Steeped in history, the hilly, cobbled streets of Lisbon tell many stories. In recent years, much of Portugal’s pastel-coloured coastal capital has undergone urban redevelopment, but its romantic beauty remains. Blending the past with the progressive, Lisbon is a wealth of tastes and cultures – while there’s just something about the light that enchants the senses. Jaw-dropping architecture, buzzing nightlife, world-famous cuisine and sublime beaches – this city has it all. From kiosks to kizomba, here are the unmissable things to do during your trip, spiced with an insider’s perspective.
The 63-year-old family-owned Cervejaria Ramiro is one of Lisbon’s most popular seafood joints and the best place to splash out on shellfish. Get your claws around everything from fresh, meaty crab and big, garlicky shrimps to the more fantastical-looking percebes (goose barnacles). Ramiro also does a delicious, reasonably priced prego (steak sandwich). Be prepared to queue – and grab a table upstairs where it’s low-lit and cosy.
Café culture in Lisbon is all about the quiosque (kiosk) – a food stall-gazebo combo that serves coffee, snacks, beer, wine and often cocktails. Dotted all over the city, these relaxed al fresco hubs are the perfect places to refuel, rendezvous and revel in your surroundings. You can sometimes find music during weekends and evenings, especially at quiosques in the centre of Lisbon, such as Cais do Sodré.
Illuminated at night, and sitting proudly on top of Lisbon’s highest hill, São Jorge Castle is a history lover’s dream, with parts of it dating to the sixth century. It was enlarged by the Moors and later transformed into a palace for the monarchs of Portugal, before finally getting restored in 1938. Set aside half a day to explore – there’s a fair bit of ground to cover. And keep an eye out for the peacocks.
A typical Portuguese drink for over four centuries, and the unofficial drink of Lisbon, ginjinha – also known as ginja – is a sweet cherry liqueur made from morello cherries. Served in dozens of tiny bars across the city, the alcoholic drink comes in shot form, with a delicious, boozy cherry as an optional added extra. Find a tavern in the Rossio area. Alternatively, check out Bairro Alto’s hole-in-the-wall Ginjinha das Gáveas, and drink ginja out on the street with the residents (you won’t be able to fit inside the bar anyway).
Feira da Ladra is an open-air market with panoramic views of the River Tagus (or Tejo) that sells everything from second-hand clothes to unique trinkets and art. Unlike most flea markets, visiting Fiera da Ladra doesn’t involve an eye-watering early start; it opens at 9am and closes at 6pm twice a week (Tuesday and Saturday). Of course, you’re more likely to get your hands on a bargain the earlier you go.
Portugal’s famous pastéis de nata (custard tarts) were first cooked up by Catholic monks in the 18th century and are one of the world’s best pastries. Usually served warm – and a with a sprinkling of cinnamon, if desired – the tarts at the Pastéis de Belém in the Belém district of Lisbon are a must-try; it is widely considered to be the best spot in town for the buttery sweet treat. However, Lisbon’s bakeries are so well-versed in the art of pastel de nata-making that you’ll never need to stray too far for quality – just look for the Fabrico Próprio stamp.
Named after a Cape Verdean musician and located in a bright and airy warehouse on the riverfront in Cais do Sodré, B.Leza Clube is a great place to go for live music from Portuguese-speaking Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique and other countries on the African continent. Open Wednesday through Sunday, B.Leza is the place to go to hear funaná (Cape Verde’s upbeat dance music) kizomba and kuduro (Angolan party music) and much more. Check its listings for DJs and dance classes, too.
If you’re looking for a dash of intrigue with your evening tipple, head to one of Lisbon’s hidden drinking dens. These charming establishments are dotted all over the city and serve head-spinning cocktails that often come with free snacks, such as salty popcorn. Many of these dimly lit, ornately decorated hang-outs also contain kitchens that will feed you a late-night prego. Check out Foxtrot in Bairro Alto, Bar Snob in Príncipe Real or the Old Vic in Alvalade, and ring the doorbell to gain entry.
The underground Chinese restaurants that adorn Lisbon’s winding backstreets are a unique foodie phenomenon. Located at the homes of local Chinese residents in the multicultural Mouraria neighbourhood, Chinês clandestinos (“illegal Chinese”, although some of them have now gone legit) are informal, family-run eateries that serve up generous, tasty and traditional plates of noodles, dumplings and more – all for a reasonable price. Take the metro to Martim Moniz and make a beeline for Rua do Benformoso – just follow your nose.
In Lisbon, you can get out of the city and onto the beach in 30 minutes. Boasting sublime views of the river, the Oeiras-Estoril-Cascais coastline is the most convenient, and runs from Cais do Sodré metro in the centre of town. Hop off at São Pedro de Estoril or stay on until Cascais; the classic seaside town is part of the Portuguese Riviera. If you’re willing to venture a bit further afield for the beach, take the ferry bus to Costa da Caparica; it promises rugged natural beauty and fewer people.
Lisbon’s miradouros (viewpoints) are the best spots to hang out and admire its pastel panoramas. Splattered all over the city of seven hills, these romantic meeting points double up as kiosks or bars serving booze and food, so grab yourself a fishbowl of G&T (Lisbon pours generous gin and tonics) while you gaze at the sunset. Miradouro da Graça, Santa Catarina and São Pedro de Alcântara are among the city’s top viewpoints, while the more intrepid among you will enjoy the forest-lined views at Panorâmico de Monsanto.
Nothing embodies the image of Lisbon more than a bright yellow Remodelado tram. Connecting Martim Moniz with Campo Ourique, and snaking its way up and around the steep and narrow Lisbon streets – including the oldest part of the city, Alfama – the number 28 is a magnet for tourists. If you want to avoid the queues, try going early in the morning. Or, why not hop on one of the city’s newer trams? The number 25 also goes to Campo Ourique, while the number 15 runs along the River Tagus to Belém.
Lisbon is awash with creativity and home to an ever-growing artistic community. With renowned public institutions, non-profit spaces, plenty of street art and more, the city has something for everyone. Squeeze yourself into diminutive photography gallery A Pequena Galeria, or check out the towering Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT). For a dose of contemporary art, indulge your senses at the Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chiado, or if you’re interested in antiquities, try the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian.