A First Timer’s Guide to Lisbon, Portugal – Everything You Need to Know Before You Go
Rooftop bars, wine, the best pastries in the world, unbelievable sunsets, sunshine 300+ days a year…what’s not to love about Portugal? Will I ever get tired of looking up and seeing a castle on the hill? I think not.
I spent a month living in Lisbon this past summer, and I fell in love. I would go back in a heartbeat. I would live there again. I would move there permanently. I seriously love it that much. Lisbon (and Portugal in general) is going to be a huge destination for travelers in 2019. The secret is out. It makes me sad in a way because tourists tend to ruin beautiful things ☹
SO, here is everything you need to know in order to survive, thrive, and most importantly…have a good time!
Why Portugal? What Makes Lisbon So Special?
Wasn’t the promise of rooftop bars, world renown wine, pastries, sunsets, and beaches enough?
Besides all that amazingness, what struck me the most about Portugal were the people. Never in my life have I encountered such spectacular and super friendly people. You are in for a real treat. The Portuguese have been some of the kindest and most helpful people I have encountered when traveling.
It’s always sunny in
Philadelphia Portugal? Yes! 300+ days of sun every year. Like, what?!?! How can you not be happy when the sun is always shinning?
Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world. You can just feel the history radiating around you, and the architecture reflects that.
Portugal is vibrant. It’s colorful. The food, drink, and party scene is amazing.
Still not sold?
This post is full of suggestions on what you DO NOT want to miss while you’re in Lisbon.
A Quick Orientation To Lisbon
Ok, so we already know that it’s one of the oldest capital cities in Europe (the world?!).
Lisbon is built on Seven Hills. These hills are NOT to be taken lightly.
Lisbon is a port city, and it sits on the River Tagus/Rio Tejo (REE-oo TAY-zhoo) sheltered from the Atlantic.
The neighborhoods you’ll probably spend the most time in (from east to west) are:
Alfama (al-FAH-mah) – You really get that Old Lisbon feel here with narrow winding streets.
Baixa (BYE-shah) – Flat area between Alfama and Chiado. This is a good shopping area. There are also lots of outdoor dining options. Praca do Commercial is a good spot to hang out too although pretty touristy. The Rossio (roh-SEE-oo) train station in here too.
Chiado (shee-AH-doo) – Chiado is a trendy area with SO many good eats, bars, pracas, and shopping. It is also very central location. Pink Street is here if you’re looking for a party. The train station Cais do Sodre is also very conveniently located here.
Bairro Alto (BYE-roh AHL-too) – Up the hill and a slight left from Chiado. It’s a party here every night as well. Characterized by tiny bars along narrow grid like streets. Everyone spills out onto the streets with their drinks.
LX Factory – Hip trendy spot full of restaurants, bars, and cafes. There is a super Instagrammable books store here and also a rooftop bar that you don’t want to miss. LX Factory is just to the east of all the big stuff in Lisbon. You’ll need to bus or uber here. LX Factory offers great views of the bridge and Christ the Redeemer statue on the other side of the Tagus.
Belém – Extremely popular, posh, upscale area. The “m” is actually pronounced as more of an “n” sound. I still can’t get it right though. The Torre de Belém (Belém Tower) is here along with Jerónimos Monastery, the Monument to the Explorers, and the original Pastéis de Belém! Definitely take a trolley, uber, train, etc to get here.
All of these neighborhoods/areas are along the coast of the River Tagus and the Atlantic the further west you go.
If you take the train from Cais do Sodre and head west toward Cascais (beach resort town on the Atlantic) you’ll quickly come across Belém and many other beach stops along the way including Carcavelos and Estoril. Cascais is definitely worth a visit if you have the time.
Sintra – A day trip away from Lisbon full of fairytale-like castles and ruins. Many of the pictures of Portugal you have seen are probably from here. The Quinta da Regaleira is home to the famous wishing well that is super popular too.
A Brief Background and History of Portugal
Portugal has many former colonies including Brazil. You’ll see Brazilian influences here in the food, coffee, and drinks. You’ll also see a huge statue called Christ the King on a hill opposite the city (across the river). When you see it, you’ll think of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil!
Also, to get to the other side of the river, there is a suspension bridge that looks strikingly similar to the Golden Gate in San Francisco…because the same guy made both of them! The name of Lisbon’s bridge is The Ponte 25 de Abril.
Why is it named after a date? Portugal was under the rule of an oppressive fascist regime until 1974. The bridge is named in recognition of the date of the Portuguese Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974.
Portugal was joined the European Union some years later, but the Portuguese are still digging their way out of economic depression.
There was an earthquake in Lisbon back in 1755 that almost destroyed the entire city. The neighborhood of Mouraria is one of the only spots that survived. The rest of the city was rebuilt after the quake.
Portugal Is Famous For…
Rooster: Symbolizes justice and good luck. Legend says that a rooster came back to life to prove the innocence of a wrongly accused man.
Azulejos: These are the colorful tiles that cover the buildings in Lisbon and much of Portugal. The tiles are used for their cooling properties in the hot climate. However, the idea did not originate in Portugal. It was borrowed from their Arab neighbors. Please do not steal these off of buildings or buy from a vendor who has! This has become a huge problem, and it’s so sad to see the original beautiful tiles ripped off the buildings.
Cork: Yep. Like wine corks. It’s grown in the Alentejo region and made into all sorts of funny souvenirs that you can buy (like post cards, shoes, purses…the possibilities are endless).
Fado Music: Read more about Fado in my post about what makes Lisbon so great.
Wine: Port Wine and Vinho Verde! They grow wine all over the country. It’s a wino’s paradise.
Conserves: You’ll see these colorful souvenir shops all over Lisbon dedicated to the sole purpose of selling conserves. What the heck is it? Preserved fish! They are little sardines in a can only I’ve been told that they’re much better than the icky kind they sell here in the US. Unfortunately, I decided to take everyone’s word on this one, and I did not try any for myself ☹
Ginja de Óbidos: Cherry Liquor! Make sure you try a shot of this somewhere during your wanderings. You’ll find it all over the city.
When is the Best Time of Year to Go?
The sun shines 300+ days/year in Portugal, so you really can’t go wrong.
June – August is probably the most popular time of the year. The weather will be the hottest and the crowds will be the thickest. The Portuguese do like to go on holiday during the month of August. Everyone seems to flock to the Algarve. Keep that in mind. Certain shops and restaurants may be closed for all or part of your visit to Lisbon during the month of August. If you love getting to know the locals, you may run into some disappointment. I was there during August though, and it did not have a big impact on me.
If you are going in summer, it can get HOT. Look for a place with AC. Depending on what kind of accommodations you’re looking at, it may be hard to find. Because Lisbon is one of the oldest capital cities in Europe, the infrastructure wasn’t built to support AC (or heat for that matter). Lisbon is undergoing a lot of changes and renovations for sure, especially in recent years because of the influx of tourism. Things are slowly changing, but just make sure AC is on your radar. When it’s 110℉, you’ll be wishing you had some.
On the flip side, most places will not have heat in the winter. Not that it gets super cold in Portugal, but the winters have been described to me as cool and damp.
A fellow blogging friend of mine went in September (just a few weeks after me), and Lisbon was significantly less crowded.
So really, the best time of year to visit is up to you 😊
What Should I Pack?
Please listen to this advice VERY carefully!
It does not matter what you wear. Like seriously. I know it’s Europe, and you want to be fashionable. You definitely can, but No One Cares. Anything goes.
The one thing that is an absolute must? GOOD WALKING SHOES.
This goes back to the fact that the city is old. The sidewalks and streets are made of slippery rock. I’m not sure what it is or what it’s called, but it is SLIPPERY my friends. I came across the same slippery rock outside the Acropolis in Athens, so it must be abundant in this region.
Couple that with the fact that Lisbon is a city built on SEVEN HILLS. These are NOT baby hills. It’s leg day every day in Lisbon my friends.
Seven [serious] hills + slippery rock. You WILL slip MANY times.
I slipped and saw others slip on the daily. I almost fell flat on my face. I’ll admit, I was coming back from the beach. I had some flipflops on. I got cocky. I thought I had mastered the walk on the slippery rocks. Good thing there was a rail along the sidewalk.
To recap, nobody cares what you wear in Lisbon. If you’re there in summer, chances are it will be insanely hot. You’ll want to wear shorts. You’ll slip on the streets. You’ll need to wear tennis shoes (sneakers…whatever).
It’s all good. Even when you go out at night…wear your good walking shoes. I wore Keds most of the time. I brought sandals. I brought other cute shoes. I spent a whole month there, and I didn’t wear them. I wore Keds with my cute going out clothes. Europe is famous for cobblestone streets. Just trust me on this and stick to the flat shoes.
Yep, you might look like a dork. NOBODY CARES. Everyone else is wearing their tennis shoes too.
One more IMPORTANT thing to note about packing for Lisbon… During the day, you can be sweating your butt off. You’re wearing the shortest shorts possible and a tank top and the sun is unrelenting. Then, it cools down at night, and you’ll find yourself wearing pants and a cardigan. Pack for a range of temps.
Where To Stay
Now keep in mind, this is from a young professional’s perspective…a young person who wants to be in the middle of all the action. I wanted walking distance to the majority of the popular sites. I wanted to be close to buses and trains. I’ll be honest…I also wanted to be close to the party. I’m young and single. To me, one of the best parts of traveling is experiencing the nightlife in new cities and meeting people.
I might be a little biased about Chiado because this is where I lived for most of my stay in Lisbon. I absolutely LOVED the central location. Any type of restaurant or bar I could want was super close, and the neighborhood had that classic Lisbon feel that I love. We lived above Pink Street (which is loud), but we had an apartment with great sound proofing. Cais do Sodre (train station) was a two minute walk. If I left my apartment and turned left, I was at the river. If I turned right, I was minutes away from the fun of the Bairro Alto. In my opinion, Chiado was the perfect location. I stayed a night at the LX Boutique Hotel, and I cannot recommend it enough. It was PERFECT.
This area can be loud depending on if you stay in the heart of the neighborhood or on the edges. Still has tons of restaurants and bars. The nightlife scene here is bumping. You will also still be very central to everything. Keep in mind that Lisbon is old, and all of the buildings in this area are old and small as well.
Right next to Chiado, but quieter. It’s a nice flat part of the city situated between two of the hills. During the day, there is a lot going on here as well. Tons of restaurants and bars too. The seating areas all spill out into the square. Very picturesque and quiet at night. You’ll be closer to the Rosio train station if you stay here.
If you want that old old Lisbon feel, this is it. All of these neighborhoods are kind of touristy, but I guess Alfama is the upscale party/tourist area. I did not spend much time eating or drinking here. You can reserve a spot for dinner with Fado for a heafty price. The area also has some great Miradourous. Overall, I found Alfama to be overpriced, and not as central as I would have liked. I loved to walk around here, but I’m glad that I didn’t stay here.
Eating & Drinking in Lisbon
The food, bar, and party scene in Lisbon is out of this world.
You will find so many diverse places to eat offering a wide variety of food. Lisbon is also a very vegetarian and vegan friendly city!
Dinner doesn’t start until 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening…and that’s early. If you thought Vegas was the city that doesn’t sleep, try Lisbon. Dinner is from 9-midnight. After dinner (around midnight), you walk the streets, get some ice cream, hang out near one of the kiosks in a Praça, enjoy the music, sip on a beer. It’s Lisbon. Everyone is up. Everyone is outside, and anything goes.
At a restaurant, your server will bring some type of basket containing olives and bread. Those are not complimentary. You will pay extra for the basket. Do not touch it if you don’t really want it. Just kindly give it back to your waiter.
Tap water is free though, and it’s safe to drink!
Many places accept credit card, but also there are many that do not. Those real, authentic, mom-and-pop places usually will not. (I’m looking at you Taberna da Rua das Flores and Food Temple.)
*Always carry cash* When you’re in the Bairro Alto and you want to grab a beer for €1, it’s a pain in the butt to try to charge that on a card. I doubt you even can.
Tipping. Generally, you do not need to tip. Service is already included. Round up on your bill and leave the extra as a tip (equivalent to 5-10%) if the service was excellent.
You will see people walking around on the streets with a beer in their hand at all times of the day and night. No one seems to care about that either. It’s the norm. It’s also one of the reasons why I love Lisbon so much.
In fact, most of the places in the Bairro Alto are SO small (again…oldest city in Europe) that you basically walk in, buy your drink, and go back outside to stand in the narrow streets because it’s too crowded. You HAVE to stand outside.
At night, the streets in the Bairro Alto turn into one big party. It’s kind of awesome.
Be prepared for the people selling drugs, bracelets, light up hats and glasses, flowers, samosas, beers…they push all of it on you in the streets. If you’re hanging out with the right group of British hagglers, then it’s all good fun 🙂
If you get tired of the scene in the Bairro Alto, make your way down Rue do Alcerim (toward the river) to Pink Street.
I never actually made it inside any of the bars or clubs on Pink Street (except for Pensão Amor, and I JUST missed the burlesque show too), but it’s a super fun spot.
Hang out on the street. Drink your beer. Chat it up. Haggle with the people trying to sell you beers and samosas on the street. Stay out til 4am. It’s all good fun.
Pro Tip: As tempting as it might be when it’s 2am and you’re out on Pink Street, DO NOT eat the samosas from the vendors. Take my word for it.
If your main goal is eating and drinking your way through Portugal, DO NOT miss the vinho verde, the pastel de nata, and make sure you try a caipirinha…or five. You’re gonna want all of these things with every meal.
Or just make them all into one meal…
Nobody will judge you for eating a million and one pastel de natas. We’re all doing it.
Want to know where to find the best pastel de nata in Portugal? You really only have two options…
Manteigaria Fábrica de Pastéis de Nata in the Chiado Neighborhood
Pastéis de Belém in Belém
The lines in Belém get ridiculously long if you are not there bright and early. I have been told that the pastel de nata at the Manteigaria are just as good 😉 It’s a much shorter wait, and I’m not sure that a trip to Belém is worth it IF you’re only going for a pastel.
While we’re on the subject of foods to try…make sure you don’t leave Portugal without trying the pork cheek! It’s delicious!
Like I said before, Portugal is famous for sardines. I am ashamed to say that I could not bring myself to try the sardines or conserves as the Portuguese say. You’ll see snazzy little shops dedicated to these conserves everywhere, especially in the Baixa area. Maybe you’ll have more courage than me.
My next Lisbon post will be all about my favorite food and drink spots in Lisbon with a special little freebie for you 😉 (I also tell you what to avoid.) Make sure you don’t miss out!
Getting Around Lisbon
I absolutely LOVED walking around Lisbon. If you stay in one of the neighborhoods I recommend, you really don’t need to use the metro. Walk and enjoy those views as much as you can. Where else in the world do you see this architecture and color? Soak up every minute of the views and the sun.
When you do need to use the public transportation in Lisbon, it is super easy.
I recommend getting a Viva Viagem Card at one of the train stations. If you’re in the Chiado or Bairro Alto area, grab yours at Cais do Sodre. You can’t miss it. There are giant colorful letters out front that spell out LISBOA. The other station is Rossio located in the Baixa area.
Choose the zapping option. Load money on to the card and use it on the trains, buses, underground, etc. Just beware! When you get off the train, don’t forget to swipe it again. The little swipey stands can be easy to miss at certain stops. This will make your return trip a real pain in the butt if you forget to swipe.
Trolleys. Oh, the trolleys. Lisbon is famous for them. It is fun to try to snag a picture when one is passing by. Hope on one for a quick ride out to Belém. Otherwise, stay off of them!
The actual residents of Lisbon use them to commute, and they get freaking PACKED…to the point where you can’t move. I was against riding them for this reason, but I felt like it was something I HAD to do. It was not fun. I was worried about being pickpocketed the whole time, and I got off as soon as possible.
If you really want to do it, go find one of the trolleys that’s not really in public use. Check near Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara or checkout Elevador da Bica in the Bairro Alto area. You can pay a small fee and ride those up and down the hills for fun and get a picture too.
What the heck is a Miradouro? Just another thing that makes Lisbon so special.
The Airport & Getting Into The City
Air traffic in and out of Lisbon is growing faster than the little airport. There are two terminals, but they are not connected. Coming into Lisbon, you’ll probably land in Terminal 1 if you flew from the US. If you come in from a different European city, you’ll probably end up in Terminal 2. They’ll bus you to Terminal 1.
From there, you (most likely) will need to go up a level to the Departures area. Go out the doors and cross the street. You are now in the “Kiss-And-Go-Fly” parking lot (small parking lot). This is where uber will pick you up. You’re uber driver probably won’t speak good English, but you’ll be fine 😊 Everyone else in the service industry in Lisbon will.
If you have time (make time), pick up a SIM card from the vodafone store (20 euros). 5 gigs of data, and you’re set for a month. You will want to have What’s App though to keep in touch with your friends and family at home. This whole sim card thing is a huge game changer. Just make sure that your phone is unlocked with your provider before you go.
The Miscellaneous Stuff About Lisbon & Portugal
Navigating a new place is always interesting. It is exciting and nerve wracking all at once. Be patient with yourself. It’s ok to take a little time to adjust.
People in Portugal (and Europe really) kiss each other on both cheeks…even people that you just meet. I still can’t get used to it.
You’ll be fondly referring to this city as Lisboa before you know it!
No overhead lights! This is basically true in all of Europe…at least everywhere I have been. So frustrating! Also, bring extension cords 🙂
If you’re staying in an Airbnb/apartment, know that the washer and dryer is a combo unit (yep…two in one). And it’s in the kitchen. Go figure. (Also pretty standard.)
The water is safe to drink. If you’re worried about the taste, bring a water bottle that has a Brita filter built in. I have a list of My Must Have Travel Accessories HERE.
Lisbon is a good starter city. It’s easy to get around. The people are friendly, and most speak English.
Tap water is free. Appetizers are not. Not even the bread they bring to the table.
Learning a few words in Portuguese will go A LONG WAY.
Places are tiny. People spill out onto the streets. That is one of the reasons I love the vibe so much. You pop in, grab a drink, and socialize on the streets. Especially in the Barrio Alto area. Again, this is the city that doesn’t sleep.
You need to check out my other posts about Portugal so that you are truly prepared.
I am almost finished putting together my restaurant and bar guide! I spent a month eating my way through Lisbon. You do NOT want to miss this post. There will be a special freebie too like nothing I have ever offered before! You just might snag my Ultimate Lisbon Food & Drink List 😉 The best part is that it’s all ready for you to download to your Google Maps on your phone!
Put your email down below so that you don’t miss out!
I also have a post coming soon on what NOT to do in Portugal. Be a good tourist. Save yourself the embarrassment and shame of making these mistakes.
There is so much to know and love about this great city. I cannot possibly cover it all in one post.
Make sure you check out the wealth of resources I have prepared for you in order to have the best trip ever!
If this is your first international trip (and even if it’s not your first rodeo) check out my post on 21 Things To Consider Before Your International Trip!
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