Things to see & do in Lisbon, Portugal

The Portuguese capital offers a masterclass in balancing the ancient and modern. Lisbon is a seamless and seemingly effortless blend of living history and cosmopolitan cool. Witness the old men playing dominos in the park next to digital nomads on their laptops at the next table; handsomely restored buildings converted into trendy bars, quirky shops and fascinating museums; and Michelin-starred restaurants that nestle with traditional tascas where lunches can go on for hours.
Set against the bank of the River Tejo (Tagus), where the Iberian Peninsula’s longest river meets the Atlantic, Lisbon is basking in a resurgence of popularity as a European destination, yet remains affordable and charmingly modest, blushing a deep shade of pink at sunset. It makes for a wonderfully appealing end point to a self guided cycling trip from Porto, a small ship cruise from Malaga, even a base for a marine conservation vacation, or a fascinating midway point on a Moorish history route from Morocco to Spain. Vacations that finish here can easily be extended by a few more days, left to your own devices.
When exploring Lisbon, it’s best to start at the very top. You rattle your way almost to the São Jorge Castle aboard the number 28 tram, one of the classic creaking, squeaking ‘remodelados’, then wander slowly down through the labyrinthine streets of the historic Alfama district, pausing here and there to admire the azulejo tilework, or take in the panoramas from a miradouro lookout. Once you reach the bottom you emerge onto wide, tree-lined boulevards lined with outdoor restaurants and cafes, ideal for an ice cold beer and a tangy plate of petiscos.

Lisbon attractions

It’s hardly an original observation, but Lisbon is a truly beautiful city. From the Moorish castle and the tightly packed houses of Alfama where sheets hang on wrought-iron balconies to dry, to the UNESCO-listed Jerónimos Monastery and Belém Tower, the imposing 12th century cathedral and the spectacular Praça do Comércio, Lisbon is a place you wander with your eyes always upwards.

Many of Portugal’s finest beaches are found within a 30-minute journey from Lisbon by car or train, including wild Guincho, the lesser-known but equally dramatic Adraga, and those of the Costa de Caparica on the other side of the Tagus, where people go to see and be seen. These latter take you past the Christ the Redeemer statue, a smaller replica of the one in Rio de Janeiro. After a day on the beach the action turns to the bairros, specifically Bairro Alto, where much of Lisbon’s hippest nightlife is to be found.

Just outside of Lisbon, on the Atlantic Coast and what’s known as the ‘Portuguese Riviera’, the Sintra region is a paradise of wooded and coastal walking trails, fairytale palaces and ancient castles.

Cobbles & codfish – Lisbon culture

It’s said the Portuguese have a different cod (bacalhau) recipe for every day of the year – certainly you’ll find practically endless dishes using the national food in restaurants across the city. Lisbon is made for eating out, indeed many Lisboetas eat lunch in restaurants every day. You’re never more than a short walk from a place where a meal will set you back less than the price of a good bottle of wine in the UK, so most itineraries featuring Lisbon will sensibly include only breakfast.
Convention dictates that when in Lisbon you must try the famous custard tarts – pasteis de nata – first created by the monks of the Jerónimos Monastery and now a national institution. Along with a sharp coffee they’re fuel for walking the city’s cobbled pavements, which are frequently brightened up with mosaics. If you want to hear authentic fado, the mournful and melancholic singing so intertwined with the Portuguese character, the Alfama district is the best place to find both touristy and non-touristy venues.

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Sintra Natural Park accommodation in Portugal

Sintra Natural Park accommodation in Portugal

Eco-friendly B&B, in Sintra Natural Park near lovely beaches

From 90 to120 per room per night
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When to visit Lisbon

We always recommend exploring popular European destinations during off-peak season, when the crowds are smaller and the strain on services lessened. In Lisbon, it’s practically a necessity. This is a city built on seven steep hills, where the temperature can clip 28°C in July and August and many of the residents wisely retreat to the coast or the mountains. Lisbon in spring or autumn however is delightful, significantly cooler but still easily doable in shorts and t-shirts, and with far fewer other tourists around.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Alexander De Leon Battista] [Topbox: Alex Paganelli] [Pasteis de nata: Marco Verch] [Best time to visit: Wojtek Scibor]
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