It’s been two months since we returned from two weeks in Portugal, and I’m finally catching up on life enough to recap one of the best trips we’ve taken in ages. Of course, a lot of that has to do with Lisbon itself; since we first visited in 2006, it’s been SVV’s and my “bug-out spot,” the place we plan to escape to when the apocalypse happens or the zombies arrive or aliens invade our country. Either way, we love Portugal, and that feeling only grew stronger on our most recent return.
But it wasn’t all fun and games (though much of it was). First, we were there to co-host a workshop for entrepreneurs. And planning a group trip to Lisbon can be difficult, especially if you’re traveling with others who may have different interests than your own. On my last visit to Lisbon, my family and a couple of friends tagged along; this time, SVV and I were accompanied by seven other creatives (and a baby!), mostly fellow photographers. And if ever there were a place that’s perfect for photographer friends, it’s the City of Seven Hills, as there are so many things to do in Lisbon that lend themselves to large groups.
Though it was my third visit to Lisbon, it had been five years since my last time in the country and I found the Internet sorely lacking in information, particularly from the local tourism board (Portugal Tourism, call me! you could use some help). Thus, I took copious mental notes—and approximately six million photos—while we were there, so you know all the best things to do in Lisbon and don’t repeat any mistakes we made. Here goes.
A Brief Snapshot of Lisbon
Portugal was established in the 12th century, though for 400 years before that Muslims ruled the country, which is why the oldest surviving portion of Lisbon comprises tight, cobblestoned streets; it was built that way to provide shade during the hot days of summer. And let me tell you, it got hot right as we were leaving in early August, so I see why it was constructed that way; you definitely need somewhere to go to escape the sun.
The Arabic influence is still evident throughout the stunning architecture and intricate tile all over Lisbon. The old neighborhood of Alfama is particularly charming and deserves a day of aimless wandering. Just pack your walking shoes, as the streets are steep!
Much like its doppelgänger San Francisco, Lisbon spans seven hills and is flanked by an almost perfect bay, only on two sides instead of three. A 9.0 earthquake shook the city to its core back in 1755, devastating many of the buildings and almost demolishing the entire thing, in part due to a tsunami and massive fires that followed. Nearly 20 percent of Lisbon’s population at the time—or 40,000 people—were killed, in addition to even more in Spain and Morocco.
Today, Lisbon feels like one of the most authentic European cities to me, though it faces the effects of gentrification that we’ve seen in so many major cities throughout the world, including San Francisco. The sharing economy is very much alive there, and as a result, many long-time residents have been forced out by rising rents and those who have converted apartments to Airbnbs. That said, someone has been keeping the street vendors and cheap foreign goods off the shelves in this part of the world so it doesn’t feel like a cheap flea market anywhere, unlike most European hotspots.
When Should I Go?
If I were to do it again, we’d go back in early September. We totally lucked out and had a solid week of balmy 78-degree afternoons, then the last few days we were there, it peaked to a crippling 115 degrees. Luckily, SVV and I were heading to the islands where it was 55 degrees cooler.
While the weather can be unpredictable, if you go in June or July and even parts of August, you’re going during prime Portuguese holidays and you’ll likely pay a premium. Airfare was several hundred dollars more during June and July then other times of the year, so I’d suggest hitting Lisbon up during its shoulder season of early May or September. Winters do get cool as its latitude is around the same as Tennessee, so it stays pretty pleasant through late October.
Where Should I Stay?
Most people I know use Airbnb to stay in Lisbon, as it’s affordable and you get excellent bang for your buck, which is exactly what we did when booking accommodation for 10 people.
In terms of neighborhoods, to be honest, anywhere in central Lisbon is a safe bet, but my personal favorites are Bairro de Alto and Alfama. Since we needed six bedrooms, we were limited to flats that could accommodate 10, but I found a lovely apartment in Anjos and adored the neighborhood. Anjos is great for those who want to be central to everything but in a quieter sector out of the fray of the party districts.
How to Hire a Tour Guide
A friend of a friend referred me to Teresa, the lovely owner of Born in Lisbon, a walking tour company and a certified tour guide through the Portuguese government.
I highly, highly recommend spending your first day in Lisbon taking a walking tour of the central district with Born in Lisbon. Teresa has that easy, laid back Portuguese style of talking, walking and feeling the energy of the group that made SVV and me fall in love with the country in the first place many moons ago. The vibe of the Portuguese is very much our style of travel and living: passionate mixed with a little c’est la vie. You’ll get a little taste of that with her if you’re open to it.
How to Get Around
Ride-sharing services have arrived in Lisbon, and they’re surprisingly cheap. We took them all over the city, and they typically cost about 3 euro a ride, even more economical than the metro given that we often rode three to four people in one car.
Lisbon does have a metro transportation system that is safe and relatively efficient. We took it a few times from the Anjos and Independente stops right by our flat until we realized how easy it was to use a ride-share service instead. And, of course, there’s the iconic tram. You haven’t visited Lisbon until you’ve crammed yourself into the sweaty throngs of the tram-riders!
There’s also a train that leaves from Cais do Sodre and heads west to the beach towns, Sintra and beyond. We took this a time or two—as SVV and I also did back in 2006 when we were bopping around the country—and it can be slow at times, particularly if you get a regional train that stops at every stop possible.
Tourist Traps to Avoid—and Those to See
Skip Cascais; go to Carcavelos instead
Of all the things to do in Lisbon, the beach should be low priority on your list; go south or north if you want a seaside break. You can take day trips to coastal towns, sure, but they’re nothing like going to the Algarve way down south; the surf on the south coast is calmer and the water more tepid, and there’s no beating that dramatic, rocky coastline of the southern region that is scarce in parts of Central Portugal.
I had high hopes for Cascais as so many people had raved about it, but ultimately, it was a big disappointment—at least in summer months. Even on a weekday, the beaches were so crowded, there was nowhere to sit, and the town itself was brimming with vendors selling so much made-in-China crap, it was hard to walk through. It reminded me of every crowded Mediterranean cruise port town I’ve ever been and was filled with those types of tourists, as well.
But what if you don’t have three hours to get down to the Algarve and a couple days to spare and you just want an afternoon at the beach? You do as the locals do and go to Carcavelos for its wide, sandy beaches and skip the cramped quarters of Cascais. Carcavelos is just 24 minutes by car or a 46-minute train ride from Lisbon. Or you take a cue from my friend Christie, who was there at the same time as we were, and head 90 minutes up the coast to lovely Nazaré for an afternoon or even the whole weekend.
Don’t miss Time Out Market
Named after the Time Out publication, the market is essentially a huge converted warehouse with a central dining area surrounded by incredible food options. While there is shopping, cuisine is the largest draw. Steaks, sushi, authentic Portuguese dishes, curated burgers, sweets and more populate the 40+ stalls of vetted food vendors inside this popular destination.
Skip Pastéis de Belém; go to Manteigaria instead
Pastéis de Belém is the only true place that can claim the iconic egg tarts for which Portugal is known “Belém.” The sweet treats were invented there; everywhere else they’re called “nata.” No doubt, Pastéis de Belém supplies the pastries for most of the shops in Lisbon anyway; you can tell from stepping foot inside the well-oiled machine that it’s a manufacturing facility. But this is a classic tourist trap, and you’ll likely wait ages in line to be served by a disinterested waiter, long used to the hordes of tourists fresh off the boat.
Sure, if you’re already in Belém for the monastery, tower or culture center—all of which I recommend—then check out the pastry shop to see if there’s a line (only do so early in the afternoon as they sell out of pretty much everything but the nata by midday), but don’t make a special trip to Belém when you can get more delicious versions at so many pastry shops and cafes in Lisbon proper like Manteigaria or Fábrica da Nata.
Don’t miss taking a cruise of the bay
We went on a sailboat out on the bay and beneath the 25 de Abril Bridge, and even though this is something I’ve done dozens of times in my life (does that make me a jaded traveler?), I have to admit it was pure magic! You just can’t beat that mild Lisbon weather paired with sunset views of the steepled hills. It reminded me of the many times I sailed across the San Francisco Bay as a resident—only the waters were perfectly calm, and I didn’t even need the Dramamine I frantically gulped down in anticipation of feeding the fish.
Skip the tourist haunts down in Chiado
Let’s get this out of the way: I had a really hard time finding a place that a) took reservations and b) would let us reserve a table for nine, so I came across Cervejaria Trindade on some site and it looked good enough. I mean, it has a history spanning 180 years! It was once a monastery! It brews it own beer! It has to be good, right? WRONG. It was the most awful, touristy place I’ve ever been, like dining at a pub in Times Square, only possibly worse. In fact, you’d be wise to skip most of the restaurants in the Chiado area as they catered to tourists and are way too pricey for low-quality, passion-less food.
We had some really good meals, but most of them were not Portuguese. We had excellent Asian fusion at Boa-Bao, delicious Mexican street fare from El Clandestino and a couple of lovely lunches at the Brick Cafe up in Anjos. One of Lisbon’s true charms is finding quaint cafes in your own neighborhood that you’d never discover with the help of Yelp or Google.
Don’t miss tasting your way through José Avillez’s empire
Our first night in town, we went to Minibar Teatro, as it was one of the few José Avillez where we could just drop into and grab a bite; plus, meals were small, sharable plates, which is exactly what we were looking for after our neurological clocks got reset by a trans-Atlantic flight.
Skip Park; go to Mundial instead
Think that Park, a rooftop park atop a parking structure with epic views, sounds like a killer concept? Yeah, you’re not alone. We snuck up there during the day when it was closed to take photos of the view from the level below, then went back on a Thursday night before sunset and it was a clubby mob scene of mostly American and European tourists and Instagrammers. Unless you’re traveling to Lisbon during the off-season, this is a skip for me. Next!
That said, after realizing that Bairro Alto Hotel is closed indefinitely, we located another rooftop bar at Hotel Mundial that we loved so much we wound up there three nights out of the seven.
There was plenty of space and seating for a group of our size to hang, and at six euros, drinks weren’t bad given that we were in a pretty swank setting. Oh, and the views definitely weren’t shabby!
Definitely Go to LX Factory
The artist collective that is LX Factory may get crowded, but it’s worth getting there early to nab a spot at Rio Maravilha that overlooks the river and the 25 de Abril Bridge.
When you’re done feasting your eyes on the scenery, you can poke around the shops and eat at one of the many restaurants comprising LX Factory. Honestly, you could lose yourself for hours here; there are so many cute stores, splashy public art and delicious places to eat!
Plus, LX Factory also boasts one of the most photogenic bookstores I’ve ever seen. How positively darling is Ler Devagar?
Don’t miss São Jorge Castle
São Jorge Castle may be one of the top tourist attractions in Lisbon, but it’s not one you should write off. This Moorish fortification commands a sweeping hilltop view of almost the entire city and is filled with textures for photography. Establishing a sense of place is important for both of us and this location will jump start your trip.
Tip: Get there when it first opens at 9am as a line accumulates quickly. However, once you’re inside the walls, you won’t feel the crush of people as it’s a sprawling compound of a castle with steep ramparts, hidden nooks and central courtyards that just breathe history.
The early morning arrival will also translate to optimal photography conditions before the sun is so harsh and directly overhead.
And definitely visit Cervejaria Dois Corvos
On our one free afternoon, SVV and I set out wandering and a few of our group tagged along. We had no idea where we were going, as often is the case, but had our driver drop us off in Marvila down near the water, so how lucky for us (after asking a few questions, as we do) that we stumbled upon not one but two breweries? Lisbon isn’t a beer town—most bars have one kind of beer on the menu and it’s usually Sagres—so to discover that there are actually craft breweries in the city was a bit mind-blowing. And not only do craft breweries exist, but they’re damn good, too!
How convenient, too, that Dois Corvos means two ravens, and SVV’s and my company is Odinn Media (Odin was the son of Thor and had a pair of ravens, Hugin and Munin, who would collect the news of the land for him!). We were destined to like this place.
Sadly, eight days in Lisbon flew by, and there was so much we didn’t have a chance to get to. But I’d say we did a decent job of making some headway, wouldn’t you? I made a map of some of my favorite stops for those of you planning a trip to Lisbon in the near future.
Have you ever been to Portugal? If so, do you have recommendations for things to do in Lisbon that I missed and are absolutely musts?