A Beginner’s Guide to Lisbon
Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world, and the oldest city in Western Europe, pre-dating other modern European capitals such as London, Paris and Rome by hundreds of years. This beginner’s guide to Lisbon focuses on what to see, where to go and where to stay
It has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years, with a contemporary culture that is alive and thriving and making its mark in today’s Europe. Perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, Lisbon is one of the rare Western European cities that face the ocean and uses water as an element that defines the city. Lisbon enchants travelers with its white bleached limestone buildings, intimate alleyways, and an easy going charm that makes it a popular year round destination.
When to go
Lisbon enjoys a warm climate, with mild winters and very warm summers. Strongly influenced by the Gulf Stream, it has one of the mildest climates in Europe. Amongst all the capitals of Europe,it has the warmest winters. The typical summer’s season lasts about 6 months, from May to October, with an average temperature of 25°C (77°F) during the day and 16.2°C (61.2°F) at night, although in November, March and April benefit from an average temperature of 18.5°C (65°F) during the day and 11.2°C (52.2°F) at night. Rain occurs mainly in winter. The summer is very dry.
Getting into town
In general, if you are arriving by plane in Lisbon and it is still day time, it is almost always better to use public transport – buses or the metro system – to your hotel or final destination. The airport information desk at Lisbon airport can provide you with all the required information.
Taxi drivers at the taxi stand at the airport are, to be polite, infamously problematical. If you do not speak Portuguese or if you don’t know the shortest way to your destination, avoid using a taxi unless there is no other option. If your final destination is less than 1 mile from the airport,taxi drivers will refuse to take you even though they are not officially allowed to refuse destinations. If you are not carrying too much luggage and it is not late at night, you are better off simply getting a bus or the metro.
Lisbon has an excellent public transport network that covers the entire city in addition tothe surrounding areas. The refurbished metro system is clean, quick, and efficient. While metroannouncements are made only in Portuguese, signs and ticketing machines are generally bilingual in Portuguese and English. There is an extensive bus and tram network.
Think twice before using a car in the city unless you are prepared to spend hours in traffic jams and looking for parking space. The busy traffic and narrow streets with blind corners can be overwhelming for tourists. Also, due to lack of space and overcrowding, parking is difficult and frustrating
Instead of paying for a ride on one of the costly tourist trams, try Tram 28. This is one of onlythree traditional tram lines that still operate in Lisbon. These trams, which until the late-1980’s ran all through-out Lisbon, were manufactured between 1936 and 1947. Tram 28 winds its way through the “Old Town” of Lisbon (dating from the 17th century) beginning in Graça then down to the Alfama and to the Baixa then up through Chiado to Bairro Alto and then down to Campo Ourique, taking you past many of Lisbon’s most famous and interesting sites.
The trip is hilly, noisy and hectic but it affords many beautiful glimpses of the city and, although the tram can sometimes be overrun with tourists, you will definitely get a flavor of the locals, as many “Lisboetas” commute daily on these historical trams. From start to finish the ride takes around 30 minutes.
What to see
There is so much to see in Lisbon. Here is a personal selection:
Belem Tower (Torre de Belém)
Open 10AM-5:30PM in winter, 10AM-6:30PM in summer (with the last entry allowed 30 minutes
before closure). A ticket package for both the Belem Tower and Jeronimos Monastery is offered for €12. Be aware that access to the top of the tower, and intermediate floors, is via a very narrow, steep spiral staircase. Entry fee for the tower only is €5.
Jerónimos Monastery, Praça do Império, 1400-206 Lisboa
Open 10AM-5:30PM in winter, 10AM-6PM in summer.
Try to avoid the morning rush of tour parties (with pushy tour guides) as admission is slow and you could queue for a while. Free entry to the church, €10 for the rest of the monastery.
Castelo de São Jorge (St. George’s Castle)
Mar-Oct daily 09:00-21:00 & Nov-Feb daily 09:00-18:00.
Located up a hill, with a great view over the city and the river. If you have the energy, get there by walking from downtown, going through the fantastic old neighbourhood of Alfama. The ticket office is way before the entrance (where the line is), make sure you buy the ticket first, or you’ll be turned back when you eventually reach the entrance.
Calouste Gulbenkian Museum Avenida de Berna, 45A
Created from the personal collection of Calouste Gulbenkian, an Armenian who longed to see all his treasures displayed in a museum. A nice assortment of Egyptian artifacts, along with paintings by masters such as Rembrandt, Manet, Monet, Renoir, and Cassat. The museum’sgardens are worth a visit in and of themselves, as a little oasis in the middle of downtown Lisbon.
Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga Rua das Janelas Verdes
Tuesday 14:00-18:00; Weds-Sunday 10:00-18:00.
Portugal’s impressive national art collection, including 14-19th century European painting, artefacts of Portuguese contact with the East and Africa and a collection of ecclesiastical treasures. Highlights include Dürer’s St Jerome, Hieronymus Bosch’s Temptations of St Antony, Nuno Gonçalves’ Adoration of St Vincent, and 16th century Japanese paintings of Portuguese traders.
Where else to go
You can’t go to Lisbon without exploring Alfama – the city’s oldest district. You will enjoy just getting lost on its labyrinthine streets and alleys with architecture ranging from late medieval to 19th Century buildings. The area is old and slightly run down,although renovation efforts have been undertaken in the past two decades.
There is a wealth of small historical and cultural landmarks and pleasant restaurants, cafés and Fado clubs can be found all over the place. Highlights include the Castle of São Jorge, SantaLuzia scenic view point, and the medieval Lisbon Cathedral.
Parque das Nações, On Av. Dom João II
Built for the 1998 World Expo, on the eastern side of Lisbon. It includes the Oceanarium – one ofthe world’s largest. The oceanarium is divided between the permanent and temporary exhibition. The permanent exhibition is centered around a huge aquarium with a variety of fishes and surrounded by a number of smaller regionally-themed aquariums.
Shops are open a little later than other places in Europe, usually around 9:30AM-10PM, though some may be closed from 1PM to 3PM. The main shopping streets are:
Baixa: This is the old shopping district in the city. It includes pedestrian Rua Augusta which hasthe most mass-visitor tourist stores, and several European chain clothing stores like Zara, H&M, Campers.
Chiado: home to a number of independent shops and services and well known brands such as Hugo Boss, Vista Alegre, Tony & Guy, Benetton, Sisley, Pepe Jeans, Levi’s and Colcci. The area is also teeming with cafés, restaurants, bookshops and a dedicated shopping area “Armazéns do Chiado”.
Avenida da Liberdade: Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein, Timberland, Massimo Dutti, Armani, Burberrys and Adolfo Dominguez are just some of the shops you’ll find along this avenue, which is not just one of the most beautiful and wide in the city, but also one of the fanciest with splurge hotels and restaurants.
Where to stay
Top suggestions are:
Hotel Avenida Palace: Located in the emblematic Restauradores Square, in the heart of the city, The Avenida has been a symbol of charm and elegance for over 100 years. This neoclassical, imposing building and its first class refined service make it a chosen destination for international celebrities.
Olissippo Lapa Palace: A luxury palace hotel on one of Lisbon’s seven hills, with gardens and pools, heated all year long. Member of The Leading Hotels of the World. With one of thebest spas in Lisbon, gourmet food (its restaurant is considered by the Zagat Guide as one of the best in Lisbon) and one of best concierge services in the country.
Pestana Palace: Located in an old Palace, This is a luxurious 5 star hotel located in a 19th centurypalace classified as a “National Monument”. All the rooms are profusely decorated, with French inspired details. The private quarters of the Marquises have been turned into beautiful and spacious suites. It has a fabulous garden and luxury spa.