Portugal’s vibrant and exhausting capital has a lot to offer. The city certainly has its ups and downs, figuratively and literally. Knowing what to expect can better help you navigate some of Lisbon’s intricacies. So allow my Lisbon travel tips to guide your planning.
Public transportation is ubiquitous but consistently late
Lisbon has an extensive series of metro lines, trams, buses, and little streetcars that go about as slow as you would walk. The system is integrated which makes it very easy to connect anywhere you need to go with the same preloaded transportation pass. On the other hand, you shouldn’t expect to get anywhere at the estimated time. Station arrivals are just a general idea rather than a true timetable, so always give or take 5-10 minutes. If you’re on a schedule, give yourself a little room to breathe by accounting for frequent delays, especially if you’re transferring to multiple modes of transportation.
Not all transportation is created equal
Though you can conveniently get around on anything, it doesn’t mean you should. The metro is by far the most comfortable way to get around. Trams are probably second best. On the low end of transport comfort are city buses and the stupid little yellow streetcars that have become synonymous with Lisbon. The buses are full of locals all chaotically filing in through the front door. The streetcars are full of tourists that think it’s the thing to do even though there’s only room for about 10 people and they usually hold about 40.
Get your calves (and shoes) ready for those hills
Lisbon is often compared to San Francisco in that even short distances are often unexpectedly uphill. On the one hand, this offers ample opportunities for nice views. On the other, you’re probably going to want to die after half a day if you’re even remotely out of shape or if you wore the wrong shoes. Lisbon is definitely not the place to get too cute with the footwear. A lot of tourists already have a hard time with European cobblestones, so cobblestones at a 45-degree angle are not a walk in the park. Not to mention the slippery tiled floors when it’s raining. Good traction and comfort is paramount.
The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is best visited in the afternoon
One of the most popular tourist sites in Lisbon, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos has two long lines that stretch far out from the monastery during opening hours, but especially in the morning when dozens of tour buses descend on the area. While it’s unlikely you’ll completely avoid the line, you will considerably shorten your waiting time by coming mid to late afternoon when the crowds are starting to thin out. And if you’re wondering, the line to the east is for the church which is free to enter so it goes faster. The line to the west is for the cloisters which requires a ticket and tends to be a little longer. Both are worthwhile as long as you’re not waiting for more than 30 minutes.
Lisbon airport is conveniently close to the city
Connected by the metro, the Lisbon airport is probably one of the easiest to access from city center in Portugal, if not all of Europe. A simple metro ticket is all it takes to get to get to city center, and it only takes about 30 minutes. And if you shell out an extra few euro, you can take an Uber and be there in half the time.
People have no concept of personal space
The Portuguese have a very close culture that has apparently persisted despite the pandemic. So people get uncomfortably close to you on public transportation, in lines, restaurants, and even open spaces. They’re like if standing next to the only urinal in use was a culture. So don’t take it personally when they push past you on busy sidewalks, just elbow them back. You’ll fit right in.
Lisbon is full of flies… that also have no concept of personal space
There is an extremely noticeable fly presence all over Lisbon. And it’s not just around food. They will persistently hover and swarm you if you’re standing in one place, which is odd and annoying. I guess they learn it from the people.
There’s a gendered way to say thank you
A lot of people learn one or two key Portuguese phrases when visiting, which I’m sure is appreciated by locals. But it’s probably helpful for you to know how to say thank you correctly. If you’re a man, you would use the masculine form “obrigado” whether you’re speaking to a man or a woman. If you’re a woman, you should always use the feminine form “obrigada.” It’s a way of saying “I am obliged” so the gender corresponds to the speaker.
The original pastel de nata is awful
Pateis de Belem has the distinction of being the originator of the famed Portuguese nata. As such, the place has lines out the door, but don’t be fooled by the hype. You can get a better nata literally everywhere in the city. The Belém nata falls apart with a less than ideal consistency and has a vague flavor of rice pudding, not the rich custard that characterizes the pastry. It’s safe to say a lot of other bakeries far improved on the original.
Sintra is worth an overnight stop
Many people take the opportunity to visit Sintra while in Lisbon, which is a fabulous idea. All the castles and palaces of Sintra are by and large more interesting than anything you’ll find in Lisbon proper. So it’s probably a good idea to dedicate at least one night to Sintra instead of doing it as a day trip. If you want to leisurely enjoy three or more of Sintra’s wonders which require a lot of walking and can easily lead to castle fatigue, you’re better off doing only one or two a day. This would also give you a chance to explore the city itself. The historic old town of Sintra is quaint and adorable, but less so when it’s crawling with day trippers who are there between 10 am and 5 pm.
A good fado show will make your whole trip
Fado is to Lisbon what flamenco is to Andalucía. But unlike a lot of Spanish flamenco shows, which are designed to lure tourists, good fado is an authentic local experience where you’ll laugh, cry, and have an unlimited amount of tapas and wine available for hours. It’s a little like having a jovial Portuguese uncle invite you over to his house for a relaxed jam session where he insists you eat and drink and more. I can’t speak for any other shows in Lisbon, but on the rare occasion that A Muralha has fado, do yourself a favor a book yourself a table. It’s the best €30 you’ll ever spend.
There are far better destinations in Portugal than Lisbon
I knew there was a reason why I hadn’t visited Lisbon yet even though I’ve been to Portugal no less than half a dozen times. It has none of the charm or romance of Porto and certainly none of the natural beauty of the Algarve, not to mention the Azores or Madeira which are world renowned destinations. Lisbon is just a big city with a few good sites and pretty good food. But if you don’t make it there on your Portugal visit, you’re not missing much.