The Saturday City: Lisbon

lisbon portugal shopping street with archesAs you know, I was recently in Portugal and loved every minute of it. The highlight of my trip wasn’t the scenery or the copious amounts of port wine I drank, it was the city of Lisbon. I’d always heard good things about Lisbon, but nothing could prepare me for how amazing that actually city was.

I loved the gritty lived-in feeling, the friendly locals, the delicious food, the Fado music bars, the parks, the beaches, the history – I loved it all. I can’t think of one thing I really didn’t like.

I wasn’t in Lisbon long – only 4 days — and maybe the next visit won’t be as electrifying as the first, but usually when I connect with a city so deeply and so quickly, that feeling sticks. (Paris, I’m looking at you!)

And so I find it fitting to restart my Saturday city profile series with the city I’ve most recently fallen in love with. I haven’t profiled a city in many months but want to bring the series back. There have been too many marvelous cities I’ve visited that I haven’t yet talked about.

So let’s talk about Lisbon. I didn’t get to see much of the city as I was only there for a short time but there was plenty to fill my days.

When you go to Lisbon, what should you do?

  • Jardim Botanico – This is one of the best public gardens in Lisbon. In the heart of the city (but hidden away from the surrounding streets) this 10-acre garden is a haven from the hustle and bustle. Bring a picnic or simply wander through and enjoy the exotic plants.
  • Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art – The Berardo Museum has a wide selection of works by Warhol, Picasso, Dali, Duchamp, Bacon, Pollock, and more, representing dozens of modern movements. I’m not a huge fan of modern or contemporary art but this is an excellent museum if you are. There are over 1000 pieces here – plenty keep you busy for a few hours.
  • Castle of St. George – Located in the historic area of the city, this is probably most high profile attraction in Lisbon. The oldest parts of the castle date from the 2nd century, and while most of it was destroyed over the years, a long extension of walls and 18 towers still stand. You can climb the walls and take photographs of the city from here; you can also sit in the garden and check out the Tower of Ulysses. There’s an entrance fee of 8 Euros for the castle and grounds, but if you don’t want to pay to get in, there is a lookout point nearby that also has sweeping views of Lisbon.

lisbon portugal red rooftops

  • Praça do Comércio – Lisbon’s biggest and most monumental square sits along the riverfront and is a photogenic and interesting place to visit. Most recently renovated in 2010, it’s famous for two marble columns that used to be part of the royal palace. The area is now home to a lot of good shops and is great for people-watching or sitting down with a cooling gelato.
  • Walk around the old town – Alfama is the historic area of Lisbon. It is filled with narrow, winding streets that make it an bewildering place to get lost in. I wandered the maze of streets, exploring tiny squares, hidden alleys, and long-abandoned houses while watching locals go about their lives. The area around the castle is beautiful but touristy. For fewer crowds, head to the portion near the Fado Museum closer to the sea. There you wil also find a ton of local, hole-in-the-wall restaurants where you can practice your nonexistent Portuguese with little old grandmothers.
  • Check out Se Cathedral – Built on the grounds of a mosque, the cathedral was raised to celebrate the defeat of the Moors in the mid-1100s. I just happened to stumble upon this place while walking around and, while I’m not a huge fan of 12th century Romanesque construction, the cathedral was very peaceful and beautiful. Plus, it’s free!
  • Ride the trams – Lisbon has those old fashioned trams that make you feel like you are living in the turn of the 20th century. Sitting in them and riding through the historic and well-worn streets of the city was a simple yet unbelievable pleasure.

lisbon portugal historic trams

  • See a Fado show – Fado, the local music, is best seen in Alfama. There are a lot down near Santa Apolonia metro stop but wherever you go in Lisbon there will be a Fado bar. Drink some port and dance the night away.
  • Hit the beach – Lisbon has a number of beaches that allow you to cool off in the blisteringly hot summer sun.
  • Ride the “elevator” – For some sweeping views of Lisbon’s rooftops, you might want to take the Elevador de Santa Justa. It’s a century old and used to be powered by steam. (Now, electricity!) Connecting downtown to the Barrio Alto neighborhood, there’s a good view of the city at the top and a small restaurant where you can eat.

And speaking of food, the one place that did stick out in my mind was Instinctus near St. George castle. It was a tiny place — only 3 tables. I went there for dinner, where the woman who owned it prepared a 4 course meal paired with wine. For 35 Euros, it was good value and the woman was very friendly.

lisbon portugal red rooftops

Lisbon was so amazing that I would seriously consider moving there. It seems like a creative, exciting, and affordable place to set up shop where I could envision myself writing the great American novel. I’m a champion of Lisbon and if you haven’t been there and are looking for an affordable and striking city to explore in Europe, Lisbon is it. (And TAP Portugal has cheap flights there!)

  1. Great suggestions for a wonderful city! I was in Lisbon for four days in March, and I also completely fell in love! It’s one of my new favourite spots in Europe. I definitely agree with your comment on it being a perfect place to write the great American novel!

  2. Lisbon is one of my favorite cities. I fell for the city the moment I walked out of the airport on my first visit in January 2012 and returned this past June and still love it!
    It has a great vibe, delicious food, cool but slippery tile walkways and is an all around colorful city!

    • Zara @ Backpack ME

      Our country is indeed great and I do believe it has a lot of personality and uniqueness when compared to other countries in Europe – definetetly more affordable than many others in the old continent too!

      It is a shame that many people traveling around Europe skip Portugal because it’s “in the corner”, not really on the way to anything or in between anything.. But I hope more and more travelers feel inspired to come and visit us! 😉

  3. To be honest Lisbon has not really been on my list of cities to visit but I really enjoyed your post and would now love to hit it soon! I love it when you fall for a place so much that you contemplate moving there.. If Lisbon did that for you then I guess it must be great!

  4. I like Lisbon a lot, as it’s got a special flavor, thanks to its geographical and historical context. People are Lisbon’s most valuable attraction in my opinion, as they all have a common feature I can not define in words.

  5. Portugal is gorgeous and it’s not just Lisbon, if they come to my country to try to go through other places besides the capital, although it is a wonderful city.
    You can see a fantastic coast maritima, a fascinating interior, friendly people who know Portugal a warm welcome.
    Welcome to Portugal.

  6. Hello Matt,

    I stumbled across your site this weekend when I was doing a search for traveling and your site was the first one that came up in Google. Your site has made me remember the adventurous, fun and fearless person I was when I traveled abroad in the military. Now you have inspired me to get that adrenaline rush back, to live life to the fullest. I am now working on my MBA and when I am done me and my daughter will move back overseas. Looking forward to more of your post! Thank You for the inspiration…

  7. Patrick bawer

    I was in Lisbon earlier this year after visiting Spain and I feel in love with the Iberian peninsula. Portugal gets so little exposure in America it’s almost really sad. Not too expensive and very easy to get around. The hostels there are all amazing would recommend living lounge hostel. They almost take it as a challenge to see who can out do the others.

    On a side note the night life is unreal and everyone ends up in the streets at night like mardi gras but so much cleaner and nicer than New Orleans. Take a bike tour along the river and you won’t regret it either. Truly amazing city and so much history.

  8. Lisbon is one of my favorite cities in Europe. Was there in the spring – it is very beautiful. Thank you for your story and great pictures, they cause great memories.

  9. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the info on Lisbon City and good luck for you to give more information on some other places in the world which should be visited at lease once in person’s life time. I hope one day I will visit this city hmmmmmmm……

    Krishna Kalpat

  10. Thanks for this great post!

    I added Lisbon to my travel wishlist just yesterday and I was looking for more information on the city. That search led me to your post and now I’m pushing Lisbon higher up in my list…

  11. Thanks for the great post. We had planned to visit Lisbon this fall but needed to postpone. It is a beautiful city and we are very much looking forward to visiting it again. This time we will have a look at your recommendations tool.

    Thanks :-)

  12. Hi Matt, great site, love the photos. I’ve never really contemplated Lisbon, or Portugal for that matter, but your article makes me reconsider! I especially like the affordable part of the equation, always looking for those great places that don’t bust the budget. I haven’t read many of your posts yet, but plan to come back and check it out. Your enthusiasm for the trams reminded me so much of my own travels in Ukraine (another low-cost, undiscovered, offbeat European destination criminally overlooked) where you absolutely haven’t lived until you’ve ridden some of the ancient, Soviet-era trams in the bigger cities. You think at any moment they will grind and groan to a halt and never move again, but they just keep on going. Fun!

  13. My boyfriend and I are going to make a little road trip through Portugal in summer and we plan on spending several days in Lissabon. Too bad I still have to wait about 8 months!
    We plan on visiting Portugal for 10 days to 2 weeks, with 4 days or so in Portugal. But I still have a lot of research ahead of me, so the planning might still change:)

    • Cristina


      I recommend for those interested in going outside of Lisbon, these must-sees:
      North of Portugal (among others):

      Oporto – Visit the Douro valley by boat and train and take the wonderful sites of this Golden valley, which is magical as well as the oldest regulated wine region in the world. Visit also the city of Porto/Gaia with its Port wineries where you can go for free tastings, guided visits and wonderful moments by the river. Visit the Lello Library (that for me is the most beautiful shop in the world! or the Majestic Caffé! Try the wonderful food and talk with the people of the city that are indeed a jewel!

      Guimarães – The birthplace of Portugal and wonderfully restored.


      Center of Portugal

      Coimbra – where you will find one of the oldest universities of the world and where the strangest traditions and habits still persist in the academic spirit. Don´t miss the university library that is gorgeous!

      Aveiro – full of cannals. Go for a sighteseing tour on a boat.

      Batalha – visit the Batalha monastry and the little sleepy city of Batalha.

      Òbidos – a beautifully preserved medieval city showcased inside medieval walls. It was so beautiful that was traditionally the wedding present of the kings of Portugal to their brides.

      Mafra – visit the convent which was made in the most luxurious way and where Portugal spent much of its eighteen century wealth. Be sure to taste ihe local bread!

      Sintra – mystical city full of fairytale palaces and mansions. Also an area of exceeeding beauty. It has a specific microclimate and so is full of the summer houses of the Portuguese nobility. It is also an area perfect for nature sightseeing, trekking, … etc. Be sute to visit the Pena Palace, the Palace of Sintra and the Quinta da Regaleira (for its mystical and cenographic value). Be sure to try the famous sweets!

      Arrabida Nature Preserved area and coast – wonderful!

      South of Portugal

      Évora – UNESCO heritage city and a place where every civilization left a message from the Paleolithic onwards. Be sure to go to the Bones Church, where the walls are covered with skulls and bones from real people!

      Monsaraz – “The most portuguese city of all”. I loved it and is now very close to the biggest artificial lake of Europe where you can do all the aquatic sports and which is an area of great beauty.




      I will send more explanations in my next post. I Love Portugal!

  14. Blessings to all who visit my country, and the magnificent city of Lisboa.

    We welcome all our brothers and sisters to share what the Good Lord has blessed us with.

    The friendliest place in Europe!

    Amor de Portugal….

  15. anita

    Glad to see this as we’ll be visiting Lisbon pretty soon. We went to the Azores last March with SATA, the Azorean airlines, which was very reasonable so we decided to use them againthis year but this time check out Lisbon. By the way- the Azores are only about a 4 hour flight from Boston.

    • NomadicMatt

      I don’t know the language but found that through hand signals and broken English, I got by just fine. Many of the transit signs are also in English too.

  16. Ben

    What a great description of a totally wonderful city!!! I spent a month there last year and now I’m in the process of applying for a Portugal Resident Visa. I totally fell in love with the city. Everything you said about Lisbon is true and I totally agree with you! What a gem….but, don’t tell!!:)

  17. BarbC

    I only got to spend one day there but loved every second and made every second count… the tram is a neat way to see the old city… such little tracks and tight, tight cornerns… food was wonderful and I was treated just as wonderful.

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