Follow in the footsteps of America-based Saul Schwartz as he learns what the capital of Portugal has to offer. What is most important to visit in Lisbon? From free walking tours to explorational daytrips, Saul suggests an exhaustive itinerary of Lisbon’s best attractions. Whether you want to dig deeper into the historic heart of Lisbon, or are game for exploring the fascinating area around it, here are some great tips on what not to miss – and where you can economise.
By Saul Schwarz
My wife Fern and I spent four days in Lisbon and Sintra during October, two of which was spent in the historic centre of Lisbon, one in the beautiful Belém area and one in Sintra National Park. You can read more about the daytrip to Sintra in this article. Our first trip to Portugal was extremely interesting and full of great attractions.
Discovering the Heart of the Lisbon
On our first full day, we booked the “free” tour by tips in advance through the Guru Walk website. Gabriel was one of the most informative guides we have ever used for a walking tour. The tour lasted about two hours.
Placa dos Restauradores
Fern and I met Gabriel in Placa dos Restauradores at the monument in the square. We took the Metro from our hotel to the Restauradores stop. The square is named after the men who gave their lives during the war of Restoration. Similarly, the monument in the centre of the square honours that victory for Portuguese independence after years of Spanish domination. The monument is a 30-meter-high obelisk. Positioned on the base are two angels representing independence and victory. Also on the square is a beautiful art deco building, now a hotel, formerly the Eden Cinema. Dating from the 1930s, this building is a work by architect Cassiano Branco.
We first stopped by the Rossio Train station to admire its Manueline style architecture (like the buildings in Belém that we would see the next day). This style is typical of early 16th century Portugal. The entrance to the station is through two intertwined horseshoe portals. The building is crowned with a small turret and a clock. The Rossio station was designed around 1867 and commissioned by the Portuguese Royal Railroad Company. In front of the station, there is a statue of 16th century King Sebastian. Gabriel informed us that the original statue was accidentally destroyed by a tourist several years ago and recently replaced by a replica.
We next stopped briefly at Praça Dom Pedro IV square (also called Rossio Square). In this square, the fantastic Rossio fountain stands out for its circular shape. It is bordered by different statutes of women in the shape of sirens. Sculptures hold fish, which is where water comes out of the fountain. Keeping with the water theme, the floor of the square is made with red and white ceramics which follow a wave pattern.
Memorial às Vítimas do Massacre Judaico de 1506
We then stopped at a very sad site, the location of the massacre of Jews on April 19, 1506. This small memorial is located near the Sao Domingos church where the slaughter of about 4000 Jews was carried out. The memorial was dedicated in 2008 and is made of stone in the shape of the Hebrew star of David. There are inscriptions in Hebrew and Portuguese reflecting upon the victimization by intolerance and religious fanaticism. The location is Largo de Sao Domingos.
Elevador de Santa Justa
The elevator of Santa Justa was next. We walked over to the Neo-Gothic lift that was built at the turn of the century in 1902 by a French architect who was an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel. The wrought iron elevator looks a little like the Eiffel Tower. It is used to transport passengers up from the Baixa neighbourhood to the Largo do Carmo. The exterior is decorated with neo-Gothic arches and geometric patterns. We walked to the top of the elevator on the adjoining steps to get one of the best views of central Lisbon. The line for the elevator was long.
Largo do Carmo
Gabriel explained the significance of the small square that we visited next, Largo do Carmo. The Carmo square is the site where the Carnation Revolution culminated with the eventual surrender of the Portuguese dictatorship on April 25, 1974. Demonstrators placed carnations in the muzzles of guns, on the uniforms of soldiers and offered carnations to the soldiers. Today the pretty little square includes the National Guard Museum and we saw a uniformed National Guard member patrolling outside. Also, there is a fountain from the 18th century in the square’s centre.
Oldest bookstore in the world
We briefly stopped in the world’s oldest continually operating bookstore, Livraria Bertrand, located in Chaido on Rua Garrett 73 and 75. The exterior is beautifully decorated with the lovely Portuguese blue tiles. Inside, row after row of wooden bookshelves line the walls and there are more tiles. Founded in 1732, the bookstore has a sizeable number of books in English available. Books purchased are stamped with an inscription related to the book store’s age.
Praca de Comercio
The tour ended at the Praça de Comercio, Lisbon’s main plaza. The huge “palace square” contains a large statue of King Jose I on a bronze horse in the centre of the square. The statute was erected in 1775. Gabriel informed us that after the horrible Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the King moved the royal courts outside of Lisbon from this site, which had been the royal palace.
On the north side of the square there is an impressive triumphal arch. Constructed in 1755, the stone memorial arch was built to celebrate Lisbon’s reconstruction after the earthquake. The top of the arch contains sculptures of Glory, Genius and Valor. Lower down are sculptures of Portuguese historical figures, including explorer Vaso da Gama.
Castelo de Sao Jorge
Our first afternoon was spent at Saint George’s Castle, one of Lisbon’s top attractions. We bought advanced tickets through the Get Your Guide website. The price was about 32 dollars per adult. The tickets provided us with skip-the-line access and an English guide for one and one-half hours. We met our guide Joao just outside the Ticket Office on Rua de Santa Cruz de Castelo. The guide was provided by Lisboa Autentica. It is a long steep walk uphill from the Metro to the castle entrance.
Joao was a friendly, informative, and passionate local guide. From the castle, we had great views of Lisbon and the Tagus River. The millennium-old Castle is a national monument. The oldest portions date back to the Romans. The hilltop citadel was the residence of several Portuguese kings. There are statues of several of the kings on the grounds.
The castle was partially destroyed in the 1755 earthquake, but then renovated in 1938. We were able to survey the battlements that remained from the original castle. Joao explained how the castle has had various uses over the years, going from a royal palace to a military barracks and now it is a national monument. The square castle is encircled by a wall to form a citadel.
While this is not the most amazing castle to visit, we thought that the historical guided tour provided us with great information on Portuguese history.
We started our second full day with a trip west to Belém. Fern and I spent a little more than one half day in Belém, in the western part of Lisbon at the mouth of the River Tagus. Belém is not reachable by Metro. Fern and I took the Metro to the Lisbon Cais do Sodre station and then took a commuter train to the Belém train station. The commuter trains to Cascais through Belém run very frequently, but they made three stops along the way. An open-ended ticket is inexpensive and allows flexibility in coming and going.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Saint Jerome’s Monastery is located at Praca do Imperio and is about a ten-minute walk from Belém train station.
We purchased our tickets in advance through the Tiquets website. Tickets were about $11 per adult. Although the tickets did not provide us with skip-the line access, the advanced purchase ensured that we had access to this site and allowed us to avoid going through the separate ticket purchase line. We could not find any site which provided access with skip-the line access or a tour guide. We waited about one hour to enter through the long line.
Since 1983, the former Monastery has been designated as a UNSECO world heritage site. The Monastery is famed for its 16th century Moorish Manueline-style Gothic architecture. Inside there are frescoed vaulted ceilings. The Monastery is the final resting place of explorer Vasco da Gama and we visited his tomb. The interior of the church is very attractive.
After touring the Monastery, we had a packed lunch in the park just outside the Monastery. We then walked by the large monument to the 15th and 16th century Age of Discovery on the edge of the river. This monument was designed for the 1940 Portuguese World’s Fair. The monument is shaped like the prow of a ship and has statutes on it of famous Portuguese explorers.
Torre de Belém
We purchased our tickets to Belém Tower in advance through the Tiquets website (at ten dollars per adult). Although this purchase did not provide us with skip-the line access, the advanced purchase ensured that we had access to this site, which ended up being sold out on the day we toured the tower. We could not find any site which provided access with skip-the line access or a tour guide. We waited about twenty minutes to enter through the line.
The boot-shaped iconic tower is easily visible from a distance. Belém Tower is a 16th century fortification on the banks of Lisbon’s Tagus River. This architectural jewel has beautiful panoramic views from the upper terrace. There are great views of the Vasco da Gama bridge which was built to look like the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. The tower is home to spiral staircases and a small chapel. The Tower includes the Governor’s Chamber and the King’s Chambers.
Commissioned by Manuel I in off-white limestone, the four-story Tower was built as a defence tower and fortress in 1515 to 1521. The exterior has North African Moorish style watchtowers. The interior has Gothic elements below the terrace. The exterior also has Italian style Renaissance elements. Designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1983, the Tower is a fifteen-minute walk from Saint Jerome’s Monastery. It sits right along the riverbank.
Currently the upper floor is closed to the public. There are 62 steps to walk up through several levels to the upper terrace which provides great river views.
We took the Line 15 tram back from Belém to the Metro. There was a tram stop only a few minutes from the Belém Tower.
Historic Tram 28
Trams are the most pleasant ways of sightseeing in Lisbon, as they are above ground, and the Metro is below ground. Trams are the only option for public transport in limited areas of the city, along the river to Belém and around the hilly parts of Lisbon. Trams do not require a separate ticket, as they are included in the Metro smart card.
On our first afternoon in Lisbon, we waited about one hour to board the iconic historic Tram 28, even though we began at one end of the line. Tram 28 runs with one of the charming, old-pre-World War 1 tram models. Unfortunately, each car holds less than 30 passengers in seats, adding to the wait time. We started at the Martin Moniz end at the bottom of the route. We took the Metro to the Martin Moniz stop to board the tram. The quaint yellow cars are easily visible throughout their route. The cars continue to contain many of their 1930s features including polished wooden interiors.
Tram 28 runs uphill through the Barrio Alto and Chiado neighbourhoods. Although most of the passengers are tourists, locals also get aboard, and the tram becomes quite crowded with standing passengers. Due to the crowding, we did not find the ride to be amazing, but the views are good, and it is worth a ride once.
Fado is the music of Lisbon. The songs express longing and sorrow. It has been sung by men and women for about 150 years. We attended Fado on the last evening of our trip.
We purchased advanced tickets through GetYourGuide for the one-hour experience. The activity venue was called Lisboa em Fado. The location was at Rua do Crucifixo 84 in the Chaido neighborhood.
The performance began with a short introductory video where Fado was explained. There were two Fado singers, both who had good voices and performed in a passionate manner. The two traditional Portuguese classic guitar players were very talented. A glass of port was included in the price. Prior to several of the songs, the male singer provided some information on the songs.
This venue seated about 30 attendees. We were a little disappointed about the lack of atmosphere in this venue. This Fado session was not at all like a “club experience” and was more like an introduction to Fado 101. The cost was 19 Euros per person. While Fern and I enjoyed hearing Fado, a more genuine experience could be sought in another Fado house.
Tips & Recommendations
- It was useful to have one guidebook for planning purposes. We used Lisbon – Eyewitness Travel Guides. The Visit a City app was also useful.
- In October, the weather was very sunny, but warmer than expected with highs over 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Sun hats are highly recommended.
- Lisbon is known as the city of the seven hills. Even though Fern and I exercise regularly, going up and down the hills is challenging!
- All the sidewalks in Lisbon are stone mosaics or granite, and some with intricate designs. Although attractive to look at, the sidewalks are not easy to walk on. Comfortable shoes are a must to get around.
- There is a fee of up to 2 Euros at the public bathrooms. Cafes and restaurants charge a similar fee if you are just stopping in for the bathroom visit and not a meal. It is good to have change in your pocket for this.
- Almost everyone in Lisbon and Sintra speaks English. Speaking a little bit of Portuguese seemed to be appreciated by the locals.
- Lisbon has a neighbourhood feel to it without a true central downtown. As a result, even though it has a population of about 550.000, the capital of Portugal does not seem like a big city.
Getting to Lisbon
Lisbon Airport is located seven kilometres northeast of the city centre. It only has two terminals, but still requires some time to get around within the airport. We took the Metro from the airport to our hotel. The Airport Metro station is right at Terminal 1 of the airport. Since this journey did not require us to switch Metro lines, this was an easy and inexpensive option. The trip took about 20 minutes. The only difficulty was transporting the suitcases up and downstairs, as there was no elevator or escalator service from the level of the Metro up to the level of the streets.
Getting around Lisbon
First opened in 1959, the Lisbon Metro system is easy to use, with four color-coded lines. The Metro is the fastest way to get around Lisbon in the areas covered by the system. The Metro the system does not go into the western portion of Lisbon and up some of the hills. Metro trains come very frequently on weekdays (about every 6 to 12 minutes), but less frequently on weekends. Metro trains get crowded, especially during the morning and evening rush hours. Outside the system, Metro stations are easily found by red M signposts. Inside the system, although the signage and announcements are in Portuguese, we had no difficulty navigating around.
The system does not operate 24/7, but most stations are open from 6:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Stations are regularly patrolled by the police and have a safe feel. The Metro was our preferred method of getting around and exploring the city.
There are currently 55 stations, but the Metro lines have been regularly extended over the last few years. The same ticket purchased for the Metro allows access to Lisbon trams and commuter trains. We purchased the 1 day 24-hour tickets which cost 6.60 Euros and allow for unlimited trips during the 24 hours after validation. Based upon a procedure called zapping, we received extra credit for our cards which extended the cards beyond 24 hours several times. On the first use, we had to buy the Via Viagem smart card which costs .50 Euros per card and is then reused with each loading per day or trip.
The Metro stations have beautiful art within their stations. Lisbon tile art is installed in numerous Metro stations. Other vibrant and diverse art installations exist in different stations, including mosaics and street art, made by a series of different artists.
Lodging in Lisbon
We stayed four nights at the Doubletree by Hilton Lisbon – Fontana Park. Fern and I liked that this downtown hotel was a short walk (about 7 minutes) from the Saldanha metro station (which is served by two of the four Metro lines). Each day we headed out from the Hotel by Metro to various attractions.
The best features of the hotel were an exceptional breakfast buffet, very helpful and friendly staff, great complementary cookies, and a modest fitness centre. The building was originally used as an ironwork factory and, as a result, the hotel has some unusual features (including very narrow hallways).
About Saul Schwartz
Saul lives in Alexandria, Virginia and has lived in the Washington, D.C. area since 1984. He loves to travel throughout Europe with his wife and family and particularly enjoys interacting with local residents and learning about life in their city and country.
Saul has previously shared his travel insights with us. Check out his story about Touring Southwest Ireland – Limerick, Clare & Galway or check out his trip to Modern Athens – Beyond the Acropolis or his fascination with The Vatican: Rome of the Popes.