Living it up in Lisbon: A "best of" by two residents

After nearly three years living in Lisbon, Gawain and I have racked up a pretty good knowledge of its sights, museums, eating places, and drinking dwellings. In fact, there is so much to see within day trip distance of the city, we're very glad that we live here and are not just visiting! Our guests are always astonished by what Lisbon has to offer and swear they are going to pack up and move here.

The following is a guide to our favourite places in Lisbon and nearby towns.

GREATER LISBON

Lisbon

Lisbon is a gorgeous city with an outdoors-based cultural life and rooftop bars. It's quite a small city and is easy to get around on foot, metro, bus, tram, or elevator. If you're not afraid of climbing hills, I recommend walking as much as you can to admire the architecture, enjoy the fantastic weather,and see the city from its many lookouts. Lisbonites spend a great deal of time outdoors in the summer and you will encounter lots of people doing the same thing. Central Lisbon is extremely safe and walking around at night is not a problem.

The Praça do Comércio at night. Photo by Gawain Lynch.
The Praça do Comércio at night. Photo by Gawain Lynch.

Downtown Lisbon (Baixa) is the flat bit between two hills. It includes the Praça do Comércio on the river and a shopping district.

To the east of downtown is  a hill called Alfama. It is a must-visit, as it is the only medieval part of Lisbon to survive the 1755 earthquake. This area also has quite a lot of traditional Portuguese houses with their famous tiles on the outside walls. The Castelo de São Jorge on the top of the Alfama hill is worth a look as it is pleasant and it has great views. The part of Alfama that lies between the castle and the river is replete with little alleyways that are great to explore, especially in the evenings when lots of local restaurants put on fado shows (a melancholy Portuguese music).

On the western side of downtown, Chiado is the main shopping district, and has various miradouros (lookouts) where you can have a drink under the shade of a tree and admire the views. Joining onto Chiado is Bairro Alto, which is known for its many staircases, restaurants, and bars.

Snails in Lisbon. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.
Snails in Lisbon. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.

For a drink / snack

  • The main collection of bars is located in Bairro Alto, an area bounded more or less by the Rua de O Século, Calçada da Bica Pequena, Rua da Misericordia, and Rua do Loreto. In summer, most drinking is done on the street, making it pretty arbitrary to say which bar you are actually frequenting!
  • How about a rooftop bar? Try Park at Calçada do Combro 58, Bairro Alto. It is literally on the roof of a carpark. Enter the carpark, turn right, and take the elevator to the fifth floor. Walk up to the sixth floor. Really cool and great views!
  • There is a steep, narrow street called Calçada da Bica that has lots of small, interesting bars. There tend to be new ones all the time, so just wander up and down it until you find something that catches your fancy. For those who don't have the energy, the Elevador da Bica (Bica funicular) has been running up and down the hill since 1892 and is one of the most-photographed sights in Lisbon.
  • The lookout (miradouro ) in front of the Museu de Artes Decorativas is a really good place to stop for a drink and admire the views. It's in Rua Sao Tomé, near the Castelo de São Jorge in Alfama.
  • The beer museum, Museu da Cerveja, is great for beer and snacks such as empadas de galinha! It's located on the Praça do Comércio.
  • Cervejeria Trinidade is a restaurant that used to be a monastery. It is worth a look because its walls are lined with amazing murals. I wouldn't eat there (way too touristy) but by all means stop for a drink, or just poke your head in to gawk at the artwork.
A mural in Lisbon's metro. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.
A mural in Lisbon's metro. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.

For a meal

Be aware that most restaurants in Portugal automatically serve you a "couvert", which is an appetizer, usually of bread, olives, cheese, and patés. They usually cost a few euros per person. If you don't eat it, they can't charge you, but check the cheque because sometimes they do anyway.

  • Martinho da Arcada, Praça do Comércio, downtown. Founded in 1782, this has some of the best Portuguese food you will find. Do not miss it!
  • Royale Cafe, Largo Rafael Bordalho Pinheiro 29, Bairro Alto. This is our favourite cafe! Great for lunch because it has a nice garden out the back. Also dinner.
  • Casa do Alentejo, Rua das Portas de Santo Antão 58, downtown. For a range of good Portuguese food (recommended by my friend), located downtown not far from the Rossio or Restauradores metro stations
  • Bota Alta, Travessa da Queimada 37, Bairro Alto. I haven't been there but a friend recommended it, so I sent my French friends who said they had "the best chips of their life."
  • Tasca a Bela, Rua dos Remédios 190, Alfama: For fado, traditional Portuguese music, and Portuguese tapas. There are lots of fado restaurants but most of them are touristy and over-priced. Locals go to this one.
The Palacio da Pena in Sintra. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.
The Palacio da Pena in Sintra. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.

Sintra

Sintra is a little old town in the mountains right near Lisbon. It has palaces, castles, and is pretty. Definitely worth a half-day or day trip.

Getting to Sintra - Take a train from Rossio station. Direct trains depart for Sintra every 15 minutes on weekdays. The journey takes 39 minutes and a return (round-trip) ticket is €3.90. These are local suburban trains.

Things to see

  • Palacio da Pena - My recommendation is to catch a taxi from Sintra train station straight to the palace because it's right on top of the mountain and could be hard to find. It's open every day from 9am to 8pm, according to Google. It costs somewhere between 12-18 euros if I remember correctly. It is worth spending some time there as it has beautiful views from its rooftop cafe and extensive grounds.
  • Castelo dos Mouros - From the Palacio da Pena, follow the signs to walk downhill to the Castelo. It's open daily from 9.30am to 8pm.
  • Sintra centre - From the Castelo dos Mouros, keep walking downhill from the Castelo dos Mouros into Sintra's town centre. Lots of restaurants and some pretty cool tourist shops, actually. If you like sweets, apparently Padaria Piriquita in Rua das Padairas is famous for its travessairos, a sort of egg sweet.
  • Palacio Nacional - In the centre, you can't miss it. Apparently huge and interesting, but we haven't been there yet. It's open daily, 9.30am to 7pm.

There are some more palaces and whatnot in Sintra but that will probably do you for hours. If you want more info there is a tourist information in the centre of Sintra.

A mural in LX Factory, Alcântara. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.
A mural in LX Factory, Alcântara. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.

Belém

Belém is on the river, on the train line that goes from Cais do Sodre in downtown Lisbon to Cascais. It is only about ten minutes by train. It has about a million palaces and museums, and everything is really close together. The best ones are:

  • Pastéis de Belém - The most famous place to eat the famous Portuguese tarts.
  • Mosterio de Jerónimos - Old monastery with double-storey cloisters! Don't go there on Sunday mornings when it's free, it's too busy and not worth it.
  • Coach Museum - Really cool old coaches.
  • Discoveries Monument - On the water, you can get the lift up to check out the view.
  • Torre de Belem - On the water, a tower you can climb up.
  • LX Factory - Not far away in Alcântara, this collection of old factories has been turned into restaurants, bars, shops, and nightclubs.

You can also have lunch at a restaurant on the water. There's an Italian place but also, if you keep walking past the Torre de Belem, Darwin's Cafe in the Centre for the Unknown (a research institute located on the river).

Museu Condes de Castro Guimarães in Cascais. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.
Museu Condes de Castro Guimarães in Cascais. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.

Cascais

You can catch a train from Cais do Sodre (in downtown Lisbon) to Cascais. Trains leave roughly every 20 minutes, and the journey takes around 40 minutes. Tickets costs a couple of euros.

Things to see

Things to eat and drink

  • La Contessa - A tiny restaurant specializing in carpaccio. Need I say more?
  • Moules and Gin - just what the name says. Book a table.
  • Café Galeria House of Wonders - gallery on the bottom floor, café upstairs and a rooftop lounge!
  • Crow Bar - A rock bar with many, many types of beer, including boutique Portuguese beers (a new phenomenon)
Praia do Guincho, Portugal. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.
Praia do Guincho, Portugal. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.

CLOSE TO LISBON

Évora

If you have time, it's worth taking a trip to Évora. It's a medieval town in the Alentejo region, which is known for its food and wine. You can do it as a day trip, but it's more enjoyable if you stay overnight. The train takes around an hour and a half and leaves from the Entrecampos train station (also a metro station). You are probably better off booking your train tickets in advance because there are only four trains per day. Things to see include:

  • Restaurants - pretty much any of them: you're in the Alentejo!
  • Chapel of the Bones - a few hundred years ago, monks lined it with human bones
  • Roman ruins - you'll find 'em!
  • In the surrounding countryside, there are lots of Stonehenge-style ruins that are thousands of years old. We did a tour with an archaeologist, which was really great. If you go to the tourism office and ask they should be able to tell you about it.
Vila Nova del Milfontes. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.
Vila Nova del Milfontes. Photo by Erin B. Taylor.

Vila Nova del Milfontes

A very cute seaside town between ocean sand dunes and a beautiful river. Catch a boat tour upstream through a wildlife estuary. Eat Alentejan food. Not too much international tourism. We love it.

Obidos

A medieval town accessible by bus from Lisbon. Has a medieval festival and a chocolate festival in the summer.

Caldas da Rainha

Famous for its penis sculptures and cakes. Watch this video, it is hilarious!

Beaches

Beaches such as Nazaré, where a guy surfed an enormous wave and broke a world record. Also Peniche where foreigners learn to surf.