Lisbon is Always Smiling
Thursday, September 19th, 2019
What is it that makes a vacation destination tick all the check boxes? Aside from fair weather, when you come down to it so much depends on the people, the culture, and the beauty of the natural and made environment. Add a few conveniences and luxuries and you have the makings of a vacation or holiday worthy of the time and expense.
If you are seeking a vibrant yet relaxed Western European destination that offers it all, and with lower prices, amazing wine, friendly people, art, and a wonderful climate, the answer is Lisbon, Portugal. Whether it’s a family vacation, a honeymoon, a solo holiday, or a celebration with friends, Lisbon is always smiling.
We’ll share some tips and thoughts on what to do in and around Lisbon, Portugal. We recommend this wonderful and flexible destination for a few days or considerably longer. It’s great if you have a bit more time to branch out and enjoy the rest of what Portugal or neighboring Spain has to offer.
Language and Diversity
Let’s cover the basics of communication. Lisbon is a melting pot. While Portuguese is the official language, it is by no means your only mode of communication. English is so widely spoken it will get you just about anywhere. Since Portuguese is based on Latin, your Spanish, French or Italian can be handy to fill things in especially if you explore the countryside. But don’t worry, people are very friendly and things like menus, signs, or maps are typically printed in a number of languages.
Where to Stay
To get the most out of your time in Lisbon you’re probably best staying in the old city center or one of the nearby neighborhoods. Lovely areas would include the Chiado, Bairro Alto, Baixa Pombalina, and Alfama districts. Lisbon offers a delightful array of accommodations from name-brand hotels to hip boutique B&B flats, converted palaces, and even spas and beach resorts a short ride from the city.
Lisboa Card Discounts
It’s recommended that you purchase the Lisboa Card which will gain you free admission to over 35 museums and discounted admissions to loads of attractions and amenities in the area. It even includes free use of the city transportation system. The card itself can be scanned at train terminals and buses for immediate entry. The Lisboa Card can be purchased in 24, 48, and 72-hour increments with reasonable adult and child rates. They can be purchased in a number of tourist office locations including the Airport and the Lisboa Story Center, mentioned later.
Lisbon and its surroundings are easy to get around without renting a car. Taxies are a reliable and reasonably priced option and can get you from the international airport to the city-center in as little as 15 minutes for around 20 Euros. Taxies abound and can be hailed the old fashioned way or with apps like Uber or FreeNow.
Once you settle into your accommodations, you are likely to find Lisbon’s charming streetcars rolling along just outside your window. A ride on one of these beauties is a popular attraction but they do tend to get very packed during commuting hours. It helps if you get on at one of the terminal stops.
Bring your FitBit and camera because Lisbon is extremely walk-able with rewarding views offered from the tops of its seven hills and from the riverfront. The shopping, landmarks, dining, and street art you will find along the way fills the time with adventure and beauty. Lisbon’s sidewalks and streets are also known for their mesmerizing white and black patterned cobblestones. This adds to the aesthetic of the city but also means you should bring comfortable shoes and beware of uneven surfaces.
Travel about Lisbon, Portugal is an attraction unto itself. Like other major European cities, Lisbon has a comprehensive metro, intercity-rail, and bus system with several stations conveniently located about the city. You can buy tickets on the trams and buses themselves or at the many stations.
It’s hard not to notice the vast number of e-scooters scooting about. For many tourists and locals, this is a great way to get around or just enjoy a cruise down the very long riverfront walk. A variety of Hop-on / Hop-Off bus tours can also be used for both transportation and a basic tour of the major sites and attractions. The “Lisboat” is a hop-on / hop-off tour boat that offers a pleasurable cruise and means of travel along Lisbon’s long riverfront.
Part transportation, part tour, a Tuk Tuk (pronounced ‘Took Took’ in Lisbon) is a cute 3-wheeled motor vehicle with a driver that can take a whole party on board. The drivers are trained tour guides and play an integral part in the Lisbon culture. Tuk Tuks are a great way to conquer the city’s hills and get a personalized tour of the sites and neighborhoods.
Food and Drink
Ask any foodie and Portugal ranks high up there as a place to enjoy local specialties as well as finely prepared world cuisines and gastronomic delights from top chefs. Perhaps, what the Portuguese are most known for is a wide selection of extremely fresh, locally-caught seafood.
Try lunch at Time Out Lisboa to understand the diversity of the culinary offerings of Lisbon. There you will enjoy a lively, modern food hall with dozens of epicurean options. There is also an ongoing craft and arts fair in the same building.
The Portuguese custard tart is the signature, must-do pastry of Portugal. Almost every block or two you can find a cafe or bakery to get your fill. It’s the tart version of crème brûlée and is luscious for breakfast or as a dessert with some local port!
The Portuguese are obsessive about eating nothing but the freshest seafood. Their ancient maritime culture and access to the bounty of the sea means that fish is caught and served on the same day. Cod, turbot, snapper, grouper, monkfish, flounder, octopus, shellfish, and other delicacies are abundant. Fish is generally grilled and served simply with potatoes and vegetables but there are also lovely preparations with delicate sauce or cooked with savory rice, similar to Spanish paella. Sardines are a local delicacy that can be bought in artfully designed tins or freshly caught and barbequed whole. Steaks, chicken, pizzas, and vegetarian eats are easy to find as well.
Wine and other Libations
Delectably sweet and potent, port wine is uniquely Portuguese. There are numerous varieties of both red and white port that are worth trying. Don’t worry if port isn’t your bag! Portugal also produces lovely dry red and white wines from its many wine regions.
Aside from the wine, there are some liquors worth trying, such as the potent aguardiente, a brandy made from grapes. Or try the sweet Ginja, made from local Morello sour cherries. It’s popular to have it served in edible chocolate shot glasses sold by the old ladies in the street. Refreshing lager beer can be found just about anywhere – Sangres and Super Bock are the major local brands.
Dining al fresco
Lisbon is a wonderful city to eat just about any type of cuisine but even better is that the climate is so inviting for outdoor dining and a drink or two. You won’t have to look far to find delicious outdoor options along the waterfront or nestled among the quaint cobble streets and allies. Another special way to taste Lisbon is to take a guided gastronomy tour.
Rua Augusta in the center of the city is Lisbon’s premier outdoor pedestrian mall. Come here for shopping but also to enjoy the captivating performances of the many bursars and artists. This area has a variety of big-name, luxury, and boutique stores. There are also many lovely local shops and markets all around town; so slip into your walking shoes and see what you can find!
Two very uniquely Portuguese crafts involve natural cork and ceramic tile making. Portugal is the world’s leading producer of natural cork from the cork oak tree. Here, cork is used to make clothing, shoes, purses, wallets, and a number of other crafts. You can shop for cork and tile crafts and art all over the city.
Fado music is the essence of Portugal. It features distinctive string instruments, gorgeous heart-strung vocals, and lovely rhythms of folk music mixed with gypsy jazz. There are several venues to enjoy Fado about town, with the biggest variety of venues in the charming Alfama District neighborhood near the Museu do Fado (Fado Museum of Lisbon). Here’s a link to a famous Fado track on YouTube.
What’s Going On?
Lisbon offers many museums, palaces, cathedrals, professional sports, festivals, concerts, gardens, a zoo, an aquarium, and other attractions. A great way to kick off your first full day is to go to the Lisboa Story Center which offers a short, family-friendly, and interactive self-guided tour and movie of the history of Lisbon through the ages. Admission is free with the Lisboa Card, mentioned earlier.
The Lisboa Story Center is conveniently located on the breath-taking Praça do Comércio, a large and stately plaza that sits with open arms at the expansive and lively waterfront. From there, you will also see a massive and ornate archway leading towards the Rua Augusta pedestrian mall. There are numerous museums, galleries, and attractions in this area.
If castles interest you, then you won’t be disappointed by Lisbon’s Castelo de Sao Jorge which sits proudly above the city. Get there with a bit more time and you can take a guided tour which is included with admission. Stroll this hilltop Moorish castle battlement with panoramic views of Lisbon, and a walk-through of the luxurious palace inside.
Museums abound and there is something for everyone. If you’re looking for a large collection including an exquisite mixture of folk, classical, and world-class modern art try out the Gulbenkian Museum. It’s on the north side of town, near the large city park and gardens at Parque Edwardo VII, and accessible via metro.
Family Travel in Lisbon
Lisbon offers many attractions and conveniences for families. In addition to the easy transportation, friendly atmosphere, children’s menus, fair climate, and easy communication, there are many attractions. On the east side of the city, kids will love the aquarium and the nearby sky tram that crosses the massive River Tagus. On the west side of town, there is the Museu da Marioneta where they can enjoy the humor and spectacle of the history of puppetry. The Lisbon Zoo and Children’s Museum are on the north side of the city with both metro and bus stops.
Take a funicular or streetcar about town for an old-world ride that kids love. Rent e-scooters or bicycles to enjoy the many bike lanes about the area, especially along the extensive riverfront. Hit the nearby beaches for surfing or kiteboarding lessons with professional teachers and guides. There’s even the Adventure Park just outside of town with tree and ropes courses for a variety of ages. And if you are looking for even more there’s also the National Museum of Natural History and Science.
Outside the City Limits
Just a few stops down the light rail from Cais do Sodré (Lisbon’s Waterfront Station) or even a pleasant waterfront scooter ride west out of Lisbon is the smaller city of Belém. Originally, home to many royal palaces and estates, one finds a beautiful waterfront location there with a number of attractions and cafes.
It is a location well worth visiting if you want a super close and easy expansion of your Lisbon journey. This is also a good area to stay if you can’t find accommodations inside Lisbon proper. There are even old palaces that are converted to luxurious inns and B&B’s.
First, visit MAAT, the Museum of Architecture and Technology. It is a very unique museum that is part of the postmodern art journey and part industrial-era technology hall. It is both adult and kid-friendly. Part of the museum is a completely overhauled electric power plant that you can explore; even walk inside a once operable coal-fired boiler! The Lisboa Pass gets you in for free.
From the MAAT, take a stroll down the river-walk and find two architectural treasures listed on the UNESCO World Heritage register. The Moorish Belém Tower and the Gothic Jerónimos Monastery are each unique and worth the visit. In that area, you will also find the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the Monument to the Maritime Explorers, the National Carriage Museum, more museums, palaces, gardens, and scooters!
The picturesque, lush, colorful, mountainous town of Sintra is just an hour train ride from Lisbon and absolutely worth it. Sintra is superlative! Sintra has thick forests and windy mountain roads with distant ocean views. As one makes their way up the mountain you encounter massive palaces and castles, many of which are open to the public. They all accept the Lisboa Card.
It is highly recommended that you visit three sites in particular. You will need about 8-10 hours in Sintra to complete all three and they don’t disappoint. You can even stay a night or two at one of Sintra’s luxurious hotels and guest houses to get a more relaxed experience and take advantage of the forest hiking trails and old town vibe.
Renting a car to tour Sintra is a bit sketchy but doable. The paved roads leading up to the palaces are extremely narrow, steep, windy, and difficult to navigate. It is very easy to take a train from Lisbon to Sintra. Once there, we recommend hiring taxis, a tuk-tuk, or jumping on a bus to connect the sites. However, if you have the time, there is a lovely yet steep, marked forest trail that connects them all.
Park and National Palace of Pena
For some, Sintra’s Palace of Pena does it all. Almost as if out of a Disney film, this is a mountain-top palace of nearly unequaled design and flamboyance. The architecture is the epitome of the regal romantic style with vivid colors, fantastic shapes and textures, panoramic views, extensive gardens, intricate stone carvings, and defensive battlements. It expresses the power and imagination of the royalty who built it. Walk the massive grounds or pay a bit extra for a guided tour of the interior of the lavish palace. They even have a stable if you want to experience the massive grounds on horseback!
Castle of the Moors
At the craggiest top of the mountain overlooking Sintra and the sea beyond lies the medieval Castle of the Moors. This site is equally impressive but portrays a much older, war-faring time in Portugal. The castle is a massive hill-top fortress with a highly fortified castle keep. If medieval times and archaeology interest your party this is an exciting place to visit. The castle walls are easy to spot from far away and look very similar to the Great Wall of China.
Quinta da Regaleira
The Portuguese aristocracy during Sintra’s romantic period really were visionaries of the fantastic. A visit to Quinta da Regaleria is like following the White Rabbit down the hole into Alice’s Wonderland. A large hillside estate, the palace, and its numerous structures are of ornately sculpted stone of the highest craftsmanship. However, it is the landscape architecture that really makes this palace magical. Find networks of secret caves that connect lush jungle-like terraces, sculpture gardens, water features, and pools. When you visit the Qunita you really get a glimpse into what wealth can do to create not only beautiful but also to celebrate the imagination.
Portugal is well known for its beaches and craggy coastal cliffs. The powerful Atlantic sets the stage for world-class surfing, sailing, kite-boarding, and honeymooning! You can find hidden beaches all over Portugal’s craggy coasts but if you are looking for a perfect spot that is just a short jump from the sites in Sintra, try Praia da Adraga. There you will find quiet sandy beaches with gorgeous rock towers and cliffs. Rent an umbrella and a chair for just a few Euros for the entire day and chillax. This beach is one of the many gorgeous spots just outside of Lisbon in the Sintra-Cascais National Park. You can also find resorts and luxurious accommodations in this area if you want to spend more time in this gorgeous region.
Beyond Lisbon and deeper into Portugal
While Lisbon is a destination unto itself there is much more to do in Portugal. Here’s where renting a car comes in handy. Portugal’s highway system is quite good and easy to handle. There are numerous beaches, castles, ancient ruins, and sea cliffs as you follow the Atlantic coast north or south of Lisbon. In a relaxed region to the south known as the Algarve you can find stunning sea cliffs and caves, lovely fishing villages, soft sand beaches, vineyards, resorts, water-parks, and renowned surf, sailing, and kite-boarding opportunities.
To the north, along the Atlantic coast, the city of Porto is also beloved for its beauty, culture, and wine. Further north and to the east lies the Basque region and the whole of Spain. You can drive between all of these locations and make even more out of your time in the Iberian peninsula. Wherever you go you will pass through distinct wine regions with tasting opportunities. This relaxed yet packed itinerary makes Portugal and the Iberian Peninsula ideal for longer vacations and honeymoons.
It’s hard to keep it short when talking about travel to Lisbon, Portugal. Is a diverse and dynamic destination that is guaranteed to take you in and please the senses. As they say in Portuguese, “Tchau” (goodbye), but just for now!
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