The tram tilted and rumbled down the hill, cutting close to tiled buildings and passers-by. We sailed past shops, churches, parks and restaurants, their shapes blending with reflections in the glass as dusk deepened. City lights flickered on. Creaked to a stop for a waiting passenger. Then on we rolled through the heart of Lisbon, taking steep hills and sharp turns. It was a fantastic way to stitch together all the neighbourhoods we’d traipsed by foot.
We only spent 4 nights in Lisbon in favour of squeezing in short stints in Sintra and Aljezur, but we certainly experienced enough to get a taste. Lisbon is a colorful and vibrant city, perfectly worn and rough around the edges. Tropical flora and hilly topography create natural and cosy little bairros, or neighbourhoods. We will update this list when we return to Lisbon in the fall but these recommendations should be enough to get you started!
A little history
Lisbon’s rich history is closely tied to its geography. The capital straddles the mouth of the Tagus, the longest river in the Iberian peninsula. With ocean access and a sheltered harbour, it was a key stop for seaport trade from northern Europe to the Mediterranean Sea, Africa, and the Americas.
Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Europe. Stone remnants of the regions pre-Celtic peoples can still be found on the city periphery. The land was first settled by the Celts, indigenous Iberians who established trading posts with the Greeks. The region was occupied by many groups including the Romans, Visigoths, and Moors.
Lisbon was the centre of a vast empire that flourished during the height of Portuguese exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries. Portugal amassed wealth by colonizing parts of Asia, South America, Africa, and the Atlantic islands. Magnificent structures like the Tower of Belém and Jerónimos Monastery were built.
Then the 1755 earthquake rocked Lisbon. It not only scored a 9 on the richter scale but was followed by widespread fires and a powerful tsunami. Roughly fifty percent of the city was ruined. The event was a drastic setback that irrevocably changed the course of Lisbon’s history.
Portugal was ruled by kings, the last of whom were assassinated on October 5th, 1910. Following the demise of King Carlos and his heir Luís Filipe, a coup replaced the monarchy with the Portuguese Republic. The world’s longest-living dictatorship the Estado Novo ruled from 1926 to 1974, until it was dismantled by the Carnation Revolution. Portugal joined the EC in 1986. Using EC funding to spur development, Portugal has since been named the European City of Culture (1994), host of Expo ‘98. The city continues to rebuild with work being done to the Praça de Touros bullring, Alfama neighbourhood, and metro line.
Castelo de São George
A medieval castle perches on Alfama, the highest of Lisbon’s 7 hills. It is an impressive historic sight that offers stunning views of the vicinity. Don’t miss the hilltop lookouts nearby as these offer an view of the actual castle, bridge, and water.
Hop on this vintage tram line and ride the entire route from Martim Moniz to Campo de Ourique / Prazeres. It will give you a quick tour through the heart of Lisbon. Pro tip: skip rush hour and hop on for a night cruise where you can open the windows and let a little wind in your hair.
Terreiro do Paço & Cais das Colunas
Hope of the #28 and walk to this grand square on Lisbon’s waterfront. It holds much historical significance, given it was home to the royal palace before the 1755 earthquake completed demolished the building.
Torre de Belém
This famous fortress is part of the River Tejo defense system and a UNSECO monument. It became a state prison under Spanish occupation.
This industrial complex was abandoned in 1846 but in 2008, the space was reclaimed and transformed into a collective of over 50 shops, restaurants, bars, galleries, and more. Revived and renewed, this creative’s enclave hosts exhibitions, concerts, and events or break out of an escape room. Find out what’s going on at LX Factory here…
Many of Lisbon’s leaning buildings boast charming tile facades, some vivid, others faded. The glaze ceramic tiles are deeply embedded in Portugal’s history and culture, dating all the way back to the 13th century. You can thank the Moors who invaded the region for their influence—the word azulejo stems from an Arabic root meaning ‘small polished stone’. What began as simple geometric shapes in netural tones evolved into today’s intricate and colourful patterned squares.
Portugal adopted tile artwork into their culture wholeheartedly King Manuel I visited Seville, Spain. They began to take over blank walls, growing more ornate over time. After the 1755 ‘quake, Portuguese-Gothic styles shifted to Pombaline, calling for further use of azulejos. Today, you’ll find them everywhere in patterns ranging from traditional to modern.
Ditch your map and dive into the maze of narrow cobblestone streets at the foot of Castelo São George. You’ll find countless restaurants, live Fado singing, and a flea market in this charming bairro.
Find antique cafes, bookshops, theatres and boutiques in his Lisbon neighbourhood.
This residential area may seem quiet by day—but Bairro Alto comes to at night, and especially on weekends, as it is home to many bars, pubs, and clubs—not to mention tapas bars with live Fado.
Traditional Portuguese meals, veg and vegan options, plus a large outdoor courtyard make this an oasis within the touristic centre.
EATS AND SIPS
This rich, sweet, fortified red wine is a great desert or digestif. Common notes are raspberry, blackberry, caramel, cinnamon, and chocolate. There are many styles of port such as rosé and white, but the most common are ruby port (stronger berry and chocolate flavours) and tawny port (caramel and nut flavours).
This ‘green wine’ or ‘young wine’ originates in the Minho province. These wines are released 3-6 months after harvest and consumed soon after bottling. They are characterized by some tartness and slightly fizzy, effervescent nature.
Pastéis de Nata
You’ll see windows full of this egg custard pastry dusted with a sprinkle of cinnamon and they go wonderfully with abatanado—coffee that falls between an espresso and an Americano.
This lux rooftop bar and terrace is hidden away at the top of a parking garage in Bairro Alto. In contrast to the cement staircase you can scale to get there, Park is full of cosy sofas, lush greenery, and opens up to a wide vista of Lisbon.
If in Príncipe Real, head to this Lisbon institution. It is a trove for Art Deco décor and home to some serious bartenders.
Miradouro das Portas do Sol — iconic and busy but worth it, this overlooks a wide vista with the Panteão, River Tejo, and ship terminals.
Or check out this list of 20 Lisbon viewpoints…
Okay so this isn’t exactly in Lisbon… but it’s close enough! This picturesque resort town in the foot of the Sintra mountains boasts palaces, castle ruins, and lush greenery. It is reachable on a day-trip from Lisbon but is better experienced by spending a night. Bring comfy shoes and trek up to the Park and National Palace of Pena. You can also enjoy a nice view of it from a lookout tower of Castelo dos Mouros; the ruins of this Moorish fortress offers insight into the trade and exploration that shaped the region.
Sintra’s Old Town is comprised of charming cobblestoned streets and pastel buildings. You can take it all in with a glass of Caipirinha from places like Sintra Terrace. If souvenir shops and touristy boutiques aren’t your thing, get off the beaten path and see real Sintra.
Should you find yourself near the Portel de Sintra train Station, head to the Parque Infantil Portela De Sintra. You’ll find a little yellow stall on the corner across the Pingo Doce Supermarket—this is actually a bar that sells mini beers and cherry liqueur. It is both owned and frequented by Sintra legends.