By Adam Jusko, ProudMoney.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
My family (me, my wife, and my teen son and daughter) went to Portugal in June of 2017, spending our time in and around Lisbon only. Below are my thoughts on the Lisbon area as a vacation destination as well as some specific thoughts on places we stayed, things we did, etc. I’ve split this story up into multiple pages with links so you can get to areas of potential interest without reading every word. (Though every word is worth reading 🙂
Overview: Lisbon is a friendly city that is not overrun with tourists. It’s a major city, bustling with activity. And yet the cars always stop at the crosswalks. Some areas of Lisbon and the surrounding area are beautiful, while others are full of graffiti. Regardless of the surroundings, we never felt unsafe walking. They say pickpocketing is the real crime to watch out for; we escaped with all our money and passports 🙂
Most people in Lisbon were able to speak some English, but less so than you might find in other European countries. A couple Portuguese phrases for you to know: “Fala ingles?” (Do you speak English?) and “Obrigado”/”Obrigada” (Thank you… men say “Obrigado” and women say “Obrigada”.) Restaurant and hotel workers will speak better English than others; our cab rides often consisted of a lot of pointing and smiling and hoping the driver understood.
Lisbon has hills, hills, hills, and narrow streets like other European countries. It is like walking in San Francisco if you’ve ever done that. (It also has the 25th of April Bridge which looks much like the Golden Gate Bridge.) So, be prepared to get some exercise and/or use the trolleys and buses.
OK, now let’s get down to details:
Portugal has different electrical sockets/plugs from the United States, and you will need to bring adapters to charge your cell phone or power up other electronics, especially if you stay at private apartments like we did. Go here to see what you’ll need.
Where We Stayed
We stayed in two different apartments booked through Airbnb. Both had pluses and minuses, though overall we liked them both. Both required climbing many stairs with our luggage; no elevators available, so keep that in mind if you go the Airbnb route.
Best Things to Do in Lisbon
In my view, you can see the best of Lisbon in less than a week. Here are the things you absolutely should do while in Lisbon (and the nearby cities of Sintra and Belem, which you must visit as well):
The former royal palace in Sintra saw the last of the monarchy leave in exile in 1910, but you can still see where they lived and plenty of their stuff, too, which makes this not only cool to wander through, but also historically interesting due to so much of the furniture and other items being original to the place. Also has a great park surrounding it. We did this as part of a tour (which we really liked) so our time was somewhat limited. If I ever get back to Portugal, I will go back to more thoroughly check out the beautiful grounds. Sintra in general is a must-see on your visit.
Overlooking Lisbon is the ruins of this former royal castle. You can read the history about the place but really this is just a great place to see some old ruins and get an awesome view overlooking the city. Some guides will tell you it’s not worth making the trip up there, my family definitely disagreed.
#3 Carmo Convent
You can read the history at Wikipedia, but the short story is that after a huge earthquake in 1755, this convent and church were only partially rebuilt, and today you can visit what is essentially a church with no roof and partial walls. In addition, you get an archaeological museum that is small but somewhat fascinating, with a mix of the religious and not-so-religious (including two child mummies that slightly freaked out my kids).
Belem will take a day of your visit, or at least it should. Belem is a district to the west of central Lisbon that you can reach by bus or trolley. It offers three main attractions:
Well worth the visit. Very cool monastery and church dating back to the 1500s. The tomb of famed explorer Vasco da Gama is here.
— Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos)
This is basically a big monument on the waterfront, celebrating Portugal’s history of world explorers. We did not go inside, deciding that seeing the monument’s exterior was the big show.
— Tower of Belem (Torre de Belem)
This 16th century fort/tower is more interesting for its history and its exterior than what you’ll see inside. On the day we were there, there were long lines to get to the top, and the 70+ stairs only go one way, meaning that you have to wait to go up and then wait to go down again. The view is OK, but nothing amazing. If you’re short on time, admiring this from the outside may be sufficient.
You won’t find this on many “best of” lists, but we really enjoyed the Lisbon zoo. It’s a little old-timey, but had three features we really liked. First, you can take a sky ride over the whole zoo, allowing you to look down on the animals from above (and on the city of Lisbon in other places). The picture immediately above was taken from the ride as we looked down on a couple of zebras (and you can see one of the empty cars; two people can stand in one of the cars). The sky ride goes a loooong way, it’s not just a little trip. Very cool. Second, you can get very close to many of the animals, as you can see from the rhino picture above. Third, there was a fun dolphin show, beautiful animals. We spent a great afternoon here.
As part of my recommendations above:
We’d recommend this tour of Sintra, Cascais, and other nearby sites. Our guide Joakim (probably spelled wrong) was informative and fun. He took us to multiple spots within a day, spots that would have taken a lot of effort to figure out on our own. He was high energy even when his tourist visitors were losing steam. In addition to seeing interesting sites, he stopped on the side of the road to show us a cork tree. (There are a LOT of cork products in Portugal.) I don’t know what I expected a cork tree to be like, but the cork is essentially the bark of the tree, and they sort of cut it off the way you’d sheer a sheep. Anyway, Joakim spoke great English, knew a ton, and was fun and funny (our kids were the perfect audience for him). Understand that Joakim is not providing guided tours of each site but instead transporting you and giving you an idea of what you’ll find at each place. He drops you off and you meet him back at the van at an agreed-upon time. Here’s a photo from Cascais during our tour:
Other things we did that were OK but not amazing:
- Gulbenkian Art Museum – Nice collection if you are an art lover, but it didn’t knock us out.
- Lisbon Trams/Trolleys – Something you “should” do as a Lisbon tourist, but if you’ve been on a trolley before, there’s not much new here. Also, it can get a bit crowded. Still, a nice way to get a quick feel for the city, provided you can actually get a seat and don’t have to stand the whole time.
Things we didn’t do that guide books recommend and might be great but I can’t verify:
- Lisbon Oceanarium – This is supposed to be a great aquarium. On our way to Lisbon, our original flight was canceled and we had to spend an extra day in Boston, and we went to the aquarium there. Thus, the Oceanarium wasn’t crucial for us to see.
- Lisbon National Tile Museum – Ceramic tiles are a big thing in Lisbon; here’s a whole museum dedicated to them. Some people love this place, we decided to skip it.
- Fado and other nightlife – Fado is a style of folk singing famous in Lisbon, often described as melancholy or mournful. We had our kids along, so we didn’t do this or any other nightlife, much of which doesn’t kick off until after 11PM. We were tired from walking those hills all day!
- We flew from Boston to Lisbon on Azores Airlines, formerly known as SATA Airlines. Our original flight was canceled for reasons never fully explained and we had to spend a complete extra day in Boston. Then, when we got to Lisbon, only 1 of our 4 checked bags had made it to Lisbon with us. That bag was mine, so I was elected to spend our first day in Lisbon going to a laundromat to wash the few clothes the rest of the family had, then going to the supermarket alone to get food for our apartment. I would go out of my way to avoid Azores Airlines if I had another chance. TAP Portugal, which we took on the way back, was excellent.
- I don’t have many food recommendations, but we did lunch multiple days at Floresta das Escadinhas (on TripAdvisor) a little restaurant that does not look like much but had good food and friendly people. My wife was crazy for the squid she had one day.
- You will probably use credit cards often in Portugal. Most cards charge you an extra 3% fee when you use them outside of the United States. Here is a list of credit cards that don’t charge this foreign transaction fee.
I hope you enjoy Portugal as much as we did and that this post will help you a little in planning your trip. To finish, a few more photos to enjoy: