• Danik Bates

Exciting things to do in Lisbon

Updated: May 7

We have been to Portugal twice before, taking in the wine city of Porto in the north and checking out the beaches of the Algarve on the south coast but when visiting the Portuguese capital, little did we know it will turn out to be one of our favourite cities in Europe. Set on the hills overlooking the River Tejo, the city is packed with many contrasting delights and characters. From the elegance of the Baixa to the waterfront which has a lot of history to the historic Alfama district, this city is one truly amazing getaway. There is so much to do here in the city which adds a Brazilian feel in the air but here are our favourite things to do in Lisbon.

Alfama District


The medieval quarter of the city is an amazing blend of picturesque streets and historic buildings. Whilst walking around this district, every corner we turned, we were presented with a great photo opportunity. We found the best way to explore this district is by foot but the famous dark yellow trams do pass through this area. The main highlight is The Sé (the cathedral) which stands on a former mosque. Built in the 12th century, the cathedral looks more like a fortress than a religious place of worship. The cathedral has had to be built a few times but not because of war but because of earthquakes.


Baixa


In the centre of Lisbon is the Baixa area which was rebuilt after a huge earthquake in the 18th century. This area is a great example of 18th century town planning with its sublime streets, houses and streets. The highlight has to be the Elevador de Santa Justa which can be found on a side street from the Rus do Our. One of the city's main landmarks, this elevator-tower was built in 1901 and stands at 45 meters tall. This is a good place to get great views of the Baixa area but try to come at the quiet times of the day as queues are quite long here (but it is cheap to go up!)

Belém


This has to be one of our favourite areas of the city. Located west of the centre and along the northern shores of the river, Belém has plenty to offer for visitors to the city and if done intensely, can take a day or two! For a day trip to this area like we did, we first checked out the Padrão dos Descobrimentos. This amazing monument commemorates the great age of Portuguese discoveries around the world. There are quite a few famous explorers here like Henry the Navigator (who is holding a ship) and wears a huge hat (seriously, you can’t miss him!), Vasco da Gama (who discovered the sea route to India), Ferdinand Magellan (first crazy man to sail around the world in one go) just to name a few.

Also we had the chance to go inside the monument and take a short elevator ride to the top to check out the amazing compress and world map which is bricked into the ground and the aerial view overlooking it is amazing.

Nearby is the Torre de Belém, a 16th century fortress which originally stood well out into the river but is now accessible near the northern shores. This was built to safeguard the city from other naval units or pirates who tried to invade the city from the nearby Atlantic. It can be overcrowded here during peak times to obey the traffic light system which is in place over the three floors inside.

Across the road is a huge building known as the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos which is a huge church where famous explorer Vasco da Gama spent his final night on shore before going on his world tour! Inside there are many beautiful stained glass windows with religious figures on them but there are plenty of homeless and old people hanging around the doorways pesting visitors for money, just walking on by, they are harmless.

Castelo de São Jorge


Going back east of the city centre is one of Portugal’s finest castles and still in good condition, the Castle of São Jorge. The castle has stood here even before the Roman Empire really got going and has had the Royal Family living here until the 16th century. Today it is a great castle to explore, to check out the ramparts, the walls and there are some splendid gardens worth looking at. For us the highlight is the terrace as soon as we walked through the main entrance and it is here we got an incredible view of the city.

Panteão Nacional


Another great place for river and city views is the National Pantheon which is not far to walk from the Alfama district. Starting out as a church it was converted into the Pantheon in the 20th century. Favourite thing to do here as well as looking at the stunning views is to walk inside the dome and look down at the amazing floor art work.

Avenida da Liverdade


This road which goes up (or down) a hill (whatever way you look at it) is not really a highlight but we do love the view from the top looking down. Also there are a lot of green spaces to go walking around the park, especially at the ‘top’ end where the Parque Eduardo VII is located. We would recommend this if visitors have the time to do so (but we also found out that some of the cheaper hotels and guesthouses are located in this area).


The Gloria Funicular


There are three funicular railway systems in Lisbon but only had the chance to check out one and this one is probably the one well known with visitors and locals of the city. Declared a national monument recently, the funicular has been transporting passengers since 1885 and by hell we are so glad the locals built this! The hill is steep! It may not be a long journey but if I walk the route, my legs would be like jelly. To find this piece of history, the ‘bottom of the hill’ terminus can be found on the western side of Avenida da Liberdade in Restauradores Square, not far from the tourist office. The funicular takes passengers to the area known as Bairro Alto. Here there is a nice shady statue-lined terrace with excellent views of the city and the castle at the nearby hill.

A ride on the trams!


It has to be done! Lisbon’s famous dark-yellow trams which run through the city are worth a ride on. The tram number 28 is the one to travel on (which is considered a national treasure to locals) as it takes passengers through some of the old sights of the city, passing many historic buildings and houses. It is so much cheaper than those open-top bus rides! All you need is the fare for the tram (or Lisboa Card), a guide book and a seat. The tram runs from Largo Martim Moniz to Prazeres but takes in a very picturesque route through the suburbs of Alfama, Baixa, Sao Bento, Estrela and Chiado. We managed to do a couple of rides on the famous tram system and got in some photography away from the bustling streets of the centre of this national treasure.

Cristo Rei


On the southern shores of the river and a bit of a journey to get to by public transport but is well worth seeing is the giant statue of Cristo Rei (Christ the King) which is a smaller but similar version of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The statue was erected in 1958 when locals wanted to thank God for sparing Portugal as a nation during the Second World War. Located in Almada, the 28m statue can be seen from all around but what we love about this, is the fact there is an elevator inside and visitors can go up to the top of the statue. Oh, did we mention the seventy-four steps after the elevator ride? The view from the top is amazing, we could see the nearby mountains, the Vasco da Gama bridge and of course, Lisbon itself to the east.

Parque das Nações


On the outskirts of the centre is this amazing urban-park with quite a few things to do and see like go shopping or take a cable car ride (which I found pointless) but we had to check out the Oceanário which is a recent addition to the city. Designed by an American architect for the Expo ‘98 (whatever that is) the aquarium is a symbol of linking the country’s maritime past with its future of the roles it will have within the planet’s oceans. The main feature is the huge tank which is visible to visitors over two levels and holds over seven million litres of saltwater. We noticed a wide range of fish ranging from stingrays, sharks and some colourful ones which we couldn’t name. Around the central tank are four special zones which represent various oceanic ecosystems. There is the Antarctic, Pacific, Indian and Atlantic. These exhibits allow visitors to check out the birds, animals and vegetation typical of these regions. We seriously recommend this place if you are a family traveling with children and want to give them some light relief from walking around the city.

A money saving tip.


We brought the Lisboa Card as soon as we arrived at Lisbon airport. It is a 3 in 1 card which consists of transport, museum pass and discount card. Not only did we get all my transport included from trains, metro, bus, trams etc, but it also included our train journey to nearby Sintra, north-west of the capital. Included was entrance to twenty-six museums (if you are a museum freek to which we are not!) and also UNESCO world heritage sights! Visitors can buy the card for 24 hours, 48 hours or 72 hours. We brought the three day card and we saved so much money! Pre Book online at the official website and take it to the tourist information desk in arrivals and claim the card. It is first activated once in the metro system (if traveling from the airport to the centre which is fast and convenient).

Planning a day trip to Sintra whilst in Lisbon


One amazing day trip from the Portuguese capital of Lisbon has to be Sintra which is a place made up of three separate villages spread out over hills full of trees and valleys. We heard that this place was worth a visit and without any research we were surprised to find what we found and for us this is a hidden gem which is definitely worth a visit. Sintra was the summer residence of the kings of Portugal and of the Moors people before them but is now a UNESCO World Heritage site with outstanding museums, palaces and gardens. When planning a trip to Sintra, we would advise everyone to plan the day correctly and everything can be done in one day. Get there early and try to avoid the crowds. The following is how we would plan a day to Sintra. Deal with the centre of Sintra town until last and make the way to the Pena Palace as most visitors will come here. Getting there early will mean the crowds

Palácio Nacional de Pena


There has always been a building here since the 14th century, high above the main village in Sintra known as Sintra-Vila. Starting off as a chapel, the Palácio Nacional de Pena is now a Neo-Gothic building with a hint of Manueline decoration with a mixture of Germanic embellishments and some Moorish features. One wonders how all three different types of styles combined can go well for the palace, but it does. It blends in very well in fact. The domed turrets on the red and yellow towers add to the Moorish feel. The colourful building is a fantastic background for great photos as the palace is perched on top of a hill with lots of trees surrounding it down below. Below the palace there is also a wooded garden which is a calm peaceful place to take a walk out of the summer sun where there is an oasis of shade.

Just a quick note, once entering the grounds of the Pena Palace, there is a steep uphill path to walk up. If not comfortable at walking, there is also a tram which takes visitors to the top. But before walking up the hill, have a look at the gate. This Moorish-style gate we have only come across once on our travels and that was at the Alhambra in Granada. Beautifully designed and doesn’t look out of place.

Castelo Dos Mouros


Even though the other places in the area are outstanding, this castle however had to be our favourite place whilst checking out Sintra. The ruins of the Moorish castle lies high up on top of a hill between the two palaces. The views from here made us understand why the Moorish people built a castle here for defensive purposes and on a clear day, views of Lisbon and the Atlantic Ocean can be seen. However it was a bit cloudy when we checked out the place but that didn’t stop the fun for us. The walk from the nearby bus stop to the entrance of the castle was a great one (with plenty of trees to walk under) and our highlight had to be walking on top of the in-tact castle walls. The castle has stood here since the ninth century and was built by the Moorish people however it wasn’t too long before they had to flee as the Christians came into town and had a battle or two. The castle then fell into ruins but was restored a little in the nineteenth century before becoming a visitors attraction. Then what we did was catch the bus back down to the centre of Sintra to check out the actual town itself. We grabbed some lunch here and checked out what the town had to offer, walking down hidden alleyways, looking at beautiful flowery designs and doing a light bit of shopping before heading to the….

Palácio Nacional de Sintra


In the heart of Sintra-Vila there is a palace with a pair of extraordinary conical chimneys surrounded by lots of decorative architecture. We didn’t have much time to check out all of the palace inside as there is a set route taking visitors through all the main rooms with some glimpses of hidden courtyards and the Hall of the Swans where there is a tiled hall where the ceiling is decorated with painted swans adorned with golden necklaces (yeah, they are some bad ass swans from the ghettos of Lisbon who live in Sintra...joke). We found the palace to be a bit more of a low-key affair compared to the Pena Palace but it is one worth exploring. The palace was used by the Portuguese royal family from the 15th to the 19th centuries but then a huge earthquake damaged the palace (the same one which damaged the Moorish Castle, a few other places in Sintra and the Lisbon area). However the palace was restored to as much of its former glory as possible. Inside the palace, we found the ceilings to be worth noting. The beautiful design of the artwork is truly amazing, especially in the Swan Room.

How to get there: There are direct trains from Lisbon’s Rosso station to Sintra and run quite regularly. Visitors with the Lisbon Card (see my Lisbon Post), travel is included on this line which is a cost saving measure.


How to get around: The train station in Sinta is about 1.5km away from the historic centre whilst the Pena Palace and Moorish castle is further away. For those who don’t like walking, there is bus 434 which runs from the train station and connects Sintra, Pena Palace and Moorish Castle on a tourist route. There are single tickets which can be bought but ask for the day rover and covers all the routes which are used by the company provider Scotturb (tickets can also be used to visit Monserrate - a huge garden outside Sintra). In the summer the bus 434 runs from 09.15 to 19.50 but in the winter finishes around 18.20, and they run four buses an hour. The other bus route which also helps is 435, which connects Sintra to Palácio de Monserrate, via the Quinta da Regaleira. If taking this option, as soon as you arrive at Sintra train station, go straight to the bus stop. Don’t stop for the waiting taxi drivers or tuk tuk riders, they are going to rip you off!


Another bit of advice we can give is that visitors could walk between each attraction but if doing this, there will be at least an hour's walk from the train station to Palácio da Pena and it is very steep. I highly recommend getting the bus. HOWEVER, if buying the all day ticket, visitors can only ride the circuit ONCE (the bus goes round in one direction). If visitors miss a stop, they can’t stay on the bus and ride the circuit again. However this shouldn’t happen with the information given on the bus and announcements being made.

Impressions: We absolutely love Sintra. A hidden gem of Portugal with so much history. Whilst there are castles and palaces to explore we also loved the views of the area, the greenery and the peaceful/calmness of the place. OK, we did visit when there weren't many tourists but we hear the summer months can be a bit crazy with the crowds. We also missed out on the Quinta da Regaleira and the Palácio de Monserrate, but hopefully we are making another trip to Lisbon (with our children in tow) and checking out Sintra again (hopefully on a nice sunny day). If anyone is visiting Lisbon, then allow a day to check out Sintra. It's totally awesome!

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