I didn’t need the American press to tell me that Lisbon was this year’s trendy travel destination. I’ve had a surprising number of friends this year ask me what to do during their visits. So, rather than keep it hidden in the Google doc I’ve cobbled together from conversations I’ve had over the course of 2019, I’ve decided to publish it it for public consumption.
But first, some caveats. This list is heavily based on the month I spent in the city as a poor student studying abroad in the summer of 2014. Lisbon has changed in the more than five years since then, so I wouldn’t call this the most up to date or complete travel guide. Call it an incomplete work in constant progress instead.
It is, however, what I’ve sent all my friends and what I’m using to start building my honeymoon itinerary. If I’m missing anything, please let me know!
First, Belém, my favorite Lisbon neighborhood for sightseeing. I’d spend a day just there if you can. Your first stop should be Pastéis de Belém because they’re the original and the best. Worth the wait. That being said: try all the pastéis you can so you can form your own opinion.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is one of the crown jewels of Manueline architecture, Portugal’s unique style. Think Baroque with a bunch of maritime motifs. Vasco da Gama is buried there, and so are many of the greats of Portuguese literature like Luís de Camões, João de Deus, and Almeida Garrett. The literature student in me loves that Portugal honors their great writers like this.
The Torre de Belém & Padrão dos Descobrimentos are nearby (everything within Belém is walkable) and cool to visit if you have time and the lines aren’t too long. But don’t feel like you have to enter if you’re not as big a Portuguese history nerd as I am; they’re nice just to see.
The Tower of Belém is from the Age of Discovery but the Monument to the Discoveries was built during the dictatorship, along with the beautiful compass rose and map mosaic at its base. Pretty propaganda in action!
If you’re looking for something less historical, definitely check out Museu Bernardo. If you like modern art, don’t miss this. Or even if you don’t, it’s still a great collection.
Sintra is worth another day trip. Pena Palace is ridiculous fantasy Disneylandesque architecture long before Disney was even a thing. The Castle of the Moors is right next to it, and much older. The contrast is cool. The Quinta da Regaleira is a crazy fantasy garden with lots of esoteric symbols and mystic references. The nobility had a lot of money and weird interests. I didn’t get to visit when I was there in 2014 because I was on crutches, so I’ve been itching to finally see it for myself.
Everyone will tell you to listen to fado over dinner. They’re right. The Alfama is the best neighborhood to do it. It’s winding and makes no sense but it’s worth exploring. The Castle of São Jorge is at the top (the neighborhood is a hill) and has great views of the city.
Take the 28 tram from start to finish. Great views of the city. A better trolley ride than anything in San Francisco.
The Chiado neighborhood is home to Livraria Bertrand, the world’s oldest continuously operating bookstore. Also in the neighborhood is A Brasileira, the favorite cafe of my favorite writer, Fernando Pessoa. There’s a statue of him there at his own table that I liked to visit when I was living nearby.
The cafes in the Rossio are great for people watching. Also pretty cheap but good quality food. My dorm was nearby and I ate like a queen at random cafes. The calçada (the mosaic tiles you’ll see on most sidewalks) are especially beautiful in the main square. They ripple like the ocean.
The Carmo Convent is the most aesthetically pleasing ruin I have ever seen.
Things I haven’t done but want to when I go back: LXFactory and Timeout Market opened after I left but I have only heard good things. Manteigaria does pastéis people say are as good as the ones in Belem.
If you’re there for the holidays, Christmas lights in the Rossio are insane and I’m jealous of anyone able to see them in person. The Elevador de Santa Justa was being repaired while I was there, and the other funiculars are pretty neat, too.