See It or Skip It: A Real-Life Guide to Lisbon

If you have just a few days in Lisbon – even a long weekend – you want to make good use of your time. In this post, I’ll help you avoid tourist traps in Lisbon, so you don’t waste your vacation on over-hyped stuff.

Keep in mind that this is a “greatest hits” list. There’s so much more to see and do here – and it doesn’t even get into the secret spots we’ve discovered. For today, I’ll give you a real-life guide to some of the most popular attractions



lisbon-tram-28

 Tram 28: Skip it

Okay, so I’m starting off with an unpopular opinion.

Real talk: Tram 28 was not designed as a tourist attraction. I completely recommend Lisbon’s trams as a photo opportunity, but I’d encourage you to skip the ride itself.

While Tram 28 is symbolic of Lisbon in a way few other things are, remember that, ultimately, it’s just public transit. Cool to see, way less cool to actually ride.

Here’s my real-life experience: I live near the Tram 28 route, and I have never seen more miserable tourists than the poor souls stuffed into those cars.

Why? Tram 28 is, of course, incredibly popular so it’s almost always stuffed full. Most of the year, you’ll wait 30 to 45 minutes just to get on.

Once you make it onboard, there’s no AC – and if you’re looking for a guided tour from the conductors, that doesn’t happen. Plus, it’s a regular haunt for pickpockets who target tourists.

Lisbon’s tram cars are iconic, and I love seeing them scoot around our neighborhood. Would I recommend a Tram 28 ride for a first-time visitor, though? Nope. There are better places to spend your time. Read on.

lisbon-senhora-do-monte

Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte: 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 the 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.

  • Neighborhood: Graça (and many others)
  • Cost: Free!
  • Time: As long as you like

Elevador de Santa Justa: Skip it

The Elevador de Santa Justa is impressive: a wrought-iron, neo-Gothic elevator springing seven stories straight up out of the Baixa neighborhood.

At the top, you experience some of the best views of Lisbon – and you can get 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 a little more than €5 to take an elevator to the viewing platform.

As with the trams, I completely recommend the Elevador as a photo opp. It’s beautiful and iconic. And the line of people snaking up and down the stairs on a busy day is something to see.

But there are so many gorgeous views in the City of Seven Hills – and so many ways to see them – I just can’t tell friends to stand in line for this one.

lisbon-cathedral

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.

  • Neighborhood: Alfama
  • Cost: Free church entrance; €2.50 treasury entrance; cloister currently closed
  • Time: Your visit will typically take 1 hour

Feira da Ladra: Skip it

Real talk: I found it underwhelming – maybe because every guide book talks about how it’s a must-see.

Everyone wants a couple of souvenirs to take home. And the Feira da Ladra could, in theory, be the place you find those souvenirs. It’s just that you’d have to wade through a lot of junky stuff to find them.

In fairness, Feira da Ladra is a very cool piece of Lisbon’s history. It’s been running continuously since the 12th century – and on a recent spin through the market, Mike and I did find two prints from a local artist that we absolutely love.

If you have extra time, or you’re a flea market fanatic, give Feira da Ladra a go. But if you have limited time and a packed itinerary, this shouldn’t be a priority.

lisbon-oceanario

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.

It’s also one of the most engaging family activities in Lisbon and can be a lifesaver on a rainy vacation day.

Here’s why I love the Oceanário: Standouts among the impressive exhibits are four massive aquarium tanks, each one representing a different ocean. Then there’s the unbelievably huge central tank, where you can see everything from rays and sharks to giant sunfish (which are rare in captivity).

Plus, you can view each tank from above and below the water, which means penguins and other surface-level inhabitants live with deeper-water sea life in harmony. I know, I’m nerding out, but it’s so cool.

Also, two words: Sea otters. I’d go just to see those little lovebugs. 

lisbon-oceanario
  • Neighborhood: Parque das Nações
  • Cost: €19 for ages 13-64; €13 for ages 4-12 or 65-plus; €50 for family (2 adults, 2 kids); free for ages 0-3
  • Time: Your visit will take at least 1.5 hours
lisbon-castelo

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 with views that will knock your socks off.

  • Neighborhood: Alfama
  • Cost: €10 regular entrance fee; free or discounted tickets for a number of groups, including kids, seniors, and people with disabilities. More ticket info here.
  • Time: Your visit will probably take 1.5 hours

More to come!

If you’ve never visited Lisbon, you should know I’ve left out some of our city’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!

FAQ

What are the best things to do in Lisbon?
american-move-to-portugal

Experience Lisbon’s miradouros at sunset, visit the Sé cathedral, take in the nightlife in Bairro Alto, eat a traditional Portuguese meal at a marisqueira, get yourself to the Castelo de São Jorge, and make your way to the Oceanário de Lisboa.

What should I not miss in Lisbon?
street-art-lisbon

Real talk: Lisbon’s street art is amazing. Look for it.
Lisbon’s food and wine scene is also getting to be a big deal. Look for hip natural wine bars popping up around the city.
Grab a seat at on one of Lisbon’s chic new bistros – like Senhor Uva, Queimado, or Taberna do Calhau.
Get into Lisbon’s history! Castelo de São Jorge, the Sé cathedral, and the Alfama neighborhood are also not to be missed.

What’s Lisbon famous for?
things-to-do-in-lisbon

Lisbon is most famous for:
Our iconic Tram 28
Sweet, gooey pastéis de nata
Salty, smoky grilled sardines
Castelo de São Jorge, watching over Lisbon
Month-long Festas celebrations in June
The 25 de Abril Bridge (a ringer for the Golden Gate bridge)

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