Looking back at my photos, it feels like I visited the magical city of Lisbon, Portugal a lifetime ago. I don’t imagine much as changed since I was there. It’s the kind of city that will forever retain an old-world charm rooted in history, nostalgia, and national pride. It’s no surprise, then, that the best things to do in Lisbon take advantage of the city’s past and its individuality. Even better, everything in Lisbon is affordable, making it a perfect destination for budget travelers! Should you find yourself in Lisbon, here’s what you can’t miss.
A Vida Portuguesa
If you go to one store in Lisbon, make it A Vida Portuguesa. You’ll find all things Portuguese here, great for mementos, souvenirs, and gifts. We actually came here several times because we kept wanting to buy more!
With such a huge selection, it’s hard to narrow down exactly what you want. My favorite purchases ended up being a small set of Portugal’s world-famous Claus soaps, and a set of azulejo (tile) coasters that have become a permanent fixture in my kitchen.
Fado is the national music of Portugal. It’s characterized by moody guitar riffs, overall melancholy, and lyrics that convey a sense of saudade, or longing for things passed. I highly recommend going to at least one fado performance to experience this unique genre.
Although the fado bars in Chiado were packed during our stay, we were fortunate to witness an outdoor performance from a balcony. It was a pleasant surprise as well as a touching moment, as hundreds of passerby stopped in their tracks all at once to enjoy the music together.
A short train ride from the Cais do Sodre station in Lisbon on the Cascais line will take you to the picturesque district of Belém. A day trip here would be incomplete without a visit to Pasteis de Belém, a bakery known for inventing Portugal’s signature pastry, Pastel de Nata. This small shop can be distinguished by the sweet aroma and long lines coming out the door. Grab a couple (or more) of these warm, custard-filled treats, sprinkle them with powdered sugar and cinnamon, and scarf them down at the nearby park, Jardim de Belém.
While you’re there, make sure you check out the Jerónimos Monestary, a 500-year old architectural decked in exquisite, ornate detail.
If you’re craving a day at the beach, the coastal town of Cascais is the place to be. The scenic train ride from Lisbon’s Cais do Sodre station provides plenty of views of the waterfront.
There are many beaches to choose from depending on what you are looking for. We settled on Praia de Rainha, a small, yet not overly crowded, beach complete with beautiful blue waters and a bar serving refreshing frozen drinks.
An hour-long train ride from Lisbon’s Rossio station will take you to the picturesque town of Sintra. This is a must-visit for architecture enthusiasts, as there are many landmarks to admire, most notably the Pena Palace and the Castelo dos Mouros. Tour buses drive to the castles, but it’s also possible to reach them on foot if you are in decent shape and don’t mind walking uphill.
After hiking around all day, we were in need of some R & R and found the perfect oasis in the quaint Café Saudade back in the heart of town.
National Coach Museum
Located in Belém, this spacious building houses a collection of ornate coaches from the 16th through 19th centuries. It’s fascinating to see the progression of carriage design over time as well as the different styles favored by royalty and the church – some of the most elaborate coaches in the collection belonged to the Pope!
Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum)
In Portugal, tiles are an art form. Tile art can be found everywhere in Lisbon, from the facades of buildings to art installations in public areas. You best realize this when you admire the intricate tile murals at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo. One exhibit you can’t miss here is a tile mural of the Lisbon skyline, which runs along the wall of an entire floor of the museum.
Museu Nacional de Arte Antigua (National Museum of Ancient Art)
If you could spend days admiring the Old World paintings at the Met, you have to come here. The museum boasts an impressive collection of paintings and other works by Portuguese artists, dating back to the Middle Ages. Being that Portugal is an historically Catholic nation, you’ll find a lot of religious themes and subjects here, such as those in the famous Saint Vincent Panels.
MUDE (Museu do Design e da Moda)
If modern art is more your style, the MUDE is the place to be. This museum features sculpture, furniture, and fashion from the 19th century to the present. The style-conscious will appreciate the first floor of the museum, which acts as a timeline of fashion trends and includes works from famous designers such as Christian Dior and Vivienne Westwood.
As you walk through the Lisbon Oceanarium, you’ll quickly notice the oceanarium’s dedication to its mission of conservation and environmental education. The oceanarium houses an impressive collection of thousands of marine creatures. My favorite of these was the massive sunfish – the first I had ever seen in person. Apparently they are extremely rare to find in aquariums because of the high demands that come with caring for them.
This street is a popular tourist destination, but don’t let the crowds discourage you from checking it out. You can find a wide variety of shops and outdoor cafes here, as well as the occasional street performer. Make sure you stop by the Rua Augusta Arch at the end of the street for a photo op!
If you’re looking for a starting point for exploring the city, Rossio Square is an ideal place to begin. With its beautiful fountains, distinctive patterned walkway, and imposing statue of Dom Pedro IV, the square is hard to miss. There’s lots of sightseeing to be done within walking distance, including the Castelo de São Jorge and Sé Cathedral. Rossio Station is also located right by the square if you feel inclined to take a day trip by train.
Lisbon’s location along the Rio Tejo was a main contributing factor to its emergence as a prominent trade location. Now, locals and tourists alike can enjoy the picturesque view of the waterfront, whether you do so in an outdoor cafe, or while strolling along the boardwalk. This guide points out some excellent viewing locations. Keep an eye out for the massive Vasco da Gama bridge, the largest bridge in Europe!
When in Lisbon, you’ll see these distinctive yellow trams weaving through the streets. The Tram 28 line, whose cars date back to the 1930s, offers the most comprehensive views of the city, taking riders through popular districts such as Alfama, Chiado, Barrio Alto, and Baixa, and up the steep hills to some of the city’s most sought-after landmarks.
We used Airbnb for our entire stay and it worked out wonderfully! I highly recommend staying in the Chiado district if it’s your first visit – it’s a safe neighborhood full of hip restaurants and independent shops, within walking distance of many attractions such as the hard-partying Barrio Alto district. We found an affordable bed and breakfast room in Chiado through Airbnb and saved quite a bit of money eating a complimentary breakfast every morning.
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