Last April, I secured really cheap plane tickets to Lisbon, without researching the destination. All I knew of Lisbon is that it is the capital of Portugal – and European capitals tend to be quite happening, right? Wrong – according to Google, at least. Upon doing my research on things to do and see in Lisbon, I was met with a wall of unfavourable reviews. According to disgruntled travellers, Lisbon was grimy, dirty, unsafe, and boring.
Oh my word, what had I gotten into? Although the plane tickets were cheap, I just couldn’t bear the idea of facing 5 days in a “dirty and boring” city. Still, I departed with an open mind, and all I can say having since visited is that Lisbon couldn’t be any further from how its naysayers describe it.
What is Lisbon Like?
Boring? There are 62 museums in the city of Lisbon alone, and more still to see in Lisbon within its surrounding area.
Unsafe? Lisbon is one of the safest cities in Europe – and thus the world – and in 2020 is considered considerably more safe than London yet few people will warn travellers off London for fear of crime.
Dirty? Lisbon carries the grime of hustle and bustle present in all major cities. To describe Lisbon as gleamingly spotless would be misleading, yet speaking from firsthand experience, it is significantly ‘cleaner’ than Paris, Rome, Berlin and London, to name just a few. Added to its general level of relative tidiness, Lisbon’s architecture and street furniture is positively stunning – almost everywhere you turn in central Lisbon offers a captivating view.
Phew, so Lisbon is actually OK. Much more than OK. But what should you do and see whilst visiting this spectacular city? A brief article cannot possibly encapsulate all of Lisbon’s highlights, but here’s some of our top picks and tips, throughout the main districts of Lisbon.
Best Areas of Lisbon to Visit
Lisbon is a hilly city, famously built up across 7 imposing hills. Some level of comfort with steps and/or slopes is required in order to fully appreciate the city. Visitors of average fitness should face no issues, yet those with mobility issues may struggle to get the best out of Lisbon. Although there are a number of elevators and funiculars throughout Lisbon offering quick elevation for less agile visitors, these are generally used as tourist attractions, rather than as a viable means of mobility.
For the purposes of this article, the central districts of Baixa-Rossio; Chiado–Bairro Alto and Alfama. These are where the majority of Lisbon’s main tourist attractions are concentrated, although they in no way encapsulate all that Lisbon has to offer. Lest you think we may have forgotten the stunning suburb of Belem and the magical district of Sintra, watch this space for our dedicated guides to both of those areas!
Baixa-Rossio (& Principe Real)
The Baixa (“buy-shuh”) is the main downtown district of Lisbon, spanning the area from the Praça do Comércio (a large, open plaza adjacent to Lisbon’s impressive waterfront), to Rossio Square (itself a stunning plaza). Mercifully, the Baixa-Rossio area is almost entirely flat, so is easy to navigate on foot at a leisurely pace. Connecting Praça do Comércio and Rossio Square is the impressive Rua Augusta.
Entering at Praça do Comércio via the imposing Arco da Rua Augusta (Rua Augusta Arch), the Rua Augusta is a pedestrianized avenue filled with restaurants, cafes and street vendors: think Las Ramblas in Barcelona. At the top end of Rua Augusta – just before you reach Rossio Square – you will find the Elevador de Santa Justa, a public elevator frequently accessed by tourists. For just €5.00, you are elevated 147 feet, to take in the breathtaking views of central Lisbon and beyond.
Passing through Rossio Square – ensuring you take a moment to admire its stunning 19th century rail station – you will soon reach the Principe Real district, containing the famed Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s premier shopping and commercial avenue, offering swanky shops and discreet cafes in a green, park-like setting.
Flanking the west side of Baixa-Rossio, and itself reaching right down to the scenic waterfront, Chiado-Bairro Alto are two closely connected districts, offering the premier nightlife, restaurant and cultural scene within Lisbon.
With a heavy focus on style and fashion, Chiado is jumping day and night with its independent shopping, unique bars, and hip cafes/restaurants. Venture just a tiny bit north of this bustling neighbourhood, and you’ll find yourself in Bairro Alto.
Two words of warning: Firstly, the ‘alto’ in Bairro Alto is no joke. Literally meaning ‘upper district’ this is an elevated neighbourhood, although the multiple viewpoints throughout Bairro Alto are more than worth the effort required to reach the district. Secondly, a daytime visit may leave you with the impression that Bairro Alto is a peaceful neighbourhood. Don’t be fooled, it’s just asleep: Bairro Alto is all about the nightlife, and many an hour can be passed hopping between its chic, cosy bars.
So you’ve absorbed the commercial hustle and bustle of Baixa-Rossio, have shopped your way through Chiado, and have bar-hopped throughout Bairro Alto. It’s time for something different, and different it is! Situated just east of Baixa-Rossio, the Alfama district – with its narrow, cobbled and winding streets – offers a glimpse into the Lisbon life of yesteryear.
Although Alfama is considerably more sedate than its adjacent neighbourhoods, it’s packed with atmosphere and charm. However, this comes at a cost: the Alfama district is very hilly, and may be difficult for people with limited mobility to navigate. Yet, if you’re able and willing to undertake the challenge, a day spent in Alfama climbing its maze-like streets will eventually lead you to to Castelo de São Jorge in Lisbon’s Castle District – a spectacle in itself, which also serves as one of the best vantage points in the city.
So there we have it, you’re equipped with the realistic information required to have a great trip in Lisbon, which unexpectedly became one of our favourite European city break destinations. There’s something for everyone, and try to avoid reading too many of the reviews online, see it for yourself.