10 Things to Do in the Lisbon City Center
Lose yourself in the streets of the Portuguese capital, a charming destination just a few hours' flight from Spain
The capital of Portugal is a destination to fall in love with. The neighborhoods of the old town capture travelers with their bohemian air, the tiled facades and the steep slopes leading to the viewpoints. You won't want to go back home.
1. Discover Lisbon with a guided tour
If you have little time, this is an ideal option. In two hours or a little more you will discover the essentials of Lisbon. The guides know every inch of the city and liven up the tour with unique and amusing anecdotes. To help you organize a short stay, I recommend two articles: transfers between the airport and the Portuguese capital and Lisbon in a day.
City tours usually start at Praça do Rossio or other central areas such as Praça do Comércio or Largo do Chafariz de Dentro, where the Fado Museum is located. By the way, if you feel like listening to the traditional Lisbon melody, I recommend the post The best places to listen to Fado in Lisbon. The downtown tour explores tourist highlights such as the neo-Manueline Rossio station, the Igreja de São Domingos, the Santa Justa elevator, the viewpoints and the Carmo Convent.
2. Relive the history of Lisbon in its Cathedral
On October 25, 1147, the Christian troops led by Afonso Henriques (the first king of Portugal) entered Lisbon after defeating the Muslim army. After four centuries, the Moors no longer controlled al-ʾIšbūnah, an important commercial center on the Tagus estuary. To celebrate this event, the monarch had a cathedral built on the ruins of the old mosque.
The person in charge of the task was Gilbert of Hastings, an English monk who participated in the siege and was appointed bishop at the end of the conflict. Perhaps for this reason, the cathedral (Sé de Lisboa) has a more northern European style and an austerity that resembles a small fortress.
Like other buildings in the Portuguese capital, the cathedral was also severely damaged by earthquakes. The earthquake of 1755, for example, completely destroyed the Gothic chapel and the royal pantheon. Crossing its threshold you will see simple interiors where the gloom reigns.
At the top you can visit the treasury: four rooms with costumes, relics and jewelry that belonged to illustrious characters. La Sé is very fascinating after sunset; if you are passionate about seeing the monuments illuminated, I recommend you read the post 10 things to see in Lisbon at night.
3. Climb St. George's Castle
This monument has always watched over Lisbon. According to historians, the first traces of a defensive structure date back to the 8th century B.C. Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and later the Romans occupied the hill and, from 139 B.C., it was the base of operations of the consul Decius Junius Brutus who fought against the Lusitanians. The castle was built by the Visigoths and enlarged during the Muslim period.
When it was conquered by the troops of Afonso Henriques (the future first king of Portugal), the Islamic elements left space to the Christians. To carry out the siege, the Portuguese monarch called to his aid a good number of German, Norman, Flemish and English crusaders who were devoted to the figure of St. George, therefore, the structure was entrusted to his figure.
Over the centuries, the fortress has witnessed numerous historical events and has had both functions of Royal Palace and military tasks. Today, many tourists climb to the top of the hill to walk on its walls and enjoy the unbeatable view over the city and the Tagus.
4. Stroll around Rossio Square
Praça de Rossio is the heart of the Baixa and is characterized by the monument of Dom Pedro IV (the first emperor of Brazil) and its black and white undulating paving. On the north side is the Teatro Nacional, an elegant building with a neoclassical facade, a colonnaded portico and the statue of Gil Vicente, the founder of Portuguese theater. A few meters from the theater you will find another landmark of the Portuguese capital: the Igreja de São Domingos.
Praça de Rossio is also a place of passage and home to two historic establishments of the Portuguese capital:
- A Ginjinha, a tiny bar where only an artisanal cherry liqueur is served: the ginja.
- Café Nicola, a place with more than 200 years of history. In the past it was a bookstore and a meeting place for intellectuals. Inside you will see the statue of the poet Bocage who was a regular customer of the cafe.
Until recently, the square also hosted the Pastelaria Suiça, the pastry shop that brought the French croissant to Portugal. This traditional pastry shop closed for good in the summer of 2018.
5. Be captivated by the most beautiful neo-Manueline façade of Baixa
Rossio Station is one of the most emblematic monuments of Baixa. The building was built at the end of the 19th century following the project of Luis Monteiro. The architect was inspired to Manueline, a purely Portuguese architectural style: it emerged during the reign of Dom Manuel I (1495-1521) and is a reinterpretation of traditional Gothic. Its distinctive element is the mixture of marine elements (shells, ship's ropes, coral, etc.), heraldic shields, religious symbols and Arab ornaments.
The exterior of Rossio Station is characterized by the two horseshoe-shaped entrance doors and the elegant clock tower. Another peculiarity is the platforms that are located at a higher altitude than the entrance. Lisbon is a city of slopes and the architect had to adapt the tracks to the orography.
Above the tracks, you can admire the iron roof designed by Gustave Eiffel. This railway line connects the Portuguese capital with the town of Sintra, a popular destination for excursions. In the post How to get from Lisbon to Sintra you will find all the information you need.
6. Treat yourself to a break in the markets of Lisbon
The Portuguese capital has a selection of markets offering everything from clothing to fresh produce. Some of these are located in the center of Lisbon and are ideal both for shopping and for tasting some delicatessen. Read on and discover the best markets in the center:
- Mercado da Ribeira ( Avenida 24 de Julho 49), a wholesale market that became famous for the flower trade. After a period of decadence, this market near Cais do Sodré station knew how to reinvent itself to become the most coveted destination for Lisbon's foodies. In this place, traditional dishes coexist with fusion cuisine and in both cases, the quality is very high. If you are interested in good food, I recommend you to read the post about the gastronomic tours of Lisbon.
- Feira da Ladra (Campo de Santa Clara), a flea market with merchandise of all kinds, from antique trinkets to second hand clothes. This flea market specializes in antiques and is the ideal place to find an original souvenir. It is held every Tuesday and Saturday in the Alfama district.
- Santa Clara Market (Campo de Santa Clara), a market that often goes unnoticed as it is located a short distance from the more famous Feira da Ladra. It was inaugurated on October 7, 1877 and its glass and steel structure bears the signature of the architect Emiliano Augusto de Betencourt. Today, it hosts handicraft stalls and some bars/restaurants.
- Feira dos Alfarrabistas, an open-air flea market held every Saturday. It is a must stop to buy antique and second hand books (Rua Anchieta).
7. Ride the streetcar 28
What would Lisbon be without its streetcars? Part of its charm derives from this means of transport that runs along the avenues as well as the narrowest slopes. This line departs from Plaça Martim Moniz a short distance from Praça do Rossio. Along the way, the 28 touches the city's most famous landmarks: the Basílica da Estrela, Rua da Conceição (a central street just a stone's throw from the Rua Augusta Arch and Praça do Comércio), the cathedral, the belvederes and the Igreja de São Vicente de Fora.
The ticket costs approximately 3 € and the whole tour lasts between 45 and 50 minutes. However, the most suggestive part is Alfama and if you want to stay in the center, you can get off at Largo Santa Luzia where the homonymous panoramic point is located. This activity is usually liked by the kids and if you are interested in the subject, I recommend the post 10 things to do in Lisbon with kids.
Another fun way to tour the city is by taking this GoCar mini car tour of Lisbon. With this vehicle for two people, you can adapt your route according to your interests making stops at the most interesting monuments.
8. Take a walk in Chiado
Chiado is a beautiful shopping area that in the past was the center of Portuguese Romanticism. The neighborhood is known for its peculiar stores and bohemian bars like, for example, the famous Café A Brasileira where Fernando Pessoa used to spend his evenings. However, Chiado has much more to offer. In the list below you find the main points of interest:
- Elevador de Santa Justa, a neo-Gothic style elevator designed by the engineer Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard in the early twentieth century. It connects Baixa with the Chiado district.
- Luvaria Ulisses, a glove store founded in 1925 by Joaquim Rodrigues Simões. Two large columns protect a door that opens onto an environment that preserves the style of the 1920s. (Rua do Carmo 87)
- Pastelaria Bénard, one of the oldest in the Portuguese capital. I recommend trying their freshly baked croissants with raspberry jam. (Rua Garrett 104)
- A Vida Portuguesa, a charming store in the former David & David perfume factory. They sell bars of natural soap, decorative objects, toys and other merchandise with a vintage touch. (Rua Anchieta 11)
- Convento do Carmo, the ruins of a Gothic church that belonged to the Carmelite Order. Completely devastated by the earthquake of 1755, it has remained as a witness to the devastations of the earthquake. (Largo do Carmo)
- Bertrand Bookstore, the oldest in Lisbon. It has an extensive selection of works by Portuguese writers and translations into other languages, including Spanish. (Rua Garrett 73)
- Igreja do Loreto, the church of the Italians. It was built at the request of the Venetian and Genoese merchant community (Largo do Chiado).
9. Reach the nearby Bairro Alto
Next to Chiado is the Bairro Alto, a district known for its lively nightlife. At the end of the day, young and not so young people flock to this area of Lisbon to have a drink at Pavilhão Chinês (a bar decorated with thousands of objects from the 18th to the 20th century, Rua Dom Pedro V 89), at Frágil (the bar that marked a before and after in the 1980s, Rua da Atalaia 128) or at Noobai Café, a bar/restaurant on the Santa Catarina lookout point. Besides the entertainment venues, Lisbon's Bairro Alto hides other little treasures:
- Pharmacia, an old pharmacy converted into a restaurant. Here you can eat typical dishes surrounded by dentist's chairs, stretchers and counters (Rua de Santa Catarina 2/4)
- São Roque Church, the temple that survived the 1755 earthquake. Its austere façade hides a richly decorated interior. (Largo Trindade Coelho)
- Praça Luís de Camões, a long avenue that houses the bronze statue of the poet and 8 smaller sculptures representing other authors of Portuguese literature.
- Jardim do Príncipe Real, a graceful romantic park frequented mostly by locals. The magnolia trees, palm trees and the huge cedar tree guarantee tranquility and shade. This tiny garden is the ideal place to escape the summer heat.
- Below this green lung is the Patriarchal Reservoir, an octagonal-shaped tank and a fundamental piece of the aqueduct that supplies the city. If you want to visit it, I recommend you consult the website of the Water Museum.
- In Lisbon, you always have a scenic spot just around the corner. In the Bairro Alto, the most famous belvederes are two: São Pedro de Alcântara (Rua de São Pedro de Alcântara) and Santa Catarina (Esplanada Adamastor). The latter is very busy at night.
10. End the day at a traditional restaurant
One of Lisbon's attractions is its rich gastronomy. The Portuguese capital has many establishments that offer traditional dishes without having to spend an arm and a leg. In the list below you will find some of the most famous destinations:
- O Pitéu, an outstanding place to eat the most representative dishes of the country. I recommend tasting their Mozambique prawns or the bife da vazia de novilho (Largo da Graça 95-96)
- Floresta das Escadinhas, an authentic restaurant in the heart of the tourist area. Its specialty is grilled fish and you cannot leave without trying the sardines or the grilled octopus. In addition, the restaurant stands out for its service (Rua de Santa Justa 3)
- Frangasqueira Nacional, the temple of chicken. Near Jardim do Príncipe Real is a traditional establishment that is a real institution among locals and tourists. According to connoisseurs, it is in the top 5 chicken restaurants in the center of Lisbon (Tv. Monte do Carmo 19)
- Chapitô à Mesa, a unique place worth a visit. The restaurant is an annex of a circus school and is located two steps from the castle. In addition to quality Portuguese dishes, ** many customers choose it to dine overlooking a splendid panorama of the city** (Costa do Castelo 7).