Lisbon is just one of those places that all of a sudden has become impossibly cool to visit. It made it into Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel Book for 2017, a handful of my coolest friends have recently been and everything tagged #lisbon on Instagram is pure cool too. When I happened to mention I was taking my first city break of 2017 there (after revealing to Mr S that it was his Christmas present…I’m a wonderful wife), everyone from my Mum, my boss and strangers on the Internet wanted to tell me how much they wanted to go.
I just wanted to go somewhere warmer this January.
I jest, but cool I am not. Because I use the word cool. And other reasons. So in search of sea views, wonderful architecture and those famous custard tarts I visited this still oft-forgotten about Southern European city. But what I found was so much more.
As per usual for our weekend city breaks, we hopped on a Ryanair flight from Stansted Airport with minimum fuss. Flight times were slightly longer than other places we’ve visited in Europe recently, but because Lisbon is in the same time zone as the UK, we weren’t trying to make up the time. Return flights for two adults with no extras were just over £100 which is fairly bargainous and on a par with our Berlin trip (although NOT as cheap at Oslo in January, but then again you decide what sort of temperatures you want to brave).
Once in Lisbon, getting around is extremely easy on their public transport system – and central Lisbon isn’t that big to navigate. You can buy tickets for the Metro, Tram, Elavador (the mini lifts that help you climb those steep steep hills) and buses really cheaply and I would totally recommend jumping on a metro from the Airport as opposed to shelling out on a taxi. It was just 1.45 euros for a single ticket (and I’d really rather spend my euros on prego steak rolls and Portugese wine).
A word about those hills. Oh Lisbon you are beautiful but my word are you steep. I love a good walk me, but the cobbled hilly streets are tough to navigate. Jumping in an elavador is super fun and easy, but bring flat comfortable shoes for Lisbon. This is not the place for stilettos. The pay off WILL be the most wonderful views you’ve ever seen. So take a deep breath and get climbing!
I wanted to give a special mention to Tram 28. Not only is this tram which goes from central Lisbon up to Castelo Sao Jorge and the Alfama district a great way of getting around, it’s also an awesome tourist ride in and of itself. You’ll find it mainly full of tourists, just jumping on board to travel around on it to get a good view of the city. It’s super fun, super cheap and won’t take you too long. Start your day with a little pootle around on the tram as the rest of the city wakes up.
WHERE TO STAY
There are so many different options from hostels right up to 5* hotels that you’ll find something to suit your budget. Some of my friends have stayed in gorgeous AirBnB’s for really reasonable rates, but I opted for a relatively new hotel near Rossio Square, right in the centre of everything we wanted to see and do. The Beautique Hotels Figueira is absolutely gorgeous. Modern and slick with a decor theme (figs and trees) which you’ll either love or hate. Add a cute little bar for a nightcap and it sold it to me. I booked through Amoma for 243 euros for 3 nights standard accommodation.
I’ll be doing a full hotel review soon!
Districts in Lisbon
Much like other places around Europe, Lisbon is split into districts, all of which have their own unique feel – this list may help you decide where you want to stay when you visit Lisbon.
- Alfama – the oldest district in Lisbon, as it survived the 1755 earthquake. It has a strong medieval atmosphere with tiny streets, winding high up into the hills. The Cathedral and Castelo Sao Jorge is here, as are perfect views of the city.
- Baixa – largely the shopping and banking district of the city, it’s right in the centre of the city and extends all the way down to the Tagus River. You’ll find Praca do Comercio and Rossio Square here, and the main Rossio train station (which will take you to Sintra).
- Chiado – the slightly “posher” bit of Lisbon, it sits between Baixa and Bairro Alto. Many boutiques and restaurants are here and it has a really wonderful, relaxed vibe.
- Bairro Alto – this is where the nightlife hotspots are. You’ll find every time of night time drinking spot here as well as Lisbon’s club scene. The famous Pink Street is also here (hello photo opportunities).
- Belem – about 10 minutes by train from the centre of Lisbon, Belem has lots to see and do but is far more relaxed. Set along the river you’ll find Torre de Belem, the Jeronimos Monastery and the Monument to the Discoveries. Also, Pasteis de Belem is here, the birthplace of the custard tart.
I hate to sound like a bore, but seriously starting your city break with a walking tour to help you understand the city, get your bearings and learn a little is a really great idea. Once again we chose Sandeman’s, simply because I believe they offer some of the best free tours in Europe, but there are a few walking tour options in Lisbon both paid and free.
Lisbon is a deeply historic city, so a decent tour will take you through the many phases of Lisbon’s rich history. Did you know it is the second oldest city in the world – older than Rome?!
Belem is super easy to get to by train, taking just 10 minutes from the city centre. There are a few things here to tick off the to-do list, but we started our morning in Belem with a stop at Pasteis de Belem, the birthplace of the Pasteis de Nata. In the summer you’ll be queuing round the street to get a taste of these, but as it was January we popped in for breakfast with a handful of tourists and locals. It’s worth the trip.
On Monday’s, many of Lisbon’s main attractions are closed, and that is the same with Belem. We visited on a Monday. Oooops. But although we didn’t get to go inside, we visited Belem Tower, the Jeronimos Monastery and the Monument to the Discoveries which are all incredible to see anyway due to their stunning architecture.
Belem is also home to some wonderful Botanical Gardens. I’s well worth spending half a day here wandering around!
Cost: Belem Tower – 6 euros per adult, Jeronimos Monastery – 10 euros per adult. Combined ticket available for 12 euros.
As mentioned above this is the oldest district of Lisbon and there are lots of wonderful things to see here. It has a completely different feel to the rest of Lisbon due to its age, and the residents that live there. To get up to Alfama you can take tram 28 or you can head towards Alfama and use the various Elavadors to get you up into the hills.
We took a walking tour of this area (cost 14 euros pp), as we wanted to learn more about the history and culture of the area. Through this tour we took in the Castelo Sao Jorge, Cathedral, Santa Luiza viewpoint (just WOW!), and St Anthony’s Church, as well as learning more about the residents of the city and the history of Fado music, which Lisbon is famous for.
Cost: Castelo Sao Jorge – 8.50 euros, Cathedral – 2.50 euros
Oh Sintra. We nearly didn’t visit Sintra, a town just 40 minutes way from Lisbon. We thought we couldn’t fit it in, we didn’t want to rush about as we only had the equivalent of three full days in the city, but in the end we completely switched our itinerary to make the journey. We took a train from Rossio Station early in the morning, as a cost of 4.30 euros return and arrived just before 10am.
I’m going to do a full post about Sintra and how to spend a day there as it is so wonderful it deserves it, but the highlights are Pena Palace + Park (a wonderful, incredible palace is multiple colours that sits high up in Sintra), Moorish Castle (a fort built by the Moors in the 10th Century) and The National Palace (a wonderful building with a very interesting history).
Sintra is completely different to Lisbon, and probably deserves a whole weekend itself, but you can make an excellent stab of the main sights in just a day. make sure you book enough time in Lisbon to head there!
Cost: Pena Palace + Park – 11.50 euros, Pena Park only – 6.50 euros, Moorish Castle – 6.50 euros, National Palace – 8.50 euros.
It’s unlikely you’ll miss it, but it is also well worth heading along to the river front for a little wander. The Praca do Comercio is a huge square that looks over on to the river with lots of bars and restaurants, and in warmer moments it was a rely joy to sit along here with a gin and tonic and just watch the world go by.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
You could do a whole cultural tour of Lisbon. You could also just get stuck into the epic food and drink. We tried to do both, and managed to sample some of the best foodie experiences that I think Lisbon has to offer.
Mercado Da ribeira
This is a must do. If you only visit one place to eat in Lisbon, make it this place. It’s a food + drink market run by Time Out like no other – we’ve visited many of these markets in Europe, and this one tops the list. Within the market are loads of food stands serving everything from a quick snack through to Michelin star quality food, alongside bars with beer, wine, gin and cocktails. You grab your food and find a place to sit at long communal tables.
We did a couple of laps of the market on a busy Friday night before choosing a plate of steak, cured ham, sweet potato chips and egg (and a massive gin for me!) and settling in for the ultimate night of people watching. There were solo eaters, big groups of locals all tucking in to meals or basic cheese and ham plates with large glasses of Portuguese wine. We had the best fun, and I was sad not to be able to visit again.
A firm favourite with blogging babe Sophie Cliff, we spied Bonjardim down a little side street in Baixa, and were tempted by the smell of chicken and chips. I’m partial to a Nandos, but this is honestly the best peri chicken and chips I’ve ever had. It was dirt cheap (around 6 euros each), for a massive bit of chicken and a pile of chips on a tray which you then coat in as much peri oil as you can manage.
I loved that it was packed full of locals – it was just solid good authentic food. I don’t know how I’ll ever eat Nandos again.
As this was a Christmas present, I research ahead and booked us in for a slightly more special meal on the Saturday evening. Nestled firmly in the centre of Chiado, Largo is open for lunch and dinner and is part of the old cloisters of the Convento da Igreja dos Mártires which makes you feel like you are dining in a secret underground cavern.
The main feature is a wall of aquarium filled with little jelly fish which is odd but also hypnotising to watch. The food is top-notch – we feasted on Iberico pork, seafood soup, braised lamb and incredible gelato and left with our bellies full and satisfied. It cost around 100 euros for two which included three courses and wine.
Cafe Do Rio
Our last night was spent in Cafe Do Rio, a gourmet hamburgueria in Baixa trying our burgers, Portuguese style. It’s a gorgeous little place with a relaxed vibe and excellent, friendly staff. The burgers all come without buns (it’s like the burgers are the bun), can be served with chips, rice or salad and can be enjoyed with some amazing homemade tomato ketchup and garlic mayonnaise. Which was incredible.
I opted for the Nemesio with pineapple and Mr S went for a Shepherd with some tasty Portuguese cheese. This was all topped off with a jug of Sangria and good chats with the staff.
It’s not a holiday if there is no pizza, and we were recommended this cute and compact Pizzeria by our friends Jack + Chelley just by Pink Street. Serving a range of solidly tasty pizzas with good beer and cheap wine this was a perfect place to eat until we were stuffed before embarking on our next walking tour.
Pasteis de Nata
You’ll find these everywhere in Lisbon. We travelled to Belem to try the most famous of all at Pasteis de Belem, but there are lots of wonderful little cafes and bakeries lining every street with 1 euro custard tarts. Try them, love them and try them again.
I want to move to Lisbon. I’m serious. I have been pretty enthralled with Eastern Europe of late, but Lisbon now has my heart and I don’t imagine any country will be stealing it back any time soon. The people, the food, the culture – it’s all so perfect for a weekend getaway. Just wandering around the streets of Lisbon at any time of day or night is magical and it is cheap enough to be affordable for most city break aficionados.
Book Lisbon now – you absolutely won’t regret it!
I’ll be posting more about my Lisbon adventures of the coming months – food guides, area guides and more. Look out for those soon!
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