Touted as a modern metropolis to rival London and packed with places of interest, Lisbon is a city that is really going places. There is a plethora of history here, with tales of everything from Roman imperialists to exotic Berber pirates, Moorish builders to fierce Reconquista knights, all wrapped up in the grand palaces and heritage districts. But there is also an atmosphere of bohemianism and the surprise of the new here too.
You won’t have to look far for nightlife as you can just dive into the medley of Fado joints and swish coffee shops in the Bairro Alto district. Then, perhaps, you can take in the latest in digital installation art at the Berardo Collection Museum, or go nose to nose with a grimacing shark at the Lisbon Aquarium.
Meanwhile, the mysticism of much-vaunted Sintra hides in the nearby hills, while endless stretches of pristine beachfront abound in the peninsulas around the Tagus Estuary and the Atlantic Coast.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Lisbon:
1. Wonder at the Torre de Belém
If there is just one landmark you visit when touring through the Portuguese capital, make it this one.
Soaring high above the seafront of the Lisbon quays, this great tower displays a veritable fusion of architectural styles from the Mudejar to the Moorish, the Gothic to the Romanesque.
It has stood watch over the mouth of the Tagus River since its construction under the patronage of Saint John back in the 16th century.
Since then, it has risen to become perhaps the most iconic feature of the city, famed as the last sight adventurers like the prodigal Vasco da Gama would have seen as they drifted out into the vast Atlantic Ocean.
2. Ride Tram 28
Like San Francisco in the United States, Lisbon is a city famed for its historic, rattling tram lines.
None are more iconic than Tram 28 which has been working its way up the steep, cobbled roads and into the old Alfama district for decades.
The journey starts below the palm-spotted hills of Graça, and weaves toward the hair-pin alleys of Escolas Gerais, before pulling up to a halt beneath the gorgeous domes of the Estrela Basilica.
The people-watching opportunities from the windows are second-to-none, and you’re bound to discover decades of history as you pass the various majestic palaces and castles along the route.
3. Get lost in the Alfama District
The compact little Alfama District is Lisbon’s answer to the old town centers of Europe’s other ancient capitals.
Like the Forum of Rome, it’s hailed as the oldest part of the city, although this one dates back to the Moors of Africa instead of the kings of Latium.
Delving into the warren of winding streets and alleys that forms the district is one of the top activities for visitors to Portugal’s capital.
As you stroll, great cathedrals like the Lisbon Cathedral and tile-fronted chapels reveal themselves on the corners.
There are also the remains of old city walls and hidden squares with al fresco cafes aplenty.
4. Make a trip to Sintra
‘Did you go to Sintra?’ is the usual question asked by veterans of Portugal’s capital.
Despite being a totally different city and situated more than half an hour away from Lisbon by car, the glorious town of Sintra remains one of the major attractions here.
Daytrips are common, while others will want to spend a couple of days exploring this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It sits high up amidst the mythical Mountains of the Moon, displaying elegant baroque churches, colorful mansions and the grand palaces of former Portuguese kings and queens.
5. Enjoy the azulejos in the National Tile Museum
Ask any ceramic aficionado and they will tell you that Portugal is the place to go for tiles.
Cue Lisbon’s great National Tile Museum, which is dedicated to everything fired in a kiln.
The institution traces the important history of tile making and its associated technologies from the days when the Moors first brought it to Iberia.
Of course, the best part of all the exhibitions is the blue-hued azulejos.
These famous ceramic works of art gave the country its reputation for craftsmanship in ceramics.
You’ll get to see all types, sizes and designs, and learn about the development of the enchanting motifs that adorn their cobalt surfaces.
Included in the Lisbon Card
6. Conquer the bulwarks of St George’s Castle
St George’s Castle is unquestionably the most visible landmark of Lisbon’s historic center.
Standing tall and firm above the streets of the old Alfama District, the great citadel was first built more than 2,000 years ago by the Romans.
Since then, it has been developed by subsequent rulers of the city, from the Berbers to the Reconquista knights.
Today it has mighty palisades and crenulated towers to admire, along with an encircling dry moat and other anti-siege features.
Pass beneath the large gate here and notice the Portuguese royal seal, marking the country’s monarchic strength.
7. Trace glorious history in the Monastery of Jerónimos
Just a glance at the ornate spires and grand carvings of the great Monastery of Jerónimos should be enough to deduce the raison d’être for this massive landmark which is nestled close to the banks of the Tagus River.
It was built to mark Portugal’s most glorious age which was called ‘The Age of Exploration’. The fusion of architectural designs, known as the Manueline style, stands as testimony to the cultures encountered by Lisbon’s explorers, while the money used to build the structure came from Portugal’s international trade in cloves, cumin and exotic spices.
It is also another of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
8. Go underwater in the Lisbon Oceanarium
Located out in the blue waters of the Tagus Estuary, the huge Lisbon Oceanarium rises like a hulking aircraft carrier.
Inside, the structure houses countless exhibits related to marine life, which together pull in over one million visitors each year.
You can get up close to colorful puffer fish as well as watch the marauding sharks.
You’ll see curious moray eels and meet cuddly penguins.
There are also interesting collections of sea anemones and corals, not to mention an artificial boating lagoon out front where you can rent a pedalo if it is sunny.
9. Wonder at the master works of the National Museum of Ancient Art
The National Museum of Ancient Art is the home of Portugal’s prestigious national art collection.
Pieces here range from pious saintly depictions by Nuno Gonçalves to chiaroscuro portraiture by Josefa de Óbidos.
Most of the canvasses date from between the 16th and 19th centuries, and came into public ownership following the Liberal Wars that rocked the country in the early modern age.
Patrons here can also enjoy countless traveling exhibitions, with past collections reflecting Lisbon in the Renaissance period as well as featuring historical paintings from the Age of Discovery.
10. Get a taste of the East in Museu do Oriente
You only need to set foot in places like Sri Lanka and Goa to realize how far the reach of Portugal’s great Renaissance Empire stretched.
These far-flung eastern corners of the realm are the subject of Lisbon’s Museu do Oriente and the space itself is huge.
It is housed in a colossal former fish processing factory, which now enjoys up-to-date exhibition rooms.
The focus here is on all things Asian, with stories of Chinese rituals and seafaring across the South China Sea all part of the tour.
11. Hop aboard the Funiculars
Like Rome, Lisbon was built on seven hills.
Unlike Rome, the city planners here developed a series of funicular railways to help with transport to and from the neighborhoods above the city.
It’s a real joy to ride on some of the tracks such as the old Ascensor do Lavra which dates all the way back to the late 1800s and has been honored with a national heritage tag.
There is also the Ascensor da Bica, which winds up the tight-knit cobbled lanes off Largo do Calhariz.
Let’s also not forget the soaring Santa Justa Elevator which lifts people from Baixa to Carmo and offers sweeping views of the Lisbon downtown area along the way.
12. Enjoy the Mercado da Ribeira
There are two distinct sides to Lisbon’s most famous food market.
First of all there is the downstairs part, which throbs with local fruit and vegetable sellers touting succulent legumes and Mediterranean fruits every morning of the week, so make sure to get there early if you want to get the best deals.
Then there is the upstairs section which comes packed with more modern, often quirky food stalls and cutting-edge eateries.
It is there that you will be able to taste the local specialty of custard tarts, sip fine Portuguese wines, and even attempt to conquer a massive francesinha sandwich which is one of the treats to come out of Porto in the north.
13. People watch on the Rossio
The plane tree peppered Rossio Square is where Lisbon’s local life ticks over each day.
Officially titled Pedro IV Square, the spot marks the very heart of the Pombaline Lower Town, which spreads out in wide boulevards between the Tagus and Baixa rivers.
The site of the plaza itself has been famous since the medieval age, when public beheadings and bullfighting showdowns were held on its cobbles.
Today, it’s a fine place to stroll and people watch.
You can relax on the shady benches, watch the locals play dominos in the park, and enjoy elaborate Baroque fountains babbling under the sun.
14. Enjoy the modern Berardo Collection Museum
Bringing up the more modern side of Lisbon’s already formidable array of world class museums and exhibition spaces is the acclaimed Berardo Collection Museum.
This massive institution now pulls in excess of 2.5 million visitors each year.
They come to wonder at the smorgasbord of eclectic artworks, which range from abstract expressionism to digital art installations or neo-realism and photography.
Curators are dedicated to maintaining the cutting-edge aspect of the collections, which means there are also regular touring collections so you can expect the likes of French avant-garde pieces and European cubism to be on display.
15. Eat and drink in the Bairro Alto
Apart from being the premier touristic district of Lisbon, packed with al fresco cafes and international restaurants, the Bairro Alto is also the city’s top nightlife spot.
You’ll typically have to wait until early evening for the establishments to really get started, but when they do, it’s all about the authentic pastelaria bakeries and the bohemian drinking joints.
There’s a smattering of old Fado music holes if you fancy a night full of artistic passion, all interspersed with cool new breweries and beatnik style bars.
16. Ride the waves at Caxias
Grab a board, wax it down, and don some board shorts or preferably a wetsuit, because the waters where the Tagus Estuary meets the Atlantic Ocean can get pretty chilly.
Nestled just to the west of Lisbon central, this pretty enclave of sand and sea is where most of the capital’s wave riders will retreat at the weekend.
It’s got some challenging left-to-right breaks, and there are plenty of tour outfitters offering surf lessons on the swells which are perfect if you’re a total beginner looking to escape the city for its beaches.
17. Find your inner explorer at the Padrão dos Descobrimentos
Now something of a historical monument in its own right, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos marks the shore of the Tagus Estuary with its grand architecture and beige stone.
It’s been here since the early 1960s and is an ornate testimony to the successes of Portuguese exploration during the Age of Discovery.
You can reach the towering landmark by strolling along the waterside of Santa Maria de Belém.
Once you spot it, be sure to pick out the legendary figures of Vasco da Gama (an explorer of India and Arabia) and Prince Henry the Navigator (an adventurer of the Great Sand Sea).
18. Unravel the city’s past at Lisboa Story Centre
Once you’re done wandering the wonderful districts of the Bairro Alto and old Alfama, it’s time to get some background on the sights.
For that, there is arguably nowhere better in town than the Lisboa Story Centre.
The institution, which boasts free entry to all holders of a Lisbon city card, unravels the past of Portugal’s capital from its earliest years until the present.
There are special sections dedicated to the Age of Exploration and the great seafarers who departed from the city.
Not to be missed is also a particularly illuminating piece on the ravaging earthquake of 1755.
19. Regal gardens at the Palace of the Marquises of Fronteira
Dating all the way back to 1681 and standing at the outer reaches of Lisbon, on its far north-western edge, the grand Palace of the Marquises of Fronteira is one of the more off-the-beaten-track remnants of the city’s former glory.
Despite its remote location it is still easy to get to and offers a glimpse of the majestic architecture that came to the fore in the 1600s and 1700s in Portugal.
The home was once that of the Marquis of Fronteira, who received his land and wealth after staying loyal to the Portuguese royal name during the Restoration War of the mid-17th century.
20. Wallow in the natural beauty of Tróia
You’ll have to hop, skip and jump over both the Tagus River Estuary and the Sado River Estuary to reach the sparkling beaches of the Tróia Peninsula.
But the approximately two-hour journey is definitely worth it.
Running for mile upon mile down the Atlantic Coast, the region has some of the top beachfronts in the entire Lower Alentejo.
The sands glow a soft yellow under the sun and the seas are surprisingly calm for this western section of the country.
The beautiful Parque Natural da Arrábida can be seen on the headlands opposite, while regular tours depart from Tróia to spot bottlenose dolphins out at sea.
21. Go beach hopping on the Costa da Caparica
Talking of beaches, it’s just a short drive across the Ponte de Abril on the Tagus River to reach the acclaimed and popular summer resort of Costa da Caparica.
This sits on the northern fringes of the Sétubal district, and offers unrivaled access to some of the best sandy spots close to the capital.
Here you are bound to discover empty stretches of acacia-backed dunes and swaying sea grasses, all washed over by some challenging surf.
Closest to the town are the more visited beaches, while a narrow-gauge railway takes travelers to the secluded coves and sunbathing spots further along the coast.
22. Enjoy the seafood and sun in Cascais
If you are in need of a dose of idyllic scenery after the hustle and bustle of downtown Lisbon, then there is arguably nowhere better to go than picture-perfect Cascais.
This old fishing hamlet on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean sits to the west of the city, and has been transformed over the years by an influx of upscale Lisboans looking for sun, sea and sand.
There are no fewer than three cliff-backed golden bays along with a peppering of some of the best seafood restaurants in the region.
For wave riding, consider making a beeline for swell-packed Guincho along the headland.
23. Haggle at the Feira da Ladra
Polish your haggling skills for a trip to Feira da Ladra, because this sprawling midweek and weekend market is the place to go for quirky, curious and often downright weird trinkets and antiques.
Believe it or not, the history of the buzzing bazaar goes all the way back to the 12th century, when you can almost imagine a similar array of gypsy traders and motley talisman dealers assembling on the sidewalks of Campo de Santa Clara.
You will need to arrive early if you want to be in with a chance of grabbing anything worthwhile, and you can even travel to the market on historic Tram 28.
24. Marvel at the Aqueduto das Águas Livres
Another of the great visual landmarks of Lisbon is the Aqueduto das Águas Livres.
This eye-popping stretch of stone arches and Italianesque architecture was first created in the middle of the 18th century.
It was conceived to relieve Lisbon’s perpetual summertime water shortages, and was built to fit in seamlessly with the Gothic revivalism of the city proper.
Be sure to check out the section of aqueduct which rolls directly over the rooftops of the Amoreiras district, and then make a beeline for the Water Museum, which chronicles the development of this masterpiece.
25. Discover the Basílica da Estrela
You will almost certainly have glimpsed the gorgeous domes and spires of the Basílica da Estrela as you alighted from the rattling carriages of Tram 28. It’s worth lingering below the whitewashed facades of this iconic church and convent for some time as many visitors consider it to be one of the most beautiful in Lisbon.
Late Baroque design dominates the exterior, with a duo of carved spires piercing the skies overhead.
The interior, meanwhile, reveals a kaleidoscope of colored stone inlays and even the tomb of Queen Mary I of Portugal.