Lisbon, Portugal is a city of seven hills, fabulous street art, trundling trams, melancholy Fado music, and Pastéis de Belém, delicious little custard tarts which were so good I couldn’t resist eating them for breakfast. There’s a lot of things to love in the city and I’ll show you some of it here in my tips for visiting Lisbon. But for some reason Portugal’s capital city didn’t quite cut it for me. We found lots of gems but for all the Lisbon loveliness there were some downsides. So, for what to see and do in Lisbon read on…
Lisbon’s Viewpoints or Miradouras
There are some stunning views of the city from Lisbon’s seven hills and Miradouras (viewpoints). The highest, and probably the best, is Miradouro da Senhora do Monte which looks over layers of terracotta rooftops to the castle and out towards Lisbon’s Tagus River. You can see the neo Gothic Elevador de Santa Justa, Christ the King Statue over the water and the 25 de Abril Bridge which looks remarkably like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
Now here’s the rub (literally) – being the highest viewpoint you need to climb the highest hill and despite wearing flat, comfortable sandals I still ended up with a blister the size of a jelly bean underneath my foot – on the first day. To add insult to injury we later discovered that tram 28 stops on Rua da Graça nearby.
Lisbon Street Art
Lisbon street art is epic and it’s all over the city. In fact Lisbon is so into its street art that there’s a new workshop teaching the over 65s about it and at the same time aiming to break down ageist views and stereotypes. Imagine – a gang of aerosol toting graffiti grannies tagging their way around town! Here are some of the colourful pieces we discovered on Lisbon’s buildings. The buildings pictured have all been bought and are awaiting renovation and will become new hotels. In the meantime the street art is much more appealing than crumbling fascia and bricked up windows.
On the flip side Lisbon has a graffiti problem which isn’t nearly as appealing as the street art and even the city’s iconic funiculars have been sprayed, defaced and tagged. We wanted to take the funicular pictured below and went to buy a ticket on board – the driver tried to charge us €3.70 each for the two-minute ride. This is actually the cost of a whole day pass on the Carris bus and tram system. Out of principle we decided to walk and got to the top of the hill before it…
Lisbon’s Mosaic Pavements
Lisbon’s pavements are beautifully decorated with elaborate mosaic and cobblestone designs and patterns. Small blocks of limestone are placed by hand to create beautiful monochrome patterned walkways or to show house numbers. The first ever design was ‘the wide sea’ known as the wave design created in Rossio Square in 1849. Other areas of the city picked up on the trend and it spread throughout Lisbon.
Some of the pavements are now over 160 years old and they’ve been very well trodden. In places there are large holes and dips where the cobbles have come away completely. Some pavements are so worn that they’re actually very shiny and slippery – especially when you’re walking downhill. If you’re visiting Lisbon take some rubber-soled shoes with a bit of grip.
Pastéis de Nata
You can’t visit Lisbon without trying the Pastéis de nata and if I’m honest these were a really big pull for me! Buttery pastry cups in crisp, flaky layers with a slightly salty edge are filled with a creamy egg custard and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Heavenly or what! Our Lisbon hotel had tiny versions next to the croissants at breakfast. Don’t judge me!
The little cups of creamy lusciousness were first created before the 18th century by Catholic monks in the Jerónimos Monastery in nearby Belém. The monks ran a laundry and used egg-whites for starching. To stop the yolks from going to waste they made pastries and custard tarts. The monks sold the pastries at a nearby sugar refinery and in 1834 when monastery shut down the refinery bought the recipe. In 1837 they opened the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém and you can still buy Pastéis de nata at their shop today.
If you want the real thing made from the authentic recipe in the original town of Belém be prepared to wait and queue, and queue a little bit more. There were long lines at the bakery’s shop and for the sit-down service – this was at 6pm so what it’s like a peak times I can’t imagine. But they were worth the wait!
The Monument to the Discoveries
While you’re in Belém you can also check out the Monument to the Discoveries erected in 1960 on the site where Portugal’s famous explorers departed on their voyages of discovery. The monument represents a ship led by Prince Henry the Navigator with figures from the Age of Discovery behind him. Torre de Belém and Jerónimos Monastery are nearby.
How to get to Belem from Lisbon
There are a few ways to get from Lisbon to Belem. You can take the tram No 15 from Praça do Comércio (main square) which takes 15 minutes. Bus no. 28 or 43 departs from Praça da Figueira, again taking 15 minutes. You can take the train, which we did, from the station of Cais do Sodré which is about a 10 minute walk along the water-front from Praça do Comércio. The journey was around 10 minutes. All the above cost €1.40.
Rua Augusta Arch
Rua Augusta Arch or triumphal arch was designed in 1775 as a gateway to the city and was renovated in 2013 – there’s an elevator inside to allow visits to the terrace which has beautiful views over Praça do Comércio, the River Tagus and downtown Lisbon.
Lisbon’s Praça do Comércio square faces the river and was originally used to welcome those arriving in the city by boat. This was the first time I’d seen the square as during my last visit in 2010 it was undergoing renovation. The original square named “Terreiro do Paço” was home to the royal palace. Now the porticoes and colonnades house cafes, bars and restaurants and we had a lovely lunch at Populi Restaurant watching the world go by. Another good restaurant was U Chiado in the Chiado district of town where I had a wonderful meal of lamb chops and a fabulous risotto. The service was excellent too and prices compared well to the UK.
The Best Gin and Tonic in Lisbon
It was Gin and Tonic time on our first evening in the city and we were in the Chiado area of the city when Mr Jones spotted a little restaurant with two empty bar stools at the bar. This turned out to be called Vintage Gourmet, a small restaurant, shop and bar which stocks over 120 different types of gin. Well done Mr Jones! We chatted to Nuno Monteiro the owner who is passionate about Gin and who recommended a brand new red gin which had been released just a month before. The Tinto Red Premium made one of the most unusual and best gin and tonics that I’ve had in a long time. The sign on the wall as we entered said ‘always believe something wonderful is about to happen’ – couldn’t have been truer!
Getting around in Lisbon
Lisbon is spread out over it’s seven hills and it’s going to take a lot of hill walking to see it all. Fortunately, there’s an excellent public transport system Carris and a day pass costs just €3.70. After our visit to Lisbon we took the train to Porto.
Where to Stay in Lisbon
We stayed at the 5* EPIC SANA Lisboa Hotel in Lisbon in the upscale area of Amoreiras. This modern newly built hotel has an indoor pool, rooftop infinity pool with views over the city and a buffet breakfast (which serves thos gorgeous Pasteis de Nata custard tarts). It’s located about a 25 minute walk from the centre of the city and just a few minute’s walk from Marquês de Pombal metro station which is 700 metres away. Check availability for the EPIC SANA here.
If, like me, you visit Lisbon and don’t entirely enjoy your time there you can always take yourself outside the city on one of these three amazing day trips from Lisbon. Have you been to Lisbon? Did you love it? – I’d love to hear your views on the city in the comments below.