Once the brightest flower in the European garden, Lisbon was an integral port during the Age of Discovery, and the seat of the vast Portuguese empire for nearly six centuries. It is in fact the oldest city in Western Europe, predating London, Paris and Rome by centuries, and is one of the oldest cities in the world. Portugal’s customary capital and largest city continues to be the cultural and economic centre of the country, and a major influence in Europe today.
Lisbon had been a long-time bucket list item for me. The city radiates style and charm with an ease that only tradition can convey. It is intrinsically cool and I’ve long suspected that I would find a lot to love about the food, music, culture and people of this great city.
We spent five nights eating and drinking our way around Lisbon and the surrounding area and I’ve got to say, my suspicions were right.
We arrived in Lisbon on the bus from Seville courtesy of Eurolines and EVA. There’s a main highway that runs across the Spanish border from Seville almost directly to Lisbon, so you can get direct buses, but if you are particular about travel times you might need to change buses in Faro as we did and continue to Lisbon from there. The Seville to Faro Eurolines bus took just over two hours and cost €16 each, and the Faro to Lisbon EVA bus took 3.5 hours and cost €20 each. All up our bus journey from Seville to Lisbon took six hours and cost €36 each, not too bad and both bus services offer WiFi on board to dull the pain.
There are direct Seville to Lisbon buses with ALSA for as little as €25 per person, but beware; this service takes at least 7.5 hours. That’s a full working day on a bus. No. There is an overnight service if you want to exchange travel time and a night’s accommodation cost in return for a terrible sleep.
The reason we were on the bus in the first place was due to a lack of advance booking. Easy-going and carefree is a great way to travel until you are stuck on a bus all day. If we were to do it again we would have booked a ride a few weeks in advance using a ridesharing service like Blablacar. A seat in someone else’s car might cost something like €25 and the journey will take from 4.5 to 5.5 hours. You also have the advantage of stopping when you like and possible conversation (gasp!) with a local.
Trains aren’t a direct option for this route, but you can get direct Madrid to Lisbon trains if you are leaving from Madrid. If you leave Seville on a train to cross the border you need to change to a bus service in Faro.
You can fly from Seville to Lisbon but by the time you’ve transferred, waited and transferred again you might as well have taken the bus for a third of the price.
Getting to Lisbon from any other major European city is relatively cheap and easy. Lisbon Airport is a major stop for airlines from most countries and is located only 5km from the city centre. The airport is connected to the city via the excellent Metro service, bus and taxi.
Getting around Lisbon is easy on the Metro. Tickets are €1.40 for an hour’s travel anywhere on the network and €6.15 for a whole day. The tickets are valid on all trams and buses as well, but if you want to get a train or ferry you need an additional ticket.
Hint – Try not to automatically get on a Metro train every time you want to travel. Often the distance between stops in the city centre is very walkable and you will gain a perspective of the city that’s more than the main tourist sights.
We chose a room in a local’s apartment near Arroios station using Airbnb, which cost us €22 per night. Our room was a small space in what we thought was a cool apartment, that actually turned out to be one of the few awkward experiences we’ve had in 46 Airbnb rentals. I’ve said awkward because in retrospect that’s all it was, but when you’re stuck in crappy accommodation small issues often feel much more serious than they are. I’ll just say that after five nights we were very glad to leave. Fortunately Lisbon is such an awesome city that our sleeping arrangement was the least of our concerns, and because of the minor conflict we received a partial refund.
I would totally still book a bnb in Lisbon. Using Airbnb and booking in July (peak) you can get private double rooms from €18 per night, although I would now recommend spending at least €25. It’s still cheap. Whole apartments in the city start from around €37 per night, but you’ll likely need to pay upwards of €60 per night in the peak months for somewhere nice.
Hostels in Lisbon have dorm beds starting from €8 per night, but sleep there at your own risk. For a highly rated hostel expect to pay from €18 to €30 per bed per night. Three of the best rated in the city are Yes!, Home and Living Lounge.
Lisbon hotels have double rooms from €25 per night but again, you get what you pay for. To stay somewhere well reviewed I wouldn’t pay anything less than €50 per night for a hotel room, and would expect to pay around €75 per night for somewhere nice.
The area you stay doesn’t matter too much in Lisbon as the public transport is comprehensive and fast. I would recommend choosing an area no more than 3km from the Praça do Comércio to ensure you can walk anywhere you want to. We loved the authentic local feel staying in Arroios.
Where to start? Oh yeah, food.
Seafood is a big deal in Lisbon; the national dish is salt cod and you will find it everywhere. I’m not a fan so you’re on your own here, but the Portuguese also have an affinity for ‘trash fish’, or sardines.
You will find cans of sardines, tuna and mackerel of increasingly elaborate design in every gift shop, food market, and corner store. There are even shops that only sell canned fish and their accompaniments like crackers and pâté. Apparently the rise of the ‘trash fish’ is a result of overfishing and now the fish once considered only good for bait (or food for the lower classes) is making it’s mark on the culinary radar. Whatever the cause, it’s good eating.
One restaurant in particular offers an entirely canned menu. Sol e Pesca has over 250 different types of canned fish products and is an experience in itself just for the décor. Choose some cans from the menu and they are delivered on a plate to your table with fresh bread, it’s great stuff. We spent €13.50 on lunch and beers for two.
Pastéis de Nata is an egg custard pastry tart when cold but a deliverer of dreams when fresh and hot. All the tourists line up at the legendary Pastéis de Belém, a tram ride outside the city centre, but if you want to skip the queue and can’t be bothered going out there, Manteigaria offers beautiful, freshly cooked Pastéis de Nata in a central location. The tarts cost €1.
The Bifana may seem like a pork sandwich, and it is, but it’s the best you’ve had. It’s different wherever you go but in essence the Bifana is thinly sliced, marinated pork steaks seared for a few seconds on a hot plate and shoved into a fresh, warm bread roll. You eat it with pickles, mustard and a huge grin on your face. We had ours at O Trevo for €1.60 each and without a hint of melodrama; it was life-changing.
Often overlooked by tourists are the humble cafeteria and chicken shop. Every street will have a cafeteria and you should check out yours. They serve every meal from breakfast to dinner, at any time during the day and the meals are cheap and hearty. Not only are they good places to eat but they are a local gathering place and cultural hub; you’ll always meet a character. Portuguese style grilled chicken has been popularised by Nando’s and in Portugal there are chicken shops everywhere. These are good places for a cheap meal and a beer, a whole chicken will cost something like €7.
Ginjinha is an iconic sour cherry liquor and A Ginjinha Espinheira is the place to taste it, they’ve been serving shots from early morning to late at night for over 100 years. A shot of the good stuff costs €1.40 and comes with morello cherries in the glass. Swig it down, spit the pips and grab another. Great stuff.
Trams rule the streets in Lisbon. The hilariously tiny antique carriages trundle masses of tourists and locals all over the city, particularly useful around the hilly parts of town. The number 28 tram is a historic route through Alfama and up to the castle, but be prepared to queue in peak season even if you arrive first thing in the morning. We waited about 15 minutes before it became clear we would be there more than an hour, so we jumped on another tram up to the castle and enjoyed seats. Trams cost a single journey on your transport card no matter the tram or destination.
The big tourist attractions like the São Jorge Castle (€8.50), Praça do Comércio (Free), Carmo Convent (€3), Jerónimos Monastery (€10) and the Belém Tower (€6) are all worth a visit. We saw all of these from the outside only, it sounds stupid now but at that point we were ‘all castled out’.
Two places we did visit were the Fado Museum and the Berardo Museum. The Fado Museum costs €5 per person or €3 if you are ‘under 30’. It’s definitely worth checking out if you are at all interested in traditional music culture and the Fado movement. The Berardo is the museum of contemporary art and houses a fair few greats from Picasso, Dali and Warhol among many more. It’s free.
Fado is traditional folk music that began in the early 19th century and is an integral part of Portuguese culture. It’s a heart-rending, passionate form with a focus on loss, love and the sea and I recommend you experience it first hand; it’s truly moving. We visited the awesome Tasca Do Chico and immersed ourselves for a couple of hours, drinking and listening as one with the rest of the crowded room. You might have to wait to get in (never walk in during a performance) and hustle for a seat, but stick around because it’s worth your patience and entry is free. Here’s a short, dark video from my phone in Tasco Do Chico that ends too soon. I was too embarrassed to boldly film such a beautiful performance, but you can get the gist.
For an epic sunset; hike up the hill to Miradouro de Senhora do Monte, where you will be rewarded with the best panoramic view in the city. Take a bottle of wine and relax while you watch the sun go down over Lisbon. Another great view is from the Santa Justa Lift. Pro-tip – If you approach from the Carmo Convent side you will avoid the massive line at the bottom of the lift.
Lisbon does have beaches. If you go to Belém and catch a ‘ferry’ to Trafaria (€2.80) you can then catch a bus or walk 30 minutes to Praia de São João. You can also go even further down the coast to Praia de Mata, where apparently the water is nicer. We made it to São João just as fog rolled in and entirely obscured our view and will to swim. It was actually really cool (if a little spooky) and totally private on what would usually be a busy beach.
When you visit Lisbon you need to visit Sintra. I’ve written a whole blog on how awesome it is, which you can read HERE.
Our time in Lisbon coincided with the NOS Festival so we spent a day there to see Radiohead. If you ever get the chance to attend a Portuguese festival, do. We also managed to catch a David Bowie tribute week at a local cinemateca thanks to some fine recon by Mrs. R&R, where we saw ‘The Hunger’ in English. Just goes to show the type of awesome things you can find in a big city if you care to look.
Is that enough? I feel like that’s enough. Five nights in Lisbon was about right for us but you could easily spend more. Definitely stay no less than three nights.
Hint – I can’t emphasise the value of Cafeteria’s and Pastelleria’s enough. Don’t be a snob, these offer the most authentic food you will find in Lisbon. Morning coffee? €0.60. Quick sandwich? €1.50. Need a big lunch? €5.50. Many places also have WiFi.
Lisbon for five nights, excluding a day in Sintra and a music festival;
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