A leisurely long weekend in Portugal's coastal capital
Lisbon, Portugal, continues to top must-visit bucket lists because of its striking scenery, affordability and up-and-coming dining scene. While no holiday ever seems long enough, the city's compact footprint and convenient trolley routes make it easy to cover in three or four days. That's enough time to visit top sights while also fitting in relaxation and leisurely meals. Here's what you need to know to get the most out of your long weekend.
Don’t miss the best of Lisbon
Stroll around the Alfama neighborhood, which is situated high on a hill, to stop for panoramic sunset views. The neighborhood is a short (albeit uphill) walk from the central city district. You can also reach it by a short ride on the 28 tram. While there, consider climbing a bit higher to reach the São Jorge Castle. In busy summer months, purchase tickets online to avoid long lines, and bring sunscreen or hats and plenty of water as temperatures soar. To reach the castle directly from downtown, take bus 37.
Ride a giant glass elevator. The Santa Justa Lift, priced at just a few euros, is as scenic as it is practical. The lift connects the Baixa in lower Lisbon with Largo Carmo Square high on the hill. Stunning views of the city from the platform on top are a bonus. It's open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. (9 p.m. in winter).
You can purchase single tickets from the booth at the bottom, but lines can be long in the afternoon. However, a ride on the iconic elevator is included in the 24-hour metro/tram ticket and can be purchased at any metro station.
Take the 15 tram from the heart of Lisbon (Baixa) to Belem. It's a 30-minute ride on the local route with scenic views. In Belem, visit the Torre de Belem, but visit early or late to avoid large crowds in peak summer months. Leave room for dessert to sample the popular custard tart (pastel de nata) at the famous Pasteis de Belém bakery. Relax in the cavernous indoor seating area with coffee and a plate of three tarts, or grab takeout from the front window.
The takeout line is long but moves quickly, and they will put your tarts in easy-to-carry boxes.
Bring your appetite. Lisbon is overflowing with seafood and traditional Portuguese restaurants that offer much better value than similarly high-quality restaurants in neighboring Western European cities. Keep in mind that locals don't eat dinner until after 8 p.m., and restaurants with signboards in English offering 6 p.m. dinner specials are aimed strictly at tourists. To keep hunger at bay during the day, stop at one of the many bakeries (found on almost every corner of the city) and try the country's famed sweets, from custard tarts and cheese pastries to coconut cookies.
Live like a local and follow these rules
Skip the bus tour in favor of the iconic yellow trolley. These public trams crisscross the city, passing by all the major hot spots in the city. Hop aboard the 28, which runs through the popular districts of Graca, Alfama, Baixa and Estrela, and offers postcard-perfect views. Single-ride or day-pass tickets can be purchased at all metro stations.
Avoid tourist-centric dinner and fado packages. Instead of sitting through a mediocre meal featuring theatrical fado performances, stick to traditional fado clubs in the Alfama or Bairro Alto neighborhoods. That's where to find locals taking in the classic and up-and-coming acts performing the haunting music of the nation well into the early hours of the morning.
If time isn't an issue, broaden your horizons
If your travel schedule allows, take an extra day or two and head north to explore Portugal's other major destinations.
- Sintra, Portugal's forested mountains, which boasts Moorish castles and quaint shops, is a 40-minute train ride from Lisbon's city center. It's an easy day-trip destination by commuter-style trains that leave every 15 to 20 minutes from Rossio train station in the heart of the city. In summer, take an early train as tickets cannot be purchased ahead of time and often sell out by late morning.
- Porto, famed for award-winning port production and picturesque medieval alleys, is a perfect two-day excursion. The trip from Lisbon runs 2.5 to 4.5 hours, depending on the route. Buses are cheaper, but look for an express route to avoid local service that adds nearly an hour to the trip. If you'd rather travel by train, two options – the Alfa Pendular, is faster, more modern and offers Wi-Fi, and the older Intercidades trains. Both run direct and depart from Lisbon's Oriente station.