Lisbon had me at hello. The capital of Portugal is bright and bold; confident and friendly: an extroverted city easy to love and laugh in. I was an instant fan and found so many delightful things to do in Lisbon.
It just dazzles in the sunshine: Lisbon’s main streets are paved with gleaming marble and its buildings are decorated with painted tiles or glorious yellow plaster. It’s a wonderful city for a weekend city break, but its easy charm may well tempt you to stay longer.
In this post, I will outline the seven main, ‘umbrella’ things to do in Lisbon, with plenty of details and options within each of them.
1. Marvel at the grandeur and the marble boulevards of Baixa
Baixa, or downtown Lisbon, is one of the few areas in the city that are flat. Nestled between the hilly districts and the Tagus estuary, it feels like the grand centre of Lisbon.
Rua Augusta & Arco da Rua Augusta
After I arrived and checked into my hotel, I went out into the streets to orient myself and to have a wander. The first street I turned down was a wide straight boulevard paved with shiny marble tiles. To my right, I could see a tall, proud archway through which the sun was shining. Had I landed at the pearly gates of heaven?
Not quite, but close: this was Rua Augusta, the gorgeous main avenue that runs through the centre of Baixa. The road is pedestrianised and is filled with outdoor seating for the many bars and restaurants along the street. Its south end opens up into the vast waterfront square, Praça do Comércio.
At the entrance to Praça do Comércio is Arco da Rua Augusta. This is an ornate 30m high archway built in 1873 to commemorate the city’s reconstruction after a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 1755. It proclaims, in Latin, ‘The Virtues of the Greatest’ and is crested with statues of Glory, Genius and Valour. How impressive!
Praça do Comércio
If you walk through Arco da Rua Augusta, you will come into a wide and bright square, which is also a National Monument of Portugal: Praça do Comércio. Like Rua Augusta, it is paved with marble, and it is ringed by sunshine yellow buildings with arched porticoes. It is truly glorious.
In the centre of the square is a statue of King José I and at the south end is Cais das Colunas. This is a quay with a set of marble steps created for the arrival of royal dignitaries to the royal palace, which used to be on the water’s edge before it was destroyed by the 1755 earthquake.
Some slightly morbid trivia: Praça do Comércio was the scene of the assassination of Carlos I, the penultimate King of Portugal in 1908. But it doesn’t feel morbid there at all: in the sunshine, it feels proud and bold!
Praça de Dom Pedro IV
At the other end of Rua Augusta is Praça de Dom Pedro IV, or Rossio as it is also commonly known. This has been a main square in Lisbon since the middle ages, but it was renamed in 1874. Its official name is a tribute to Pedro IV, King of Portugal, as is a monumental column in the centre of the square.
It is surrounded by shops and cafes and overlooked by the hills of the Alfama, Chiado and Barrio Alto districts. The square is oblong and paved with swirling patterns of black and white marble. With all this marble, Lisbon really does feel fancy!
Santa Justa Lift
Just south of Rossio, and visible from Rua Aurea, is an impressive piece of engineering: the Santa Justa Lift. The iron lift was conceived in the 19th century but not fully inaugurated until 1902. Its purpose was to provide an easy connection between the lower flat streets of Baixa to the elevated area of Largo do Carmo.
It’s an unusual landmark, Neo-Gothic in style. I think I’ve only seen one other like it, the Katarina Elevator in Stockholm. But this one is certainly more attractive. And the view from the top is of course, wonderful. Riding the Santa Justa lift is a great thing to do, especially if you are exploring Lisbon with kids.
2. Explore the old Alfama district
To the east of Baixa, you’ll find Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest neighbourhood – and some would say the one with the most character. I have to confess, I personally preferred the bright, bold (literally) shiny streets of Baixa. Nevertheless, I do still think spending at least a little time exploring the charming old streets of Alfama is an essential thing to do in Lisbon.
Streets of Alfama
If you’re a regular reader, by now you know I love to walk the streets of a city, to feel it living and breathing, to discover it with my feet – and the Alfama district is a rewarding (though steep!) place to do that.
Alfama is built on a hill, with narrow streets that wind around it. This area was not destroyed by the earthquake that levelled so much of Lisbon in the 18th century, so Alfama retains its old character and sense of history. Whilst it’s not grand like Baixa (Alfama was originally a poor area that housed fishermen), it has a distinct, laid back style, and feels lived-in. There seemed to be more trees here and many buildings are covered in attractive painted tiles, called Azulejos. And if you’re lucky you might catch some live Fado music being played in a local bar.
São Jorge Castle is an 11th-century Moorish castle on the hilltop at the north end of Alfama. It has been a royal palace, a military barracks, home of the Torre do Tombo National Archive, and is now a national monument and museum.
Dominating the skyline of Alfama is Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora, a 17th-century church and monastery that also houses the tombs of Portuguese kings of the House of Braganza. Also high up is Igreja Paroquial da Graca, a catholic church and convent, with a great viewpoint over Lisbon.
If you follow Rue Sao Tome down the hill, eventually you’ll come to Lisbon Cathedral, the Patriarchal Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Mary Major, which was built in 1147. However, it has been rebuilt & added to various times over the centuries, so it contains a mix of architectural styles including Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque.
For many who want to experience the iconic trams of Lisbon, Alfama is where they do it. The number 28 tram runs from Martim Moniz to Campo de Ourique and as it rolls through Alfama, it is typically packed with tourists.
I was in Portugal during covid, and I didn’t fancy being in such close proximity with so many people, so I gave the tram ride a miss. But, of course, that didn’t stop me from photographing trams all over Alfama!
3. Climb the hills of Chiado and Barrio Alto
If you head west from pearly Baixa, the streets will get steep and you’ll be on your way to the hilly but elegant neighbourhoods of Chiado and Barrio Alto, known for theatres, museums and shopping.
My top tip for exploring Chiado is to wear grippy shoes. It has the same marble paving as Baixa. On the flats, they just make the streets look gorgeous and glamourous, but on the slopes of Chiado, they can be very slippery!
At the centre of Chiado is an attractive square, surrounded by smart, colourful tiled buildings. Praça Luís de Camões features a statue of the poet Luís de Camões, considered Portugal’s greatest poet. Unlike some of the squares in Baixa, this one has some trees, which create some welcome shade on a hot day. It’s a great place to watch people (and trams) go by.
And at the bottom of the hill on Rua de São Paulo is another attractive square: Praça de São Paulo is a shady square with a fountain and a church.
If you’re down at sea level and want to get up to Chiado without breaking a sweat, consider riding on the historic Ascensor da Bica, a funicular that will carry you up the hillside in a classic yellow carriage. Since 1892, this railway has been operating between Rua de São Paulo and Largo Calhariz. The views from the top are great: looking down the steep streets, you can see out to the estuary. And of course, the carriage itself is very photogenic – so expect plenty of people to be photographing it at the top. The funicular runs every 15 minutes and costs €3.70 for a single (less if you have a Viva Viagem Card or Lisboa Card).
Food & Drink in Chiado
While Chiado is known for museums and shopping, I found myself often climbing the hills of Chiado to find some great places to eat:
- A Brasileira is an attractive art deco café, near the Baixa-Chiado metro stop. It has operated since 1905, when it specialised in Brazilian coffee. It has a pleasant terrace outside.
- Just down the hill from Praça Luís de Camões is Taberna da Rua das Flores, a small, rustic restaurant specialising in Portuguese cuisine.
- If you’re in the market for something fancier, Belcanto is a restaurant with two Michelin stars near the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos. It is currently number 42 on the world’s best restaurant list. They offer tasting menus centred around local produce. The prices are, unsurprisingly, rather high, but the food is innovative and the service is impeccable.
4. Enjoy the nightlife at Principe Real
Following some tips from some Lisbon locals, I went to the Principe Real area on my first evening. I realised this is quite a vibrant area at night, with plenty of restaurants and bars lining Rue Dom Pedro V. So I came back the second night also!
On my first night in Lisbon, I ate at Tapisco Lisboa, where I had an amazing starter: La Bomba de Lisboa. This is similar to croquetas, but with a delicious spicy sauce. And the second night I went to Faz Frio, where the food was good and the cocktails were great – I had a smoky mezcal concoction which I loved.
Principe Real also had another funicular. Ascensor da Glória runs from Pombaline downtown (at the Restauradores Square) to the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara. This one isn’t the classic yellow – it is covered in graffiti, which gives it a little edge (though when I did a poll on this in my Instagram stories, most people preferred the sunshine yellow option).
5. Get up to a viewpoint over the city
Because of the many hills in Lisbon, there are plenty of viewpoints from which you can admire the city – so an essential thing to do in Lisbon is to visit at least one viewpoint (or miradouro). Here are some that I visited and recommend.
Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara
This is in Principe Real, just above the top end of the Ascensor da Glória. This spacious Miaradouro offers views over Baixa downtown and across to the hills of Alfama. Facing east, you won’t see the sunset here, but you will see the city glow in the warm light of the setting sun.
Miradouro da Graça
This viewpoint is in Alfama, near the Igreja Paroquial da Graca, offering westward views over Lisbon. This would be a good option to catch the sunset behind the city or to see it as it is first lit up by the sunrise.
Miradouro das Portas do Sol
Further down the hill from Miradouro da Graça is another miradouro, facing the eastern side of Alfama and the estuary. This one seemed popular and was thronging with people when I went. However, I found a better, quieter spot just slightly lower down the hill. I really enjoyed looking out over the red rooftops.
There’s also a great view of Lisbon from Christ the King statue – more on that later in section 7.
6. Sample Portuguese specialities
Pastel de Nata
The most famous Portuguese food is arguably the iconic Pastel de nata. This simple but delightful custard tart was invented by monks who used leftover egg yolks to make pastries. These delicious little tarts are the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee in the afternoon – you have to try at least one.
The best I tasted in Lisbon was from A Brasileira in Chiado, but if you want to try the original recipe, you’ll have to go to Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, in the outskirts of Lisbon
Portugal is an established wine-making region, so if you drink alcohol, you’ll have plenty of good choices of local wines. I’m by no means a wine expert, but everyone seemed to be talking about the Douro Valley wines. I had a great Moscatel from the Douro at A Brasilera – it matched my Pastel de Nata perfectly.
And of course, port wine is probably one of Portugal’s most famous export – though you’ll need to go to Porto if you want to learn all about how that is made.
With so much coastline, Portuguese cuisine is known for featuring fresh fish. I had heard the sardines in Portugal were amazing (and I did try them and they were very nice). However, in every restaurant I visited, when I asked what their best dish was, they always seemed to recommend a cod dish.
There’s a classic cod dish I tried called Bacalhau à Zé do Pipo. This is code with onions and vegetables on a bed of mashed potato. However, my favourite was a dish called Bacalhau à brás. I ate it at Tapisco, and it was perfect comfort food: a mix of shredded potato and cod, mixed up with egg yolk. It was sooo delicious!
Chocolate, oil & salt
I saw this dessert on a lot of menus, and I was intrigued. To me, the idea of salt with chocolate was not new, but I hadn’t tried it with olive oil – so I had to try this dish.
I ate this at Taberna da Rua das Flores, where the chocolate was a mousse, with salt crystals added on top, and olive oil drizzled over. I was instructed to mix the ingredient together to blend the flavours. It was an interesting combination: not a lot of sweetness to offset the salt & savouriness of the oil. It could be a good option for someone who doesn’t like overly sweet desserts.
For more food inspiration, check out my post on seven Portuguese dishes you should try.
7. See Lisbon’s surrounding sights
Now, I put this last because personally, I think this is the least important thing to do in Lisbon – mainly because Lisbon itself is so gorgeous and packed full of goodies. But if you have time, there are some landmarks around the city which are worth visiting.
Visiting Belém Tower on the northern bank of the Tagus River is a popular thing to do in Lisbon. This tower, officially called Torre de São Vicente, dates from the 16th century and functioned as a defense to the city. It is one of Portugal’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites along with the nearby Jerónimos Monastery. You can go into the tower on a guided tour.
The Jerónimos Monastery is where Portugal’s famous custard tarts originate from: the monks there sold pastries to raise money and created Pastel de Belém (also known as Pastel de nata). There’s a bakery called Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém that claims to use the original recipe from the monks, kept secret for centuries.
You can get to Belém by train, on the Lisbon hop on hop off tourist bus, or by taxi.
Padrão dos Descobrimentos
On the way to Belém Tower, or on the way back, you could also stop at Padrão dos Descobrimentos, which is opposite the monastery on the waterside overlooking the estuary.
This monument to celebrate the Portuguese Age of Discovery (or Age of Exploration) during the 15th and 16th centuries was inaugurated in 1960 to mark the anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. Shaped like the bow of a ship heading towards the sea, it features figures of monarchs, explorers, cartographers, artists, scientists and missionaries.
It is quite striking, especially with the view of 25 de Abril Bridge and the Christ The King statue beyond it.
Santuário de Cristo Rei
Despite there being many miradouros around Lisbon, the most epic view of Lisbon that I found was from Santuário de Cristo Rei (or The Sanctuary of Christ the King), located across the 25 de Abril Bridge in Almada. This is a huge monument featuring a statue of Christ with his arms outstretched towards Lisbon as if embracing the city. The 110m high monument, reminiscent of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, was inaugurated in 1959.
You can go up into the monument to get a view from the observation deck 82 metres up. But the view from the base is also wonderful, as the monument is on a high cliff overlooking the estuary and city. It was lovely to see Lisbon shining in the sun.
When to go to Lisbon
Lisbon is in southern Europe, so even in winter it doesn’t get freezing cold (lows in January average at 8 degrees Celsius). This is great because you could visit year-round and not be uncomfortably cold (and if you’re thinking of visiting Portugal in winter, there are some other stunning places you can visit in Portugal in winter).
However, in Lisbon, the summer months of July and August can be very hot, which might inhibit how much you want to be wandering the streets. Therefore, like many places, in southern Europe, the best times to visit are often spring (March-May) or autumn (Sept-Nov).
I visited Lisbon in mid-September and it was stunning: I had warm temperatures and sunny days that showed off Lisbon’s cheerful colours wonderfully.
How long do you need in Lisbon?
I spent two days in Lisbon and it was just about enough time to see most of the city, but I did feel like I’d have liked to linger longer in some places. Therefore, I think three or four days would have been even better than two.
Where to stay in Lisbon
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. These are links to products or experiences I recommend and if you were to buy something after clicking on them, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Any earnings go towards the upkeep of this blog, which I appreciate.
I stayed at a mid-range hotel called My Story Augusta in the Baixa area: the room was very small, but it did have what I needed, and the location was great. It was just off Rua Augusta, and easily walkable to Chiado, Alfama and even Principe Real. It also felt safe, which was important to me, as I was there on a solo trip.
I hope you are inspired to visit Lisbon!
The two days I spent there were truly delightful – and I would happily return one day. And if you want more inspiration for visiting Portugal, check out my guide to Porto, Portugal’s atmospheric second city.