For a shorter, bullet list of our recommendations, click here: GoGoGordon Guide to Lisbon
Stay on this page and scroll down for lots of pictures, tips and stories from our trip.
Lisbon is the San Francisco of Europe. It is part South America flair and flamboyance and part European storybook and sophistication, along with a full menu of delicious food you’ve never heard of and plenty of world class wines. Its steep inclines are worth the effort to climb as we ascended to at least a dozen made-for-Instagram viewpoints full of undulating red roofs, miles of blue water, and photographic spires. It is simply fantastic. The very center of Lisbon is relatively new in terms of construction and is completely flat, and there are a number of well-reviewed, nice hotels in the city center. However, I would recommend staying just outside of the main area if you are a light sleeper as Lisbon likes to party and most of the nicer central hotels are surrounded by clubs and restaurants.
Lisbon is also one of the best cities in Europe for day trips. We were able to do two of the three trips we wanted to do, and they were both sensational. It’s only about 20 minutes to Belem by train, and even faster by taxi. We recommend a taxi as it wasn’t expensive, it was convenient, and you don’t have to try to time it correctly with the train schedule. Sintra is another popular day trip and deservingly so, as it makes almost every list you’ll ever find online of “Best Medieval Town in Europe”, or “Best Storybook Town in Europe”. Sintra alone has 3 of the best castles to explore in all of Europe, each remarkably different than the other, and each inspiringly magnificent and spectacular. These 3 attractions are in addition to the impossibly cute streets that makeup the central part of the town. If you do Sintra in a day trip, get there early because I really don’t know how you pass on any of the “things to do” listed below in my guide. Sintra is magical, pure and simple…magic! Although we didn’t have time to make it, if you’re in Lisbon for a week or so and have an extra day or two, Evora is about an hour and a half drive from Central Lisbon and is also supposed to be a wonderful town.
In this guide, I break down things to do, restaurants, and bars in each of the three areas where we spent time: Lisbon, Belum and Sintra. Again, we highly recommend a visit to all three, and we absolutely loved everything about our vacation to Lisbon.
We arrived at our hotel and immediately wondered if we had made a mistake. This was the entrance (once we found it)
Then we knocked on the door, a friendly member of the staff opened it up for us, and we immediately felt as if we walked into another world at another time.
The hotel we had chosen was the Palacete Chafariz D’El Rei. It is a fantastic, authentic, renovated palace that truly feels like you’re staying in a museum, or that you’re the personal guests of a dignitary or even royal family from another era. Here are a few more pictures of the grounds, which are impeccable.
Okay, so the hotel is beautiful, we can all agree. Now, what about the rooms? We stayed in the “Lola” suite, and we would definitely recommend this room due to its size, décor, and a lovely view of the water. This is the type of hotel that is part tourist attraction in itself. The wardrobe in the bedroom is a typecast for the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. The picture below is not a shared room, it’s the living room in the Lola suite.
The hotel is also wonderfully located right at the foot of the Alfama District. This area is the “old town” that is typically the most charming part of any city in Europe. While there are a few streets and buildings that have been restored, much of the Alfama is still a little, well, you might say, “gritty”. In short, it shows it’s age, but it does so in a way that doesn’t feel at all derelict or dangerous. It’s more authentic, cozy, and comfortable, with a delightful maze of stairways, alleys and cobblestones that cause you to stop every 20 steps and take a picture or two.
The Alfama area also has some amazing views. Be sure to stop at the Miradouro dad Portas do Sol viewpoint. Find it!
As we continued to climb our way up the Alfama District, we came across the Castelo de S Jorge. So many European cities have a castle on the highest point of the highest hill, and we’ve toured a lot of them, but we still enjoy it. The best part of this visit is the views from the grounds surrounding the castle. The castle itself is pretty well in tact which is always fun to see, and we enjoyed climbing up and walking around the walls and looking down on Lisbon.
Another thing we loved about both the Alfama area, and by extension our hotel as it forced us to walk back through the area each evening, was the feeling that it was still locals there eating at local restaurants. We’d walk by restaurants and hear people speaking Portuguese, and the places looked like they haven’t changed for generations.
As you’ll see if you download our Lisbon guide (see link at the top of page), I had done a ton of research and had planned to eat at a number of different restaurants in Lisbon. All that went out the window the first night when we decided not to go to the restaurant I picked out and opted instead to go to the Mercado da Ribeira.
It was about a 20 minute walk from the hotel, and we had done some research but weren’t 100% sure if they’d be open. To our dismay, when we arrived at the dot on Google Maps, I peaked in and all I saw was empty stalls and a deserted market. We were about to leave when I decided to get some cash at an ATM at the front. I noticed a few people walking in and out of the door around the corner, and decided to follow them in to a hallway that was basically next door to where I found the empty market stalls. I started to get my hopes up as I heard voices and various clatter noises, and when I turned the corner I found food heaven…The Mercado da Ribeira. (also known as Time Out Lisbon)
The Mercado da Ribeira is one of my 5 favorite food markets in Europe. Unlike the food courts we are accustom to in the US, with cheap, processed, bad food sitting for hours under heat lamps, this market is like 50 wonderful, local restaurants all under the same roof. The only thing it has in common is it’s cheap. We found and tried almost every Portuguese food specialty we had researched, and loved it all. We ended up eating dinner here each night, which for a couple that loves variety and goes to Europe to see and do as much as possible, is a rare decision. The thing is, it may be under one roof, but all the best Lisbon has to offer is right here. TIP: at the far end of the main dining area is a meat market. Have them slice up some ham (see pic) and cheese, and then buy a bottle of wine from the store across the way from the meat market. You now have all you need for a picnic or, as we did, a late night snack sitting in our wonderful hotel room looking out over the bay… TIP#2: Ask the guys at the meat market for a taste of their best ham, and then tell them you’ve tried Iberico Ham in Spain and think their ham is better. You’ll get some extra snacks and watching them all celebrate and high five each other is fun… 🙂
Our first day trip was to Belem. Only a 15 or so minute tram ride from Central Lisbon, Belem is more of a Lisbon neighborhood than a new destination. More importantly, Belem is full of world class monuments that make it a no-brainer stop. We took a taxi, over there, simply because it was faster than walking to the train station and wasn’t expensive. We recommend doing the same unless you find yourself nearby the station with good timing for the tram/train.
Our first stop in Belem was the Monastery of Jeronimos. I haven’t met a monastery in Europe that I haven’t wanted to explore – especially the ones that serve beer – and this one is one of the best.
Across the way from the Monastery you’ll find the Padrao dos Descobrimentos. This is one of those monuments that just looks okay or somewhat interesting from photos, but when you get there in person you’ll be amazed by its imposing size. The statues are also almost weirdly impactful, in that I’m seen a million impressive statues in Europe but they somehow provide an unexpected sense of awe.
Do not skip the elevator up to the top for 360 degree full panoramic of the entire bay and city, especially if you have good weather. It is incredible, and we were lucky enough to be there on a crisp, clear, blue-sky day.
There is another icon of Belem that you can’t miss if you go there…their iconic contribution to the world of pastries, the “Pasteis de Belem”. While you will see these pastries at every bakery throughout Portugal, if you don’t have one here, you’ve never had one. Their recipe is the stuffof legend, passed down by generation and only known by a select few. We ordered one each, but ended up having 3 each before we finally left.
TIP: You will likely see a long line out front, but that line is just for to go orders. Go past the line inside and in all likelihood you can get a table as the restaurant is deceptively gigantic and goes way back with additional rooms. When we went there was a line around the block but we were seated immediately and were able to order a coffee along with our (3) pastries (each). I can’t remember if there is a small surcharge for a table, but if there is, it’s worth it! Also, don’t forget to ask for the sprinkled sugar on top!!!!!
We actually had our pastries first, as soon as we arrived, so by the time we explored the Monastery and enjoyed the view from the top of the tower, we were ready for lunch. We highly recommend a trip to Enoteca De Belum if you want to grab lunch while touring Belem. It’s tucked away in a non-descript alleyway nearby all of the attractions. The menu had some local favorites – I ordered the Bacalhau and she had the Portuguese version of Iberico Ham along with a lovely beet soup. We also had a heavenly appetizer of flambé goat cheese over figs, honey and arugula.
After lunch, which by the way was also very, very reasonably priced, we decided to hit one more attraction before heading back to Lisbon. Belem has a few museums that are highly rated, but we thought the Coach Museum sounded interesting. It was! To me, I get frustrated with most museums because I don’t “get it”. These coaches, however, are clearly ARTWORK! I mean, take a look at the woodwork, the engineering, the embroidery, the design, and the scope of the entire project, and…wow! It was really cool to see these works of transportation art up close, and interesting to read about the history of each of them, including when they were used and to whom they belonged.
Once we made it back to Lisbon (again we took a taxi), it was late afternoon and we decided to finally walk around the famous, and somewhat infamous, Bairro Alto area of Lisbon. This is the party zone, and there is a noticeable 6th street or even Bourbon Street vibe even early on before the sun goes down. Lisbon is famous for its late night club scene, but the Gordon’s are definitely not the right guides for that.
However, don’t let this description scare you away, as the area doesn’t fully transform until late at night, and until then there are some charming parts with tables lining the streets offering San Francisco like views up and down the avenues. Streamers above the streets add to the festive atmosphere, and there are some restaurant and wine bar gems there if you know where to look.
ATTENTION WINE LOVERS: One of our favorite wine tasting experiences from all of our travels occurred right here in the Bairro Alto District, at a place called the BA Wine Bar do Bairro Alto.
We were so, so lucky. I had the BA Wine Bar on my list, as they were the #1 rated restaurant on TripAdvisor at the time out of 2251 options. I had tried to get a reservation, which are basically mandatory because, as I understood it, the tables are reserved by each party for the evening. Yes, that’s correct, don’t worry about rushing through your tasting and getting out of there so someone else can use your table, because each table was yours for the night if you were able to secure a reservation. I was not able to get a reservation.
How did we get lucky? Well, it happened to be exactly 6pm when we walked by their front door, and I said, “Look babe, that’s the wine place I wanted to go to but couldn’t get a reservation”. As I made that statement, a nice women walked up and unlocked the door as they were just opening for the evening. She smiled and said hello, and I simply commented that their restaurant looked lovely but unfortunately we weren’t able to get a reservation. She sympathized and then mentioned that one of the tables wasn’t reserved until 7pm, and if we didn’t mind leaving when they needed the table then we could come in and do a tasting.
I was thrilled, we entered the small, cute restaurant and grabbed one of the 8-10 tables. I remember thinking, we’ll just grab a glass of wine and head out in 20 minutes, and at least we’ll get to try the place out. Well, 2+ hours later we were still sitting at the same table having enjoyed one of the most interesting, original, delicious, and enjoyable wine tastings we had ever experienced.
Get reservations, and go to BA Wine Bar do Bairr Alto. Oh, one more thing, just tell them to bring whatever cheese, meat, snacks and wine they recommend, you’ll be in the hands of experts and you will love the memory.
One more quick story. The cheese on the far right in the picture was unlike any cheese I had ever tried. I’m not exaggerating at ALL when I say it smelt like sticking your head in a dumpster. It was spectacularly awful. We were told to take a byte of the cheese and then follow it with a specific fortified wine from Madeira, and it was a remarkable experience. The cheese was as if you bit into a handful of peppercorns, and then somehow the wine changed the entire flavor in a way that was maybe not delicious, but oddly addictive. At the very least, it was memorable.
The next day we woke up early and caught the train to Sintra. Of course, being Europe, the train station itself was an attraction.
Sintra is the real-world embodiment of a Dr. Seuss book. It’s where you would film a movie like “Lemony Snicket’s: A Series of Unfortunate Events”, or “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”. It’s a fantasy, it’s absurd, and it’s amazing.
Sintra has 4 “must do” attractions, and you really can’t miss any of them!
First of all, there is the Quinta da Regaleira, which is part Batman layer, part Playboy Mansion for the aristocrats of the late 1800s, part Gothic masterpiece, and part Garden of Eden.
We came across a cave while we were wandering through the 4 hectare grounds that was pitch black inside and we had no idea if we were supposed to go in there or not. In the US, it would’ve been roped off or they’d of had it lit up with flood lights, but in Portugal, as in most of Europe, they rely on Darwinism to thin out the herd. It almost worked too, as Shea was a half a step from walking directly into the grotto’s lake before I was able to turn the flashlight on my phone on and we saw the hazard. The tunnels went deep within and under the land and for the most part it isn’t lit up at all, so have your phone handy. It was perhaps the most I’ve ever felt like an explorer, and it was really a crazy and fun experience. They have stones you have to jump to in order to get across lakes, and all kinds of hidden areas – one even has a built in aquarium. It is truly something out of a fiction novel and a one-of-a-kind place you just have to see to believe.
As I said…Batman.
Maybe a little Alice in Wonderland as well?
Next on our list for Sintra is the Pena Castle. While Germany’s castles get all the hype, this colorful castle is a marvel from all angles.
We did run into a little fog…
The castle itself is definitely worth a tour. Fortunately, you don’t have to go with a tour guide or group, you can buy a self-guide if you’d like or just make your way around. We always enjoy touring castles and palaces that have been set-up to give you a peak into the rooms of the past…like an HGTV show from another time…and this is a good one. There are incredible furniture pieces, antiques, and some whimsical items like early violins, telephones and toilets.
Now that’s tourist fashion at its finest…
From the Pena Castle, we decided to walk to the Moorish Castle. While it was only a 20 or so minute walk, when you arrive at this next castle you instantly feel as if you traveled back 1000 years. The vibrancy of the Pena Castle is quickly replaced with the traditional grey stone that comes to mind when you think Medieval Castle. Walking along the stairs that line the walls of the castle, you can see the entire valley. The view is amazing and I loved the juxtaposition of the two castles.
From the Moors Castle, you can begin to appreciate both the beautiful landscape and the incredible old mansions in the area. HGTV needs a show where we see these kind of homes restored! Fixer-Upper, Sintra – I’d watch that!
Finally, as if the Pena Castle, Moors Castle, and Quinta da Regaleira weren’t enough, the actual town of Sintra is a Medieval masterpiece. While years of tourist attention have brought out plenty of cheap trinket stores and rip off restaurants, there are also a few great bakeries (see our guide for a list) and (if you can believe it) several other highly reviewed tourist attractions.
Sintra is a no-brainer day trip, the only question is should you spend the night and really appreciate all Sintra has to offer over a couple of days.
When we returned to Lisbon, it was time to knock out a couple of other tourist items. We watched number of television shows about visiting Porto, and of course one of those included Anthony Bourdain. Most of the guides mentioned a local drink called Ginjinha, and almost every show had their hosts visiting the tiny little storefront of Ginjinha Registada to try the beverage.
While we didn’t care much for the drink, and we tried one with cherry and one without, but it was fun to see the guy we had seen in all the videos pour our drink. It’s also in a neighborhood that’s nice to see anyway, so if you stroll by there go ahead and try it, I just hope you like cough medicine.
Google the “Santa Justa Lift”, and you’ll see that Lisbon has an elevator in the middle of the city that looks like an AT-AT walker mated with a cell phone tower. Unfortunately, I can’t show you a picture I took because it was covered in scaffolding when we arrived. Luckily, it was still working so we rode it to the top and found ourselves both in another part of the city and on yet another lookout point with an incredible view of Lisbon. I really hope anyone that visits Lisbon gets at least one blue sky day, because the colors and aesthetics of the city are just breathtaking with the clear sky backdrop.
While we didn’t spend a lot of time in the downtown area, which is the one area where the streets are flat and in more of a US-friendly grid pattern. The area is worth walking through, and it’s charming to see the old trams clank by, but it’s a little touristy. However, the Praco do Comercio is one of the more spectacular squares in Europe, a country where every city has a grand square. Be sure to walk up to the majestic entrance on Augusta street and admire the grand square that faces out into the harbor. While I never recommend eating at any restaurants in main squares – with a few exceptions – grab a drink and people watch and admire this regal area.
Guess what!? I have yet another view spot you need to put on your list. Find the Miradouro de Sao on Google Maps and walk over there about an hour or so before the sun sets. The neighborhood itself is full of beautiful buildings to admire and some interesting shops, but the view of the sunset from this spot made me wonder if the city planner years ago built this lookout point as a community service just for that sole purpose.
The fun doesn’t stop there. Anyone that wants to ride one of the oldest trams in Lisbon and get a real San Francisco street car experience can grab the trolley that stops just next to the park and ride it back into the center of the city.
Finally, I tend to like people and places that don’t take themselves to seriously and are a little quirky. Lisbon has plenty of that as well.
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