Lisbon is the city in Europe everyone seems to be talking about. Everyone, that is, who isn’t already there or has just got back. Sitting on the far western side of Europe – not really close to anything else – the Portuguese capital is also on the edge in other ways. Most notably, it’s a lot cheaper than the rest of Europe. So let’s start with that.
Get your bearings first
- To anyone arriving from Spain or France, it comes as a shock. Everything costs a lot less. So get ready to spend half of what you would in those countries.
- Lisbon is perched, famously, on seven hills and surrounded by water, so get your bearings first. The Tagus estuary and, across it, the suburb of Almada lie in front of you as you’re facing the water, the massive Ponte 25 Abril bridge to the right and the Atlantic beyond it.
- The public transport system is easy to navigate, and one ticket – called the Viva Viagem – gets you access to the trams, subways and ferries. Just buy it at a machine and load up when you need to.
- The Number 28 tram. To beat the hills and to see the city along its 7-kilometre route, many people take the 28 instead of a tour, which means it can get crowded. For a seat, try catch it early in the day or at night.
- Bring walking shoes. The city is very hilly, so maybe pick one neighbourhood to explore at a time – the very old-world Alfama, the funky Bairro Alto, Baixa, Chiado, Graca. Although once you’ve started on one, you’ll find yourself eager to move into the next.
- Not a bicycle-friendly city, what with the cobblestones, hills and very narrow roads, a good bike ride can be found along the waterfront near Cais do Sodre, heading towards the bridge and beyond. Or take your bike on the ferry to Cacilhas, across the estuary. The town has some restaurants on the water looking back to Lisbon or, a 15-minute bike ride away, there is some terrific wall art leading down backroads to the upmarket foodery Mercado da Romeira.
- Pastelerias, bars and restaurants abound – and definitely make time for the foodstall-heavy Mercado da Ribeira near the Cais do Sodre subway stop. The custard pastry specialty, pasteis de nata, becomes addictive.
- The beaches are mostly out towards Cascais (pronounced Cashcaish), a town that’s touristy but still worth wandering through. The coastal train trip to Cascais past Estorial is worth it, just for the ride.
- In Sintra, an hour by train from the city and the home of a number of famous palaces like the Palácio Nacional da Pena and the Palácio de Monserrate, consider negotiating a deal with one of the tuktuk operators outside the railway station. The old town is close enough to walk to, but the Moorish-looking castles are further away. The tuktuk drivers know the back streets if you want to explore and they don’t charge that much. Beware, though, Sintra is a tourist-packed town.
- A few food places to try. Zenith for brunch (Rua do Telhal 4), Comoba for coffee (Rua de Sao Paulo 99), O Gambuzino for vegetarian (Rua dos Anjos Loja 5A), or, to really treat yourself, the quaint but excellent Sr. Lisboa (Rua São José 134).
The custard pastry specialty, pasteis de nata, becomes addictive.