We have been to just about every country in Europe over the past decade, and most of the major cities within those countries. Probably one of the most unique and one of our favorite cities is Lisbon, Portugal. Lisbon and its surrounds seriously pack in the experiences for a fairly small city that isn’t hard on the budget.
In a completely random order, these are the recommendations we have for what you should do while in Lisbon. We start with actual Lisbon and then branch out to two absolute essential places to visit from Lisbon: Belem and Sintra.
First, a few general tips for Lisbon:
- Many museums and other attractions are closed on Monday so make sure you plan ahead. If you are going to be there on a Monday, check to see what is open beforehand.
- Unless things change, use Uber like crazy. We purchased all-day metro/bus passes our first day there and didn’t even use them. It was much cheaper and way more convenient (at lease based on our hotel location) to just use Uber.
- Don’t trust the bus/tram schedules. Where our hotel was located, we had to use a bus to get into a metro stop. It pretty much never came on time. Also, when we went to ride the tram, we had to wait forever because they weren’t on time and didn’t stop often because they were always full.
- Don’t bother with the historic tram rides. The trams are awesome to look at, not so great for riding. They are always crazy packed and never on time. Just ride a normal bus, walk or take an Uber.
- Some of our favorite souvenirs from Lisbon are the more unique tiles and items made of cork because they aren’t the typical tourist garbage you find in every city. If you happen to get lucky like we did, Mallory found one of her all time favorite souvenirs at Praca do Comercia, which is a framed piece of art where all the art is made out of pebbles.
Praca do Comercio
Our first day after arriving in Lisbon from Paris, we had an evening to kill and wanted to keep it simple. I looked at a map, thought Praca do Comercio looked like a good bet for an evening stroll, and it was amazing!
Praca do Comercio is a very large public square right on the bank of the Tagus River. It is right off the Terreiro do Paco metro stop, although we got there from the Cais do Sodre metro stop, which was also very convenient. You could also get there easily from the Baixa Chiado metro stop so getting there shouldn’t be a problem.
The square itself doesn’t have a whole lot going on, but you will immediately notice the giant archway, imposing statue and beautiful view of the river with the Ponte 25 Bridge and the Cristo Rei Statue in the distance. This is the best place we found to catch the sunset.
I had no idea before we got to Lisbon that it featured these two amazing landmarks. The Ponte 25 Bridge is the sister bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge and is nearly as impressive, yet I had never even heard of it.
And, the Cristo Rei Statue is just like the Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janiero, but perhaps isn’t as impressive since it isn’t on top of a mountain. While we never actually made it over to see the statute, it made for an impressive backdrop.
The most happening place in Lisbon is the walk from Praca do Comercio to Rossio Square. You get to Rossio Square by going under the archway at Praca do Comercio and continuing on for a number of blocks. You can also get there via the Rossio train station or Rossio metro stop.
The walk to Rossio Square from Praca do Comercio is what we highly recommend. It is the tourist central of the city with shops all along the way selling everything from cork purses to the famous Lisbon tiles. Of course, there are also plenty of restaurants, which are the usual tourist traps you want to avoid as the food is blah and the prices are bad.
Once you reach Rossio Square, there isn’t as much to do. There are a few shops, but they are less touristy. There are some more food options, including a McDonald’s if that is your thing, and a cool theater (teatro Nacional D. Maria) that makes for a decent picture taking opportunity.
Castelo de Sao Jorge
This is the Lisbon castle. It stands atop a hill and is a serious pain to reach. We took the historic tram up fairly close and then hiked a bit up the very steep hill. I would recommend just getting an uber to take you.
The castle is over 400 years old, but much of what you see today comes from a restoration project undertaken in the 1920s.
Entrance to the castle is 8.50 Euros for anyone over 10. If you are with a family, you can get a 20 Euro ticket for two adults and 2 kids (between 10-18). The castle is open 9:00 to 9:00, except in the winter when it closes at 6:00.
As the castle is the main tourist attraction of Lisbon, we recommend going early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
The Lisbon Cathedral is located about halfway up the hill to the castle and is worth the stop if you are headed that way.
The Roman-Catholic church is the oldest in Lisbon, and began construction all the way back in 1147. We found the church felt quite authentic and hadn’t been turned into a tourist destination.
While the church has undergone a number of modifications and restoration, you can see and feel its age.
Some of the most fun I had in Lisbon was just exploring the neighborhoods. One day, my wife and our youngest kid (at the time) needed an afternoon nap. I set out for a few hours with my older daughter and just walked around our hotel, getting lost in all the crazy streets.
The architecture is awesome with every different building mashed together, the colorful walls, intricate tiles and so much more.
If you go to Lisbon, definitely plan some time in to just walk around the neighborhoods and take in the visual feast.
Belem is a small town just outside of Lisbon near where the Tagus River meets the Atlantic Ocean. It is very easy to reach from Lisbon. We took the train and it was a very short ride, probably not more than 10 minutes. Despite being such a small town, it is full of history and packs as many, if not more, sites in a walk-able area as all of Lisbon. These were our favorites.
Pasties de Belem
Pasties de Belem is awesome. No trip to Lisbon would be complete without a stop here. It is located on R. de Belem, just East of the Jeronimos Monastery, on the North side of the street. It is easy to spot with its blue doors, awnings, tiles and railings.
We went for breakfast and tried a bunch of their pastries, all of which were delicious, but the egg custard tart that is famous in Portugal is the essential.
I don’t know how true it is, but our waiter told us they either invented it or did something special that nobody else in the world does (not sure we understood correctly), but he said people come from all over Portugal just to get their egg custard tarts.
We can both attest to the heaven that are the tarts here. After trying them, we bought the egg custard tarts everywhere we saw them in Lisbon, and everywhere we have seen them since, and nobody has even come close to how good they were at Pasties de Belem.
After filling up on pastries, you will want to cross the street to visit the Jeronimos Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, the monastery was closed when we visited (which was a Monday).
We had to settle for visiting inside the chapel and peering through the fence into the monastery’s courtyard. Even with those limitations, it was still worth a visit.
Museu de Marinha
A stone’s throw from the Jeronimos Monastery is the maritime museum. Once again, being a Monday, the museum was closed when we visited. There is also a Planetarium next door if that is your thing.
I was really bummed about this because the museum looks amazing and unique with old-world boats and the story of histories we grew up learning about the great explorers that came from Portugal when America was “discovered.”
Since we weren’t able to go inside, I had to settle for this shot of the outside.
Belem Tower or the Tower of St. Vincent is a fortified tower that looks like a mini medieval castle that sits in the water of the Tagus River. Like the Jeronimos Monastery, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The tower was built in the early 16th Century to defend river an facilitate the many Portugese maritime discoveries during this important period of world exploration knows as the Age of Discoveries.
You can tour the interior of Belem Tower, as long as you don’t go on Monday. The inside consists of a circular staircase and large vaulted ceilings supported by masonry arches.
There is also a bit to do for the kids around Belem Tower. My kids had fun playing in the sand that is around the base of the tower, and I imagine it would be a lot more fun in warm weather. There is also a big grassy field with an old airplane and areas for kids to just run and play while the parents can check out the few street vendors.
Monument to the Discoveries
The Monument to the Discoveries is located just a few blocks east of the Belem Tower off Av. Brasilla. The monument is along the edge of the water.
While there isn’t really anything to do at the Monument, it is well worth the visit since you will be nearby anyway. It is actually pretty cool to look at and makes for a great photography location with the big bridge in the background. Unfortunately, it was undergoing some remodeling while we were there so the photo opportunities were lacking.
The Monument, which was build in 1939 to honor the many great Portuguse explorers and discoveries, shows a caravel (which was the ship used by said explorers) loaded with 33 Portugese heroes led by Henry the Navigator.
The Coach Museum, or Museu Nacional dos Coaches, is another worthwhile stop in Belem. And, no, it is not a museum of Coach purses. Dead serious, that is what I thought it was until I saw a picture of the beautiful carriages inside the museum.
This is one of those museums you go to because there is nothing else like it in the world. The Coach Museum was opened in 1905 and features many insanely ornate carriages from the 18th century elite of Portugal.
The Coach Museum is open 10 am – 6 pm everyday except Monday. It is located just north of the train stop in Belem, east of the park.
Sintra is an absolute necessary day trip if you are in Lisbon. It is about an hour by train from the Rossio station in Lisbon. It has been one of our favorite European experiences to date.
Just outside the train station in Lisbon there is a special bus stop for a tourist bus that takes you up into the hills for the loop around the old castles and palaces. You are looking for tourist bus 434. It is 6.90 Euros for the whole loop. It is a national park so you have to buy entrance passes to each stop castle or palace you want to tour.
Castle of the Moors
Your first stop on the Sintra tour bus is the Castle of the Moors. This is the ruins of what I always expected to find in a European castle.
Even though our weather was less than ideal, our girls had a blast running all over the castle grounds, and we thoroughly enjoyed exploring the old staircases, hallways and courtyards.
The castle was built during the 8th and 9th centuries, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While it was originally used by the Muslim rulers, it was surrendered to and controlled by the Christians after the fall of Lisbon in 1147.
If you are like me, you have been researching Lisbon and this amazing, multi-colored palace keeps popping up. You are all excited only to find out it isn’t actually in Lisbon.
Pena Palace is the main reason we went to Sintra after I saw the amazing photographs. It was well worth it. It is the second stop on the bust trip through the castle loop.
Pena Palace is a 19th-century Romanticist castle that is a national monument, UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.
The history of Pena Palace is also quite interesting. Tradition has it, the location began as a small chapel in the middle ages. In 1493, King John II constructed a monastery around the chapel after a pilgrimage. The monastery was greatly damaged by lightning and then the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. After laying in ruins for many decades, the monastery was purchased by King Ferdinand II, who built an incredible summer palace.
Pena Palace is quite unique, as King Ferdinand II insisted on blending elements of Medieval and Islamic architecture. Each section of the Palace appears to be its own distinct section with a different color and style.
Pena Palace also boasts a beautiful garden that you can explore during a steep hike from the bus stop up to the Palace entrance, or you can pay a small fee for a second bus that drives you up the driveway to the Palace doors.
Quinta da Regaleira
This castle is famous for its spiral ramp in the interior and its gothic spires. Unfortunately, we got so wet at Pena Palace, we couldn’t justify dragging our kids to another castle in the pouring rain. It remains my biggest regret from Portugal not getting to see this castle.
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