4 DAYS IN // Lisbon, Portugal

Coming in to land!
Outside Cais de Sodre station

If you like a city with mild winters and warm summers, stunning sunsets, a rich and interesting history, beautiful architecture, friendly locals and a fabulous cuisine, then this is the place for you.  Situated on the Tagus estuary and built on seven hills, Lisbon is one of my favourite cities and a fabulous place for both short and long city breaks.

Magnificent 7 // Lisbon, Portugal

1. Marvel at the Jerónimos Monastery

2. Go on a walking tour

3. Stroll around the Alfama district

4. Ride the trams

5. Visit Cascais and/or Sintra

6. Climb the Torre de Belém

7. Take to the water

Getting there –

Lisbon is easy to get to from London, around 2 hours 40 minutes by ‘plane.  Lisbon airport is small and transit through baggage and customs is usually quick and easy. There are a number of options to get into the centre of Lisbon.  Although taxis are plentiful, the queues for them can take some time. If you have very young children you can go to the front of the queue as Portugal is very child-friendly and families with young children are given priority.  Other options include the metro (recommended), uber pickups and aerobuses.  The metro is inexpensive, easy to use and simple to navigate.  The Aeroporto stop is the end of the red line.  You may have to change to reach the station closest to your hotel, but it is all colour-coded and easy. The aerobuses are situated just across from the taxi rank. There are two routes, make sure you take the correct one; just ask the driver.

Where we stayed –

We stay at an apartment in Estoril.

To eat and drink –

As with all major cities, there is a plethora of restaurants to choose from.  There are a lot of great restaurants and even more tourist-focused mediocre ones. But where Lisbon excels, in my opinion, is the café culture.  There are hundreds of cafés where you can get a coffee, beer or wine, meet friends, talk and people watch.

Cervejaria Ramiro, Lisbon. Situated on Av. Almirante Reis, this is a fabulous fish restaurant slightly away from the normal tourist restaurants.  You have an iPad for a menu and some dishes have prices, others are listed by weight.  Don’t be too concerned as the waiters will get the appropriate size of dish for you.  We loved it and the garlic prawns were among the best I have eaten anywhere.

Time Out market, Lisbon.  Just down the road from Cais de Sodre station, this is tourist heaven. Prices are expensive but it is a great place to go for a Galao (Portuguese latte) and Pastel de Nata (Portuguese custard tart).  Pasteis de Nata originated in Lisbon and they are simply delicious. You can also get more substantial meals here. There are long tables where you take your food and drink and chat with other visitors.

Pasteis de nate
Pasteis de Nata, galao and cappuccino at the Time Out Market

Magnificent 7

These are our favourite seven things to date.  There is so much more to see and do.  We have been to Lisbon a number of times and find new things to see and do each time we visit.

1. Marvel at the Jerónimos Monastery

Absolutely stunning architecture.  This is one of Lisbon’s most popular attractions and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The monastery was built to commemorate Vasco da Gama’s “discovery” of India. One of the main attractions is the Gothic chapel that opens up on to a grand monastery, in which some of Portugal’s greatest historical figures are buried. When we were there they had an exhibition with timelines charting 500 years of history. There were three timelines, one for the history of the Monastery, one for the history of Portugal and the other for the history of the world. Fascinating to see and compare local and world events.

2. Go on a walking tour

We took the Sandemans’ free Lisbon tour.  We met at the monument on Praça Luís de Camões.  Our guide was Rita and she was very good.  The tour ran for nearly three hours and in that time we received a pretty good history lesson (I will probably never forget the date of the great earthquake – 1755). The tour covers the major sites in downtown Lisbon with some good stories thrown in. Lisbon claims the Salazar of Harry Potter fame was inspired by JK Rowling’s time in Lisbon; whether true or not it was a great story. There are tours in the morning and afternoon.  It gets hot in summer so the earlier tour is the best one to go for.  The tour ended at Praça do Comércio, near the Cais de Sodre station.   Lisbon is a large city – around 3 million people – so there are tours for other areas, such as Belem and Alfama.  Everything is online.

3. Stroll around the Alfama district

There is a “new” and an “old” Lisbon.  The great earthquake of 1755 destroyed most of Lisbon.  The poorer red-light district of Alfama was left standing.  So the “new” post-1755 Lisbon has wide streets and a basic grid system and the “old” pre-1755 Lisbon is the complete opposite: narrow, winding cobbled streets, Fado restaurants, and a completely different vibe.  In some areas you would not believe you were in a capital city.  You can take a tour of Alfama (which cost us around €14 each).  This will take you up to São Jorge Castle, but not in it, and then a meandering stroll back down into the “new” Lisbon.  You can do it yourself, however it is not easy to work your way up to, and back from, the Castle district and you will not hear some of the stories from the area’s past.

House in Alfama district

4. Ride the trams

Lisbon has five tram routes, most of which are serviced by 1930s vintage trams.  The trams are small and usually full and are a great way to explore Lisbon. You can get tourist trams that provide scenic tours. The iconic tram to ride is the number 28 tram.  This tram has polished wooden benches and passes through the historic districts of Graca, Mouraria, Alfama, Baixa, Chiado and Sao Bento before terminating in front of the Estrella Basilica. The most used tram route in Lisbon is the Number 15 tram which is nearly always packed.  This tram departs from the Cais de Sodre train station and travels west to Belem.


5. Visit Cascais and/or Sintra

Both of these destinations are easy to get to. Cascais is an important fishing centre, due to its natural harbour and location to the west of Lisbon. You can get to it by a suburban train from Cais de Sodre station.  It will take around 45 minutes and costs around 2.5 € each way.   Alternatively the red hop-on, hop off bus goes to Cascais. Cascais has a beautiful marina and a bustling centre.  It gets busy in summer but is a great place to wander, people watch, shop, swim and eat.  We particularly like the promenade walk from Cascais to Estoril which will take about 35-40 minutes if you do not stop.  But you will! Click here for our Cascais blog

View from Estoril promenade towards Cascais

Sintra is also to the west of Lisbon in the foothills of the Sintra mountains.  Very different to Cascais, it almost has its own microclimate and has long-time connections to royalty.  Sintra can be reached most easily by train from Lisbon’s Rossio station.  We took a local bus from Estoril, where we were staying.  Sintra has some stunning architecture and our favourite is the hilltop 19th-century Pena National Palace.  The design could have come from the pages of Disney.  It is absolutely beautiful and you can spend a few hours here enjoying the views, having a coffee and exploring the inside of the Palace (worth the entrance fee) and there are extensive gardens too.  This is not the only thing to see in Sintra, there is the National Palace, Castle dos Mouros and the historic centre of Sintra.  You will need to take a 434 bus from the railway station to get to the Castle and Pena Palace.  This will drop you off back at the centre of town (go there!) or railway station.  Alternatively, there are many tuk-tuks that will take you anywhere you want.   Click here for our Sintra blog

Part of the Romanesque Pena Palace, Sintra

6. Climb the Torre de Belém

This is an iconic structure on the seafront near the Jerónimos Monastery. It is beautiful and with the right light it is hard not to get some fabulous photos. Inside it is a bit disappointing.  Signage is poor.  Even the queuing system outside is a bit of a jumble.  Left is for Lisboa Cards and pay at the door; right is for prepaid tickets. Once inside there are some stunning views of the river and the city, and it is worth going in for this alone. Please note that there are 93 steep, narrow steps.  Luckily there are different levels you can get off the stairs to rest, look at different areas etc.  Moving up and down the stairs is by coloured arrows as there is only really room for one-way traffic at a time.  In our visit some people found this a difficult concept.  I don’t know anywhere in the world where a green arrow doesn’t mean go and a red arrow, wait. Maybe I need to travel more.

7. Take to the water

As you wander up and down the streets of Lisbon you get the feeling that there is a lot to see and do.  You really appreciate this by taking a boat tour.  We took the yellow boat not far from the Praça do Comércio.  If you can, go to the port side (left when facing the front) as this will give you the best views in my opinion. The boat trip lasted about 90 minutes and cost 20€.  Some great views of the city and also the 25th April suspension bridge (originally called the Salazar Bridge until the bloodless revolution on, you guessed it, the 25th April (1974)).  The bridge resembles the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.  On the southern side of the bridge is one of Lisbon’s iconic images, the Cristo Rei (statue of Christ). Cristo Rei dates from the 1950s and its construction was in reverence for Portugal avoiding the horrors of WW2. Lisbon’s Cristo Rei is slightly smaller but looks very similar to the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio, which was the original inspiration.

There is a running commentary on the boat (yes, that’s where I got these facts from!), however the commentary can be hard to hear if you are not near one of the speakers.  The boat stops at Belém if you want to get out and explore the area that has the Tower and the Monastery. You also get a good view of the extensive Lisbon Ports and waterside buildings as well as the palette of colours used on the Lisbon buildings.

Of Note:

The Ascensor de Santa Justa is a street elevator that appears in every tourist guide as a “must do”.  I simply do not get it.  You will likely queue for hours and pay money for a nice view.  At the end of the day it is justa elevator (bad pun, sorry) and you can get better views from many other parts of the city. You can even walk on a higher parallel street and get to the lower viewing platform for free in about 5 minutes.

Free access to The Ascensor de Santa Justa with great views

Elevators.  On the way to the São Jorge Castle you can take two elevators for free. They simply save you time and effort.  In the heat of the Lisbon summer they are very welcome.

Fado. This is a music genre originating in Lisbon.  It is sad, mournful music that is extremely popular in Lisbon.  Usually sung in bars and restaurants later at night accompanied by a guitar, it is worth checking out.

Lisbon is known for its painted doors as well as buildings decorated with tiles. 

VIPs (small children).  The Portuguese love children.  If you are travelling with very small children you go right to the front of the queue, whether it is for a taxi or visiting a site such as the Jerónimos Monastery.  Our friends David and Jessie and their daughter Millie showed us around Lisbon.  VIP treatment everywhere.

Mondays. Museums and some sites of interest are closed on Mondays.  The Torre de Belém and Jerónimos Monastery, for example, are closed.  But there are lots of other things to do and see.  Simply check online before you go.

Fun fact:  Portugal was neutral in WWII but was known as the “city of spies”. Stays in the city inspired authors such as Graham Greene and Ian Fleming to write some of the best espionage tales of the last century.

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