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Step-by-Step: Discovering Lisbon for the First Time

Oh Lisbon what a charm you are! If you’re heading to Portugal this year, then no doubt Lisbon is on your list, and rightly so.

Libby Renton is a Kiwi girl (and my niece), on her OE and currently living in Lisbon. She’s written this great post to help those of us plan our first time visit to the picturesque Portuguese capital city.

Lisbon is full of beautiful architecture, narrow streets, rich in culture – and not to mention they have the best Pastel de Nata’s (Portuguese traditional tart) that you will ever taste!

But get your walking shoes on because Lisbon is known as the city of seven hills (more reason to have multiple Pastel de Nata in a day).

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Libby overlooking Lisbon
Libby overlooking Lisbon

Getting to Lisbon

If Lisbon is your first port of call for Portugal, it is likely you will be flying into Lisbon Airport, located only 20 minutes drive from the city centre.

The best way to get right into the heart of Lisbon is to take a Bolt, which can cost as little as €7-10 (it’s usually a little cheaper than Uber. You will need to download the Bolt app).

Alternatively, if you feel like getting amongst the hustle and bustle of public transport, there is a Metro Station that will take you right into the city centre for €1.80.

Once you’ve found your accommodation and dropped your bags off, as mentioned above, I recommend getting your walking shoes on, as this is the best way to see the city and all it has to offer.

But be prepared, there are some hills here. Thankfully though, Lisbon has tram lines which have been helping people get around for over 150 years.

The famous umbrellas along Pink Street
The famous umbrellas along Pink Street

Visit Baixa District

This historic neighborhood is probably the most popular district to stay in Lisbon. It’s filled with restaurants, bars and shops, plus some of the top attractions.

The fountain in Rossio Square, in the Baixa District
The fountain in Rossio Square, in the Baixa District

Getting around by Tram

Lisbon’s trams not only get you from A to B, but they are an attraction in themselves. The quaint yellow trams rattle and screech through the narrow streets of Lisbon.

If it’s your first time in Lisbon, I highly recommend taking route E28 which will take you through Libson’s most historic centre and is a highlight not to be missed. You can buy your tram ticket when you get on, so make sure you have some cash with you. The tram will cost €3, however, you can also purchase a 24 hour public transport ticket for €6.80 which includes the metro, buses and trams (the extra cost is worth it) .

Pro tip – I recommend taking E28 early in the morning before it becomes crowded and only standing space may be available. Or better yet, if you take it from either of the departure locations (Martim Moniz or Campo Ourique) you are more likely to get a seat and have the best time riding through the city of Lisbon.

More information on public transportation in Lisbon.

The iconic Lisbon tram. Photo by Aayush Gupta on Unsplash

Visit Elevador de Santa Justa

The Baixa District is right in the heart of downtown Lisbon and is known for its neoclassical architecture, shops, cafes and vibrant street life along Rua Augusta (Augusta Street).

While in this part of town make sure to stop at the Elevador de Santa Justa, also known as the Carmo Lift, which is an historic elevator to Lisbon.

Elevador de Santa Justa
Head to the top of Elevador de Santa Justa for epic views

You can even take a ride in the elevator which offers a unique perspective of the city and fabulous photo ops. The upper observation deck provides panoramic views of Lisbon over the Baixa district, Rossio Square and São Jorge Castle.

You’ll also find the Design and Fashion Museum just around the corner.

Pro tip: Consider visiting the Santa Justa Lift at night when the city lights provide a magical ambience.

Avenida da Liberdade, Pastel de Natas & more

While wandering through Baixa, it’s worth taking a stroll down Avenida da Liberdade which is one of Lisbon’s main boulevards with upscale shops, lush greenery, historic buildings and beautiful architecture.

If you’re ready to indulge in your first Pastel de Nata of the trip, I highly recommend heading to Manteigaria – Pastéis de Nata Factory. This is hands down one of the best Portuguese tarts I have ever had, you’re going to love it! (Personally I opt for two because one is never enough).

There are many Manteigaria shops around so head to your nearest one and you won’t be disappointed.

I tried my first Portuguese Tart in Macau, of all places. They have a strong Portuguese/Chinese history.

The famous and delicious Pastel de Nata
The famous and delicious Pastel de Nata

If you manage to make it to the one mentioned above, you will be on the main walking street, Rua Augusta (Augusta Street), of the Baixa district.

As you walk towards the sea with your Pastel de Nata, you will stumble upon Arco da Rua Augusta, which is an impressive and ornate 18th century archway that leads to Praça do Comércio – a public plaza linking the waterfront to the hustle and bustle of Lisbon’s downtown districts.

Walking along the waterfront, you will see Libson’s impressive Golden Gate style suspension bridge which is over 2km long!

Here’s a fun fact for you: the waterfront you are looking at is the mouth of the Tagus River which links Portugal and Spain and is over 1000km long!

Shop along Rua Augusta
Shop along Rua Augusta

Visit Alfama District

Miradouros = viewpoints

When you leave the city centre of Baixa, one of my favourite colourful districts to visit is Alfama. There is no better way to see the district of Alfama, which cascades down the hill from the famous São Jorge Castle (Castelo de São Jorge), than to walk through the historic narrow streets.

Don’t worry about navigating a route through the winding lanes, let yourself get lost and you’ll stumble upon stunning views, beautifully tiled palaces and sights of people’s washing hanging out the windows.

Laundry in the breeze in Alfama
A photo op under the laundry! Photo by Bob van Aubel on Unsplash

Once you’ve found yourself a little lost, now’s the perfect time to stop at a cafe or restaurant and indulge in the country’s infamous sardines.

Before leaving the Alfama district a must do is to head to one of the many free miradouros – or viewpoints. Head to Miradouro das Portas do Sol or Miradouro de Santa Luzia for a beautiful view of tiled houses with the ocean draped in the background before getting the tram back down through the district you’ve just discovered.

Another popular viewpoint is Miradouro da Graça, which you can walk up to from the castle or take tram 28. You’ll be pleased to know there’s a cafe up here for some respite as you look over the jumble of buildings out towards the river.

Lisbon view and souvenir trams
You might have to pick up a little Lisbon souvenir tram? Photo by Lisha Riabinina on Unsplash

São Jorge Castle

First-time visitors won’t want to miss the tourist attraction of São Jorge Castle in your Lisbon itinerary, which sits upon the hill above Alfama.

This 11th century castle dates back to the iron age and Roman times and has breathtaking views over Lisbon’s city centre and is home to an archaeological museum. If history is your thing you won’t want to miss this!

The entry fee is €15 per person and includes a guided tour of the archaeological ruins as well as access to the museum.

My picks for the best Lisbon activities and tours

• I love me a Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour whenever I visit a city for the first time. If you want an easy way to get an overview of Lisbon on your first visit. You can buy a 24-hour, 48 or 72-hour pass so use it each day and explore different parts of the city.

• Take a Traditional Portuguese Cooking Class. Enjoy drinks and finger food while you prepare yourself a three-course meal in a kitchen with helpful and friendly chefs.

• Join a Guided Day Tour of Lisbon including Sintra, Pena, Regaleira & Cascais. You’ll be driven by coach to each place and have skip the line entry with fascinating guided tours, and free time for lunch in Sintra.

• Take a Food and Wine Walking Tour of Lisbon and discover the city’s culinary history with 12 tastings at six different cafes and taverns that the locals love, including in Baixa.

• Take a Private Sightseeing tour of Lisbon by Tuk-Tuk. Lisbon is hilly, so save your tired feet and book this electric tuk-tuk tour to see all the great sights and viewpoints.

• Visit the National Tile Museum, located in the former Convent of Madre Deus, and see beautiful, traditional tiles dating back to the 15th century.

Inside the Tile Museum
Inside the Tile Museum

Browse the Lisbon Flea Market

Every Tuesday and Saturday from dawn till dusk a flea market is held at Feira da Ladra, Campo de Santa Clara, and is a great place to pick up a bargain.

This is the perfect place to find clothes, vintage items, books, vinyls and antiques. It’s a great spot to take a stroll and find some hidden gems.

Lisbon Flea Market
Lisbon’s Feira da Ladra (Flea Market) for a bargain!

Visit Bairro Alto

Bairro Alto is the district you want to be in for your evening dining and even later into the night! During the day there’s not a whole lot going on in the cobbled streets of Bairro Alto as everyone is preparing to open their doors after sunset for the night to continue.

As Bairro Alto sits upon a hill, there are two viewpoints which are the best places to visit before the sun sets. São Pedro de Alcântara viewpoint faces back at the castle and the Alfama district. This is a beautiful spot to park up and watch over the city as night falls.

If sunset views are your thing, then you must head to Santa Catarina viewpoint which overlooks the port with amazing colours as the sun goes down.

Then as you wander back through the cobblestone streets, you’re bound to stumble upon local restaurants with delicious smells of seafood on the grill (a Portuguese must do, is to have a grilled whole fish!)

Wander along Pink Street

Whilst wandering through Bairro Alto, don’t miss the city’s famous Pink Street (Rua Nova do Carvalho), lined with bars and restaurants with umbrellas hanging from above.

Previously known as the ‘red light district’ of Lisbon, the pink street is known to be one of the main streets for Lisbon’s nightlife, which becomes a hustle and bustle of live music in the evenings. It’s definitely worth getting amongst it to get the true Lisbon experience!

The pink road of Pink Street
The aptly named Pink Street!

Eat at Timeout Market

About a five minute walk from Pink Street is Timeout Market, which is a must do for any food lover. Also known as Mercardo da Ribeira, the market has two sections; one is full of fresh ingredients (a great place to pick up some things if you’re cooking at home later).

The other part has some of Lisbon’s finest restaurants, market style, covering a wide range of cuisines from traditional seafood, pastas, croquettes, burgers and many sweet options for dessert.

While it may be overwhelming with all the options, you won’t be disappointed, and you’ll most likely already be eyeing up your next meal for tomorrow!

Visit the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology

The MAAT Museum building makes a fabulous photo, all sleek and curved lines perched on the edge of the River Tagus. Designed by UK architect Amanda Levete, imagine the pressure of creating this design for the architects! It is located west of the city center, near Belem.

What’s clever about the design is that is blends the brick and iron Central Tejo Power Station (located in the back and constructed in 1910-1940s) with this new fluid design, which opened in 2016. It is designed to merge with the river and you can walk over it, through it and under it. Exhibitions change regularly. Tickets are €11, or €8 for over 65s and students.

The wonderful Museum of Art and Architecture

Go further afield

Lisbon is such a bustling hub with so much to see. But if you have more than a weekend in Lisbon, there are ventures further afield as well as some day trips that are worth getting outside of the city center.

Visit the LX Factory

Not far from the centre of Lisbon lies one of the most fun and creative hubs of Lisbon! The LX Factory was formerly an industrial complex and is now a vibrant and eclectic cultural and creative hub located in the Alcântara district.

This dynamic space is filled with a mix of restaurants, bars, shops, galleries, street art and co-working spaces. There are often live music performances, art exhibitions, workshops and classes, so it’s a good idea to do some research before going to see if anything takes your fancy.

You can get to the LX Factory by train, tram or Bolt. Give yourself plenty of time to wander around the complex as there is much to see and do!

LX Factory with waterfront views
LX Factory with waterfront views

Belem Tower

If history is right up your alley, there are two landmarks near the LX Factory that are worth visiting. Firstly, Torre de BelémBelém Tower. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Lisbon’s most striking monuments from the 16th century. A ticket to enter the tower will cost €8 and it’s worth exploring.

Exploring through the tower at some of the main features will offer a glimpse into Portugal’s rich maritime history. While you’re in Belem, you most definitely should get a Portuguese tart from Pastéis de Belém (this may even top the Pastel de Nata from the Baixa district!)

Beautiful Belem Tower on dusk
Beautiful Belem Tower on dusk

Jerónimos Monastery

Now for some architecture wow factor! The second landmark is Jerónimos Monastery, one of Lisbon’s fabulous tourist attractions. It’s not far from the Torre de Belém, and is an example of Portuguese gothic architecture built in the 15th century. It is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The beautiful monastery is well worth the visit and costs adults €12 for entry. I recommend giving yourself a couple of hours to see the monastery as there are a lot of beautiful chapels, cloisters and tombs to visit! And remember to dress appropriately.

Visit Sintra

If time allows, a day trip to the nearby village of Sintra will be a highlight of your trip. Sintra is well known for stunning natural scenery, breathtaking palaces and Portuguese charm.

Specifically, the Pena Palace is an incredibly colourful palace surrounded by forested grounds – even the entrance will have you saying ‘wow!’ But remember, you will need your walking shoes as there are a lot of steps up to the palace which sits upon a hill overlooking Sintra. I recommend getting there early as this can be a busy tourist attraction during peak season.

Colourful Pena Palace, Sintra
Colourful Pena Palace, Sintra

Lisbon has such a rich history. It’s a vibrant and historical city, oozing with culture, decorated with stunning architecture and picturesque views.

The bustling neighbourhoods, modern and historical attractions and scenic sunset views are some of the many things to see and do while visiting Lisbon. The blend of old-world charm and modern vibrancy will make you want to come back.

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!