See It or Skip It: A First-Timer's Guide to Lisbon
Two of my favorite people are visiting Lisbon for the first time this week.
First, I’m super excited to see them. We’ve been missing them since our Big Move. Second, I love making recommendations on what to see and do, so this is already a fun post to write. (Really, ask me anything. I have so many opinions.)
Because they’ll have just a few days in Lisbon – a long weekend, really – I’m sharing a very short “greatest hits” list for Lisbon, so no one wastes time on over-hyped, touristy stuff. It’s highlights only, and doesn’t even get into the secret spots we’ve discovered since moving here (which is a discussion for another time).
Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte (or any of the miradouros): See it
About a dozen miradouros – essentially public terraces with gorgeous views – are scattered around Lisbon. Each one gives you a spectacularly different look at the city, all have at least some seating, and several, like Miradouro da Graça, have *the cutest* little outdoor cafés or kiosks.
My favorite is Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte, which just happens to be the one closest to our apartment in Graça. On any given evening, you can walk up to find locals, tourists, kids, dogs, neighbors saying hello, young couples taking “heart hands” selfies, the occasional guitar player – you name it. There’s a conviviality that brings out the romantic in me.
Every time we’ve been up to this particular miradouro, there’s been a small fleet of tuk-tuks as well. The drivers are typically multilingual and outgoing, so if guided tours are your thing (and you’re tired of walking), by all means, grab one on your way down. It’ll be way more fun than the tram.
Speaking of which…
Tram 28: Skip it
Here’s the thing: It’s just a tram ride.
The tram cars are iconic, and I love seeing them scoot around our neighborhood. But would I recommend a ride for a first-time visitor? Nope. Honestly, I live near the Tram 28 route, and I have never seen more miserable tourists than on those cars.
Because it’s so popular, it’s almost always stuffed full. There’s no AC, and it’s a regular haunt for pickpockets. And if you’re looking for a guided tour from the conductors, that doesn’t happen. Cool to see, way less cool to actually ride.
Sé de Lisboa (Lisbon Cathedral): See it
I get pretty excited about historical sites, so if you go here with me, I’m going to geek out. You’ve been warned.
The Sé is the oldest church in Lisbon, built in the 12th century, and it’s gorgeous. The first time I visited the cathedral, I stumbled upon the entrance to its cloisters completely by accident. It’s two or three euros to enter the cloisters, but once in, you also have access to an archaeological site that shows the layers of Roman and Moorish ruins underneath – because the Sé was built directly on top of the ruins of an important mosque, which was built directly on top of other ruins, and so on.
As a bonus, the cathedral is a wonderfully cool, quiet refuge on a hot day.
Feira da Ladra: Skip it
Everyone wants a couple of souvenirs to take home. And the Feira da Ladra could, in theory, be the place you find those souvenirs – but you’d have to wade through a lot of junky stuff to find them. I found it underwhelming, to be honest – maybe because every guide book talks about how it’s a must-see.
In fairness, Feira da Ladra is cool if only for the fact that it’s been running continuously since the 12th century. And on a recent spin through the market, Mike and I found two prints from a local artist that we absolutely love. So there’s that. But it’s definitely not a priority.
A Vida Portuguesa: See it
While it’s basically the opposite experience from Feira da Ladra, A Vida Portuguesa would be my recommendation for souvenirs.
Every time we visited before the Big Move, we took home quite a bit from this cute, cute shop. It has four locations around the city, and everything they sell is made in Portugal – from handmade notebooks to tinned fish to jewelry to ceramic swallows (the mascot of Lisbon), plus little things like magnets and postcards.
Oceanário de Lisboa: See it
If you get tired of hauling yourself up and down hills (you will), I highly recommend spending an afternoon at the Oceanário. It’s one of the biggest oceanariums in Europe, and a beautiful space.
Also, two words: sea otters. I’d go just to see those little lovebugs.
Elevador de Santa Justa: Skip it
It’s impressive, a wrought-iron, neo-Gothic elevator springing straight up out of the Baixa neighborhood. At the top, you get some of the best views of Lisbon – and it can get you from Baixa to Bairro Alto without having to hoof it up another hill.
But unless you’re extraordinarily lucky, you will stand in a super-long, super-slow line. Then you’ll pay five euros to ride an elevator. I mean. Really?
There are so many gorgeous views in the City of Seven Hills, I just can’t tell friends to stand in line for this one.
Castelo de São Jorge: See it
Speaking of beautiful views, get yourself over to the Castelo de São Jorge.
It’s a commanding presence, and a constant reminder of Lisbon’s rich history. Perched on a hill above the Baixa district, visible from just about anywhere in the city, Castelo de São Jorge has watched over Lisbon since the 12th century. Because the devastating earthquake of 1755 destroyed large sections of the castle, what you see today is largely the result of renovation.
You can explore the ramparts and the towers – and, like the Sé, there’s an archaeological site here as well, fascinating even if you’re not a history geek. Plus, there’s a miradouro here with views that will knock your socks off.
Just the beginning
I should mention I’m not compensated in any way for these recommendations. And, holy smokes, I’ve barely scratched the surface.
If you’ve never been here, you should know I’ve left out some of Lisbon’s biggest attractions, but as this post gets longer and longer, I’m going to save those for another day.
Plus, this doesn’t even get into my favorite places to eat and drink. We’ll come back to that, too – soon!