Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, is a vibrant city with a wealth of history located at the far reaches of Western Europe.
It is built upon seven hills and situated along the Tagus River. As it is considered to be Europe’s sunniest capital, travelers flock here for the warm sun, the wonderful tiled buildings, and the mouth-watering pastries.
Lisbon is a photographer’s dream destination with thousands of brilliant, pastel-colored buildings covered in stunning ceramic tiles called azulejos. It’s also a great city for music lovers, as it is home to the soulful and moving Fado music.
From its hip and artsy downtown to its historic Alfama district, Lisbon is full of gems to discover, and this city guide is our take on how to do it right.
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Getting To & Around Lisbon
Lisbon’s main airport is Aeroporto de Lisboa. The airport caters to large and budget airlines and is less than 4 miles north of the city center.
There are a few options for transport from the airport to the city center. The AeroBus departs from in front of arrivals every 20 minutes, from 7 am to 11 pm, and is €3.15. You can save 10% if you purchase your ticket online. The ticket is good on all city buses for the rest of the day. You can also take the Metro which is cheap and convenient. If you opt for a taxi, expect to pay around €15 to the city center.
Lisbon has an extensive public transport system that includes buses, trams, a metro, and trains. The metro is the fastest and cheapest way to get around. It runs from 6:30 am to 1 am. Trams are a good, fun way to get up into the hilltop neighborhoods like Alfama. For a charming tour of some of Lisbon’s great sights, take Tram #28.
Tips for Tourists in Lisbon
1. Save with the Lisboa Card
If you plan to visit a few of the main sights in Lisbon, one way to save money is to pick up a Lisboa Card. You can get a card for 24 hours (€18.50), 48 hours (€31.50), or 72 hours (€39). It includes unlimited public transportation and free admission into 25 attractions, plus more discounts.
2. Public Transport Card
If you plan to use the city’s extensive public transport system a lot, grab a Lisboa Viva Card (€0.50). Be sure to top it up with money instead of journeys. This ensures that if you don’t use it as much one day as you anticipated, the money will carry over.
3. Be careful where you buy tiles
In the city of tile buildings, it’s easy to want to buy some of these beautiful tiles as souvenirs, but be careful where you purchase them. At flea markets, the tiles usually were taken off of old buildings, often damaging more in the process.
4. When to Visit
If you’re into heat, crowds, and festivals, June through August is best. To avoid these, go from March to May. This is the optimal time as its still sunny, with mild temperatures and slightly better rates.
5. Day Trips
If you’re planning on staying in Lisbon longer than three days, I encourage you to try a day trip or two. Top day trips include Sintra (40 minutes away), Evora (2 hours away), Fatima (1.5 hours away) or one of the many beach towns.
Related: One Week in Portugal in a Rental Car
Things to do in Lisbon
1. Carmo Convent
This quiet, Gothic church is the perfect place to reflect and get away from the crowds. Dating back to the 14th century, the Carmo Convent was once Lisbon’s largest church.
It was sadly destroyed in the Great Earthquake of 1755, which unfortunately ravaged much of the city. Now in ruins, its skeletal arches reach for the sky and only hint at its once-existing grandeur.
You can explore the church, its old tombstones, and also a small museum. The museum has a varied collection which includes an Egyptian sarcophagus, mummies, and beautiful azulejo panels.
2. Tile Museum
Lisbon has many great museums, but for me, the best is the Tile Museum. The museum is inside the Madre de Deus Convent, which is from the 1500’s. This breath-taking convent is a sight in itself.
The museum has five centuries worth of Portugal’s beautiful ceramic tiles, known as azulejos. You’ll see a wide array of this tile work throughout the city. One highlight is a tile panel piece representing Lisbon before the Great Earthquake of 1755. It’s 75 feet long and includes 1,300 tiles.
Other top museums to visit include the National Archaeology Museum, Lisboa Story Centre and the National Museum of Ancient Art. And if you’re interested in beer, visit the Beer Museum!
3. São Jorge Castle
On Lisbon’s tallest hill sits the 11th century São Jorge Castle. The site has seen everyone from Romans to the Moors, and it was even once a royal palace. It now towers over Lisbon, offering great views of the city.
Though much was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake, there is still plenty to explore, if you can get around the roaming peacocks and stray cats that call it home. After you tear yourself away from the views, check out the galleries showcasing the castle’s relics, and you can even walk along the old castle walls, which feels as though you’re stepping back in time.
4. Enjoy Fado Music
Lisbon has an astounding music scene. Fado music can be traced back to the early 19th century in Portugal but has probably been around for much longer than that.
This soulful music can be heard in pubs and cafes around the city. The two main hotspots are in Barrio Alto and Alfama, which is said to have the best places. There’s often a cover charge, but an evening enjoying a profound performance of Fado in Lisbon is well worth it and will leave you breathless.
5. Santa Justa Lift
Also called Carmo Lift, the Santa Justa Lift is a 147 foot-high Neo-Gothic iron tower. It is located in the Baixa district, wedged between two buildings. It originally opened in 1902 as part of the public transport system to help locals get up the hill, but it quickly became a hit with tourists as well. It offers a panoramic view of downtown Lisbon and beyond, and you can get a ride for only €2.80.
6. Belém Tower
Just a short train ride outside Lisbon’s city center is Belém, where you can find the Belém Tower, a UNESCO Heritage Site. It seems to float out over the River Tagus, as it was originally designed to defend the harbor, but now it is a big tourist attraction. Completed in 1520, the Tower has stunning stonework and offers awesome views over Lisbon, Belém, and across the river as well.
Check out all its alcoves and head up the narrow spiral staircase to the top of the tower. Just be sure to only ascend or descend when the light above the doorway is green, otherwise, you’ll create a frustrating backup.
7. Monument of the Discoveries
The Monument of the Discoveries, also found in Belém, was built in 1960. From its location on the River Tagus, it pays homage to Portugal’s strong maritime history.
The monument is shaped like a three-sailed ship’s prow and has historic figures in sculptures surrounding it, with Henry the Navigator at the front. You can enter the monument to see the exhibition inside or take the elevator for views over Belém.
Don’t forget to look down, too! The square below the monument has a beautiful mosaic world map that highlights Portuguese explorer routes.
8. Jerónimos Monastery
Another site in Belém is the 16th-century Jerónimos Monastery. This huge complex will wow you with its stunning stonework, beautiful arches, decorated columns, and tiled panels.
Commissioned by Manuel I to praise the discovery of the sea route to India by Vasco da Gama, it was originally home to monks, but later used as a school, then an orphanage. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is not to be missed, but if you’re on a strict budget, you can visit the main chapel for free, which offers a sneak peek into the monastery’s grandeur.
9. São Roque Church
Lisbon has plenty of beautiful churches, but a must-see is São Roque. Behind its plain façade is one of the world’s most expensive chapels. The church was designed in Rome and made of opulent materials like gold, silver, and ivory. After being blessed by the pope, it was shipped to Lisbon in 1747. Each chapel is a stunning piece of Baroque art with splendid mosaics and a grand ceiling showing scenes of the Apocalypse.
10. Wander Alfama
Alfama is Lisbon’s oldest and, in my opinion, the most charming neighborhood. It’s been inhabited since the 5th century and is where you’ll find many of Lisbon’s iconic sites and epic views, with a quaint village feel to boot. I especially recommend taking a walk through its narrow, cobblestone streets in the early morning when village life is bustling.
Be sure to bring your camera, as this area is a photographer’s paradise. There are scenes to be captured around every corner, like medieval alleyways with tiled buildings displaying everything from cityscapes to religious icons. After sunset, this is a great place to listen to Fado music as it spills out onto the streets, and it’s also here that you’ll find the best views in Lisbon, from east to west.
Sites in Alfama: Tile Museum, Lisbon Cathedral (Lisbon’s oldest building), and São Jorge Castle.
Where to Stay in Lisbon
Budget – Lisbon Lounge Hostel
Located in the heart of the city between Chiado and Bairro Alto, the Lisbon Lounge Hostel is a great option. This very modern and artsy hostel has both dorms and private rooms. The hostel offers free breakfast, free Wi-Fi, 24-hour reception, lockers, free city maps, a kitchen and lounge, and so much more!
Mixed Dorms from €22
Mid-Range – Lisbon Style Guesthouse
I absolutely loved this modern hotel in central Lisbon. Lisbon Style is less than a 20-minute walk to many of Lisbon’s main sights. It’s on a main street full of restaurants, shops, grocery stores and close to the metro. They offer free breakfast, free Wi-Fi, 24-hour reception and is impeccably clean with wonderfully helpful staff.
Rooms from €49