The vibrant cosmopolitan melting pot that is Lisbon affords the visitor all kinds of opportunities to experience a wealth of must sees – anything from cherished historical monuments and modern, wow factor installations, to quirky cafés, revered restaurants and even novel modes of public transport.
To help make the most out of a visit to the Portuguese capital, we’ve compiled a Top 10 Things To Do. It’s not definitive, and it’s certainly not exhaustive. But it will give you an idea of what to do in one of Europe’s most exciting and captivating cities.
Lisbon’s fabulous Oceanarium is not only the most popular visitor attraction in Portugal, it’s also Europe’s second largest aquarium. Home to around 8000 marine species including shark, ray, penguin and sea otter, the philosophy behind this fabulous visitor attraction is to promote the oceans’ rich biodiversity and the need to protect the environment for future generations. It’s located in Parque das Nações, east of the city centre.
Situated in suburb of Belém, this stunning 16th-century monastery is thoroughly deserving of its Unesco World Heritage status. An absolute masterpiece of the unique Portuguese style of architecture known as Manueline, the building was constructed to honour Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India in 1498 and remains a fitting tribute to Portugal’s great era of exploration, its Age of Discovery.
No trip to Lisbon is complete without a visit to this compelling and emblematic monument. Crowning a hill in the city centre, the castle is steeped in history and while much of the structure today is the result of considerable renovation, there are still vestiges to be seen of the original 12th-century foundations. The views from the ramparts are incredible and take in the Baixa (downtown) district, the historic neighbourhood of Alfama and the River Tagus.
A ride on one of Lisbon’s old trams is an authentic travel experience, and the number 28 is one of just a few still in service. The rickety old streetcar lumbers across the city centre in a delightful throwback to an age when this was the preferred way to get from A to B. It jolts and hisses past some of the capital’s greatest monuments and the track meanders through some favourite neighbourhoods too, including Chiado and Estrela.
An unusual city-centre landmark, this handsome wrought-iron structure was built in 1902 by French architect Raoul Mésnier du Ponsard, a pupil of Gustav Eiffel. The sturdy tower houses an elevator fashioned in wood panelling replete with polished brass fixtures and hauls visitors up to a viewing platform 45m above street level. The panorama is particularly alluring at dusk, when the city below starts to flicker with lamplight.
A recent addition to Lisbon’s highly respected museum scene, this outstanding cultural attraction brings together rare and beautiful artefacts from the Far East in celebration of Portugal’s presence in the Orient. Works of art from China, Japan, Korea, Nepal and other nations encompass 500 years, from the 15th century to the modern era. Presented under different themes, the permanent collection is complemented by temporary exhibitions, workshops and an exciting programme of seminars and artistic performances.
The one everyone wants to be photographed next to, this is Lisbon’s – and Portugal’s – most recognised historic landmark. Dating from the 16th century, the Belém Tower is another monument revelling in the Manueline style of architecture, embellished as it is in a confection of seafaring motifs. Used as staging post by intrepid navigators before embarking on daring ocean voyages during the Age of Discovery, the tower is classified as a World Heritage Site by Unesco.
Belém is not only renowned for its World Heritage Sites. The neighbourhood is also a big draw for those with sweet tooth. It’s here in this beautifully decorated café that the best pasteis de nata in the country are baked and served. Portugal’s very own custard tart, the flaky cakes consist of a light creamy filling and dusted with a coat of cinnamon or icing sugar. The recipe is a closely guarded secret, unlike the venue, which is always packed with hungry visitors.
There are dozens of excellent bars in Lisbon, but none match this place for the wacky flamboyance of its interior décor, composed entirely of collectibles, curios and odd bric-a-brac. It’s filled floor-to-ceiling with toys, antiques and assorted military paraphernalia and exudes a wholly eccentric atmosphere. Afternoons are less crowded but drop by late evening for the best vibe. Order a drink and prepare to be mesmerized.
Likewise, the city offers some superb restaurants but only this one can currently boast a Michelin star. The cuisine is traditional Portuguese fare skilfully reinterpreted with a modern twist and complemented by a wine list that numbers 300 national and international labels. The fine dining experience is further enhanced by the fact that this is Lisbon’s oldest restaurant, founded in 18th century and retaining the original gilded wood interior, stucco and Venetian mirrors.