Where is Lisbon?
Portugal’s capital city - the most westerly in Europe - lies on the north side of the River Tagus’s large estuary, not far from where it meets the Atlantic Ocean about a third of the way up the country. Our best time to visit guide can help you decide when to travel to Lisbon.
The historic centre
Alfama is Lisbon’s oldest district, and its steep maze of narrow cobbled lanes and small squares - miraculous survivors of the 1755 earthquake that destroyed so much of the city - are a fascinating place to wander. The little shops, neighbourhood cafés and unpretentious seafood restaurants are as much of a must-see as the area’s grander sights. These include the medieval Castelo de São Jorge, which overlooks the whole area; the magnificent cathedral, whose mix of architectural styles is a history lesson in itself; and a clutch of charming museums dedicated to everything from the decorative arts to the soulful sound of Fado, the area’s soulful soundtrack on many evenings.
On an altogether grander scale, Baixa - the elegant central district - was rebuilt after 1755 on a grid pattern, with tree-lined boulevards and vast open spaces. One of the largest of these is Praça do Comércio (also known as Terreiro do Paço), which looks out over the old harbour. It’s framed by neoclassical arcaded buildings where you’ll find inviting cafés - including the city’s oldest, founded in 1782. Soak up the scene from a terrace table before taking in the views from the magnificent Rua Augusta arch and window shopping in the stylish streets and squares that stretch inland behind it. Get a complete overview from the viewing platform at the top of the Elevador de Santa Justa, a neo-gothic iron lift built more than 100 years ago.
There are more historic stores and luxury boutiques in neighbouring Chiado, where the locals come to buy everything from books to porcelain, or just meet friends in one of its old-style cafés such as A Brasileira. This is where you’ll find theatres, the opera house and several museums, including the Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea housed in a former convent. From here, head into Bairro Alto, a picturesque tangle of streets that’s long been a favourite haunt of artists, writers and other creative types. Nowadays, it’s known for its lively nightlife, with a multitude of bars and clubs. During the day, it’s altogether quieter - perfect for visiting sights such as the church of São Roque, whose unadorned facade hides a fabulously ornate baroque interior. Also at its best in daylight hours is the panoramic vista from the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, a small formal garden with lots of benches and a kiosk where you can order a cold drink to sip while you pick out the landmarks below. Just to the north, in the district of Principe Real, there are more shady squares and a 10-acre botanical garden that’s particularly inviting on hot afternoons.
Along the waterfront
No trip to Lisbon would be complete without a stop in Belém to the west of the historic centre, from where most of the famous Portuguese explorers set off on their voyages of discovery around the world in the 15th and 16th centuries. The much-photographed Torre de Belém, a fortified lighthouse constructed in the 1500s in ornate Manueline style and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is practically the symbol of the city. From around the same time, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is the district’s other UNESCO-listed site, and its fabulous interior is well worth queueing for. A more modern reminder of Portugal’s seafaring past is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a vast stone monument featuring sculptures of many of the country’s most famous figures that’s almost as much-photographed as the district’s older landmarks. Among Belém’s other attractions, from a tropical garden to a museum devoted to royal carriages, one of the most delightful is the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém. This blue-and-white-tiled pastry shop has been making its celebrated cinnamon-dusted custard tarts - pasteis de nata - according to a secret recipe since 1837.
Just upstream, and with a very different feel, Alcântara was a thriving industrial area in the 19th century. Nowadays its renovated warehouses - especially those right next to the river - are home to trendy bars, casual eateries and hip boutiques. Culture fans will appreciate its quirky range of galleries and museums, which showcase vintage trams, Asian art and puppets. It’s a great place to come for an evening drink overlooking the water or find a handcrafted souvenir you’ll truly treasure. Parque das Nações - Park of Nations - is Lisbon’s newest district, and its futuristic buildings are a complete contrast to the rest of the city. Most of it was created for Expo 98, a World Fair held that year with the theme of “The Oceans: a Heritage for the Future”, and it remains a successful example of urban regeneration. People visit here to walk and cycle, enjoy the displays at the huge oceanarium or the science museum, or take a ride on the cable car that runs the length of the area.
On the coast
Originally a fishing village, and later a summer retreat for Portugal’s aristocrats, Cascais remains a charming and cosmopolitan seaside resort - and it’s just a short hop from Lisbon. Many are drawn here by the fabulous beaches, complete with stylish toes-in-the-sand bars, but there’s also an atmospheric old town whose winding lanes are lined with chic restaurants, cafés and boutiques. Here, and in several of the area’s historic villas, you’ll discover small museums, galleries and street art that are sure to appeal to culture fans. Follow the promenade, which hugs the coastline, to glamorous Estoril, known for its golf courses and its casino, set in lush gardens.
Lisbon’s picturesque streets are made for exploring on foot, and there’s good public transport to connect the various districts. If you’re staying centrally, you’ll probably only use the metro if you’re in a hurry or to reach newer areas such as Parque das Nações. Otherwise, there’s an extensive network of buses complemented by historic tram routes and funiculars, the last of which make zipping between the hilltop and lower-level neighbourhoods a breeze. For trips further out, such as to Cascais, options include the Linha de Cascais urban train, taxis (which are reasonably priced), organised tours or - if you’re staying there - private transfers.