Where to go
Things to do in Lisbon
Portugal’s cultured capital sings to you like a mermaid. At every corner, Lisbon entices you to explore further. It’s a city that often feels like a village despite a wealth of grandiose reminders of past imperial glories. In the heart of Lisbon, there are the history-steeped districts of Alfama and Bairro Alto to poke around, and the elegant boulevards of Baixa Pombalina to discover. Then there are medieval monuments such as the cathedral and St George’s Castle. And just out of town, beautiful Belem and fairytale-like Sintra are worth a day trip. Other top things to do in Lisbon include a ride on one of the retro trams, a boat trip on the Tagus and a visit to the National Tile Museum. Top six things to do in Lisbon 1. Wander around Alfama Like ancient Rome, Lisbon is built on seven hills, which are named after saints. Straddling two of them is the district of Alfama, for many the very essence of Lisbon. Wander its narrow, cobblestone streets fringed by a mix of peeling-paint and tiled townhouses en route to the Gothic Sé Cathedral and the hilltop St George’s Castle. The views over the terracotta-topped city and River Tagus estuary are well worth the climb. 2. Uptown and downtown Lisbon A devastating earthquake and tsunami in 1755 flattened much of Lisbon. The area that survived, because of its elevation, was Bairro Alto. The name means ‘Upper Neighbourhod’, and it’s now an atmospheric warren of tram-tracked streets fringed by hip bars, cafés and restaurants. It’s so cool that it merits visits by day and night. The area that didn’t survive the tsunami was rebuilt to withstand earthquakes. Now known as Baixa Pombalina, its elegant wide boulevards have earned it UNESCO World Heritage Site status. 3. Discover Belem Just a brief tram trip out of town, Belem boasts three monuments that on their own are worth an excursion. The most important is the Jeronimos Monastery, which is one of the best examples of Manueline Gothic architecture. Its ornate style is so elaborate that it has the appearance of melted candles. And on the riverfront, you’ll find the Instagrammable Tower of Belem, which is also in the Manueline style and, with the monastery, constitutes a UNESCO-listed site. The third star attraction is the Monument of the Discoveries, which pays homage to Portuguese explorers. And no visit to Belem would be complete without savouring a pastel de nata custard tart – you’ll spot where you can but them by the queues outside. 4. Explore the palaces of Sintra and Cascais If Belen is a mecca for Manueline architecture, then Sintra and Cascais can lay claim to crowns of their own. Both towns – each is a 30-minute drive from Lisbon – were the playground of Portuguese royalty. Sintra’s romanticist Pena Palace is a medley of colours crowning a hill like a fairytale castle. The palace’s park is also dreamlike. And nearby is the eclectic Quinta da Regaleira palace. As you wander its gardens, with their ‘initiation wells’, you feel like you’ve stepped into Alice in Wonderland. Coastal Cascais is where the Portuguese elite holidayed in the late 19th century and boasts a collection of lavish villas known as ‘summer architecture’. 5. Tagus estuary boat trip and old town tram For contrasting views of Lisbon, it’s hard to beat a boat trip on the Tagus estuary and a vintage tram ride through the old town. There are speedboat and sailboat options, with most going under the Golden Gate-like 25th April Bridge to Belem to see its monuments and gliding along the Praça do Comercio and Alfama to see the National Pantheon. For an altogether different adventure, a tram ride through the heart of the city is a must-do. The Nº28 line ticks all the boxes – its yellow retro carriages wind their way for 7km of the historic districts of Graça, Alfama, Baixa and Estrela. 6. Fado, food and tiles At first glance, mournful music, soulful seafood and hand-painted tiles have nothing in common – but they’re Lisbon’s holy trinity. Fado music clubs abound. This melodramatic, almost anguished yet highly expressive genre evokes the hardship of yesteryear for Lisbon’s poor. It’s also music that is closely associated with female singers. Fish is the star of Lisbon’s food scene. Cod with white wine and peppers, grilled sardines and octopus are staples on most menus while bread rolls stuffed with marinated pork are a popular snack. Lisbon is a city where you stare at tiles – you simply can’t miss them. Many façades are decorated in these, mostly blue-and-white, works of art. But if you want to be bowled over, visit the National Tile Museum for a dazzling collection of hand-painted ‘azulejos’.