Lisbon, Lisbon District Travel Guide
- One's of Europe's best preserved capitals, with loads of colorful charm
- Gorgeous (and photogenic) setting on steep hills along the Tagus River
- Rich in culture, with historic buildings and numerous museums
- Local traditions are still very much alive, including fado music and Old-World confeitarias
- Amazing shopping in Baixa and Chiado plus markets like LX Factory
- Lively nightlife in Bairro Alto with everyone drinking in the streets
- Artsy vibe with cutting-edge new museums like riverfront MAAT
- Visible LGBT presence, particularly in Bairro Alto and Principe Real
- Easy train access to beach towns like Estoril and Cascais
- Cost of food, drinks, and lodging is lower than other European capitals
- Lovely parks, iconic local kioskos, and lots of street art
- Long, warm summers and mild winters
- Hilly terrain and slow trams means getting around can be difficult
- Some parts of town -- like Bairro Alto -- are loud until dawn
- Certain neighborhoods are almost entirely overrun by tourists
- Metro doesn't cover the hilly central neighborhoods well
- Crowds and long lines for major tourist attractions, like Jeronimos Monastery
What It's Like
Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, is a beautiful, colorful city overlooking the scenic Tagus River. Like Rome and San Francisco, Lisbon is a city built on seven hills. Though many buildings were destroyed in the Great Earthquake of 1755, Lisbon still has a rich history, and its historic buildings and cobblestone streets make it an eternally atmospheric place that can't help but make almost every visitor swoon (at least a little). You certainly won't be alone here, and its mild year-round climate means that the city's pull on tourists never lets up. Even so, you're likely to find a quiet cafe, a scenic plaza, or lovely viewpoint that will have you feeling miles and years away from life back home.
Originally referred to as the "eighth wonder of the world," Lisbon was a major importer of exotic goods from Europe and Asia. That long history is still very alive in many of its streets, where 18th-century buildings are packed in along narrow cobblestone streets that careen steeply down the city's iconic hills. Neighborhood like the Alfama and Chiado all retain an Old-World feel, albeit one that's splashed with a lot of vibrant street art these days. Meanwhile, Saint George's Castle and the Lisbon Cathedral predate even those parts of town, and the latter dates back to the 12th century. In fact, seemingly everything in Lisbon's central neighborhoods comes from a bygone era, as trams and streetcars careen along the steep streets where palaces have been converted into museums, galleries, and shops.
Lisbon is a city that feels lived in and livable — you'll rarely see a public square that's not flanked by the city's iconic kioskos (stands selling beer, coffee, snacks, and newspapers). There, locals mill about and catch up with one another. This is true even in the city's more tourist-filled districts, like Bairro Alto, Baixa, and Chiado. Principe Real is a charming alternative to those often-packed neighborhoods. On Sundays in that neighborhood, a market draws shoppers seeking one-of-a-kind-finds, while couples and families gather in the outdoor cafes. It's also home to some of the city's poshest boutiques, trendiest restaurants, and a good chunk of its LGBT population.
All of Lisbon's beauty and charm aside, it's perhaps known best for having some of Europe's liveliest nightlife. Things do not start early here, and travelers will find they often have restaurants to themselves if they show up to dine any time before nine at night. After that, its casual drinks at a tasca or local bar, followed by more raucous public affairs. Lisbon has no laws against open containers, meaning drinking in the streets is perfectly legal here. If you're looking to indulge, head to Bairro Alto as midnight descends. There, you'll be elbowing your way through wall-to-wall crowds of boisterous partiers clutching all manner of beers and cocktails in take-out cups. On the weekends, the party heads to the nightclubs around two in the morning — don't show up earlier or you'll be quite lonely.
It's not all lively street parties here, though, and thanks to the city's Moorish roots, Lisbon is the fado capital of the world. Fado restaurants play the beautiful, mournful music all night long in areas like Barrio Alto and Alfama, though you'll fight for space at most of them -- particularly Tasca do Chico (here's a tip: hang out outside the window and door for a show without having to pack uncomfortably into the shared tables inside).
Day trips are a breeze from Lisbon, with beaches at Estoril and Cascais luring plenty of tourists to the sand and sun, though both also have charming old towns. The stunning mountaintop palaces of Sintra also only take 45 minutes to reach by train. Closer to the city center, Belem is home to UNESCO-designated sights like the 16th-century Jeronimos Monastery. There, you'll also find cutting edge museums like MAAT, which is housed in both a former electrical plant and a newly built metal disk that emerges from the riverside. And don't forget to sample the pasteis de nata at Pasteis de Belem, a classic Portuguese cafe that considers itself the best purveyor of this city's most famous pastry.
Where to Stay
Most of the city's hotels are clustered in the main neighborhoods closest to the river. However, based on what kind of sleeper you are and what kind of tourist you plan to be, you'll have to choose carefully. That fact aside, hotel rates in Lisbon are far lower than many Western Europe capitals, and you'll get way more for your money. In fact, there are some incredibly sharp hostels to be found here, including The Independente Hostel & Suites (which has amazing city views).
Barrio Alto is a bustling area that's the place to be for nightlife. There are some vintage and antique shops in the neighborhood, but the scene is mostly about dining and drinking here. And that takes place at night. The cobblestone streets are often crowded with people, as are the area's bars and restaurants. Bars offer drinks to-go, so the party clogs the main thoroughfares until late -- in fact, the sun may be coming up before the noise diminishes. Those needing quieter digs should opt to bed down west of Rua da Rosa. For something a bit quieter, Alfama, on an opposite hill, is home to legendary fado venues and St. George's Castle. Hotels are peppered along the hillside. The quaint rooms at Solar Do Castelo are a fine bet in that neighborhood.
Most of the brand-name hotels line Avenida da Liberdade, and that's where you'll find the city's major luxury and upscale properties, like the Valverde Hotel and the city's Sofitel Lisbon Liberdade. The avenue is also lined with pedestrian-friendly paths for strolling under the trees, plus plenty of terrace cafes and restaurants. If you're looking for a neighborhood packed with boutiques, cafes, and stunning scenery around every corner, opt for Principe Real, which serves as something of an LGBTQ hub for the city.