Every place you visit has got its unique vibe. What I expected from Lisbon was the typical Mediterranean vibe, a bit like Greece, or Ibiza. But the amazingly relaxed vibe I encountered in this European capital took me by surprise. From people just chilling out and enjoying beer on one of the many miradouros (the popular vantage points scattered all around Lisbon), to street musicians and tens of people watching sunset behind the Ponte 25 de Abril together. It gives you the freedom to either join in and make new friends, or – if you’re an introverted traveller like me – to just sit back, people watch and enjoy the beautiful sunsets amidst the collective chatter and laughter.
But besides the amazing vibe, Lisbon is literally chock full of beautiful sights, quirky tourist spots and amazing viewpoints. I thought I’ve planned enough time to enjoy its beauty, but you could easily spend a week just wandering the streets and absorbing its unique atmosphere! As a minimum, I’d recommend 3 to 4 full days to explore the following places you don’t want to miss on your trip to Lisbon. Just a warning: even if you manage to hit all the main sights, you’ll find yourself longing to return as soon as possible, to explore further – I know I do! But for now, here’s my list every first-time visitor to Lisbon will want to tick off. Hope you enjoy the ride!
1. Castelo de Sᾶo Jorge
One of the main tourist attractions of Lisbon, and definitely one of its most impressive viewpoints, is the prominent castle on the hill. Built on one of the Lisbon’s seven hills, Castelo de Sᾶo Jorge played an important role in the history of Lisbon, defending the city during the Moors attacks in 12th century. Just as many other parts of the city, the castle was badly damaged during the earthquake in 1775 and the subsequent fires that destroyed many important buildings and artifacts.
However, the castle has been largely restored in the 1940s and nowadays offers an interesting insight into Lisbon’s early history. After paying the entrance fee of €10 for an adult (kids up till 12 years go for free), you can access both the castle, and the lush green gardens surrounding the Castelo. The castle gardens are both an oasis of peace and a great vantage point, offering beautiful views of the River Tejo estuary, as well as the old centre of Lisbon.
If you decide to visit the interiors of the castle, then it’s highly recommended to join one of the free tours. You can expect a guided tour of about an hour, during which you’ll see the medieval royal quarters, visit the camera obscura in one of the towers, and a museum with an impressive collection of artifacts found within the castle grounds during various archeological excavations.
But even without visiting the castle, going up here is definitely worth the climb. With the river on one side, and endless terracotta roofs on the other, you won’t want to leave this green oasis. Take your time to walk around the castle battlements and the vast park, with peacocks freely roaming around, grab a coffee and enjoy the views before making your way down the narrow streets of Alfama.
2. Tram 28 ride through Alfama
Quite an experience in its own right, catching a ride on the iconic tram 28 through the extremely steep streets of Lisbon will save you quite a few steps, too. The tram makes its way from … through the old Alfama district, one of the most authentic (and hilly!) parts of Lisbon. A single ride will cost you €3,00. It’s best to take the tram up to the Largo da Graca, and make your way either down the cobbled streets, or walk a bit up to the Castelo. Wandering through the charming streets of this artisan district is a great experience, but it’s infinitely better to walk downhill ;). Make sure you allow enough time for exploring this area, because you’ll definitely want to make a few stops on your way through Alfama. Want to know where to go and what not to skip? Keep reading!
3. Miradouro de Santa Luzia
One of the best stops you can make on the tram 28 route is this scenic spot. Miradouros are a thing in Lisbon, and you will want to visit at least a few – amazing hidden viewpoints scattered around the city, they all offer unique views of Lisbon. Why I love this one in particular are the intricate azulejos on both the Santa Luzia church and the benches. The viewpoint is set up as a garden, providing the much needed shade in the heated summer months, and, well, the views of the River Tejo estuary aren’t half bad either. Even just sitting here for a while can provide a nice respite from the endless uphill walking, but this miradouro is just as popular for catching a sunset or an Insta-worthy shot or two ;).
From here, it’s only a short walk up to the Castelo, so it’s a good idea to combine these two on your day of exploring.
4. Sé Cathedral & Igreja de Santo António
Another stop you should make on your way down is the gothic Se Cathedral (located at the Largo da Sé), with its impressive vaulted ceilings, a beautifully restored rose window, the ancient cloisters and excavations of a Moorish mosque. The cathedral is one of the most important religious buidlings in Lisbon, and it’s worth a quick visit – even if just for snapping a picture of the picturesque tram 28 passing by!
A bit further down the road, you’ll come across a much smaller church, dedicated to Lisbon’s patron saint, Santo António. This quaint little church was constructed on the site of the birthplace of Saint Anthony, who’s also the patron saint of lovers. Just outside the church, you’ll find a statue, depicting the patron saint with an open book – and here’s why you should make a quick stop on your way down! According to a legend, if a girl manages to throw a coin and make it land in the book of the saint, she will find a new (or better) partner. Worth a shot, isn’t it ;)? Guess who made the effort and actually landed a coin in the book (and it sure wasn’t easy!), while being cheered by a random Japanese tourist ;).
From here, I took the tram 28 again – which conveniently stops right in front of the church – to get back to Rossio Square. From here, it’s only a short walk to another amazing viewpoint – the Santa Justa elevator
5. Elevador de Santa Justa
The Elevador de Santa Justa might just be one of the quirkiest tourist attractions I’ve ever seen. Actually, I didn’t know about its existence until I saw captures of this unusual structure on Instagram, and I got intrigued immediately! The elevator is 45 meters high and you can see it towering above the streets of Baixa from a distance, so don’t worry about not being able to find it. It’s situated (quite unsurprisingly) at the Rue de Santa Justa, connecting the lower part of town (Baixa quarter) with the upper part around the Largo do Carmo (a square surrounding the ruins of Carmo Convent – an interesting sight in its own right, too!). The elevator was originally designed to help people get from one part of the town to another, as it is quite a steep climb otherwise! Upon its opening to public in 1902, 3000 tickets were sold to transport people up, making it a useful addition to the city’s transportation system.
Nowadays, the lift is an immensely popular tourist attraction in Lisbon, with a long queue for the elevator forming from early morning (it opens at 7:30 am) till late at night (it closes at 23:00 during summer and 21:00 during winter months). You have to buy a ticket first from the vending machine (5,30 euro for a return ticket, unless you have a Lisboa Card or a 24-hour public transport ticket), and then wait patiently to go up. The elevator can only take 20 people at once, and it’s a very short ride. However, once you reach the first platform, that’s where the fun starts: for an additional 1,50 euros, you can climb the beautiful spiral staircase to the viewing platform, and enjoy the most amazing views of Lisbon – the ruins of the Carmo Convent, Rossio Square, streets of Baixa, river Tejo and the Castelo de Sao Jorge in the distance.
*Pro tip: if you want to avoid queuing up, the actual viewing platform is also accessible from the Carmo square (Largo do Carmo), where you can visit the ruins of the Carmo Convent and the Museum of Archeology. There is also a rather nice bar overlooking the Santa Justa elevator, so it might be a nice to make a stop here and give your sore feet some rest ;).
6. The Belém area
The Belém Tower
When in Lisbon, you should devote at least a day to discovering the Belém district. Dominated by the two main attractions, the Belém Tower and the Jerónimos Monastery, there is much more to see in the Belém area. Both monuments mentioned above are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which in itself is a good reason to visit (plus, the Belém Tower is one of the most recognisable icons of Lisbon). However, there is more to Belém than meets the eye – from the popular Pastéis de Belém bakery, with arguably the best pasteis de nata, to Berardo Collection Museum, the most visited museum of modern and contemporary art in Portugal. I’d recommend visiting the latter on Saturday, when the admission is free. Every other day, you’ll pay 5 euros to visit, but you might get 30% discount if you have purchased a Lisboa card.
According to anyone I’ve spoken, visiting the Jerónimos Monastery is an absolute highlight of a trip to Lisbon. This former monastery is breathtaking inside and out, with its intricate carvings and ornate cloister walls surrounding the main square. Nowadays, it houses the Maritime Museum and the National Museum of Archeology. Unfortunately, I managed to miss a visit to the monastery, as it is closed on Mondays – so don’t make the same mistake! The same goes for the Belém Tower, which is closed for public on Mondays, but I’d skip going inside anyway to be honest, as it is famously very crowded and pretty tiny inside. Even on a regular Monday, the area was pretty crowded, but it was definitely easier to take a decent picture of both sights.
*Pro tip: If you decide to visit both the Belém Tower and the monastery, don’t forget you can get free access to both if you purchase a Lisboa Card for the day! The 24-hour card costs €20, but it will save you €10 for the ticket to the monastery, €6,80 for the Belém tower, and provide you with unlimited free transportation for the day. To get to and from Belém, you’ll need to either catch the train leaving from Cais do Sodré, stopping at Belém station, or by tram 15 from the city centre.
7. LX Factory
Situated in a former factory just under the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge, this is the place to be in Lisbon. It’s packed with quirky sourvenir shops, graffiti art, hipster cafés and one of the most instragrammable bookshops you’ll ever see – the Ler Devagar bookshop. I took tons of pictures (including an amazing David Bowie mural!) and treated myself to a great cup of coffee here – the only thing I regret is not bringing a bigger luggage, so I could pick up a few funny gifts or souvenirs in of the shops!
8. Time Out Lisbon
Still riding on the hipster wave J, another popular hotspot you can’t miss in Lisbon is the TimeOut food hall. Situated right across the street from Cais do Sodré train and metro station, it’s very easy to find and a great place to grab dinner after a day of exploring the city. First off, the buidling itself is pretty amazing, with a lot of art deco elements still preserved. But apart from that, it offers some of the best food in Lisbon – which is why it’s practically packed every night. Tourists and hipsters unite and mingle here, enjoying just about any cuisine you can think of. Definitely one of the best foodie tips you can get for Lisbon!
9. Parque de Nações & Oceanárium
Once you’ve allowed yourself enough time to explore the heart of Lisbon and its central parts (Alfama, Bairro Alto, Baixa and Belém), you might feel adventurous enough to venture just outside the city centre to explore one of its modern parts: the Parque des Nações. This modern area, which served as an exhibition area for the Lisbon World Exposition in 1998, consists of a number of pavillions and exhibition halls which serve a number of purposes nowadays.
If you decide to head over here for a day, you’ll probably arrive to the beautiful, modern train station Estacio Oriente. You can easily get here by taking the metro from Cais do Sodré, or catching a bus nr. 728. I took the latter, for just €2 one way, and after 30 minutes I hopped off to admire one of the most beautiful train stations I’ve ever seen. From here, it’s only a short walk to one of the main attractions in Lisbon, the Oceanário.
A bit different from the average SeaLife experience, the Oceanário is famed for actively working on and educating people about oceans and underwater life preservation. You can admire the manta rays and sharks here, or watch penguins and sea otters having a bath. Overall, I loved spending a few hours in here, even though it was a bit pricey (€19 euros for an adult ticket).
10. Vasco da Gama cable car
After your visit to the Oceanário, you can enjoy a much cheaper attraction – the cable car ride to the Vasco da Gama tower. The cable car’s starting point is just next to the Oceanário, and a single ride is only €4 euros (€2,60 for kids). It’s just a short ride, but pretty cool nevertheless, as it offers amazing views of the longest bridge in Europe – the Vasco da Gamma bridge. It also offers you a great panoramic views of this ultra-modern part of Lisbon you might not be aware of otherwise. Overall, I spent a nice day out here, finishing off with some souvenir shopping in the Vasco da Gama shopping centre. If you have an extra (or a rainy) day while in Lisbon, you know where to go!
Want to explore more?
Now, to be honest with you, even after having explored all of the above, I still have the feeling I’ve only scratched the surface of everything Lisbon has to offer. There are beautiful public parks, a botanical garden (Jardim Botânico), countless musea I didn’t get the chance to visit (such as the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, which is also free to visit with the Lisboa card). For a relatively small city, Lisbon definitely has got a lot going on, and a plethora of interesting places to explore.
Here’s an honorable mention of some of the iconic symbols of Lisbon I didn’t have the time to visit, but you might! One of the symbols of Lisbon, the Cristo Rei statue, is situated just across the Tagus river, in Almada. It is a monument clearly visible from most of Lisbon’s main sights. This 80 meters high statue (inspired by the Chist the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro) offers unparalleled views of Lisbon, and its most famous suspension bridge: the Ponte 25 de Abril. You can reach the Cristo Rei statue by a ferry, leaving from Cais do Sodré a few times a day. Plus, if you make your way to the viewing platform on top of the monument, you’ll be rewarded by one of the best views in Lisbon. Judging from the pictures I’ve seen, if there’s one place to catch an incredible sunset, it’s certainly from the top of Cristo
So, what do you say? Have I persuaded you to visit this beautiful European capital? If yes, I sincerely hope you’ll make use of some of these tips, learn from my mistakes, and make the most of your visit. Maybe I’ll meet you there! Because I know for sure that one day, I’ll be back. So long, Lisbon!