In the past decade, the hilly, cobbled streets of Lisbon have undergone quite the head-turning transformation. All over the Portuguese capital, centuries-old castles and Old World–feeling tabernas have welcomed more modern neighbors like contemporary museums, colorful design shops, and bustling food halls.
Together, they create a dazzling mosaic of experiences that has made this riverside city one of today’s most-visited travel destinations. Here are the 11 best things to do in Lisbon.
1. Sample dishes by top Portuguese chefs at Time Out Market Lisboa
Time Out Market Lisboa in Cais do Sodre answers the age-old question: Where should we eat? Inside the 4,300-square-foot food hall within the Mercado da Ribeira, Time Out Market features food stalls from some of Portugal’s most renowned chefs: Tuck into a hearty francesinha sandwich from Marlene Vieira, roasted cod with a chickpea puree from Henrique Sa Pessoa, or a plate of black pork sauteed with potatoes and mushrooms from Vincent Farges.
All of them helm fine-dining kitchens across the city but prepare more accessibly priced fare at this food hall. There’s also a calendar of cooking workshops (from Japanese food to traditional Portuguese) that you can take.
2. Get a bird’s-eye view of red-tile rooftops at Castelo de São Jorge
The hilltop Castelo de São Jorge is a beacon for the city, visible from most pockets of central Lisbon. Historically, it’s been part of numerous civilizations, from the Romans to the Moors. Dom Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first king in 1147, made the 64,583-square-foot castle his royal residence, and ruins from these various epochs remain. It’s now one of Lisbon’s most important monuments and tourism attractions—not just for its history but also for the incredible views you’ll get of the city that sprawls around it. And for bird lovers, keep an eye out for wild peacocks that now call the castle home.
3. Stroll through Alfama
Narrow, meandering alleys and centuries-old buildings (some with walls festooned with azulejo tiles) characterize this Portuguese neighborhood. Solo exploration is easy to do here: Walk up and down the sloping hills of the area as you explore the 12th-century Sé cathedral, Fado Museum, and mom-and-pop eateries. Alfama is also home to a very popular flea market, Feira da Ladra, held on Tuesdays and Saturdays—pick up anything from antique ceramics to decades-old books here.
For some of the best views of the city, head to the Miradouro das Portas do Sol viewpoint. It’s an especially scenic spot to watch the sunset as all of Lisbon seemingly stretches out in front of you.
4. Shop for made-in-Portugal merch at A Vida Portuguesa
Journalist Catarina Portas changed the retail game for Lisbon when she opened A Vida Portuguesa in 2007, delivering selected Portuguese crafts and design talent that draws in locals and visitors. Its original Chiado location has since closed, but the outpost in Intendente still flies the flag for national makers. Its inventory of tinned fish, accessories made from burel (a wool textile from Serra da Estrela), ceramics in the shape of roosters and cabbages, and cork kitchenware make for great souvenirs.
5. Explore Belém’s historic structures
The concentration of must-see attractions in Belém, a neighborhood tucked away in the western edge of town, makes it an appealing area to spend half the day.
Start with a stop at Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a stone monument on the banks of the Tagus River that commemorates Portugal’s achievements. It features ship sails as well as a group of men who were critical to Portugal’s colonial expansion, including King Afonso V of Portugal and explorer Ferdinand Magellan. Nearby is Jerónimos Monastery, a 16th-century relic that exemplifies the Portuguese Gothic architectural movement, with maritime design details like columns covered in chunky rope relief. Check out the elaborate mosaic pavement that surrounds it (you may even spot fish motifs).
A 20-minute walk from the monastery takes you to Belém Tower, also from the 16th century, that resembles a rook chess piece. From this former fortress, explorers like Vasco da Gama set off for their far-flung adventures. After a few hours of sightseeing, satisfy your hunger at Pastéis de Belém with Portugal’s iconic cinnamon-dusted egg custards, which the bakery has been making since 1837.
6. Visit Ajuda National Palace
If you’re eager to see what royal opulence looked like in Portugal, book a ticket for entry into the Ajuda National Palace located west of the city. This 19th-century palace was once home to King Dom Luís I. Now a museum, it houses marble statues, massive crystal chandeliers, wall-to-wall tapestries, and stucco ceilings in gold leaf. Some rooms are also used as galleries for contemporary art exhibitions.
7. Take a ride aboard Tram 28
Before there were taxis and Uber in Lisbon, there was Tram 28. Since the 1930s these yellow-painted wood Remodelado streetcars have snaked around the city. Nowadays, riding the tram’s route as it travels for about four miles is a leisurely way to see Lisbon, but it has become popular so anticipate a wait before getting on. (Some people complain of waiting up to an hour.)
8. Spend a few hours at LX Factory
If you’re looking to see a concentration of more contemporary spots in Lisbon, head west to the district of Alcântara for LX Factory. This industrial complex of 19th-century factories was reimagined in 2008 into a collection of cool boutiques, restaurants, bars, and office spaces. Mine for fair-trade fashion at Etnik Spring, marvel at art—including large-scale watercolors and quirky drawings—at O Gabinete Da Madame Thao, or shop for upcycled home decor at Saudade Design.
9. See contemporary art and then people-watch at MATT
You’ll find art exhibitions celebrating all forms of media—from enormous textile sculptures by Joana Vasconcelos to audio-visual installations by Maria Loura Estevão’s—inside the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT). But perhaps what makes the renovated central power station so fun to visit is its location and architecture. The multi-disciplinary museum is stuffed inside British architect Amanda Levete’s curvy building covered in ceramic tiles. The sloping riverside terrace around it has become a people-watching perch; it’s now a popular outdoor hang in Lisbon. If art is high on your list of must-sees in Lisbon, travel 15 minutes north from MAAT to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. The art collection here includes Egyptian sculptures, paintings by Rembrandt, and decorative items by René Lalique. Plus, if you go after 2 p.m. on Sundays, entry is free.
10. Listen to fado
Fado is Portugal’s most enduring musical style, dating back to the 19th century. The singing style—characterized with mournful, melancholic melodies and lyrics—is so rich with storytelling and history that UNESCO has included it as part of its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. You can listen to fado all over Lisbon, from dedicated music venues to restaurants that include a performance as part of the dining experience. Tasca do Chico, an intimate bar in Bairro Alto, hosts fado nights a few times a week and even invites patrons to belt out a song or two. Clube de Fado in Alfama, however, regularly attracts big-name fado singers (from Maria Armanda to Rodrigo Costa Félix) to enchant guests for a dinner-and-a-show experience.
11. Follow in Anthony Bourdain’s footsteps with a seafood feast at Ramiro
One of the most popular reservations in Lisbon is at the 68-year-old restaurant Ramiro for a fortifying seafood spread. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu—which includes tiger prawns in a butter sauce and sapateira, a crab dish where some of the meat is mixed with spices and herbs and then served within its shell—but make sure you finish with prego. (It’s customary in Portugal to end your seafood meal with the beef sandwich for dessert.)