Photo Courtesy of Tom Byron
Lisbon has a charming culture and friendly people. The best way to get to know the picturesque City of Seven Hills is to stroll up and down its winding streets, following your feet and slipping through the narrow alleys of such historic neighborhoods as Alfama. Follow the sounds of Fado instead, and… you may find an old tavern full of locals drinking the sweet, traditional Ginginha liqueur. When it's time to eat, look for a tasca, a cheap restaurant that serves homemade food. Prepare to be surprised by Lisbon; you never know what wonders you'll find around the next corner.
What to know before you go to Lisbon
Lisbon's Mediterranean climate draws many tourists in August, though the days are hot and most locals are away on their own vacations. The early summer months (June, July) are milder and very festive: popular feasts draw crowds, streets filled with the smell of sardines, bars and restaurants remain open late into the night, and you'll find live music in gardens and neighborhood squares. Take advantage of the long days to spend an afternoon enjoying the view from one of the city's many terraces. September is quieter, and you'll also find wonderful natural light, changing colors, and plenty of events.
The Lisbon Portela Airport is the main international gateway into Portugal. TAP is the national Portuguese airline, though several low-cost airlines (including Easyjet and Vueling) also fly into the city. Renting a car can be pricey if you are traveling alone or during high season: gas is expensive, many highways have tolls, and parking in the city is difficult. Do not fret, however, as a subway line and a network of buses, taxis, and shuttles connect the airport to downtown.
Within Lisbon, the transportation options include buses, subways, taxis, Uber, Cabify, trains, and the classic yellow trams. The easiest move is to put money on a green card (Viva Viagem) and use this for every form of transportation. Trains take you to beaches and villas, including Sintra and Cascais. Ferries enable you to cross the river and see Lisbon from the other side. Be sure to check out the famous municipal elevators like Lavra or Santa Justa: historic lift systems that make this city's steep hills more navigable.
Back in the day, Cais das Colunas—where the Tagus River meets the Praça do Comércio plaza—was the official entrance to Lisbon, used by heads of state and other prominent figures. Here, looking out on the water, you can see the April 25th Bridge and the monument to Christ the King. To your right is Ribeira das Naus, the waterfront promenade. Now, turn your back to the river and take in one of the most palatial squares in Europe, in which you'll find Lisbon's oldest café, Martinho da Arcada. In front of you, the Triumphal Arch of Rua Augusta leads to a beautiful pedestrian street.
Portuguese cuisine is diverse and delicious. Try a hearty winter dish like cozido à Portuguesa (meat, potatoes, white beans, and often soup). In summer, nothing beats the grilled fish and seafood. Ask for amêijoas à bulhão pato (clams with garlic, white wine and cilantro), and don’t forget the toasted bread with butter. If you are in a hurry, head to a snack bar and ask for a bifana (pork) or prego (beef) sandwich. When it comes to drinking, Portugal is known for its wine, and Lisbon is no exception. If you want a local liqueur, try Ginginha, Favaios, or Moscatel de Setúbal.
Lisbon is filled with centuries-old churches, palaces, and mansions. Get the basics on Lisbon by participating on an Intro to Lisbon walking tour, led by a local historian, from AFAR’s partner, Context Travel. Museums dot the city—don't miss Museu Nacional do Azulejo, Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, or the MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology). You can experience art inside the museums, inside the galleries, and even out on the streets—take a walk to check out the painted buildings at Avenida Fontes Pereira de Melo, near Marquês de Pombal. For a more literary experience, head for the neighborhood of Campo de Ourique, where the poet Fernando Pessoa once lived and where grafitti-ed excerpts of his poetry live on.
In the summer, you can listen to jazz in the gardens and free concerts in the squares. Keep an eye out for dance festivals and the three-day music festival, NOS Alive. Throughout the rest of the year, Lisbon hosts a number of festivals for international film—French, Italian, Spanish—and independent cinema. Finally, the food festivals are a great way to explore local products and regional cuisine.
After a night out, hungry revelers go to Fábrica de Pastelaria Azevedo e Vidal at Avenida Almirante Reis, 149, or to Panificadora São Roque on Rua da Rosa, near Bairro Alto. If you get lost, just follow the smell of warm cakes and merendas (ham-and-cheese-filled pastries). For sweeter cakes, make the trek to Rua Belém and look for the line outside Pastéis de Belém. Find a table and ask for at least two custard tarts (pastel de nata) per person. (Hardly a secret, but so good!)
read before you go
more about Lisbon
Kevin Raub is a Lisbon-based travel and entertainment journalist. In addition to serving as the AFAR Local Expert for Lisbon, he has authored over 50 Lonely Planet guidebooks and contributes to a variety of international travel magazines on the way to visiting nearly 90 countries. You can find him @RaubontheRoad on Instagram and Twitter.
Rita Alves was born in Lisbon and deeply loves the city. She has traveled to five continents and wants to continue to explore the world. In addition to serving as the AFAR Local Expert for Lisbon, she also contributes to the Like a Local Guide and writes The Tern Blog.