After I visit certain cities, I almost hesitate to tell everyone how wonderful they are. Lisbon is one of those cities. I feel like I want to keep it a secret, so it doesn’t get overrun with tourists like London or Paris or Madrid. However, having met several Lisbonians and knowing how proud they are of their city, I feel it’s my obligation to share it with all of you!
One of the ways I describe Lisbon to people, is by comparing it to other large cities in Europe. If London and Paris are like New York, Lisbon is like Philadelphia. It has the advantages of a big city including a good public transportation system, lots of restaurants, culture, and diverse people. However, it’s not overwhelming and unmanageable. You can cover pretty much everything you need to cover over a couple of days.
Here is my advice and suggestions for your visit to Lisbon.
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Portugal is a member of the European Union, and their currency is the Euro. So, it’s very easy to visit Lisbon in conjunction with other places in Europe. Their language is Portuguese, which frankly is a pretty tough language to master. However, most people understand/speak Spanish. Also, a lot of people in Lisbon speak very good English, so communication was not an issue during our visit.
Portugal is one of the southern most countries in Europe. It is just north of Africa. Portugal is bordered on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, so there is a lot of beautiful coastline. It’s bordered on the east by Spain.
Lisbon is the capital of Portugal. It’s located on the central west coast.
Tip #1 – Currency: When visiting Europe, we never exchange money at the airport prior to leaving. The exchange rate they give you is typically bad, and the fees they charge to exchange your money are high. As soon as we land, we look for an ATM in the airport, and just take out cash as we need it. Be sure to let your bank/credit card companies know where and when you will be traveling before you leave.
Tip #2 – Language: We’ve always found in Europe that most Europeans speak English much better than we could ever hope to learn their language. We typically learn a few words in the local language – hello, thank you, good-bye, as well as how to count to 10. By using that and a lot of pointing, we are usually able to communicate what we need to.
Tip #3 – Weather: We were in Lisbon at the beginning of April, and the weather was beautiful. High temperatures during the day were in the low to mid 70’s (all temps in Fahrenheit), and it cooled down to the high 50’s at night. We also had beautiful blue sky (so remember your sun screen if you will be doing a lot of outdoor activities). In general, the winters in Lisbon are fairly mild, with high temperatures in the 50’s and lows in the 40’s. The warmest month of the year is typically August, with high temperatures in the 80’s during the day and the mid-60’s at night. The highest rainfall months are in the winter (Nov/Dec/Jan/Feb). Summers are very dry. Note that if you plan to add a trip to the Douro Valley while visiting Lisbon, temperatures in the summer there get extremely hot (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit)!
Lisbon’s airport – the Lisbon Humberto Delgado Airport (airport code LIS) – is an international airport located within the city limits. It’s less than 10 km to the central part of Lisbon. The airport sees just over 20 million passengers each year, and has two terminals. The majority of its flights come from other major European cities, including Madrid, Paris, London and Frankfurt. Getting to Lisbon from the U.S. will usually involve a connection. On our recent trip, we had to connect through Madrid.
As with most major European cities, train travel in Portugal is very good and cheap. The main train station in Lisbon is very convenient to central Lisbon (a short 5 minute metro ride), and the train station is very easy to manage. If you are traveling between European cities, check the prices and times of trains and flights. While a train may be cheaper, flights between European cities on European carriers are also typically very cheap and may save you some time.
Tip #4 – Baggage Claim: It may have been just our experience, but when we arrived in Lisbon our luggage took a LONG time to come out – right around an hour. It appeared that this was the case for all of the flights arriving when we did. We may have caught them on a bad day, but make sure you build extra time into your plans when arriving if you are checking bags.
Tip #5 – Transportation to Central Lisbon: The easiest way to get to your hotel is by taxi. However, if you are looking for something cheaper and don’t mind being a little adventurous, there are two other options. The first option is the Lisbon Aerobus. A one-way ticket 3.15 euros for an adult if you buy it on-line (www.aerobus.pt). You can also buy it where the bus picks you up at the airport (but not on the bus). When you exit the airport, look for the sign that says Aerobus. Buses run from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. and come by about every 20 minutes. If you are going to the city center, make sure to get on the 1 Line (the 2 Line goes to the financial center). The one complaint I had about the bus, is that the name of the stops was not announced, so it was a little tough to figure out where to get off. The second option is the Metro. There is a Metro station in the airport that will take you directly to the city center. The Aeroporto Saldanha line will get you to central Lisbon in about 20 minutes. The Metro in Lisbon is very easy to use, and reasonably priced (see more information on the Metro, below).
LOGISTICS IN LISBON
Hotels in Lisbon are very reasonable and there are plenty of them around. If you have traveled in Europe before, you know that the typical European hotel rooms are much different than U.S. hotel rooms. The rooms are typically smaller and there are not as many amenities. Bathrooms can be particularly small. Taking a shower can be a challenge as the shower heads are usually mounted low, and the tubs usually have a fixed shower door that only covers halfway across. To me, if the room is comfortable, I’m more concerned about the location than the amenities in the room, as we just don’t spend much time there.
Tip #6 – Stay at Hotel Residencial Florescente: Again, I hate to give away my secrets, but this place is really a gem. It’s located on a pedestrian-only street (so note that you will have to walk a short distance with your luggage) that’s full of cafés, restaurants and bars. There is a Metro station within a 5 minute walk, and you are right in the heart of central Lisbon. Plus, the staff is extremely helpful and friendly. The room was comfortable and large by European standards. We also had a cute little balcony that overlooked the street. Rates are very reasonable, and include a very nice breakfast. Note that the lift is a little small, and the hallways are EXTREMELY narrow (to the point that we had to almost turn sideways to walk down them). You can book your room on their website (www.residencialflorescente.com). We booked the Superior Room, which was quite reasonable and had a separate sitting area and very large bathroom.
Getting around Lisbon is very easy. If your hotel is in central Lisbon, you can walk to most places. As mentioned above, the Metro is also very easy to use. There are also trams, some of which are really old and a unique experience to ride on just to say you did it. Another cool way to get around the city are funiculars, which are also worth a ride to “say you did it”.
Tip #7 – Buy a Viva Viagem Card: If you plan on using public transportation a lot, I would suggest buying the Viva Viagem card. The card is re-loadable, and allows you to ride any mode of public transportation within the central Lisbon area. You can purchase the card at an automated ticketing machine or at a ticket office at any metro station. Note that you will need your card to both enter and exit the metro.
WHAT TO SEE
When I am new to a city, one of the things I like to do on the first day is take a guided walking tour. There are always several tour companies that offer walking tours. Some are free – you just tip what you feel appropriate – and some are paid. Sandeman’s New Europe Tours (www.neweuropetours.eu) is one of the biggest “free” tours. While we did not do this tour in Lisbon, I’ve done them in several other European cities and always found them to be worthwhile. The walking tour gives you a good general introduction to the city, which allows you to figure out which areas you’d like to further explore on your own later.
Tip #8 – Do You Like Food & Wine?: If so, I highly recommend the Inside Lisbon Food & Wine Walk (www.insidelisbon.com). We have done food & wine walks in several European cities, and find them to be a great way to get to know the city, as well as meet fellow like-minded tourists. In fact, every time we’ve done one of these tours, we’ve continued our “wine tasting” with our fellow tourists after the tour was over. You can book the tour on-line. Inside Lisbon offers several other types of tours if food and wine are not your thing, so check it out.
Tip #9 – Do Rick Steves’ Walking Tour: First, if you are going to any city in Europe, I highly recommend getting the Rick Steves’ book that covers that area. They are full of information on transportation, lodging, eating, and tourist attractions. They also usually contain a self-guided walking tour of the area. We did that in Lisbon, and found that it was just as good as going on an “organized” tour. Plus, it let us see things at our own pace. Check out Rick’s book on Portugal for more information. You can buy Rick’s Portugal book here.
A must see in Lisbon is to go to the area of Belém. The area contains three main tourist attractions – Belém Tower, Monument to the Discoveries, and Jerónimos Monastery. The area is located at the mouth of the River Tagus. There are beautiful views of the city, sea and river from the top of the Monument to the Discoveries.
Tip #10 – Take the Tram: The E15 tram will take you out to the Belém district. If you want to visit the main street (containing shops and restaurants) get off the tram at the Belém stop. If you want to visit the monastery and towers, go one stop further.
Tip #11 – Wear Your Sunscreen: There are often long lines to get into each of the attractions in Belém and there is NO shade while waiting in line.
Tip #12 – It’s Free, But Lines Could be Long: Belém Tower and the Jerónimos Monastery are free to enter the first Sunday of the month, however, be aware that the lines might be very long. Note that there are two lines in the monastery area. The line on the right is to go into the church (which is always free). The line on the left is for the monastery (which has a charge except on the first Sunday of the month). Also, don’t get fooled – the Monument to the Discoveries is the tall tower directly across the street from the monastery. Belém Tower is much shorter and little further down the street.
WHAT TO EAT AND DRINK
Lisbon is full of little local restaurants. The food is delicious and very reasonably priced. You will also find excellent wine that, again, is very reasonably priced. We even found some good beers! Some of the places I would specifically recommend are:
Port Wine Institute (Solar do Vinho do Porto): The wines are a bit pricey and the service a bit stuffy, but you won’t find a better selection of port wines in one place than here. Plus, the room itself is worth seeing. Be sure to check out all the bottles on display throughout the room. Be prepared – it’s very reserved and quiet (almost like a library) inside.
Cervejaria Trindade: This is Lisbon’s oldest beer hall. The beer is really tasty, but even if you aren’t into beer, go inside and check it out. The beautiful tile work on the walls is worth seeing, as is the big cooler right past the bar area holding all of the seafood. Plus, it’s located a short walk down the street from the Port Wine Institute. www.cervejariatrindade.pt
Casa do Alentejo: This is one of those places that you would not discover on your own. Our tour guide took us there at the end of our Food & Wine Tour. It turns out that it was right down the street from our hotel, and we walked right by it multiple times without realizing what it was. The entrance on the street is a very plain looking door with a tiny sign. Once inside, you walk up a set of large cement stairs. When you enter the building, your mouth will drop! This was a casino at one time (which you can picture in your mind from the decorations). There is a formal restaurant, but I recommend just going into the tavern. It has a beautiful courtyard area. The wine is good (and cheap) and they serve delicious tapas if you are looking to have some food as well. http://www.casadoalentejo.com.pt/en/restaurante/
Finally, while in Lisbon you have to try a shot of Ginjinha (Ginja). It’s a cherry flavored liquor that is famous in the area. There were a couple of places on the street our hotel was located on, that did nothing but serve shots of the drink.
Hopefully, this gives you some tips and highlights to get you started planning your trip to Lisbon. If you have any specific questions, feel free to reach out to me. I also have an excellent private tour guide in Lisbon, and if you contact me I will put you in touch with him directly. You can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, contact me on Twitter (@tips2liveby1), or ask your question in the comment section below.