubers to the furthest distance away and then walked back, which saved us a lot of money and meant we could take in a few sights.
Of course, there are also the trams but to be completely honest, we never managed to make it onto one in Lisbon! We tried to get the most well known tourist tram but it was so busy we couldn’t physically get on it. Instead, we got trams in Porto – our next stop, and my next blog post topic…