Legend has it that Lisbon’s name came from a Portuguese word for safe harbor. Nestled at the western edge of Europe and featuring multiple architectural styles, many travelers find Lisbon an ideal location to drop anchor, explore history and sample regional cuisine along its many cobblestone streets.
Ranked as the world’s 10th oldest city, Lisbon traces its roots back to the Phoenicians, who settled it approximately 3,000 years ago. Over the centuries, the Greeks, Romans, Moors and Christians moved in, each leaving their own cultural marks upon the city the western world refers to as Lisbon. Here we explore the 15 things you must do in Lisbon plus a few day trips if time permits.
Today, Lisbon is Portugal’s capital as well as its largest city. Located on the north banks of the River Tagus with the Atlantic Ocean to its west, Lisbon is known as a hub of finance, international trade, tourism, and the arts. The city has several distinct neighborhoods to explore. Alfama is the historic section of town, the central area of Alcântara hosts much of its nightlife, and Bairro Alto is the residential, entertainment and shopping district.
The many museums, parks and gardens make Lisbon a European must-see. It is also the perfect destination for the nocturnal-loving tourist seeking a lively nightlife scene. The weather in Lisbon makes for an ideal vacation spot with its mild winters and hot summers. For instance, December temperatures average a low of 48 degrees F (9° C) and a high of 58° F (15° C), with June averaging a low of 60° F (16° C) and a high of 76° F (25° C).
Make sure you visit a local spot to experience a bit of Fado. In addition to our list of the 15 things you must do in Lisbon, we recommend several day trips here that offer the chance to soak up the regional Portuguese scenery and quaint little towns, as well as music.
The Commerce Square, or Praça do Comércio, is conveniently located in the center of the city. Visitors will enjoy this beautiful square nestled against the Tagus River, offering a striking view of the water. A bronze statue of King José I, by Machado de Castro, stands proudly in the center of the square. Commerce Square also has historical significance to the Portuguese people because in 1908 King Carlos I was assassinated here.
Raúl Mesnier du Ponsard, apprentice of Gustave Eiffel (architect of the Eiffel tower), engineered this iconic lift in 1902. It measures 45 meters in height and can carry a maximum of 20 passengers up from the Baixa (lower) quarter to the Barrio Alto quarter. It is constantly on the move within the Gothic tower that it is housed in.
From the top, visitors have great views of the old city of Alfama and the Castle of São Jorge. The “carmo lift” as it is called, was declared a national monument in 2002. Although not necessary, it is the most popular way for first-time visitors to get to the Carmo Convent. A ride costs €5 per person.
Once you get off the elevator of Santa Justa at Carmo Square, you will find yourself just steps away from Carmo Convent. It was founded by Knight Nuno Álvares PereiraIt for the Carmelite Order in 1389. Presently no sisters of the Carmelite Order reside in Carmo Convent, but the site is open for tourists. The convent was damaged in the earthquake of 1755, but was later partially rebuilt and served as a military quarter. Much of the church was left untouched after the disaster and so you will find some sections still in ruin. Inside there is an archaeological museum housing tombs and other relics of Portuguese history.
This impressive tower is located at the mouth of the Tagus River and is known as the symbol of the city. It was built in 1515 as a fortress with the purpose of protecting the city’s harbor. It was commissioned by King John II and was constructed out of limestone mined from local areas. Belém Tower served as a starting point for sailors leaving for voyages into the deep blue. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the tower’s impressive stonework and intricate detail are definitely worth the visit to the Avenida da India in Belém.
The tower is open October to May from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (last admission at 5 p.m.) and May through September from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (last admission at 6 p.m.) It is closed on Mondays. Admission is €5 per person, but free on Sundays until 2 p.m.
Opened in 1905, this coffee shop is more than just a daily stop for locals. The Portuguese take their coffee quite seriously, and no café could be more iconic than Brasileira, serving genuine Brazilian ground. Located in the old quarter of Lisbon, this café was frequented by Portuguese poets and writers such as Fernando Pessoa, Alfredo Pimenta and Aquilino Ribeiro. It makes for a fun visit, especially for caffeine addicts who enjoy sitting in cafés where some great minds of the past got their fixes.
While here, taste the original Pastel de Belém with a bica, Lisbon’s version of espresso. This place is known for having invented the original pastel, or pastry. The original building of the bakery is an old school house, which gives Pasteis de Belém an authentic old-world Portuguese feel. They also make other delicious products such as jam, English cake, King and Queen cake, and marmalade. Delicious is the best word to describe the delicacies you can buy at Pasteis de Belém.
Pasteis de Belém is open October 1st to May 31st from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. and June 1st to September 30th from 8 a.m. to midnight. Open every day.
Rua de Belém, 84
1300 Lisbon, Portugal
The Jerónimos Monastery, also called Hieronymites Monastery, is another iconic site in Lisbon that is a must-see for every traveler. It took 50 years of construction to complete the monastery that was originally intended to commemorate Vasco da Gama’s roundtrip voyage to India. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and consists of the Church of Santa Maria and the monastery itself. Surprisingly, the monastery was left relatively unharmed after the 1755 earthquake, making it a true testament of longstanding Portuguese history.
The monastery is open October to May from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (last admission at 5 p.m.) and May through September from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (last admission at 6 p.m.) It is closed on Mondays. Admission is €7 per person, but free on Sundays until 2 p.m.
Perched on the highest hill is the Castle of São Jorge, which dates back to medieval times and overlooks the city of Lisbon. The castle was used to protect the city from the Moors toward the end of the 12th century. Guests can explore the terrace, gardens, and cannons on site. The Castle of São Jorge is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city.
The castle open March through October 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and November through February 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is €7.50.
Known as the most famous pedestrian walkway in Lisbon, the Rua Augusta is a perfect one-stop locale to grab a quick bite to eat or pick up any postcards or souvenirs. Here visitors will find merchandise including flowers, handbags, shoes, musical instruments and much more. The street vendors are known for having interesting knickknacks that make the Rua Augusta a fun detour from the historic sites.
Another beautiful highlight of Lisbon is the cathedral that dates back to 1150. Its Romanesque façade features a large, circular window and porch. Legend has it that the cathedral was originally a mosque, converted in 1147 when Crusaders conquered Lisbon. The 14th century sacristy inside the cathedral holds relics and religious arts that history buffs will surely enjoy.
There is no admission fee, but to visit the cloister costs €1.50.
This modern aquarium is only a 15-minute taxi ride from central Lisbon. Situated along the shoreline, it is a popular destination with more than one million international visitors per year! The Oceanario has one colossal tank in its center, symbolizing the union of all oceans. It also houses various smaller tanks that contain different sea creatures such as sharks, barracudas, schooling fish and stingrays. Make sure to experience the modern design and incredible animals at this popular Lisbon destination. This is a great spot to bring the kids or the kid in you.
The Oceanario is open every day from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in winter. Admission is €16.
Cristo Rei, or Monument to Christ, was built to thank God for having helped Portugal avoid entering World War II. It is located in the town of Almada, about a 25-minute drive from Lisbon. Visitors of Cristo Rei may notice that the 90-foot-tall monument looks very familiar. That’s because it was inspired by the one built in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The highest point of the structure, the pedestal at about 270 feet in the air, can be reached by elevator and offers an incredible view of the city and the 25 de Abril Bridge. A quick ferry ride from the Cais do Sodre Station will take visitors to buses that will escort them to this impressive monument.
This monument, built in 1960, honors the anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. Sculptures depict famous Portuguese explorers, only one of whom is female. The monument is located on the north bank of the Tagus River on Avenida de Brasilia, Belém.
Royalty need to get around too, and this museum (located at Praça Afonso de Albuquerque, Belém) shows how stylish travel by coach can be. The museum houses the world’s largest collection of ceremonial vehicles and is Lisbon’s most-visited museum. It is in the former Royal Riding School at the Royal Palace of Belém. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is €5; free admission on Sundays and bank holidays until 2 p.m.
About 40 minutes northwest of Lisbon sits the town of Cabo da Roca. It is the westernmost point on the European continent, not including the island nations of United Kingdom, Ireland and Iceland. This scenic cape area has a rocky pathway for visitors to walk, and a large sign describes that you are standing on the westernmost point of the continent. It is the perfect place for a photo documenting your visit while overlooking the turquoise waters. Swimmers and surfers alike will find ample opportunity at Praia Grande, one of the most popular beaches in the coastal Lisbon area.
After seeing Cabo da Roca, continue north to the quiet town of Azenhas do Mar. Before getting there, you will encounter a lookout spot, or mirador, where you can park your car and walk along to catch the best views of the town. The town of Azenhas do Mar does not have much for visitors other than a few restaurants. I didn’t hear or see one person while I was there, which gave me the feeling it is like a ghost town during winter. Any time of year, however, this jutting peninsula provides a striking panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean from Europe’s west coast. Sun-bleached white houses perch atop a rocky hill overlooking waves crashing below. The restaurant by the same name, Azenhas do Mar, received the nod of “best seafront dining in the world” by Monocle Magazine in 2010.
The picturesque town of Cascais is only 20 minutes west from Lisbon and doesn’t require driving on a highway. The best way to get to Cascais is by taking Marginal de Cascais (Av Marginal). By driving down this road you will get the chance to experience the beautiful coastline, which is especially pleasant around sunset. There are also many beaches along the way for visitors who desire a refreshing swim during the warmer months. The quaint town of Cascais reminds me of an Italian fishing village, but with more brilliant colors. The Fortaleza do Guincho restaurant is located west of Cascais almost at Cabo do Roca.
Cascais offers shopping and restaurants, but if you would rather soak up some local culture, spy on the robust auction of the day’s catch held every afternoon by the main beach. Or add sailing, surfing and golfing to your more active itinerary while in Cascais. Points of interest in Cascais include the farol, or lighthouse, Tamariz and Carcavelos beaches and several delectable eateries along the Atlantic coast.
Mafra is an old-world town that attracts travelers interested in the Mafra National Palace. You can reach the town by driving 30 minutes northwest of Lisbon. Mafra itself is petite in size, and is overwhelmed by the giant Baroque-style palace. King John V built it for his wife Queen Mary Anne of Austria. One would think that a grand construction such as this would be fit for a king, but the royal couple only used it as a secondary residence. The property went on to serve as a Franciscan monastery during 18th century, and was officially declared a national monument in 1907. The palace features an impressive 880 halls, 1,200 rooms, 29 courtyards, 4,700 windows, a massive Rococo-style library and 154 staircases. There are also two bell towers, a royal basilica, and a former royal hunting ground. Massive and opulent are the two best words that describe this site. A guided tour is a convenient and informative way to experience the palace. The tour takes guests through the king and queen’s separate apartments on the second floor and through the library, which holds an impressive 35,000 volumes.
In 2012, the Mafra National Palace won the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage for the restoration of its basilica’s six historical organs. The prize recognizes excellence in cultural heritage conservation. The palace is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (last entrance at 4:30 p.m.) every day except Tuesday. The Basilica is open every day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is €6, but is free on Sundays and public holidays until 2 p.m.
A 25-minute drive west through the Sintra mountains will bring visitors to the tiny, but regal town of Sintra. The town is known for its 8th and 9th century royal retreats, estates and palaces, all of which landed sleepy Sintra on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. The Castelos dos Mouros (Moorish castle), Sintra National Palace and Pena National Palace are three of the town’s jewels. Visitors can walk along the entire length of the wall surrounding the Moorish castle. I was amazed at the fact that it was built more than 1,000 years ago. It is definitely one of my favorite castles that I was able to see in Portugal. Sintra National Palace is the best-preserved medieval palace in the country. This 15th century beauty is open every day from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Admission is €9.
Pena National Palace, built in the 1840s, sits proudly on a peak and boasts many Romantic architectural elements, such as a drawbridge, turrets, ramparts and intricate, dramatic stonework throughout. It is one of Europe’s most iconic castles – a must-see ranked up there with Germany’s Bavarian fairytale fortresses. It is also considered to be one of Portugal’s seven wonders. It is surrounded by Pena Park, a 500-acre plot of dense vegetation that has several plant species including the North American sequoia and magnolia trees. The palace is open daily from 9:45 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (last entrance at 6:15 p.m.). Admission for the interior of the palace is €13.50. Tickets for the exterior, park and palace terraces are also available.
Time zone: GMT +1
Getting around: Even though Lisbon sits atop seven hills, the city is easy to navigate. Its streets are laid out on a simple grid, and public transportation includes buses, trams (easy to spot in their eye-popping yellow shells), trains and an international airport. Local transportation is efficient and allows for convenient travel across the city and to surrounding areas. If you choose to walk, Lisbon’s steep and narrow streets will give your legs a workout, so pack comfortable walking shoes.
While Lisbon is a walking city, there is also the reliable Lisbon Metro subway system. It is comprised of four lines and has more than 50 stations around Lisbon and its outskirts. The Metro operates from 6:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. daily, with some trains ending service at 1 a.m. A Metro ride will run you about €.90 to €2, depending where you would like to go. Metro cards cost €.50, are rechargeable and are available at each of the stations. Lisbon also has bus and street tram services. Figueira Square, Marques de Pombal Square and Sete Rios are the city’s three major bus terminals.
Shopping: Baixa (downtown district) features boutiques and small shops. Rua Áurea (gold street), Rua Augusta and Rua da Prata (silver street) are the city’s main shopping streets. There are many charming specialty shops in the area like Luvaria Ulisses (gloves) and Confeitaria Nacional (bakery/café) that are over 100 years old and worth a visit. Avenida da Liberdade has designer stores such as Burberry and Louis Vuitton. Feira da Ladra is Lisbon’s flea market. It is held all day Tuesdays and Saturdays in the Alfama quarter.
Hours of operation: Typical hours of operation are from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. and from 3 p.m. – 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and Saturdays from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. Museums are closed on Mondays.
Nightlife: The Bairro Alto quarter has numerous bars and Fado venues. The dock area of Santo Amaro has restaurants, cafés, bars and late-night nightclubs overlooking the marina. Most nightlife venues close between 2am and 4am.
Nearest airport: Lisbon Portela Airport (LIS)
Getting there: There are several daily flights into Lisbon. We recommend Flighthub as a way to compare flight fares and book cheap flights to Lisbon. We checked the results and there were several non-stop flights from London, Madrid, Paris and New York. To learn more about how to use FlightHub to make travel plans to Vigo, check out the FlightHub review.
Best time to go: March through October
Currency: euro (€)
Multi-entry pass: The Lisboa Card offers free or discounted admission to more than 80 Lisbon museums and sights. Cardholders also receive free transportation on the Metro, public buses, trams and elevadores. This city pass is valid for one year from the time of purchase and is available for different lengths of time: €18.50 for 24 hours; €31.50 for 48 hours and €39 for 72 hours.
Where to eat: Check out our list of the best restaurants in Portugal
What did you think about our 15 things you must do in Lisbon? Leave us your suggestions or questions in the comments below!