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Discovering Lisbon: The Top Things to See & Do

Located along the Atlantic Coast with the city center along the Tagus River, Lisbon is Portugal‘s capital and largest city, boasting an outstanding mix of rich history, tradition, and modernism. With colorful architecture, a mild Mediterranean climate, and world-class cuisine, it’s the perfect vacation destination, attracting everyone from history buffs and culture vultures to foodies and sunseekers. Fuel up with a famous Portuguese tart and get ready to explore. There’s something to delight around every corner, making it enjoyable to wander while listening to the sounds of soulful Fado that waft through cobbled streets and alleyways. Our guide to the top things to see and do in Lisbon will help you make the most of your visit.

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Tram 28 is extremely popular and can get very crowded during the middle of the day. Riding early in the morning or late in the afternoon allows you to avoid the peak tourist rush and enjoy a more comfortable ride.

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Overview of Lisbon

Lisbon is a vibrant tapestry of culture, history, and natural beauty. It’s a city of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct personality from elegant squares and upscale shopping in historic Baixa to buzzing nightlife in Bairro Alto. Alfama’s steep, winding streets with stunning viewpoints provide opportunities to glimpse the city’s storied past.

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Getting Around Lisbon

Despite the steep hills, Lisbon is easy to navigate. Much of it can be explored on foot but when you’re tired of working out those legs, there are elevators and funiculars that will help you conquer those famous hills. There are also trams, a very efficient metro and bus system, and ferries that will bring you across the river. Plus, a ride on Tram 28 is part of the fun, winding through the historical center connecting many popular attractions providing a low-cost tour. If you’re planning to stay in the city, it’s actually easier to take public transport than to rent a car. Even when going outside of Lisbon, the bus and train offer a more stress-free way to explore.

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Lisbon’s Culinary Scene

The culinary scene in Lisbon is booming with many world-famous chefs opening up eateries here in recent years. The focus is on traditional and local but there are new avant-garde dishes too. Savoring the authentic flavors is a great way to get to know the city, including petiscos, a cousin of the Spanish tapas, basically smaller versions of bigger dishes. Two of the most popular are pica-pau, small chunks of meat marinated in garlic, and peixinhos de horta, deep-fried green beans. Caldo verde is a traditional dish that serves as a foundation, made up of potatoes, collard greens, onions, garlic, and olive oil. The pastel de nada, a warm, creamy tart, has become famous, a must-try available in bakeries and cafes.

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Top Attractions & Landmarks

Belém Tower

Belém Tower is the perfect place to start your Portugal vacation. One of the top things to do in Lisbon is to climb to the top of the tower for a magnificent view of the city and the river. It dates back to the early 16th century and was built to guard the entrance harbor – you’ll see places that once held the cannons. Inside, there are five floors that lead to the roof terrace, each of which is linked by a narrow spiral staircase. As you make your way to the top, you’ll see the Governor’s Hall, the King’s Hall, the Audience Hall, and the Chapel. Tours bring the chance to look into the holes and pits prisoners were once thrown into.

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Jerónimos Monastery

Another one of Lisbon’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Jeronimos Monastery is next to Belem Tower in the Belem district. Emblematic of the country’s maritime history, construction started in January of 1501 and wasn’t complete for another hundred years. A fine example of the late Gothic Manueline architectural style, it was built to honor Vasco da Gama’s pioneering sea voyage to India that helped bring immense wealth to Portugal. It holds the tombs of the famous explorer and served as a monastery for the monks who created the nation’s famous tart recipe, pastéis de Belém. The delectable flaky custard tart has a pastry shell filled with a combination of lemon, sugar, milk, eggs, and cinnamon, a must-try while visiting the capital.

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São Jorge Castle

Sao Jorge Castle represents nearly a thousand years of Lisbon’s history, set atop its highest hill in the Alfama district. An iconic symbol of the country’s rich past as a fortification for the Romans, Visigoths, and Moors, human occupation at the site dates at least to the 8th century BC with the oldest fortifications from the 2nd century BC or even earlier. Visitors can explore many still-intact relics, including underground chambers, medieval royal quarters, underground chambers, and 18 tours. One of the towers houses a camera obscura, an optical system of mirrors and lenses providing a 360-degree view of the city in real time. The gardens are lovely to stroll with the remains of an Arabian palace, olive trees, and free-roaming peacocks.

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Alfama District

The Alfama district is the oldest part of Lisbon. Incredibly atmospheric, its maze of narrow, cobbled streets and alleyways wind up to Sao Jorge Castle. Beyond visiting the castle, you can shop Lisbon’s most famous flea market between Tuesday and Saturday. It offers an astounding array of items sold from stalls spread over a wide area near the Pantheon. Marvel at the city’s oldest church, the Lisbon Cathedral which dates back to the 12th century, built on the site of an even older Moorish mosque and take in the best view from Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, the highest point in the area. There are many local bars for listening to the melodic sounds of Fado too.

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Praça do Comércio

The grandest and one of the most iconic squares in Lisbon, the Praça do Comércio was once home to the royal palace which was destroyed during the earthquake of 1755. Today, it’s known for its sunny yellow buildings, elegant 18th-century arcades, and the equestrian statue of Dom José I that sits at its heart. For the best views, pay the small fee to access the terrace of the triumphant Arco da Rua Augusta. Located on the north side of the square, the triumphal arch was built to celebrate the reconstruction of the city following the earthquake and was completed in 1873. From the terrace, you’ll be gazing out over the square, the riverfront, and São Jorge Castle beyond.

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Tram 28

Exploring Lisbon on Tram 28 is more than a way to get around, it’s a historical experience, rumbling through the city’s most impressive streets. Traversing the most famous route, it features the capital’s top sights from the central district of Baixa to neighborhoods like Graca and Estrela starting from Praca Martim Moniz Square. Developed in 1914, hitch a ride to travel through the foot of bohemian Bairro Alto with its steep cobbled streets and the shopping districts of Chiado and Baixa before winding by churches and castles in hilly Alfama, ending in Graca with its stunning viewpoints and colorful art murals. Other highlights include Lisbon Cathedral, the Romanesque monastery at Voz Operario, and the Baroque Basilica da Estrela.

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Top Cultural Experiences

Listen to Fado Music Performances

Fado music is believed to have originated in the 19th century although it probably dates back much further. A defining quality, even when it is more upbeat, is its saudade character, meaning a longing, nostalgic, and wistful yearning. If you wander through Alfama, you can often hear it coming from some of the homes as well as the local bars and restaurants. Plan to sit down and enjoy it at one of the top spots such as Sr. Fado, Fado & Wine, and the intimate Mesa de Frades, so renowned it’s even drawn several celebrities, including Madonna.

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Visit Museu Nacional do Azulejo

One of the most notable aspects of Lisbon is its vibrant ceramic tiles, or azulejos which can be seen on many buildings and in gift shops. The Museu Nacional do Azulejo or National Tile Museum, is an art museum that focuses on this traditional tilework of Portugal and the former Portuguese Empire. Housed in a 16th-century building that was once the home of a convent, it offers an outstanding overview of the history behind the famous azuelejos. Jam-packed with tiles of all sizes and colors, some dating as far back as the 15th century, some are simply decorated with sailboats or flowers while others are pieced together, creating remarkable murals that chronicle stories or people notable in Portugal’s history.

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Visit LX Factory

Established in 1846 as a textile manufacturing complex called Companhia de Fiação e Tecidos Lisbonens, LX Factory played a key role in the industrialization of the city. It was abandoned by the late 20th century but in 2008 it was transformed into the vibrant creative hub, a village within the city that put the neighborhood of Alcantara on the map. The former warehouses became concept stores, art galleries and studios, charming shops, and eateries. It’s one of the top spots for weekend brunch with lots of authentic local flavors and on Sundays, there’s a popular market selling everything from fashionable clothing and accessories, both new and second-hand, along with fruits and veggies from various producers throughout the Lisbon region.

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Outdoor Activities

Tagus River Cruise

A cruise on the Tagus River is a great way to take in the sights of the city, including São Jorge Castle, Lisbon Cathedral, Cristo Rei (the statue of Christ), the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge,  Belém Tower, and the Jerónimos Monastery. There are multiple options but one of the most memorable is a sunset cruise. There’s nothing better than relaxing on a boat while watching the sun go down over the city. With Lisbon’s prime location at the mouth of the river, sunset cruises will reveal the waterside landmarks at their best, illuminated by the rays as the sun sinks into the Atlantic. Many include light bites and free-flowing wine to enhance the experience as well.

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Visit the Nearby Beaches

Some of Portugal’s most beautiful sandy beaches are within easy reach of Lisbon, from stretches edging calm lagoons for swimming to hidden coves and epic surfing spots. One of the best is just a 35-minute drive from the capital near Cascais. It’s a top surfing beach, regularly hosting international and national kitesurfing and windsurfing competitions, while offering facilities for renting water sports gear. South of Lisbon in Parque Natural da Arrábida, forested slopes dip to chalk-white sands, including Praia dos Galapinhos, a beach lapped by clear, cobalt blue waters ideal for snorkeling. Praia da Ursa may be the most tranquil as it’s harder to reach, accessed by a steep descent and tucked into a beautiful cove perfect for watching the sunset.

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Walk Through the Historic Districts of Baixa & Mouraria

Alfama isn’t the only district you should explore; the historic districts of Baixa and Mouraria are also quite enticing. Baixa is the most central neighborhood in Lisbon as well as being one of the oldest, although it was completely rebuilt after the 18th-century earthquake with wide, classical avenues and homes covered in tiles. Some of the most emblematic squares can be found here, including Praça do Comércio, the former site of the Royal Palace and one of the top things to see in Lisbon. Mouraria is the old Moorish district, with historic structures lining the jumble of stone streets right below the castle walls. It’s the most diverse culturally with over 50 different nationalities, resulting in a wide variety of ethnic cuisines.

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