Easily accessible from both the UK and the US, and still much cheaper than other European capitals, Lisbon has been the city on everyone’s lips for a while now. Its popularity has especially exploded in recent years, with the rise of millennials posting preset-edited photos of themselves in front of a sea of tiled walls and terracotta-roofs. While Lisbon is an undeniably beautiful city, the filtered images you see on Pinterest do tend to hide the rougher edges of the city, which isn’t short of a decrepit building or two covered in sprawling graffiti. (Street art is a huge part of Lisbon’s culture, as the first spot on this list shows!) The recent rise in popularity also means that Lisbon is busy. Seriously busy. Don’t expect to stroll into a famous brunch spot after 10am and be seated without waiting outside in a long queue, and most restaurants don’t take bookings so dinner is often a case of waiting to be seated.
That being said, Lisbon is an incredible city, infused with an infectious energy and youthfulness. Visit with an open mind and you’ll fall in love with its vibrant streets, delicious food and friendly locals.
Here are 10 things you absolutely must do on a trip to this happening capital!
1. Hang with the hipsters at LX Factory
Undoubtedly Lisbon’s hottest spot, the LX Factory should be at the top of your itinerary. Often dubbed ‘the Shoreditch of Lisbon’, this stretch of disused textile warehouses, full to the brim with awe-inspiring street art, hipster cafes and pop-up shops housing quirky souvenirs, has a uniqueness all its own. Visit on a Sunday when the market is running and the area is buzzing and you’ll discover a real feast for the senses. Wander past stalls selling local cheeses and wine, handmade ceramics and jewellery while mellow music plays in the background. There is an abundance of delicious food options here, especially if you have a craving for something sweet. Pop into the popular Wish Slow Coffee Shop for coffee and cake, or head to LXeesecake by Madame Cheeselova for quite possibly the best lemon meringue cheesecake of your life. Spots not to miss are the famous bookstore, Livraria Der Levagar, and Showu for indie labels and quirky garments.
2. Take a Day Trip to Sintra and Pena Palace
We weren’t quite sure what to expect from Sintra, as we had done 0 research about this mountain town, other than spotting a few pretty pictures of technicolour castles on Pinterest. So instead of checking the best way to get there (hint: take the train!), we decided to take an Uber all the way to the top of the mountain. This was great as we skipped the walk up and had a good long chat with our friendly Brazliian driver (who couldn’t speak a word of English but did show us some lovely Youtbe videos of his hometown!). What was not so great was the traffic, which snakes its way up the one-way mountain road at a snail’s pace, taking us an hour and a half to reach the top.
At the entrance to Pena Palace, there are fairly long queues to buy tickets and then another queue to enter the palace grounds. We decided not to go inside the palace itself, instead opting for cheaper tickets which granted access to the exterior and the huge park. I would not recommend buying tickets to actually enter the palace as the queue is ridiculously long, (a minimum 2 hour wait in the scorching sun) and the real beauty of this place is its colourful exterior!
The castle is like something out of a fairytale, or a Super Mario game, with its bright yellow walls and turrets poking out all over the place. If you can nab a table, be sure to stop for a while at the outdoor seating area. The views over the lush green landscape and ocean in the distance are incredible and we ended up sitting here for over an hour, taking in the view and drinking ice-cold bottles of Super Bock.
The town of Sintra itself is small but picturesque, with narrow winding streets filled with bustling shops and cafes. We stopped for lunch and a couple of glasses of sangria after the long walk down from Pena Palace, before heading back to the city with a few Pastel de Nata in our pockets for the journey.
3. Brunch with the cool kids
Over the last 5 years, tourism has exploded in Lisbon, especially among the younger generation and the city has done well to keep up with the demands of millennials desperate for instagrammable cafes and hip brunch spots.
There are several places that fit the bill dotted around the city, mostly within the Bairro Alto district. Queues can be long, as we discovered on the first day when we naively assumed we could just stroll into Hello, Kristof at 11.30am and be seated immediately. Most cafes open at 9am, so get there early if you’re after a table. Alternatively, later in the day is a quieter time to pop in, after the lunch rush has subsided. Flora and Fauna was my favourite place, with friendly staff and foliage covering every surface. The açai latte is delicious, and this place also does cocktails so it’s perfect for a late afternoon pit stop!
4. Stroll up the ‘Elevador da Bica’
Bright yellow trams are an iconic Lisbon attraction. Have you even visited the city if you haven’t watched them trundle up and down the steep cobbled streets while sipping sangria at a cheap and cheerful quiosque? The best place to snap a picture next to this national icon is at the top of the steep and colourful Elevador da Bica. Here, you can also snap a selfie with the graffiti tram, which is giving old yellow a run for its money in the popularity stakes. Most tourists visit just to see the trams before heading elsewhere, but if you linger until early evening then you can grab a drink at one of the cheap and cheerful bars that line the sides of the street. Barbica is a small cafe right at the bottom where you can sit out on the terrace and watch the trams go by. Further up, Let’s Rock is a tiny local favourite that pumps out rock music and sells pints of Super Bock for only €1.50. Win.
5. Eat at TimeOut Food Hall -but get there early to avoid the lunch rush!
Lisboa locals love their food, which is unsurprising given the plethora of tasty options available. The famous TimeOut Food Hall, housing 32 restaurants and 8 bars, is a right of passage for any foodie. This place gets absolutely rammed at lunchtime (are you noticing a theme here?) and you’ll need to be eagle-eyed and quick on your feet to nab an empty seat at one of the long trestle tables. Don’t be overwhelmed by the crowds though, start with a drink at a bar and take it all in, before heading to Henrique Sa Pessoa for Portuguese fare, such as the delicious suckling pig burger.
6. Experience the nightlife of Pink Street
I’ll tell you right now to avoid disappointment, Pinterest lied. Pink Street is not pretty. It is a grubby strip of tarmac that runs under a bridge and is lined with seedy bars filled with raucous backpackers. But it it pink? Yes. And it’s worth a trip; if only to see Bairro Alto’s party side which comes alive after dark. Pink Street is infamously known as Lisbon’s bygone Red Light District and, fittingly, its most notorious bar is Pensao Amor. This former brothel, housed in a creaky old mansion and spread across several floors, is a somewhat surreal experience. Swing by during the afternoon to avoid the nighttime queues and have a drink in the dimly lit main bar, while erotic images play out across the wall on a giant projector. It’s a unique experience, but maybe not one for a family trip!
7. Eat all the Pastel de Nata you can get your hands on
I don’t know what they put in these little custard tarts that make them so damn tasty, but they make a perfect little breakfast or mid-afternoon snack with a coffee. These tarts originated in Belem, but if you don’t have time to make it out that far then the next best thing is served at Manteigaria (there’s a stall in the TimeOut Food Hall). Be careful though, these things are addictive and you might want to brig a box home with you as the cheap custard tarts you get in Tesco just aren’t the same!
8. Join the queue for ceviche and pisco sours at A Cevicheria
For a little taste of Peru, and possibly the most photographed foam octopus in the world, head to A Cevicheria. This tiny restaurant is famous for its ceviche, but as there was (yep, you guessed it) already an enormous queue outside when we arrived we decided just to stay for a quick Pisco Sour from its ‘hole in the wall’ bar. We queued for around half an hour for our drinks, (!) but it was worth the wait for the atmosphere of other people waiting outside and when they arrived they were incredible! (Next stop: Lima! Seriously though, the Peruvian capital is next up on our travel list so stay tuned!)
9. Take in the tiles!
When you think of Lisbon, there is one thing that springs to mind: tiles! The city is covered in them, from the classic Portuguese blue and white to terracottas and pastels with intricate patterns, flanking almost every vertical surface. The best way to find your favourite tiled wall is to start in Alfama and just keep walking, along the winding streets, through narrow alleys and up and down secret stairways. And if you consider yourself a tile super fan, be sure to stop in at the Tile Museum and become a true tile connoisseur.
10. Drink outside with the locals at a ‘Quiosque’
What I first assumed to to be lots of little magazine stands dotted around the city, actually turned out to be mini bars or ‘quiosques’, where you can stop mid-exploring for a quick drink al fresco’. Great for people-watching and brushing up on your Portuguese by chatting with the friendly locals over a glass of Ginja. Saúde!
11. Finish the day with sunset drinks at Topo Chiado
Round off a long day spent roaming Lisbon’s hilly streets with a bottle of wine at Sunset Bar ‘Topo Chiado’, which is tucked away behind impressive Carmen Convent and has gorgeous views over swathes of orange-roofed houses. If beer is more your thing and you’re not fussed about catching the sunset, then Crafty Corner is a great place to try some local craft beers. (And their burgers are fantastic!)
So there you have it, 10 things not to miss on your next trip to Lisbon! Have I missed anything? I’d love to hear your suggestions on what I should add to the list below! I’ve also created a handy check list of some of the most insta-worthy places to eat, drink and snap pics of dotted around Lisbon! Print it out, grab a pen and your camera and book a flight! 😉