According to locals, Lisbon is a “city of immigrants”. People all over the world come here to work, and slowly, they make Lisbon their home. Lisbon used to be a trading port, and had some Lebanon heritage infused in its roots. The cobbled streets and tiles that they are so famous for, are actually adapted from the Arabs.
If you’ve been here long enough, you’ll notice that many places are named after “Al-“. These words are actually adapted from the Arabs. Who knew?
Apart from that, Lisbon is well-known for many others, some more common than others. If you’re looking for top attractions in Lisbon, there are 11 Things To Do in Lisbon to Complete Your Portuguese Experience.
What’s famous in Lisbon?
1. Custard tarts
If there’s one thing I can take away (literally) from Portugal, it would be, hands down, their custard tarts! Seriously, they serve the best tarts in the world. It’s no wonder these tarts originate from Portugal. These tarts are the main attraction of Lisbon for me. I couldn’t start a day without it. I can’t even begin to describe how the soft and smooth texture of the custard is, and how crispy the crusts are, baked at just the right temperature. Prior to tasting these tarts, I never knew Portuguese tarts were paired with cinnamon powder. These tarts are, in fact, the second most eaten country after China! Damn, I thought they were first. The best tarts that stole my heart away were the tarts from NATA.
I had my very first bite of Portuguese tarts here, and then I quickly grew inseparable ever since. Being in Portugal saw me visiting the nearest NATA shop every morning for my dose of tarts. Ah, heaven on earth! If you want to know where to find the original recipe in Lisbon, continue to the end of this post.
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2. Lisbon’s funiculars
Another distinct activity that sets Lisbon apart from the rest of Europe is their funiculars! Don’t miss sitting the famous Tram 28, which brings you around Lisbon’s best attractions and historical sights.
The average intervals between the trams is 15 minutes and the entire trip takes between 40 minutes and 1 hour. Tram 28 begins operations at 6am and ends at 11pm.
The Elevador da Glória (location here) or the Ascensor do Lavra (location here) are other popular funiculars to sit. I’m not kidding – even the locals would recommend you to sit in them just to experience what makes Lisbon so Lisbon. Word of advice: beware of pickpockets!
“If it moves, grill it”, says the old Portuguese adage.
The other thing Portugal is famous for – sardines. Who knew? I guess it stems from their trading port status.
- An interesting fact about Portuguese – They are dubbed the second worst drivers in Europe. Guess who tops?
(Italians) I did not make that claim. It was a local that told us about it.
4. Ginjinha – cherry liqeur
If this was one of Lisbon’s main attraction, I never knew – the Portuguese are proud of serving cherry liqueur in chocolate cups!
For 1€, you can get a shot of cherry liqueur served in a chocolate cup. Eating the cup after consuming the strong taste of liqueur is said to complement the strong taste of liqueur well!
Getting around Lisbon
1. Baixa-Chiado district
Don’t miss the main shopping street, Rua Augusta (location here). Rua Garrett is another street with popular fashion labels.
Feeling peckish? Give Rua da Alfandega (location here) a go. This whole street makes you spoilt for choice about how and what to satisfy your tummy, so take your time, and make your pick. Whatever it is, you will definitely have a chance to taste their local specialties.
Bars close at 2am. When I heard about that, I thought, what a bummer! But no, that’s when the real party begins! If you are looking for night entertainment, Bairro Alto, Praca Luis de Camoes and Rua do Diario de Noticias are streets which, by night, become too small for the crowd that lingers outside with a beer in hand, with music streaming out from bars.
If you notice their iconic statue of King Jose I on horseback right in the middle of the Comercio Square, you’ll find there are snakes at the feet of the horse.
What for, I wondered. I later learned that these snakes are rumoured to ward off pigeons from the statue. I definitely did not expect that as an answer… The Comercio Square is the main attraction square in Lisbon that you wouldn’t miss. The restaurants lining the square, granted, have spectacular views to the ocean. But they are also not somewhere budget travellers will linger at.
2. Alfama district
East of Lisbon is Lisbon’s oldest quarter, the Alfama district. It is, not surprisingly, everyone’s all-time favourite district in Lisbon.
Characterised by steep slopes (and I mean steeeeep slopes), this district encapsulates the legend of Lisbon, with age-old buildings, traditional laundry spaces (a big outdoor sheltered tub for neighbouring households to do their washing in public) and their signature narrow alleys.
Houses are built within inches of each other; you can literally hang your linen across to the opposite household. The inhabitants here sure have a way of maximising what limited space they have.
I had the fortune (or misfortune) of renting an Airbnb here in this district. Misfortune because we had to lug our luggages up the steep and uneven cobbled streets of Alfama, and climb up the steep stairs to the attic of the house in a single file. I say we were fortunate because living in the attic meant we had a panoramic view of the entire Alfama district, one of Lisbon’s best attraction! Boy was I psyched!
This apartment also gave me inspiration for my future house decor, with some of the furniture handcrafted by the owner himself. 😀
Castela de S Jorge is a ruined Moorish castle atop a hill which is also worth a visit (location here), though we spent our time getting lost in the labyrinth of streets in Alfama instead. We were in pursuit of vantage points around the Alfama district. Miraduoro Senora Do Monte (exact location here) is one viewpoint that is easily reachable and offers a view like no other. As with all good things, you have to work for it. It is a steep hike up, I’ll warn you, but then you’ll thank me later, because of the superb views it offers.
I share more about the castle in my next post, 11 Things To Do in Lisbon to Complete Your Portuguese Experience.
3. Graça district
The Graça district is close by, so if you have spare time and energy, soak in the lively local atmosphere of this district, and check out some of the local cafes and shops.
4. Bairro Alto district
We discovered this little eatery that sells the most marvellous grilled chicken I’ve ever tasted in awhile. Frangasqueira Nacional (location here) serves takeout only.
They sell ribs, sausages and cheese, but their signature dish is definitely their grilled roast chicken! For a detailed review, read here. They sell their food by its weight, but trust me, even the smallest chicken is not to be messed with.
While waiting for your chicken, take a short walk by the next street, Rua da Escola Politecnica (location here), which has a indoor pop-up market selling handmade crafts by local designers. They have really unique designs; the items on display brought creativity to a whole new level!
Further south of the road, we discovered a restaurant, Pavilhão Chinês “Chinese Pavillon” (location here), by chance. We would never have known that this is one of Lisbon’s attraction if not for witnessing a herd of tourist saunter in. So we followed suit!
The interior decor held us spellbound – it was nothing like we expected! You can find the most extensive collection of memorabilia that dates all the way to the 18th century and beyond.
Boasting a vintage theme, the dim restaurant bar is no different from a museum, with collections such as teapots and figurines, miniature dolls and military artefacts. Dine in one of their intimate booths and be immersed in an atmosphere of history.
5. Belém district:
They serve one of the best Portuguese tarts you can ever find, so this is a MUST-VISIT. Expect long queues if you even want to taste their tarts. To cut the queue, consume the tarts right in the shop itself. They prepare up to 16,000 tarts a day, so fresh tarts are prepared quickly round the clock. The longest I had to wait was 10 minutes before all our food arrived. 🙂 It didn’t steal my heart the way the tarts from NATA did though.
To get here, take a tram from Rossio Square to St. Jeronimos, which would take you anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes.
Full review of Pastéis de Belém here.
Tower of Belem and Jerónimos Monastery are some of the other attractions around Belem you can catch as well, though we didn’t find them that much impressive.
Recommended duration in Lisbon: 2 days
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What struck me about Lisbon was also how clean and modern the metro system is, a stark contrast against the rest of the city that still retains its historical beauty. Lisbon is characteristic in its own way, and while major sights can be completed in 2 days or less, getting lost in the discovery of decrepit buildings is what makes exploring Lisbon fun!
What’s your favourite part of Lisbon?