Lisbon – 10 best things to do
The winding cobbled streets and sloping terracotta rooves that balance precariously on the steep hillsides of Lisbon give the impression that the 21st Century was turned away as it arrived at port. But as you wind through the streets and venture under the rooves, you will find a rich and diverse culture, a bohemian and effervescent nightlife scene, and eclectic and imaginative cuisines. Lisbon is a city that has refused to let modernisation compromise its identity. Rather, it has absorbed new styles and tastes into its roots and adapted them to fit into its unique landscape. Here are the top 10 things to do in Lisbon:
1. Pena Palace
The home of Portuguese royalty, this palace is stunningly unique. As brightly coloured as a fairytale gingerbread house and surrounded by extensive gardens, Palace de Pena will take your breath away. Marigold yellow, burnished terracotta and sky blue sections are topped by turrets, towers and archways and interspersed with impressive carvings and sculptures. Every turn provides a new perspective on the surrounding landscape, and the interior of the palace is just as impressive. While there are ongoing works to preserve and maintain the structure, this doesn’t distract from its beauty or authenticity.
2. Feirada da Ladra Market
Immerse yourself in a piece of Lisbon’s history and pick up a few bargains while you’re at it. This flea market dates back to the thirteenth century, taking place on Sundays and Tuesdays. The locals here trade in all manner of antiquities and eccentricities, from period collectibles to old clothes and broken electricals. It would seem anyone with a blanket and a few items to sell can set up shop on the square. Don’t be afraid to get stuck in and have a good rummage through the stalls, you never know what you might find!
3. Bairro Alto
Set, like much of Lisbon, on a steep hillside, Bairro Alto has gained a reputation as the city’s vibrant nightlife quarter. Unassuming and tranquil by day, the steep calcada paved streets come alive by night as the bars open. From live acoustic bands to niche genres of dance music, you can find a bar for any mood if you’re willing to explore. If you’re looking for a more sophisticated evening, try BA Wine Bar. This intimate venue specialises in Portugal’s finest wines. Sample vintages from any region by the glass, with your own attentive specialist to advise and guide you on your journey.
4. Tram ride
No trip to Lisbon would be complete without a ride on the tram. Trundling through back streets and racing up and down incredibly steep hills at break-neck speed, they offer a unique perspective of this chaotic city which walking or driving simply doesn’t provide. Whether you choose a longer route snaking across the city, or a short and sweet ride from the bottom of a hill to the top, you can’t fail to be enchanted by the vintage interiors of the carts, and the snapshot the ride offers into local Lisbon life. People watching has never been so much fun.
A charming town in the Grande Lisboa region, Sintra village lives in the shadow of the Sintra Mountains, which are topped by the romantic and beautiful Palace de Pina, and the ancient and historical Castelo so Mouros. If you’re taking a trip to either of these sites a stop in Sintra is highly recommended. The charming and colourful architecture of the village is enchantingly stylised, with landscaped gardens and narrow winding streets cut into the hillside. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants serving local dishes, as well as a great array of shops to pick up souvenirs.
6. Rua Novado do Carvalho
Lisbon’s “Pink Street” is the go-to destination for a memorable night out. Set in what was historically the red light district of the city, Rua Novado do Carvalho is jam packed with chic bars and cool clubs that stay open until the early hours. The bars spill out into the brightly coloured street, where locals and holidaymakers alike mingle to party. Be sure to check out Pensao Amor, an upstairs bar which boasts an incredible cocktail selection, sumptuous and opulent décor reminiscent of the renaissance period, and a collection of X-rated memorabilia in the bathrooms – a nod to the building’s more sordid past.
7. Jose Saramago Museum
Saramago is undoubtedly one of Portugal’s best-known novelists. A Nobel Prize winning author with a unique writing style and politically loaded plotlines, the museum pays homage to his life and works. But even if you’re not familiar with his writing, the museum is worth a visit purely to admire t
he stunning architecture. The bold, linear design features criss-crossing staircases, curved archways, exposed stone and polished marble. The ground floor of the museum is dedicated to archaeological ruins dating back to the Roman times, which can be viewed from above and juxtapose marvellously with the ultra-modern interior of the museum.
8. Lisbon Aquarium
Oceanario de Lisboa features a colossal central tank as its main attraction, which is home to sharks, rays and fish of all shapes and sizes. This huge tank feeds into smaller, more specialised aquariums where you can admire anything from tropical fish to penguins. The range of marine life within the oceanarium is extensive, and there are plenty of unique temporary exhibitions to admire along the journey. On your way through the aquarium you will pass through every area, with plenty of time to learn about jellyfish, crustaceans, sea horses and more.
A picturesque district with a more amiable topography than the steep and winding central districts. Belem is home to some of the city’s most famous and historic landmarks, including Mosterio dos Jeronimos, Torre de Belem and Padrao dos Descobrimentos. Admire all of these iconic sights when you take a walk along the sweeping esplanade on the bank of the Tagus River. While you’re here sample the local delicacies at Pastis de Belem – Lisbon’s most famed custard tart café. The patisserie churns out thousands of the delicious and delicate pastries every day. Join the queue outside on the street and grab a few to go, or find a seat inside and enjoy yours with a coffee.
10. Sao Jorge Castle
The medieval castle is set high on the hillside overlooking Lisbon, and provides panoramic views over the old Alfama district. The maze of uncountable terracotta rooftops stretching as far as the eye can see makes it difficult to point out specific landmarks, but it is this aspect of Lisbon’s skyline that makes the city so enchanting – there isn’t a glass skyscraper or modern architectural eyesore in sight. Admire the imposing beauty of the castle structure, explore the different levels, turrets and interior gardens, and relax in the shade of the enormous mature trees.
About the Author:
Olivia Lazenby is a travel, sustainability and lifestyle blogger. A northerner from the fringes of Manchester, UK, she has lived in France and Australia as well as Liverpool and Leeds. She is currently planning her next adventure to South America. Her favourite things to do while travelling include discovering cocktail bars in new cities, rummaging in second hand shops and flea markets, and climbing to the highest point in the vicinity to admire the views.