Over the last decade or so, Lisbon emerged as one of Europe’s top tourist destinations.
With its cobbled alleys, soft color palette, Unesco-listed heritage sites and white-domed cathedrals, it has also drawn a flux of new residents, all seduced by its beauty and balmy weather.
Hipster cafes may be replacing the timeless mom-and-pop corner stores in some neighborhoods, but there are still plenty of quintessentially Lisbon experiences to have if you know where to look. Here’s our guide to the best things to do in Portugal’s capital city.
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1. Visit Belém and its Unesco-listed monastery
One of Lisbon’s few must-see sights is Belém’s undisputed architectural show-stopper, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. You will almost certainly want to photograph the stunning honey-stone Manueline cloisters inside this Unesco-listed 1495 monastery. On the nearby riverfront, another Unesco-listed Belém signature sight is the Torre de Belém. This chess-piece-like fortress epitomizes the Age of Discovery, and the tower top rewards stair-climbers with sublime views over the Tagus. When you’re done with sightseeing, cocktails and pomegranate-pink sunsets await down by the river.
Planning tip: Time your visit to Mosterio dos Jerónimos for early or late in the day if you want to avoid the crowds.
There are many different fantastic viewpoints to enjoy in Lisbon © Cavan Images / Getty Images
2. Soak up all those stunning views from Lisbon’s miradouros
Legend has it that Lisbon, like Rome, was built upon seven hills. The city – reputed to be Europe’s second-oldest capital, after Athens – has mushroomed since its founding some 2700 years ago and now covers many more than just seven hills, meaning that there are plenty of vantage points to take in the views. Known as miradouros in Portuguese, these spots dot the historical center, affording stunning vistas of this pastel-hued metropolis and the mighty Tagus River along its southern edge.
Local favorite miradouros include São Pedro de Alcâtara, a postage-stamp-sized garden in the trendy Príncipe Real neighborhood where you can soak in the view while sipping a glass of rosé, and, directly across town, the Miradouro da Graça that looks out over the nearby Castelo de São Jorge, the ruins of an 11th-century Moorish palace.
For picture-perfect panoramic views similar to what’s on offer at the Elevador Santa Justa (a turn-of-the-20th-century public transit project linking the central Baixa neighborhood with its hilltop neighbor, the aptly named Bairro Alto, or “high neighborhood”) head to TOPO, a terrace bar on the top floor of a shopping center off the fast-gentrifying Martim Moniz Square.
Planning tip: The best time to visit is sunset, when Lisbon’s hallmark golden light illuminates the city.
Lisbon’s Museu Nacional de Arte has a star-studded collection of European and Asian paintings © Andia / Getty Images
3. Tour the city’s best art museums
Get a sense of Portugal’s once-global presence at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, the country’s answer to the Louvre. It contains treasures of Portuguese and European art but also pieces from formerly colonized regions that once stretched from West Africa to India to Japan. Housed in a 17th-century palace in the Lapa neighborhood, the museum also has a manicured garden that boasts an enviable view over the Tagus.
Across town, the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian offers visitors a whirlwind overview of the history of art, from ancient Egypt all the way through to the present day. Amassed by the Turkish-born British financier Calouste Gulbenkian, the eclectic collection is widely acknowledged as among the premier private collections in the world.
Fado is traditional Portuguese folk music – be sure to catch a performance while you’re in Lisbon © Jacek_Sopotnicki / Getty Images
4. Don’t miss a live fado performance
The Portuguese word saudade, which loosely translates in English as longing, nostalgia, or wistful yearning, is widely considered a defining quality of the Portuguese national character. It’s also at the heart of Portugal’s national music, fado, which is tinged with melancholy even at its most upbeat and is often nothing short of a heart-wrenching cri de coeur, set to a pithy classical guitar. Thought to have originated in Lisbon in the early 19th century among sailors and dock workers, the soulful musical style has become so deep a part of the national culture here that when its most famous singer, Amália Rodrigues, died in 1999, the government declared three days of official mourning.
To leave Lisbon without seeing fado performed live would, then, verge on the criminal. Luckily, restaurants known for their live fado shows abound in Lisbon, particularly in the popular Alfama neighborhood where the style got its start. The Mesa de Frades, a cozy, intimate space known for its top-notch performers, is among the top venues, attracting such fans as Madonna, who frequented the restaurant while she was living in Lisbon. The Alfama is also home to the Museu do Fado, a small museum showcasing all manner of fado-related artifacts, from the first recordings of the genre to its hallmark pear-shaped guitars.
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5. Taste fresh seafood dishes
Half an hour from the Atlantic, Lisbon is a seafood lovers’ paradise. You’ll get top-notch seafood at any price point – from humble holes-in-the-wall food stands to fine dining. Founded in the 1950s, Cervejaria Ramiro is a perennial classic, serving up lobster, shellfish, giant tiger shrimp, prawns and more to a lively crowd. A line generally starts to form before the place even opens. Água Pela Barba, in the Chiado neighborhood, offers up a smaller but no less mouthwatering seafood selection, but in a more intimate space.
Planning tip: If you’re hankering for something truly special, you can’t go wrong with the Restaurante 100 Maneiras, one of Lisbon’s most acclaimed dining experiences. Reservations are a must.
It might not be a comfortable ride, but taking the tram is one of the best things to do in Lisbon © Rrrainbow / Shutterstock
6. Ride the historic tram 28E
Few Lisbon images are as iconic as those of the city’s vintage electric trams. These adorable yellow-and-white elétricos have been shaking, rattling and rolling around the city since 1901 (they were horse-pulled before that). And none of the system’s five lines are coveted more than tram 28E, which crisscrosses the city center between the westside’s Campo de Ourique and Martim Moniz, passing many of Lisbon’s key sights, astonishing lookouts and symbolic neighborhoods along the way.
Planning tip: Other old tram routes offer a similarly rewarding experience. However, these characterful carriages aren’t particularly comfortable and don’t cover a lot of the city, so if you’re looking for an efficient way to get around in Lisbon, you may find the metro or the bus networks are better choices.
The Costa de Caparica makes a great day trip from the city © Hsvrs / Getty Images
7. Cycle to the coast
Technically Lisbon is not a beach town, but its laid-back vibe and the palm trees that dot the pastel-colored cityscape give it a distinctly ocean-front feeling. In fact, it’s a short car, train or ferry ride from scores of proper beaches. To make a day of it: rent a bike in the far western Lisbon neighborhood of Belém. There, hop on the ferry to Trafaria, on the southern bank of the Tagus River, a low-key fishing village that feels worlds away from bustling Lisbon. Now take the bike path due west, and you’ll hit the start of the Caparica Coast, a 24km-long (14-mile-long) stretch of golden sandy beaches. But beware, the North Atlantic waters are pretty cold year-round.