Though much of Lisbon feels like a generic European city, there are some nice sites and experiences that set it apart from other cities in Portugal. If you’re visiting for a few days, these are the things to do in Lisbon that you probably don’t want to miss.
Judging by the hours’ long lines in the middle of October, the Jeronimos Monastery is by and large the most popular tourist site in Lisbon. The monastery consists of the Church of Santa Maria, which is free to visit, and the monastery cloisters, which requires a paid ticket that you must get from the ticket office, not directly from the line. Unfortunately, buying a ticket does nothing to help you ahead in the free line for the church; you have to make both lines separately. However, both are worth it as long as the line is no more than 30 minutes (Pro tip: go in the afternoon to avoid the rush.)
If you only see one church in Lisbon, the Church of Santa Maria is certainly the grandest, featuring a single nave and massive columns. It also famously houses the tomb of several important people in Portuguese history like Vasco da Gama. The monastery’s two-story cloister features a unique façade of carved columns and arches, which will undoubtedly be one of the most ornate structures you’ve ever laid eyes on.
Also in Belem near the monastery is Belem Tower, a fortified structure dating back to the 16th century, that sits on the Tagus River. It is famous for being the sailing point for Portuguese explorers. You can climb the tower to the terrace, though the view of the river from around Belem Tower is just as enjoyable. The park surrounding the tower also has some small stands for refreshments and small snacks if you want to make a relaxing pit stop along the river.
Carmo Archeological Museum (the church with no roof)
After the Jeronimos Monastery church, the second-best church to see in Lisbon is Carmo Convent, which is now an archeological museum due to the fact that the Gothic church is a roofless ruin after the 1755 earthquake. In addition to being able to walk around the church ruins, the museum has a small exhibit featuring recovered relics and even a couple of mummies.
Discover Bairro Alto
The heart and soul of Lisbon is Bairro Alto. The city’s iconic yellow funiculars can help you get up to the neighborhood or you can tackle the elevation on foot. You can also take the Elevador de Santa Justa if your idea of sightseeing is lining up and paying to take a “historic” elevator. As one of the highest points in Lisbon, you’ll find some of the city’s best viewpoints in Bairro Alto such as the Miradouro São Pedro de Alcântara, which is accessible by the Ascensor da Gloria funicular. In addition to sweeping views across the river, Bairro Alto is a hub of street art, culinary delights, and nightlife. Just off the Praça Luís de Camões square, you’ll find a ton of small crowded bars along with the Anthony Bourdain-recommended O Trevo restaurant.
Take a food tour
Portuguese food is one of Europe’s culinary wonders. But not knowing what everything is means spending an entire weekend having nothing but cod and natas. One of the best ways to get acquainted with local flavors in a way that’s more diverse than what they serve tourists in your average restaurant is to take a local food tour. For instance, on the Lisbon’s Best Flavors tour, you can visit a couple of the city’s family-owned businesses that each bring something unique to Lisbon’s culinary landscape. It’s a good way to connect with other travelers and get tips one where to eat while you’re in town.
Check out the viewpoints
One of the best things to do in Lisbon is enjoy the scenery because there is a fabulous viewpoint, or miradouro, every five feet. The problem is it’s five feet directly uphill with no shade. Nonetheless, seeing some of the nice viewpoints around town allows you to get to know a few different neighborhoods, and once you’re up there, there are usually nice parks with seating where you can take a break after your uphill hike. One of the most worthwhile viewpoints aside from the Miradouro São Pedro de Alcântara is the Miradouro da Graça which is in the Jardim da Cerca da Graça, a sprawling park with multiple levels where artists graffiti their work and locals walk their dogs. The nearby Miradouro da Senhora do Monte is the courtyard of the Catholic Senhora do Monte chapel. There’s a small café with seating. You’ll also find the Miradouro das Portas do Sol at the top of the Alfama neighborhood.
Hang out at LX Factory
LX Factory is a hipster haven housed in an old factory complex. It has bookstores, clothing boutiques, and a variety of restaurants and bars. It’s a good place to get some local crafts and see the artier side of Lisbon. It definitely doesn’t feel nearly as authentic as similar art/industrial complexes such as Ljubljana’s Metelkova or Tallinn’s Telliskivi, but you might see a second line playing Bruno Mars songs.
Watch live fado
Fado is one of Lisbon’s most important cultural symbols. The traditional melancholic music been around since the 1800s, played in taverns and restaurants. Singers are accompanied by Portuguese guitarists, whose arrangements are designed to evoke sadness and longing. Fado can be found in many places in Bairro Alto and Alfama with varying degrees of tourist-friendliness.
My highly recommended fado experience was at A Muralha, which is not a necessarily a traditional fado taverna (or tasca) but rather a tasca that occasionally has fado. The musicians played at least four sets over several hours of never-ending food and wine. We laughed, we cried, we didn’t understand a word because it was all in Portuguese, and we ate and drank until we absolutely couldn’t anymore… and then they brought natas for dessert.
Go to Sintra
Though there are a few worthwhile things to do in Lisbon, perhaps the most worthwhile thing to do is visit Sintra while you’re in town. Sintra is a quaint town on the foothills of the Sintra Mountains that is saturated with stunning hilltop palaces and castles. If you’re even thinking about wasting a couple of hours at the Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon, just take the train 40 minutes to Sintra and really feast your eyes on some stunning Moorish architecture. Nothing in Lisbon even comes close to comparing.