Let’s kick off by saying that, in all honesty, I fell in love with Lisbon upon my first visit. And while I’m not going to pretend I have a wealth of insider’s tips, I want to pass on the tips I’ve gained and help you avoid the unnecessary mistakes I’ve made along the way. . After all, we’ve all been first-time visitors somewhere once!
In this quick and easy guide, I’ve covered some of the basics, from how to get to the city center to understanding common place name and learning some useful, basic Portuguese phrases. Lastly, I’ve also linked a couple of useful sites that helped me prepare my first trip to Lisbon, as well as my list of 10 things you don’t want to miss on your trip to Lisbon!
I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but before I visited Lisbon, I knew very little about its history. For one, I wasn’t aware of the 1755 earthquake, that practically destroyed the city. Yet somehow, Lisbon managed to preserve its historical face and original glory, restoring and rebuilding as much as they could. Even a short, weekend visit is an excellent opportunity to learn more about Lisbon’s interesting history, and get a taste of the unique, relaxed culture and famous Portuguese hospitality.
Getting to the city centre from the airport
When it comes to travelling to Lisbon, the good news is that there are many low cost companies in Europe, offering incredibly cheap flight tickets to Lisbon. I am a frequent flyer myself, and, depending on the season and time of booking, I’d often fly for as little as 15-20 euros one way. So, with a bit of luck, you can plan your next exciting city trip for the price of a regular train ticket!
Another good news is that you don’t have to give an arm and an leg to get to the city centre. Once you landed at the airport (Aeroporto Humberto Delgado), the easiest, quickest and relatively cheap way to get yourself to the city centre is catching a taxi outside the arrivals hall. It will cost you approximately 15-20 euros to get to central Lisbon, and since the distance is not huge (about 7 km), you’ll be able to relax in your hotel in less than 30 minutes (depending on where you’re staying, obviously).
As a true budget traveller, I used the airport shuttle (Aerobus 1), which sets you back mere €3,60 for a one-way ticket. The shuttle leaves every 10 minutes during the day (operating between 8am and 9pm), and will bring you directly to the Cais do Sodré train and metro station, stopping a few times along the way (at most of the famous squares and metro stops, such as Praça do Rossio and Praça do Comércio). Welcome to Lisbon!
Discovering Lisbon: Getting around
If your accommodation is in the city centre, you’ll probably find out that pretty much all the main sights are within walking distance – just be prepared for some pretty steep hills and lots and lots of stairs. However, if you want to venture a bit further, a great way of discovering Lisbon is taking a ride on the iconic yellow trams. Yes, I’m talking about the famous “Remodelado” trams. They come with a warning, though – some of them, especially the popular tram 28, can get very crowded with tourists. The locals, in turn, are not amused by this, so try to be mindful of the fact that these yellow cuties are simply a mode for transportation, rather than a tourist attraction.
Elevador & ascensores
Another popular way of getting from one part of Lisbon to another are the ‘elevador’ or ‘ascensores’, such as the famous Elevador da Bica. They will not only save you quite a few steep steps, they are hugely Instragrammable, too! Be prepared to queue up a bit, though, as there will be a line of tourists and locals alike forming on both sides of the elevator any time of the day.
One elevator that probably needs little introduction is the Elevador da Santa Justa, which is definitely more of a tourist attractions than an actual means of transport for anyone living in Lisbon. In other words, you’d have to be mad for queue up for hours, to subsequently pay €5,30 for a return ticket, just to save you some steps. Luckily, you don’t have to – there’s a secret trick to avoiding both the queueing up and paying for the ticket, so read on!
A less picturesque, but certainly more efficient way of getting around Lisbon is the metro, which is pretty affordable, too – a single ride ticket will cost you €1,50. Alternatively, you can opt for an unlimited 24h ticket, which costs €6,40. Another option – but not necessarily a better one – is getting the Lisboa card upon your arrival. There are various options, but the biggest advantage of the Lisboa card is the large number of tourist attractions that are included for free – Santa Justa elevator, the Belém Tower and the Jerónimos Monastery, to name just a few.
2. Best time to visit
On average, about 4,5 million tourists visit Lisbon each year. If that doesn’t sound like an awful lot to you, maybe it’s worth noting that the actual population of central Lisbon is just over 500,000 people. I believe this puts things into more perspective, and as you might imagine, Lisbon – due to its relatively small size – is one of the many places that really struggle with overtourism.
During the last decade, Lisbon has become immensely popular amongst both leisure travellers and digital nomads; the latter often find refuge in this beautiful city, with its easy access to gorgeous beaches, yet reasonable costs of living. This also resulted in a surge of hipster cafés and coworking spaces, which are still hugely on the rise. And, last but not least, overtourism in certain areas is partly caused by Instagram popularity of places such as Belém tower or the palaces of Sintra.
Long story short, if you’re visiting Lisbon area during the high season (June – August), be prepared for huge crowds. If you want to truly enjoy Lisbon at a more leisurely pace, I’d definitely recommend avoiding the summer season, and opt for the shoulder season instead. Anywhere from early spring (April-May) to late autumn (September-October) is a much more agreeable time to discover the highlights of Lisbon, as both the number of tourists and temperatures decrease.
3. Mistakes to avoid
Santa Justa elevator
As mentioned before, one of the mistakes you want to avoid is actually paying for the Santa Just elevator. First of all, if you really want to experience the 15 seconds ride, it is included in the Lisboa Card, so you might be better off getting the card for a day and hit most of the sights and musea for free in one day!
However, if you want to avoid the immense queue that forms at the elevator any time of the day (and big part of the night, too), know that the bridge connecting the elevator and the viewing platform is also accessible from the Carmo square (Largo do Carmo), where you can also visit the ruins of the Carmo Convent and the Museum of Archeology. From here, you just cross the steel bridge and enjoy the same views most tourists paid for a queued up for hours. You’re welcome. There is also a rather nice bar near Carmo Convent, overlooking the Santa Justa elevator, which makes for a nice stop and an excellent opportunity to give your sore feet some rest ;).
Another mistake many visitors make is buying separate tickets for the Jerónimos Monastery and the Tower of Belém. First of all, free entry to these two beautiful sights is already included in the Lisboa card, so you might make use of that; plus, since you’ll also need to catch tram number 15 to the Belém area and back, you’re bound to get the value of the card back in a single day. But even if you didn’t purchase your card, it is still cheaper to buy a combined ticket to the monastery and the tower, rather than buying two separate tickets.
That said, don’t make the same mistake I made during my first visit: heading to the Belém area on Monday, when both the monastery and the tower are closed. Unless you go there on purpose, which is not a bad idea at all – you will be able to take some great pictures without the crowds, and enjoy a walk around the area.
Bonus tip: if you visit the Belém area on Saturday, you’ll be able to visit the Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art for free!
As said before, Lisbon itself is not huge, and therefore feels generally compact and safe. But while most of Lisbon can be considered safe, there are some areas that are better be avoided at night, especially when you’re a solo female traveller. For example, the famous nightlife hub at Pink Street, and the more hidden alleys of the Bairro Alto neighbourhood, did not feel particularly pleasant when I walked through in the dark, returning to my hostel later than anticipated.
Another part of the city I wasn’t really fond of was the area around the Cais do Sodré station, which cleary served as a shelter for homeless population. Both the metro entrance and the surrounding streets smelled of urine, something that did not make for a pleasant walk, nor contributed to feeling safe around here.
One more thing I’d be aware of, especially if you’re travelling alone, is that in some places, Google maps didn’t really seem to work. On my first day, I ended up walking in circles for quite a while, before finally locating the hostel I stayed in. Dorky as it sounds, make sure you write down the name and location of your hotel or airbnb on a good old piece of paper. In case your battery dies, because you took a few too many pics (anyone?), you’ll at least be able to ask a local for directions.
While no one will expect you to speak Portuguese fluently when visiting Lisbon, it is definitely helpful – and polite – to learn a few basic phrases before you go. One of the words I picked up quickly was ‘obrigado’ (if you’re male) or ‘obrigada’ (if you’re female), which means ‘thank you’. Whenever I used it, be it in a shop or just as a nod to a stranger who let you walk by, I was rewarded with a smile.
Luckily, Portguese bears a strong resemblance to Spanish, so if you know the basics, you should be able to pick up and use a few simple phrases real quick. Take the phrase ‘bom dia’, for example, which means ‘good morning’, or the simple ‘como está?’, which translates as ‘how are you doing?’. Another phrase that might come in handy is ‘Quanto custa…?’, which means ‘how much is …?’. I don’t think you want to venture deeper into the language than this, simply because you might get an answer in Portuguese, and subsequently admit defeat (been there, done that).
However, if you’re feeling adventurous and want to learn a bit more of this beautiful language, check out this easy guide from The Culture Trip, which includes the pronounciation and detailed explanation of 10 essential Portuguese phrases.
When it comes to place names, it can be handy to write down a few place names before you head off, so that they sound recognisable and at least vaguely familiar. For example, on my way from the airport, I found out the driver just shouts out the name of the next stop, rather than having it displayed on an electronic board (I guess we’re a bit spoilt in the Netherlands). Not a problem, really, but I was having a hard time understanding what he says! It’s just the pronunciation of most of the place names was different from how it looked like on Google maps. Luckily, my cue was ‘Praça de Commercio’ (pronounced ‘pra-ka’), where most of the trams and buses connect to other parts of the city.
What really helps me when navigating a new city is learning some of the general names in the local language. So, ‘praça’ in Portuguese means ‘square’, ‘rua’ is a ‘street’, and ‘miradouro’ is a vantage or viewing point on top of the hill (you don’t want to miss out on these, as there are numerous ‘miradouros’ scattered around Lisbon, all offering breathtaking views of the city!).
Ask a local
Should you really get lost wandering the small, crooked streets of the older parts of Lisbon (and trust me, you will), don’t hesitate to ask a local for help or directions. Literally everyone I spoke to was incredibly friendly, helpful and proud to show me around. Despite the huge number of tourists (and I’m talking off-season!), the locals did not seem to be bother with endless inquiries, or the tourists’ poor attempts at speaking Portuguese. It really felt appreciated, and, personally, I really grew fond of the hospitality of everyone here. So, what are you waiting for? Just book that trip already, and see for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.